Romain Grosjean could not have sized up his first oval track race in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES better following the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Aug. 21 at World Wide Technology Raceway.
“For a while, it was absolutely incredible,” he said.
Yes, it was.
Josef Newgarden won Saturday night’s 260-lap race in the No. 2 Sonsio Team Penske Chevrolet, but Grosjean was the star of the show. After sidestepping early trouble in front of him and getting through the first pit stop, the oval newbie was ready to get his horse galloping. Actually, charging was a better word to describe what transpired.
There was a 20-lap stretch where those watching this race couldn’t take their eyes off the purple No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR. After Grosjean passed Conor Daly (No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet) for 11th place, his engineer and strategist, Olivier Boisson, responded in a tone rich in amazement. If Grosjean was ready for some adventure, so was Boisson.
“Let’s go,” Boisson said.
Go, Grosjean did.
Within two laps of passing Daly, who considers this 1.25-mile oval one of his favorite tracks, Grosjean bumped wheels with Dalton Kellett’s No. 4 K-Line Insulators/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet in a battle for 10th place. Grosjean got the better of that tussle, taking the position on the low side.
Within two laps Grosjean was on Jack Harvey’s tail, and the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing was quickly dispatched. Then Grosjean set his set sights on fellow series rookie Scott McLaughlin and his No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet, and he made quick work of him, too.
By that point, all eyes were on the French-Swiss driver making moves like a veteran, some on the high side, others on the bottom. Grosjean was so brilliant in that stage of the race that he couldn’t explain where the voracity of his moves came from.
“I don’t know, (maybe) the rear end, I guess,” he said, smiling.
Grosjean’s real fun seemed to come in a duel with Ryan Hunter-Reay, an 18-time series race winner who has a series championship and an Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge win on his resume. Hunter-Reay and his No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport didn’t make it easy on the series newcomer, and there might have been some spice to the action given the rumors that Grosjean might move to Hunter-Reay’s car for next season.
The two drivers went side-by-side into Turn 3 in a collective breath-holding moment. Hunter-Reay kept the position, but Grosjean had earned his stripes.
“It was good,” 15th-place starter Grosjean said of the night as a whole. “Some of the race was amazing, some of the race was more complicated.”
The latter included the out lap following his pit stop on Lap 125. If Grosjean didn’t brush the wall on cold tires, he came close to it. Regardless, his right-side tires picked up debris from the outermost lane and needed a couple of laps to come clean. For Grosjean’s part, he needed time to regain his confidence and pace, and a similar incident occurred later in the race, too.
So much for learning.
“I may have made a mistake on cold tires when I went in the marbles, so that cost us some time,” he said.
The second of those instances led to Grosjean pitting just before a caution flag came out. As happens in these cases, drivers who had just pitted lose a lap to the lead group.
For the rest of the race, Grosjean was trapped a lap down, but his car was still fast. He made quick work of a couple of cars he had previously passed, but he soon realized there weren’t enough laps remaining to be back on the lead lap, so he settled into a conservative pace and finished 14th.
It’s likely that there have not been many more impressive – or noteworthy – 14th-place finishes in INDYCAR history.
“We got unlucky with the (caution) thing as it didn’t work out and we didn’t get our lap back,” he said. “It’s a bit hard to finish 14th when you’ve done such a good show out there.”