Oh, yeah. There’s a race this weekend.
Often overlooked, but certainly never duplicated, this weekend sees the NTT IndyCar Series running clockwise around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the 2.439-mile road course for the INDYCAR Grand Prix. In the unenviable position of being the last race prior to the Indianapolis 500, the Grand Prix tends to be often ignored by the race fans for all days except the Friday of practice/qualifying and race day. The weeks before, and certainly the weeks after, are solely focused on the big race on the oval.
That being said, it is a regular NTT IndyCar Series race and can’t be overlooked by the competitors. The points still pay the same so teams and drivers must give the race their full attention until the checkered flag falls late Saturday afternoon.
If I’m being completely honest, the race hasn’t produced a whole lot of excitement since it was first run in 2014. Of course the first year had major excitement when pole sitter Sebastian Saavedra failed to launch for the one and only standing start for the GP, setting off a hellacious-looking crash that luckily saw everyone walk away.
Other than that, memorable moments in the INDYCAR Grand Prix have honestly been few and far between. Generally the driver that leads through the first turns and through the first laps has gone on to success. Other than 2014, the furthest any driver has started back in the field and has gone on to win has been… first. That’s right, Will Power started from pole and led 65 of 82 laps to win in 2015. A year later, Simon Pagenaud would lead 57 of 82 laps from the pole and win his second. In 2017, Power matched Pagenaud’s second victory by leading 61 of 85 laps from pole. Power repeated again in 2018 to become the first three time winner, leading 56 of 85 laps.
For those keeping score at home, the score is Will Power: 3, Simon Pagenaud: 2, Field: 0.
Coming into the 2019 race, Simon Pagenaud has continued to struggle adapting to the now-year-old UAK 18 on road and street courses. Struggle, of course, is a relative term, as Pagenaud didn’t finish outside the Top 10 in 2018 after the first Detroit race and has three Top 10s in four starts in 2019. But it seems to have been a very long time since Pagenaud was really in contention for a win.
Pagenaud’s Penske teammate, Will Power, hasn’t had much better luck this season though he should have won at COTA. Like the rest of the Penske team, Power was pretty lost all weekend at Barber and didn’t look a whole lot better at Long Beach.
Nonetheless, whenever there is an IndyCar race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whether on the oval or the road course, the list of favorites has to start with Team Penske. With 17 IndyCar wins on the oval and the last four wins on the road course, Team Penske will have their cars at the pointy end of the speed charts for the weekend.
Outside of Penske, Alexander Rossi has to be near the top of anyone’s list handicapping this race. Rossi is as hot as anyone on the circuit these days and seems to be fast out of the gate no matter the type of track. It was here during the 2016 INDYCAR Grand Prix where Rossi really made people stand and take notice of him. After hounding Will Power lap after lap early in the race, Rossi forced Power into a mental mistake by running wide, and then spinning, in Turn 7. Power was still leagues ahead of his competitors on road and street courses at the time, and Rossi’s challenge and forcing Power into a mental lapse was one of the first times a chink showed in Power’s armor.
If you’re into numerology, you have to think the stars will align for Scott Dixon this year. In the five races since 2014, Dixon has finishes of fifteenth, tenth, seventh, second, and second. If Dixon is to continue increasing finishes, there’s only one more spot for him to finish, and that’s on the top of the podium. If it’s an IndyCar race, no matter where, it’s impossible to count Dixon out.
I really look for this weekend’s race to be the usual cast of characters. Ryan Hunter-Reay usually runs well, but don’t look for Marco to qualify or race particularly strong. His goals, not doubt, are focused on later in the month.
I expect Colton Herta to bounce back strong after a couple tough outings at Barber and Long Beach. He was running strong at Barber before mechanical issues beyond his control essentially ended his day. Long Beach was the first time we’ve seen Colton really make a mistake, and it’s one that plenty of veterans have made over the years as well. He’ll bounce back and look strong again soon.
The team that I think is going to be rightfully getting a lot of attention both for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 will be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That team has really hit its stride since Barber and should be strong at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After a year of mediocre results (other than Sato’s win at Portland), RLLR has finally gelled as a two-car team and is hitting on all cylinders right now. Their Honda engines are very strong and the teams engineering team is on point. The impact of the addition of Allen McDonald, who has had previous stints with Bryan Herta Autosport, Andretti Autosport, Schmidt Peterson Motorsport, and Ed Carpenter Racing, simply cannot be overstated. He’s had success everywhere he’s gone and is bringing that same success to RLLR now.
I think this is the year Power and Pagenaud release their grip on the INDYCAR Grand Prix but victory won’t come to a new IMS winner. I look for Alexander Rossi to follow up his dominating Long Beach win with another win here at Indianapolis. He’ll be chased to the checkered flag by Scott Dixon with Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Graham Rahal rounding out your Top 5.
Action from the IMS road course gets underway bright and early this morning at 9:00 AM EDT for the one-hour practice session 1. Practice session 2 runs for 50 minutes starting at 12:30 PM. Both sessions are available online with the NBC Sports Gold Pass. Qualifying gets underway at 4:30 PM on NBCSN.
Saturday’s race day – remember it’s on Saturday, not Sunday – kicks off at 11:15 AM with a half-hour final warmup on NBC Sports Gold. TV Coverage on network NBC for the 85-flag INDYCAR Grand Prix gets underway at 3:00 PM before a 3:50 green flag.