The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the HPD Ridgeline had the looks of a typical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course race, but it was so much more than that.
Josef Newgarden led 73 of 80 laps from the pole position to score his first win of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Only twice in the previous 37 INDYCAR SERIES races had the winner started outside the top 10, and only five other times had the winner started outside the top five.
Newgarden, who had won his third consecutive NTT P1 Award this season at this event, was the third straight Mid-Ohio winner to win from the pole and 16th overall. Will Power and Colton Herta did so in last year’s doubleheader weekend.
But this was an ultra-competitive field of 26 cars, and the 2.258-mile, 13-turn roller coaster of a racetrack had many battles and storylines throughout the field. Former INDYCAR SERIES champions faced early challenges, and surprise drivers continued to surge toward the front.
But now that it’s over, allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear to see what we learned this weekend as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES enters a four-week break before the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix from the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, at 5:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday, Aug. 8 (Live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Radio Network).
O’Ward Minimizes Championship Losses in Solid Weekend
To win an NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, drivers must win races and race up front each and every week.
But in a field like this, sometimes that is easier said than done. In those instances, championships are won by minimizing mistakes and extracting the most from the race car, even if that means settling for a top-10 finish.
In that instance, The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the HPD Ridgeline could be the race that saved Pato O’Ward’s championship hopes.
O’Ward struggled in his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet all weekend. He couldn’t find consistency on different tires, and he pushed the issue too far in NTT P1 Award qualifying. O’Ward was furious with his 20th-place starting position, especially considering points leader Alex Palou started seventh. It looked like O’Ward was in for a long race.
On Sunday, things appeared to fall O’Ward’s way. Two early incidents on Lap 1 and Lap 4 prevented the field from getting a full lap of green flag conditions until Lap 8. However, after the Lap 4 caution involving an incident between Will Power and Scott Dixon, O’Ward had jumped from the back of the field to 13th.
From there, he stayed in that section of the field for the remainder of the race, working his way up to eighth at the finish of the 80-lap race. A driver of O’Ward’s caliber surely isn’t happy with an eighth-place finish after having won twice this season already, but this was one of those races drivers consider a good points day.
“I didn’t have much more pace than the guys in front of me, so it was really tough to get by,” O’Ward said. “I think the team did a good job saving points for the championship. We were able to keep ourselves in second place, but we need to make our way back into the fight for first. Palou has been very strong, but we have six more chances. I’m sure I’m going to claw my way back to the front.”
O’Ward lost 11 points to Palou, still sitting second but 39 points behind the only other two-time winner this season.
Palou Likes Position Heading into Summer Break
After a grueling stretch of the season that saw 10 races in two-and-a-half months, drivers will enjoy the four-week break the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is entering.
Add Alex Palou to the list of drivers who is looking forward to the down time. One might think that as points leader, the Spaniard would prefer to keep racing and either grow his points lead or finish the remaining six races as soon as possible so he doesn’t have to mull over how he might win the Astor Challenge Cup.
It’s quite the opposite.
Following his third-place finish – his sixth podium finish of the season – Palou said his No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing team will happily use the break to analyze data and see what areas it’s still missing, and he’ll work to continue to improve himself as a driver.
“I think it’s good to have a break so we can now go over everything,” Palou said. “So many races, so many good moments. But there’s some stuff we’ve got to do as a team, me as a driver. It will be good to see everything.
“It’s good to be in the championship lead so you don’t have to think what to do to get there, because we’re already there. It’s just about being stronger and performing every weekend.”
The battle for the Astor Challenge Cup is going to heat up when the series returns in August. Of the remaining six races, Palou has only raced at two of the tracks: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and World Wide Technology Raceway.
O’Ward isn’t much more experienced, only having one additional racetrack under his belt, at Long Beach.
This is where we remind you that six-time champion Scott Dixon is third in the championship standings, 56 points back, and two-time champ Josef Newgarden is fourth, 69 points behind.
