With 16 races remaining in the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule, teams are taking advantage of the break before the PPG 375 on April 2 at Texas Motor Speedway to test in preparation for the march toward the Astor Challenge Cup.
Sixteen drivers – nearly two-thirds of the full-time 2023 lineup – participated in a private test Monday, March 13 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. That track will host the fourth race of the 2023 season, the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix on Sunday, April 30.
Teams testing: AJ Foyt Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Team Penske.
While times and speeds were not officially released from the private test on the 17-turn, 2.3-mile natural road course, various media reports and social media feeds have given an opportunity to try to make some itemized deductions:
Scotty Mac Stays Quick
If you don’t have Scott McLaughlin on your early list of title contenders in 2023, you may want to find a pen and add him.
McLaughlin started sixth and was dueling for the lead late in the race March 5 in St. Petersburg when he collided with Romain Grosjean, with both ending up in the tire barriers in Turn 4. So, McLaughlin drowned his sorrows and atoned for his admitted mistake at St. Pete by leading testing Monday in the No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet.
The fact McLaughlin led testing shouldn’t come as a big surprise. After all, he won three races and three NTT P1 Awards last season. But his gap over the field – two-tenths quicker than his closest pursuer and Team Penske teammate, all-time INDYCAR SERIES pole leader Will Power – shows just how much of a problem McLaughlin will be for his rivals this season.
And remember: This is just McLaughlin’s third full season in major open-wheel racing. He still has a ton to learn and plenty of experience to accrue. That’s probably one of the reasons why he turned 89 laps Monday, more than any driver, despite being quickest.
Lundgaard Finding Speed
Christian Lundgaard was the quickest of the three Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers in qualifying at St. Petersburg but was disappointed with earning only the 11th starting position in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda.
Normal service was restored Monday, as Lundgaard ended up third on the time sheets at Barber, three-tenths of a second behind McLaughlin.
Lundgaard has established himself as the quickest RLL driver. He finished ninth in the St. Petersburg race, three spots behind teammate Graham Rahal, whose ability to salvage strong race results from mediocre-or-worse qualifying performances has become routine and exceptional at the same time.
But if Lundgaard and Rahal can find more speed in qualifying, there’s little doubt both can contend for podium finishes at some point this season.
Palou Lurking in Shadows
It seems weird to think, but is Alex Palou the Invisible Man so far this season at Chip Ganassi Racing?
Marcus Ericsson grabbed headlines for CGR with his victory at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Scott Dixon finished third at St. Pete, earning his 193rd top-five finish to tie Mario Andretti’s INDYCAR SERIES record. And Marcus Armstrong was solid in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut, the top rookie qualifier and finisher in 13th and 11th, respectively.
So, that left Palou, the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion for CGR who grabbed a dump truck load of attention last summer for the contract dispute over his services between CGR and McLaren Racing. That imbroglio was settled with Palou returning to CGR for one more season in 2023 and then departing to McLaren.
That scenario makes Palou a bit of a lame duck at CGR this year, but anyone who thinks he won’t leave the team with one more title banner hanging in its Indianapolis shop is sorely mistaken.
Palou finished eighth at St. Pete and ended up fourth in testing Monday at Barber in the No. 10 The American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, three-tenths of a second behind McLaughlin. Palou won at this track to open the 2021 season and ignite his championship run, and there’s every reason to believe he will contend again this year amid the powerful Ganassi lineup.
Penske Back in Groove
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding wasn’t the strongest start for Team Penske, which won the pole and race in 2022 with McLaughlin.
McLaughlin was the only Penske driver to make the Firestone Fast Six in NTT P1 Award qualifying at St. Pete, and Power was the team’s only driver to finish in the top 10, with a seventh in his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Far from Penske Perfect.
But the winningest team in INDYCAR SERIES history regained its footing at the Barber test, with all three drivers ending up in the top five. McLaughlin led, followed by Power, with Josef Newgarden ending up fifth in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, five-tenths behind McLaughlin.
While there may have been whispered questions of “What’s wrong with Penske?” at St. Pete, the answer appears to be clear – nothing.
Tight Top 10
While McLaughlin enjoyed a relatively large gap of two-tenths over the rest of the field at Barber, the margins between second and 10th were very tight, a harbinger for another very competitive qualifying session and race April 29-30.
Just .376 of a second separated second-place Power from 10th-place Dixon on the final time sheet Monday. Sandwiched between them (in order) were Lundgaard, Palou, Newgarden, Armstrong, David Malukas, Ericsson and Rahal.