Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon’s chance to get right back into the thick of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship fight is right in front of him – from the front row of Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, no less.

Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda) will start alongside NTT P1 Award winner Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda). The other leading title contenders are well behind Dixon as he pursues a record-tying seventh championship.

Series leader Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda) will start ninth as he serves a six-grid starting penalty for an unapproved engine change. Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) will start eighth and 12th, respectively.

Palou’s advantage over second-place O’Ward is 39 points, with Dixon 56 points out of the lead. Newgarden trails Palou by 69 points. Which means, with contenders scattered through the top half of this 27-car field, there could lead to a shakeup in the standings. There will be five races to go after Sunday’s 80-lap race (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network).

Dixon called starting on the front row “fantastic,” but he sounded like a driver realizing he might need to deviate from his standard patient approach to win this race and gain mightily on Palou.

“Go fast, take chances, right?” Dixon said. “We’ll have to see how the start plays out. I’ve been watching a couple of the other (racing) categories that have been starting (their races this weekend). It’s going to be interesting to make sure you don’t get caught out. You definitely want to start up as far as possible, then we’ll have to see the tire (degradation).

“There are so many unknowns going into this race, which is fun because it’s going to create a great race. We’ll see how many cautions there are – it’s all up in the air. Hopefully starting in the right spot is going to help us.”

Rossi Likes Starting Spot, Too

Alexander Rossi (No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) will follow Herta, his Andretti Autosport teammate, in the run to the starting line Sunday by starting third. Remember, the green flag will wave as the cars approach Turn 9, one of two venues on the circuit where the starting line is different than the finishing line. (The other is the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.)

Other than Herta dominating the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in April – he led 97 of the 100 laps from the pole – it hasn’t been the best of seasons for Michael Andretti’s organization. But Sunday could be their day with two of the top three starters.

“I think in (the second round) we were right there with (Herta), so it shows the potential of the car,” Rossi said. “Andretti Autosport, as a whole, has done an amazing job (this weekend); I think Honda, as a whole, has done a great job.

“Honestly, I don’t think starting third is a bad thing. (Get) a little bit of a tow into (the first turn), and who knows what can happen with that chaos.”

Newgarden’s Crash Impactful

Newgarden said he was in no position to argue the penalty for his Turn 11 crash in the second round of qualifying that knocked him out of the Firestone Fast Six. That’s the rule, that’s the punishment.

“Look, you can’t wreck and not get penalized,” Nashville native and resident Newgarden said. “That’s on me. That’s how it works.”

Newgarden said he stumbled trying to “over-push” the car on the bumpy temporary street circuit. Due to missing the apex of the corner, he slammed the barrier with the right side of the car, first with the front wheel and then the rear wheel.

Newgarden will start from the 12th position, alongside teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet). Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) will start eighth with rookie Scott McLaughlin 23rd in the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet.

“It’s a quick weekend,” Newgarden said of assessing the struggle of both the team and his program. “You take a swing at a new track like this, and it’s either right on or a little off. We’ve worked really hard and tried to be as prepared as possible.

“I think we’ve gotten some more performance back, just not sure exactly what we’re going to need. I felt like we were a lot closer there; I just overstepped.”

Special Pole-Winning Moment

The family of Bryan Clauson, one of the most versatile drivers of his generation, presented Herta with the Bryan Clauson Pole Award for being the fastest NTT P1 Award qualifier.

Saturday marked the five-year anniversary of Clauson succumbing to injuries suffered in a midget crash in Belleville, Kansas. Clauson was an organ and tissue donor, and the award honors the connection to Tennessee Donor Services.

On hand to present the Bryan Clauson Pole Award were Clauson’s parents, Tim and Diana, along with his sister, Taylor McLean, and her husband, Zach.

Herta also used the pole-winning moment to send a get-well message to Robin Miller, the longtime motorsports journalist who is battling cancer and leukemia in Indianapolis.

“Keep on fighting, buddy, and hopefully you’ll be at racetrack soon,” Herta said.

Wild Final Lap in Practice

The final lap of Saturday’s practice was one of the more interesting laps of the week – so far.

Nearly all of the 27 car-and-driver combinations put on a set of Firestone’s alternate (red) tires for a final timed lap ahead of NTT P1 Award qualifying. The last go-around before qualifying was set up by Rossi’s hard right-front contact with the Turn 10 wall.

Following the brief red flag, at least three cars ended up off the racing line. Additionally, Max Chilton and Romain Grosjean bumped tires approaching a corner, leading to an animated post-practice discussion between the two drivers on pit road. Fortunately, none of the cars suffered significant damage, although Scott Dixon broke his rear wing trying to spin his car around in the right direction following his second spin of the practice.

“It was like a zoo out there with a lot of exhibits, (especially in) Turn 9 (and) Turn 4,” said Herta, who posted the fastest time of the practice (1:15.3529) that was briefly extended beyond the scheduled 45 minutes. Herta’s time was a half-second faster than Rossi in second place (1:15.8292).

There will be one more practice ahead of Sunday’s 80-lap Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. The 30-minute warmup is set for 1 p.m. ET on Peacock Premium.

Nashville’s Initial Lap

Former Air Force serviceman and Korean War veteran James Markham, who has been part of the American Legion for 66 years, was among the first to experience this Nashville street circuit Friday.

After being escorted to pit road by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and INDYCAR rookie Jimmie Johnson, Markham rode in a pace car driven by four-time INDYCAR champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Dario Franchitti. Those were the first official laps around the temporary street circuit.

Newgarden and Dixon, the only active multi-time series champions, followed behind the pace car to help celebrate the opening of INDYCAR’s newest event.

Odds and Ends

  • Felix Rosenqvist (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) will start fourth, his best qualifying effort of the season. Veteran engineer Craig Hampson is the strategist on the car for the first time this season.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport) put perspective to what it’s like to drive an INDYCAR around this circuit. “You’re out there absolutely swatting flies in the cars,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s really busy around here with all the kickback (in the steering wheel) and no power steering in these cars. It’s constantly sawing at the wheel because of the undulations and snaps in the car.”
  • Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) had a quick exit to qualifying. He hit a concrete barrier on his first lap as a member of Group 1. He will start 25th.