MADISON, Ill. -- If experience tells anything, the team that gets the setup as close to perfect -- because nobody gets it perfect here -- will be the winner of tonight’s Bommarito Auto Group 500 presented by Axalta & Valvoline.
World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway is the reason for the setup challenge. The 1.25-mile oval’s unusual configuration presents two completely different ends of the track -- Turns 1 and 2 are tighter and shorter than Turns 3 and 4. If you get one end right, you’re more than likely to be off at the other end.
Finding common ground between the two is the trick. In Friday’s qualifying, Josef Newgarden found it.
STARTING LINEUP: Here's the full field
QUALIFYING RESULTS: How they fared
“When you roll off with a car that is just fast and it feels comfortable, you don't have to do too much to make it more comfy,” he said after winning the NTT P1 Award. “It gives you a lot of confidence. … Right off the truck it was just perfect. I mean, it was like right on. And it's hard to do that. It's really, really hard to do that. You try every weekend to make that happen, and it's like maybe once or twice out of the year you go, OK, we don't have to do much there. The only problem is I don't know how that's going to translate to the race.”
The power teams in the NTT IndyCar Series -- Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing -- had some of the fastest laps in qualifying and the final practice, but Dale Coyne Racing and Carlin surprised with speed in both sessions.
In the final practice, Conor Daly had the fastest lap in Carlin’s No. 59 Chevrolet. In qualifying, Coyne’s Santino Ferrucci and Sebastien Bourdais both held P1 for a time with their Hondas before Newgarden won the NTT P1 Award with a two-lap average of 186.508 mph in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.
It’s one thing to find the balance for two laps by yourself. The key is finding it when the car is surrounded by others.
“It’s very difficult, in general, for everybody once you get in traffic,” said Bourdais, who will start second when the green flag waves at 8:45 ET tonight (NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, including SiriusXM Satellite Radio) “It’s very much a game of track position here. … Race setup is everything, but I don’t know if there’s one car that’s capable of driving around in someone’s gearbox and then making an impact on the race. It seems like it’s too close and there’s no other groove. It’s very hard.”
In many ways, finding the sweet spot at Gateway is similar to finding it at Pocono Raceway, where the IndyCar Series raced Sunday. Both tracks have entirely different turns in terms of radius and banking.
“It’s similar to Pocono in that sense,” Hinchcliffe said. “The two ends are very different. This is the only oval we brake at. You’re really on the brakes going Into Turn 1. It’s such a cool thing to have. When we added it to the schedule (in 2017) and first came here and tested, we realized it was a neat feature. It does make it difficult to get the setup right. At the same time, it’s the same challenge for everybody.”
The most significant aspect of that challenge is finding a balance between how much you surrender at one end of the track to be faster at the other end.
“You’re always going to have more understeer in Turn 2 than you’ll have in 3 and 4,” Veach said. “Turns 3 and 4 is basically your limit in terms of how free you can make the car. It’s just finding the right combination of sacrificing 3 and 4 in order to get off 2 quickly. It’s just all about conditions at this point.”
If speed is any indication, Newgarden, who won here in 2017, appears to have a slight edge. After winning the pole, he recorded the second-fastest lap in Friday night’s practice, trailing only Daly but faster than his primary rivals in the championship race -- Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon.
Still, Newgarden is quick to remind us that speed in qualifying and practice doesn’t always translate to positive results in the race.
“Sometimes you start off hot and you stay hot,” he said. “Sometimes you start off hot and you get cold. We're going to try and stay in the good side of the temperature for this weekend. But we'll just see. I don't know.”