Road America continued to do Road America things last weekend with action throughout the field as Alex Palou grabbed a surprise win in the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR.
It wasn’t necessarily a shock that Palou scored his second win of the season. But after Josef Newgarden led 32 of the first 53 laps from the pole, anyone but the two-time series champion winning was going to be a surprise. Then, a mechanical failure on Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet with two laps remaining thrust Palou and his No. 10 NTT DATA Honda into Victory Lane.
The ninth race of the season offered a lot to take in throughout the 25-car field, including 231 on-track passes and 194 for position – the most since the NTT INDYCAR SERIES returned to Road America in 2016. It painted an even clearer picture of the championship standings with seven races remaining.
Allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear to see what we learned in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES takes a weekend off before the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sunday, July 4 from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (noon ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network).
O’Ward Learns Razor’s Edge of Championship Form
After Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit two weekends ago, Pato O’Ward took the championship lead for the first time in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career. Unfortunately, his one-point reign at the top over Alex Palou lasted just one race.
With a ninth-place finish in Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix and Palou’s win, O’Ward dropped to second in the standings, 28 points behind Palou.
It was a weekend to forget in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet for Mexican driver O’Ward. He showed hints of speed throughout the weekend’s three practice sessions, ranking as high as seventh in Saturday morning’s session, and qualified 10th.
“We struggled with the pace all weekend,” he said. “We struggled in practice, didn’t have a great qualifying and then ended the race further back than we wanted to be. It is what it is; there are going to be weekends like that, but we can’t have any more of those.”
It was O’Ward’s seventh top-10 finish of the season, another solid result. But as O’Ward said, if you want to win a championship in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, you cannot have average days when the competition has stellar days.
Moving forward, it must be nothing but the best for the 22-year-old.
“We’ve already had some tough weekends, and the guys we’re fighting in the championship haven’t,” he said. “We need to get better and improve. We will work hard over the next two weeks and come back stronger in Mid-Ohio.”
O’Ward has two starts at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course from 2020’s doubleheader weekend. He finished 11th and ninth in those races. Points leader Palou finished 12th and 23rd with his previous team, Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh.
Dixon Lurking After Fourth-Place Finish
Going into Sunday’s race on the 14-turn, 4.014-mile circuit, it appeared defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon was in for a challenging day.
Dixon had a dismal day Saturday, as problems started in the morning. He hit debris during his second run of practice, sidelining his No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda for a majority of the session as his crew repaired the car. Dixon was able to get back out for a quick run in the final minutes of the 45-minute session.
Six-time series champion Dixon went into qualifying somewhat blind and limited on knowledge. He qualified 13th.
He clawed his way through the field Sunday, working his way up to a quiet fourth-place finish by the end of the 55 lap race. He led one lap, too, during a green flag pit stop cycle. His nine-spot improvement through the field was his best of the season.
“Honestly, I think the last three weekends, had we had a little bit of luck go our way it would have been a totally different kind of outcome at Indy and Detroit with qualifying issues and things like that, and then the qualifying issues we had here,” Dixon said. “I don’t want to say that we’re always having problems, but the last three weeks have been tough. If we can get on a bit of a role here and have a smooth time, I think the No. 9 will be in contention, and we’ll be strong.”
The moral of the story with this performance is that Dixon is still third in the championship standings, 53 points behind his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou. He was 36 points behind after the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.
Performing when you’re on the back foot and rebounding from a tough start to the weekend is what wins championships, and Dixon knows that.
“I think if we started a little further up we should have been OK,” he said. “I got to work on that with the team, and we’ll get it going. It was a good recovery for points.”
Andretti Shows Promise in Solid Weekend
Andretti Autosport had one of its most well-rounded events of the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season at Road America, showing speed all weekend long and placing two cars in the top 10.
Colton Herta led the team in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda with a second-place finish, 1.9106 seconds behind race winner Alex Palou. Alexander Rossi crossed the finish line seventh in the No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 13th in the No. 28 DHL Honda, and James Hinchcliffe was 15th in the No. 29 Genesys Honda.