Rossi Produces Season-Best Performance
Alexander Rossi put together the first consecutive top-10 finishes of the season Sunday when he scored his season-best finish of fifth in The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the HPD Ridgeline.
Leading up to Mid-Ohio, Rossi’s best finish of the season was seventh – a finish he accomplished three times this season, including at the series’ previous race at Road America. But statistically speaking, Rossi was due to finish outside the top 10 as he had failed to put together back-to-back top 10 finishes.
If there was anywhere Rossi was going to turn around his back luck, it was at Mid-Ohio, where he won at in 2018 and had five top-10 finishes, including four consecutive top-fives, heading into Sunday’s race.
Rossi turned around his luck and provided his team a dose of much-needed optimism heading into the summer break. He qualified sixth and ran in or around the top five for the entirety of the 80-lap race in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda.
“It was an OK day,” Rossi said. “I wish we could’ve gotten past Scott (Dixon) and into some clean air, but ultimately it was a solid day for the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS guys. We have some decent momentum going into the summer break, and I’m already counting the days until Nashville.”
Rossi was the best-performing Andretti Autosport driver and jumped one position in the points standings. He is now 12th, 25 points outside 10th, held by Takuma Sato.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Hometown Efforts Pay Off
Call it hometown motivation or homefield advantage. Either way, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing put a lot of time and effort into Sunday’s race in Lexington, Ohio, and it paid off with all three of the organization’s race cars finishing in the top 10.
Graham Rahal led the team with a sixth-place finish in the No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda. Part-time driver Santino Ferrucci finished ninth in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda, and Takuma Sato was 10th in the No. 30 Panasonic/Mi-Jack Honda.
2015 Mid-Ohio winner Rahal started eighth and ran in the top 10 all day. Sato’s run to the top 10 was impressive given his 19th-place starting spot and his ability to navigate the early race wrecks. Same goes for Ferrucci, who started 22nd and made up six spots on the race’s start when he weaved through the field during the Lap 1 incident involving Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Felix Rosenqvist and Romain Grosjean.
“It was not a bad day, but we just never really got the chance to attack too much,” Rahal said. “We just weren’t quite good enough behind others, but the car was fast. We had the third fastest race lap. But trying to get to the front was a major challenge.”
The organization’s biggest ties to the area are with Rahal, who is from Columbus, Ohio, just about an hour south of the racetrack. But it’s deeper than that. Mid-Ohio holds a special place in team owner Bobby Rahal’s heart, too.
Mid-Ohio was purchased by the late Jim Trueman in 1981, who immediately began improving the facility and turned it into one of the elite venues on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule. Trueman was Rahal’s team owner when he won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 for Truesports.
Trueman died 11 days after winning that Indianapolis 500 at age 51 when he succumbed to colon cancer.
Clearly, RLL put extra effort in what many consider to be the second most important race on the schedule for this team outside of the Indy 500. And it paid off with three cars in the top 10.
Expect the Unexpected
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is setting up for a thrilling run to the finish in one month’s time.
It all starts on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, in what will be an electric inaugural race weekend. Just blocks away from the world-renowned Lower Broadway, which is filled with music bars that give the city its charm, these NTT INDYCAR SERIES cars will bring a new sound to Music City.
Most impressive of all, the 11-turn, 2.17-mile track layout includes the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge that runs over the Cumberland River. The Big Machine Music City Grand Prix is one of the few events in motorsports to cross over a major body of water.
Just imagine two dozen NTT INDYCAR SERIES athletes roaring down a 3,578-foot bridge at 200 mph before slamming on the brakes to navigate tight left-hand corners.
And that’s just the start of a final six-race stretch to the Astor Challenge Cup. This stretch encompasses everything that makes the NTT INDYCAR SERIES the most diverse racing series in the world: street courses (Nashville, Long Beach), a temporary road course (IMS road course), an oval (World Wide Technology Raceway), and permanent road courses (Portland, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca).
For any driver looking to win the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, they will have to excel at quite literally every aspect of this series. Is it August yet?