By now, Josef Newgarden has likely spent the $600 awarded him by Roger Penske for winning Team Penske’s 600th motorsports race, and Jimmie Johnson has somewhat come down from the high of being competitive in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval race and finishing a career-best sixth.
Scott McLaughlin, well, he surely will need more time to get over losing the lead coming to the checkered flag of a 248-lap race that he dominated.
But for all, it’s time to move on because as this series showed again Sunday in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, things happen fast. Soon, cars will be back on track for testing, and the season’s third race, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, will approach Sunday, April 10 (live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network at 3 p.m. ET).
Already, the season is two races old, and there have been two different winners. There have been surprises, thrills, spills and the latest lap-corner pass for the win series history. And it’s still only March.
A look back at what transpired Sunday on a gorgeous Texas afternoon:
Who Said No Passing?
Well, the doubters were wrong.
Yes, some drivers found the high line at Texas Motor Speedway treacherous, and it certainly played a factor in Kyle Kirkwood’s Turn 4 accident, but this race saw outside moves aplenty, and it was widely appreciated that INDYCAR’s 30-minute extra practice Saturday afternoon contributed to that.
Officially, there were 284 passes for position.
Graham Rahal was one of the big movers, racing from the 26th starting position to the edge of the top 10 before getting pushed high in a Turn 4 traffic jam. One of INDYCAR’s best oval-track drivers recovered nicely and was threatening to become a podium contender when his No. 15 Fleet Cost & Care Honda got collected in a three-car crash in Turn 3.
Santino Ferrucci was a visitor at the track Saturday and was having dinner that evening when he got a call from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing officials that he might be needed Sunday to drive the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda after Jack Harvey might not be cleared by INDYCAR Medical following a big hit with the inside wall. Ferrucci delivered in a big way, advancing from the last starting position to finish ninth, and that march through the field included several crisp passes.
RLLR’s third driver, rookie Christian Lundgaard, led the way with 23 passes for position, and Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing made 32 passes overall in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP made 30 overall passes of his own, with Newgarden adding 29, including that important one on McLaughlin coming out of the final corner with the finish line in sight.
Kirkwood made 20 passes for position in the No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet but was passed in such a manner only six times. Lundgaard was plus-nine in that category, O’Ward was plus-seven, Ericsson and Ferrucci were plus-six, and Simon Pageanud of Meyer Shank Racing was plus-five.
Overall, a big day for INDYCAR at Texas.
A Bigger Day for Jimmie Johnson
It cannot be understated just how good seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson was in his first oval-track race in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Johnson was quick to point out that if his bugaboo of poor qualifying hadn’t continued – he was disappointed to start 18th in the 27-car field – he might have finished even higher than sixth place.
Johnson also dealt with a computer reading in the late going that suggested he was low on fuel, which at a minimum proved to be not quite the case. In the waning laps he allowed Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon to slip past – of course, it’s not like Dixon, a five-time winner of these races at Texas, isn’t pretty good at his job. But still, Johnson wanted that spot, saying it would have been “a home run” for his oval debut.
Johnson passed 21 cars during the race in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, 17 for position. Seven of the latter were within the top 10, two in the top five.
Johnson certainly had reason to be optimistic about his Texas debut, and not just because track officials named Victory Lane in his honor. An NBC graphic posted mid-race showed he had completed 11,505 laps at the track in a Cup car. In the INDYCAR SERIES, Dixon had entered the race with the most laps completed: 4.615.
“What a two-day adventure this has been,” Johnson said. “To be able to get enough laps in the race, to feel the tires from start to finish, green-flag stops, being in dirty air, just how uncomfortable and treacherous that is – all those little mistakes and little moments gave me a sense of the car and helped me feel how to drive this car, how to create speed.
“In the second half of the race I started working my way forward in that final stint, had a very competitive car. Wished that I had maybe started the race a little further forward. I think I could have finished a little further forward.”
Don’t look now, but Johnson will have legitimate odds to win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 29. Who would have thought that this time last week?
Chevrolet, Team Penske Pace Setters
Chevrolet-powered drivers have won the season’s first two races and earned the NTT P1 Award for each.
At Texas, it was Arrow McLaren SP’s Felix Rosenqvist setting the pace in qualifying, and Team Penske dominated the race by its drivers combining to lead 209 of the 248 laps. McLaughlin led 186 with Will Power pacing 20 and Newgarden three.
Team Penske has won both races, and McLaughlin, the series points leader, has been the class of the field in each, scoring his first series victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and finishing a heartbreaking second – by .0699 of a second – at Texas.
Team Penske drivers occupied three of the top four finishing positions in Sunday’s race – first, second and fourth -- and have the same standing in the season points tally to date.
In other good news for Chevrolet, VeeKay drove like the force he was last year prior to breaking his collarbone in a cycling accident in early June. He led five laps and battled in the lead group in the second half of the race before dropping to 10th due to being short on fuel.
But don’t count out Honda for the Indianapolis 500. Chip Ganassi’s team placed all of four of its drivers in the top seven Sunday – Ericsson was third, Dixon fifth, Johnson sixth and reigning series champion Alex Palou was seventh – and Pagenaud was consistently in the top 10, finishing eighth. There will be other Honda drivers challenging from the front, including a certain four-time Indianapolis 500 winner.
Malukas Leads Talented Rookie Class
Much has been made of Kirkwood’s debut in INDYCAR, as he is the only driver in history to have won USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires titles. But don’t sleep on David Malukas, who finished only 13 points behind Kirkwood last year in Indy Lights.
Malukas was the only rookie to finish on the lead lap Sunday, and in pit stop exchanges he found himself leading three laps. The 11th-place showing was certainly commendable for the driver of the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.
As mentioned above, Lundgaard showed well for the first oval race of any kind in his career, and it was the slippery Turn 4 that caused him to drift into slight wall contact. He finished 19th in the No. 30 PeopleReady Honda.
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing also was competing on an oval for the first time. He led five laps out of sequence and appeared to have a solid weekend. He finished 16th.
Long Beach Up Next
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES has two-plus weeks before it packs bags for a trip to the West Coast for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, an event held nearly annually since 1975.
This will be the 38th time an INDYCAR SERIES race has been held on the waterfront circuit, with Mario Andretti winning the first race in 1984. (Long Beach’s first main event was a Formula 5000 race won by Brian Redman in a car owned by Carl Haas. Ensuing years featured Formula One.)
This should be the first “normal” Long Beach race since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The 2020 race was canceled amid the outbreak, and last year’s event was moved to September, serving as the season finale. Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian won, and he was followed by Newgarden and Dixon. Palou finished fourth to secure his first INDYCAR championship.
All California COVID-19 mandates are set to be lifted April 1.
This year’s event culminates with an 85-lap race on Sunday, April 10 (3 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network). Andretti Autosport drivers have won the past three INDYCAR races held there, with Alexander Rossi winning in 2018 and 2019.