It was Herta’s second podium finish of the season, his first coming with his win in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in April. Sitting at seventh in the points standings, Herta is the leader of this four-car squad.
“We were going to finish where we deserved to finish, in third,” Herta said. “I think we had third-place pace. Podium is nice, second place is nice. We got a good group here, and we’re kind of chipping away at it. We’ve been in position to win more than two or three races, so I’d say it’s been a really good year so far. We just need to get the finer details in place, and then we’ll be here every weekend.”
While Herta’s teammates were well behind the young American, it was a solid performance for the organization that has struggled in 2021.
2016 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Rossi tied his season-best performance by finishing seventh. He also ended up in that spot in the GMR Grand Prix and Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.
Hunter-Reay had speed all weekend long, putting his car in the top 10 in each of the weekend’s three practice sessions and qualifying eighth. Unfortunately, 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Hunter-Reay struggled to convert that pace to the race with handling issues Sunday.
It was nearly a season-best day for Hinchcliffe. His 15th-place finish was one position behind his best run of the season, a 14th in Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit two weekends ago.
For just the second time this season, Andretti Autosport placed two cars in the top 10. The other time this happened was in the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway when Herta finished fifth and Hunter-Reay 10th.
“We were having a good race to start, but ultimately we just never had the pace on the ‘blacks,’” Rossi said. “I felt good on the ‘reds,’ but with the way the yellows fell that was the shortest stint of the day. I didn’t really get to do as much with those, which was unfortunate. We also ran out of overtake pretty early. It was just another irrelevant weekend for us.”
Andretti Autosport will look to build on this performance in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on July 4 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. In the last race at Mid-Ohio, Andretti Autosport swept the podium with Herta scoring the win, Rossi finishing second and Hunter-Reay third.
Team Penske is Performing, Just Not Winning
Between the four Team Penske drivers, the organization has placed three drivers on the podium in the last month.
Simon Pagenaud drove to a third-place finish in the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Josef Newgarden was second in Race 2 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit, and Will Power finished third in Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR.
In the last two race weekends, which account for three races, Team Penske drivers have led 136 of 195 laps – that’s 70 percent of NTT INDYCAR SERIES laps completed in the last three races. Power led 37 of 70 in Race 1 at Detroit, Newgarden led 67 of 70 in Race 2 at Detroit, and he led another 32 of 55 Sunday.
The talk of the paddock has been how Team Penske is winless through nine races this season, which is the longest the organization has gone into an INDYCAR SERIES season without winning since it went winless in 1999.
However, one thing is clear: The performance is there at Team Penske. If the team can shed that bad luck, the four-car team could be poised for multiple wins in the remaining seven races.
“Really, I don’t know what luck is with our team right now,” Power said. “For Josef to have a gearbox issue on the last bloody lap with almost the race won like we were in Detroit, it’s just heartbreaking. I’m telling you, I couldn’t believe it when he is pulling off to the side.”
Mid-Ohio Looms Large
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES athletes get a much-deserved week off after three grueling races at Detroit and Road America before it’s off to one of the most fun, yet daunting racetracks on the schedule: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on July 4.
The 2.258-mile, 13-turn natural-terrain road course will throw a little bit of everything at these drivers with elevation changes, high-speed corners, flowing corners, tight corners, a narrow (40 feet) racing ribbon and a challenging entry to pit lane.
It’s no walk in the park, which is probably why Dixon has been so dominant at the racetrack near Columbus, Ohio. He holds the track record for most wins with six, his most recent coming in 2019. Will Power has the record for most poles at five, his most recent coming last year.
Defending winners Power and Colton Herta will look to mount a last-chance charge for the Astor Challenge Cup. You can catch the action all weekend long on Peacock Premium, and don’t miss the race Sunday, July 4 at noon (ET), live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network.