Marcus Ericsson

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The mantra heading into the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix was to expect the unexpected, and that’s exactly what happened as race fans got incredible action on the streets of Nashville from the drop of the green flag.

From Marcus Ericsson’s airborne hit up the back of Sebastien Bourdais in the early stages of the race to Colton Herta’s late-race crash and Ericsson’s rebound to score his second win of the season, the bumpy Nashville street circuit presented these athletes challenges they hadn’t seen this season.

With 27 cars in the field, the largest non-Indy 500 field since 2013, the 11th race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season offered a lot to digest as the series continues its six-race run to finish the season over eight weeks, ending with the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, Sept. 26 (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN).

But first, allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear to see what we learned on the streets of Nashville before the NTT INDYCAR SERIES takes to the track in the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course this Saturday, Aug. 14 (12:30 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN).

Herta’s Disappointing End

Every sign that lined the streets of Nashville pointed in his direction: Herta was poised to win the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in an impressive way after dominating the field all weekend.

He led Practice 1 on Friday, Practice 2 on Saturday, scored the NTT P1 Award for pole position by a whopping six-tenths of a second over second-place qualifier Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda, and he led a race-high 39 laps on Sunday in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda.

But a mistake entering Turn 9 with five laps to go while chasing eventual race winner Ericsson in the No. 8 Bryant Honda ended his chances of being the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver to win in the streets of Nashville, an 11-turn, 2.17-mile street circuit that included a portion of downtown and two passes over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Herta finished 19th and owned up to his costly mistake.

“Tunnel vision, man,” Herta said to NBC Sports after the race. “I feel terrible. We had the car all weekend to win, and man, I just threw it away, so I feel really bad. I’m OK, though. I know that I didn’t get my hands off the wheel, but they’re OK, so I don’t really have anything to say. This place is brutal. I think we saw that.”

If there is one positive takeaway from Herta’s weekend, it’s that he’s arguably the best street course racer right now in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Until his crash on Lap 75, Herta was putting together a performance reminiscent of his St. Petersburg domination in April, when he led 97 of 100 laps from the pole on his way to Victory Circle.

In the other two street races this season, both at the Raceway at Belle Isle, Herta finished 14th in Race 1 and fourth in Race 2, proving that he has a knack for the rough-and-tumble street circuits across the country.

Surely, that bodes well for his prospects in the final street course race of the season at Long Beach in September.

Andretti Stands Strong

Andretti Autosport had its strongest weekend of the season in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, and the box score isn’t even representative of how well the organization performed.

James Hinchcliffe led the way for the four-car team with a third-place finish in the No. 29 #ShiftToGreen Honda, his best result of the season and first podium finish since also placing third in 2019 at Iowa. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished fourth in the No. 28 DHL Honda, also bringing home his best finish of the season

And they weren’t even the two quickest Andretti Autosport drivers.

Herta led the team this weekend in his black-and-yellow Honda with his dominating performance on the weekend as a whole, while Alexander Rossi was arguably the second-best driver of the field for much of the weekend in the No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda.

Rossi ran in second, following in Herta’s tire tracks, for much of the first half of the race. He was eighth on Lap 51 when he and Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet collided in Turn 4 to bring out the caution. Rossi was able to continue, but the incident ended his chances for a good day, and he finished 17th.

During the middle portion of the race, Andretti Autosport had all four of its cars running in the top five. Even though it was only Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay still there at the end, it was the first time Andretti Autosport put two cars in the top five this season.

It's admittedly been a down year for the top-tier NTT INDYCAR SERIES organization, and team owner Michael Andretti has hinted that changes are on the horizon. The team’s performance in Nashville this weekend could be a sign of a late-season charge. At the least, it’s proof of the team’s strength on street courses this season.

Ericsson’s Second-Half Charge

What if you were told before this season got underway that Ericsson would be the best driver of the second half of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season?

Given that he was winless before this season and only had one podium finish to his name, skepticism would have been warranted. But here is reality: Ericsson is on a hot streak.

Both of his wins have come after the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 30 (his previous win in early June at Belle Isle-1). Since that first win, he has finished in the top 10 in four consecutive starts and has risen to fifth in the standings, 79 points behind championship leader and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou.

Ericsson has scored the most points of anyone in the series since the Indy 500, racking up 193. Palou is second to Ericsson in points accumulated during this portion of the season with 162, while Scott Dixon has tallied 156, and O’Ward and Josef Newgarden have grabbed 151 each.

While his two wins have come on street courses, Ericsson has been quick everywhere. He finished second at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and had a chance to win as he chased down Newgarden at the end of the race.

Ericsson figures to be a factor in each of the remaining five races this season. Now, the biggest question is if there is time for him to challenge his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Palou and Dixon for the Astor Cup?

Astor Cup Update

All in all, it was an average weekend for nearly all the drivers locked in the battle for the championship.

Six-time and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Dixon had the best weekend of the four key players, qualifying and finishing second. He jumped from third to second in the points standings and is now 42 points behind his first-year teammate Palou.

Even though Palou had an average day, coming home seventh in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda, he gained three points in his championship lead, which was at 39 points over O’Ward entering the weekend.

While Palou’s day was average, O’Ward’s was a smidge worse. He finished 13th after running in the top 10 for much of the day. His day was derailed on Lap 51 when he made a pass on Rossi in Turn 4, locking up the brakes and making contact with the 2016 Indy 500 winner.

Rossi was able to get away, but O’Ward stalled his car and needed a restart by the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team. O’Ward is now third in the standings, 48 points behind.

Newgarden’s hometown race left more to be desired for the two-time series champion. He finished 10th in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. Given that he trailed both Dixon and Palou, Newgarden is now 75 points behind Palou with five races to go before the championship will be decided in Long Beach.

Ericsson also made this a five-driver fight for the title with his victory. He’s fifth in the standings, 79 points behind Palou.

Season Bests

The unpredictable and challenging nature of the streets of Nashville offered unique opportunities for several drivers throughout the field to have season-best days.

Aside from Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay having their top days of the year, two more drivers also scored big.

Ed Jones was the biggest mover of the race, advancing 20 positions from his 26th starting spot to finish sixth in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda. His rise to the top 10 even came after a drive-through penalty while running 10th on Lap 24, which dropped him to 22nd.

Jones’ performance in Nashville marked his second top-10 result of the season, with his previous best finish of ninth coming at Belle Isle-1.

Felix Rosenqvist also had a solid day in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, starting fourth and finishing eighth for his best result of the season.

Rosenqvist was fast all weekend long, showing speed in both practice sessions Friday and Saturday, as well as by making the Firestone Fast Six for the first time this year.

The Swedish driver’s muscle on the temporary street circuit was much needed. Not only was it his best finish of the year, it’s his only top 10 to date in what has been a challenging first year with Arrow McLaren SP.

But with a strong street course background, which features two wins in the Macau Grand Prix and two Formula E wins on street courses, Rosenqvist proved his worth in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, and particularly on a street course that very few could tame.

Rosenqvist also received a vote of confidence from McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who confirmed in a press conference Sunday morning that O’Ward and Rosenqvist would return as the team’s drivers in 2022.