The Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix, the second NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of the season on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, did not disappoint.
It was an action-packed affair on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit, with an IMS road course-record 269 on-track passes. That total included 190 passes for position, which tied with the 2018 GMR Grand Prix for the most on-track passes on the IMS road course.
That stat punctuated Will Power’s first win of the season, which came after a thrilling late-race battle. Power was forced to hold off the rest of the 28-car field during two late-race cautions, including one for series leader Alex Palou’s mechanical failure on the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Power earned his 40th career win, breaking a tie with Al Unser and pulling him into fifth on the all-time INDYCAR SERIES victory list.
Allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear to see what we learned on the IMS road course before the NTT INDYCAR SERIES hits the final oval race of the season, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway this Saturday, Aug. 21 (8 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN).
Grosjean Finds Groove again at IMS
NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Romain Grosjean had a career day on the IMS road course. Again.
He finished second in the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda, tying his career-best finish of second in May’s GMR Grand Prix on the same circuit. His May performance was a touch stronger, having scored the NTT P1 Award for pole and leading a race-high 44 laps.
This time around, Grosjean started third and ran in the top five all day long again. Grosjean used up his push-to-pass early in the race, so when he lined up third on the Lap 71 restart, he was only able to get past Colton Herta in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. Grosjean finished 1.1142 seconds behind Power.
Grosjean said he could have won the pole had he not made a mistake in Turns 8 through 10 in qualifying, and he believes had the race went green to the finish that he might have had a chance to catch 2014 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Power.
“I think on the last stint we were stronger than he was,” Grosjean said. “The last two stints I believe we came back on the game, and he had 70-something amount of push-to-pass left when I was on zero for the last few laps. I knew it was going to be tight and tough. But I think we were a touch faster during the race than he was.”
With two second-place finishes, Grosjean clearly has a knack for racing on the IMS road course, which has a smooth surface and flat curbing that he’s used to from his Formula One days.
Now, Grosjean will go from his best racetrack and the highest of highs to his first oval race and what could be a challenging weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.
Grosjean tested at the track on July 27, turning 166 laps. The Frenchman was immediately impressed with how challenging it was to drive on an oval. While he has a big challenge ahead, Grosjean is eager to try something that is completely new to him and knows he could struggle.
“I think it's just going to be a great experience,” he said. “I want to see how it's going. Everyone seems to be enjoying ovals there. I still prefer road courses, but I like braking late. But I'm looking forward to it and seeing what we can get out of it.”
Andretti Continues To Show Strength
For the second week in a row, Andretti Autosport put two cars in the top five, which it did for the first time in 2021 last weekend in the streets of Nashville with James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
This weekend, it was Herta, who finished third, and Alexander Rossi, who finished fourth in the No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda. It was Rossi’s best finish of the season after several strong performances that ended with bad luck.
After starting the race 10th, it was also Rossi’s third top-five finish in his last four races on the IMS road course.
“The guys did a great job in pit lane, and the car was good,” Rossi said. “I think fourth was the best we could do today. Ultimately, we went forward when we needed to at the critical moments of the race. It’s our best result of the year, so I guess there are some positives in that.”
After Nashville, it was clear the four-car Andretti organization has a knack for the street courses this season (Herta dominated in St. Petersburg). But another strong showing for the second consecutive week, this time on a road course, offers optimism that Andretti Autosport might be coming out of what has been a down year.
Another challenge looms this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway in the final oval race of the season. In three oval races this season, the organization’s best finish is fifth by Herta in the second race at Texas Motor Speedway. Rossi finished eighth in the first Texas race.
If the organization can post another top five at the 1.25-mile oval, the signs will surely point to a strong end of the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season for Andretti Autosport.
Daly’s Season-Best Day
Indiana native Conor Daly had his best performance of the year at his home racetrack driving the No. 20 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.
After starting eighth and finishing 11th, it was closer to his best all-around weekend than just a best finish. He made the final round of NTT P1 Award qualifying for just the second time this season and battled near the top 10 all day.
While the end result was good, it didn’t come easy. Daly went for a joyride on Lap 21 while battling 2016 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Simon Pagenaud entering Turn 7. Daly sustained no damage while driving through the grass and maintained the 11th position.
In all, Daly showed that when bad luck stays away, the IMS road course can be good to him. He qualified sixth in May’s GMR Grand Prix but was taken out in a Lap 1, Turn 1 incident that ruined any chance he had at showing his potential.
This time, Daly was able to put it all together.
“There were a few small things that happened which could have been better, but it is racing, and those things happen,” Daly said. “We wanted to be in the top 10. We came out of the pits behind (Alexander) Rossi on that first pit stop, and he finished fourth. You just need every second, and every second counts. We keep pushing and keep finishing better every race.”
Johnson Shows Potential with Strong Run
It was also a career-best day for NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Jimmie Johnson.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson started 22nd and finished a career-best 19th in the No. 48 Carvana Honda on the race weekend in Indianapolis that was shared with the NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Race car drivers are never happy with a 19th-place finish, but it came in Johnson’s ninth NTT INDYCAR SERIES start. What’s more, it was the best showing yet of Johnson’s potential.
The IMS road course is the track that Johnson has driven at the most during his INDYCAR SERIES career. He completed his test on the circuit in July 2020, and he raced here in the GMR Grand Prix in May.
Chip Ganassi Racing driving coach Dario Franchitti has insisted fans will see an uptick in Johnson’s performance in the second half of the season as he grows as an open-wheel driver, and four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Franchitti appears to be right.
A big part of that is comfort. Plus, competing so often on the IMS road course has given Johnson the ability to have a deeper well of experience from which to draw.
“It was a great day at the racetrack,” Johnson said. “This weekend has just been building more confidence and understanding of the car, and certainly more understanding of the racetrack since I’ve been here before and also tested here.
“Certainly, my ceiling was the spring race here, and I built on that. I qualified over a second faster than what I did in the spring, in much hotter conditions. On top of that, I had some racecraft going on. We just had an awesome day. Good fun. I can’t wait to get to Portland and do it all again.”
Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix gives Johnson hope for an improved 2022 season when he returns to racetracks for the second time, and even for the third time on the IMS road course.
Dixon Gets Lucky in Down Weekend
Six-time and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon had a weekend to forget on the IMS road course.
He was poised for a strong qualifying result, but a spin pushed him back to the 26th starting position after he was deemed to have interfered with another driver’s lap. He lost his fastest lap, which sent him almost to the back of the 28-car field.
Dixon struggled to make his way through the field all afternoon long, settling for 17th at race’s end in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda.
Luckily for Dixon, his teammate and championship leader Alex Palou had a worse day. While running fourth with 18 laps to go, Palou had a mechanical issue that took him out of the race. Palou was poised to make a big leap on Dixon in the championship, but instead his championship lead was cut in half.
Dixon fell to third in the standings with Pato O’Ward moving back to second, 21 points behind Palou. Entering the weekend, Dixon was second, 42 points behind Palou. Now he sits just 34 points behind Palou, in third.
“Just a horrible weekend, to be honest,” Dixon said. “A mistake in qualifying affected our starting position. We actually made good progress. I think we got up to 12th or 13th from 26th, and we would have maybe finished in the top 10 had we had reds (alternate tires) for the last stint. Frustrating weekend. Frustrating day. Need something to roll our way soon.”