The NTT INDYCAR SERIES returns to action this weekend with one of the most accomplished oval-track drivers in motorsports history making his series debut on such a track.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson won 82 oval races in stock car racing’s highest division, including four wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, adding nearly a dozen more oval wins in other professional categories. For the first time, he will race an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car on this type of track.
Johnson is part a 27-car field for the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, the largest field so far this season. The entry list includes the Texas return of Helio Castroneves, the reigning Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner who last competed at this track in 2017. Ed Carpenter, who won at Texas in 2014, and 2011 “500” runner-up JR Hildebrand are making their season debuts in the 248-lap race.
Six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon will chase what would be his fourth win in the past five trips to Fort Worth. Dixon has a series-leading five wins there while Castroneves has four. Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean is making his superspeedway debut.
Practice is set to begin Saturday at 11 a.m. (ET), with NTT P1 Award qualifying at 2 p.m., a special practice session with six cars to enhance the upper groove of the racetrack from 5-5:30 p.m. and a final practice with all cars from 5:45-6:45 p.m. All sessions, including Sunday’s race, can be viewed on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service. Qualifying is based on the cumulative time of two laps in single-car runs.
NBC will begin its Sunday broadcast at 12:30 p.m. (ET), and a post-race session will be available on Peacock. The INDYCAR Radio Network also will call the action live on network affiliates, including SiriusXM 160, racecontrol.indycar.com and the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA.
Five areas to watch:
Oval Time for Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is ready to do what he does best.
The driver of the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda has been particularly fond of Texas Motor Speedway, winning a record seven Cup races and the last of his 36 poles in the series. Victory lane is named in his honor.
Johnson, who competed only on INDYCAR’s road courses and street circuits last year, said he felt comfortable at TMS almost immediately after beginning his first INDYCAR test.
“I did find that the line is a little different in the Indy car,” he said. “Just the potential of the car’s cornering ability allows you to run a little narrower entry and exit. With that you don’t have to flirt with the transitions of the corners in and off as much.
“Speed was up tremendously. Also, a slight adjustment in my line. But as the test session went on, I was really excited to see how many similarities there were from my NASCAR driving experience and car setup to what we had going on with the Indy car.”
Johnson knows he has a lot to overcome, including a lack of experience racing INDYCAR drivers in traffic. He wishes a recent test at Texas hadn’t been canceled due to cold temperatures, and he noted that only one of his Cup wins came on this configuration of the 1.5-mile track.
However, Johnson expects to earn a career-best INDYCAR qualifying performance – he started 21st at last year’s race at Barber Motorsports Park, and he added that in his “heart of hearts” he hopes he can get “in the top-five territory, if not better.”
“Ultimately, I want to run every lap of the race,” he said. “I’m so new into my INDYCAR experience, starting all over on ovals. Every lap is going to be a marked amount of experience gained (as) we’re trying to build up for the Indy 500.”
Ready, Set, Go To $1 Million Bonus
The first-year PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge is initially focused on Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet) this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
The challenge offered by the industrial staffing giant is a bonus of $1 million to be awarded to the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver who can win on all three unique styles of tracks – street circuits, road courses and ovals – this season. The reward, if earned, will be divided, with $500,000 shared by the driver and his team and $500,000 presented to their chosen charity.
With last month’s victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, McLaughlin has checked the street circuit box, and he figures to be strong at Texas after finishing second and eighth in last year’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES races.
One INDYCAR driver has won on each type of track in six of the past seven seasons, last year being the exception. A Team Penske driver accomplished the feat four times in five years between 2016 and 2020. Josef Newgarden did it twice, with Will Power and Simon Pagenaud achieving it once each.
PeopleReady is offering an additional $10,000 to the winner of every race this season, also to be split with their selected charity.
Dixon Has Been Dominating
Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) is the winningest NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver at Texas Motor Speedway, with five victories, and he has won three of the past five and four of the past eight races there.
Dixon has led each of the past five races, 678 of 1,156 laps in all (58.6 percent). That accounts for him being INDYCAR’s all-time leader in laps led at this oval with 1,043 laps, more than double the number of the active driver in second place.
“(This race) is much earlier in the schedule, which is interesting for weather (as) it will be much cooler,” Dixon said of the projected 70-degree day. “The goal is to shoot those guns off (in Victory Lane) and win another cowboy hat.”
But Dixon is not the only active NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver to succeed at TMS.
Seven drivers in this field have won at Texas, including Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda), who won on four occasions with Team Penske. Castroneves last raced at this track in 2017, the year then-teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet) won for the second time. Power also won in 2011. Castroneves’ wins came in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) won in 2019 to give Roger Penske’s organization a record 10th victory at the track. The team also has won nine NTT P1 Awards as the fastest qualifier. Power won successive poles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 to tie Tomas Scheckter for the most INDYCAR SERIES poles at Texas.
Ed Carpenter (No. 33 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet) won in 2014, Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fleet Cost & Care Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) won in 2016, and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) won the second race of last year’s doubleheader. Rahal has finished in the top six in six of the past seven races dating back to his 2016 victory.
“There’s not a lot of practice, you go right into qualifying and then you go right into the race,” Rahal said. “So, you better be ready to race.”
More Newcomers To Watch
In addition to Johnson, this field has a host of drivers new to oval-track racing, in general, and/or Texas Motor Speedway, in specific.
Also making their series oval debuts this weekend are rookies Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet), Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) and David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD).
DeFrancesco, Kirkwood and Malukas competed on oval tracks last year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, although the series does not race at Texas. Ilott and Lundgaard have never raced on an oval.
Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport) has competed in one oval track in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES – last year’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway -- but that is a shorter track (1.25 miles) with different handling characteristics than TMS.
Among drivers still seeking their first INDYCAR win, keep an eye on Jack Harvey (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing). In addition to the team having had plenty of past success with Rahal, Harvey had a strong car last year at TMS. He qualified in the top seven for both races and finished seventh in the opening race before incurring a wheel bearing issue in the second race.
- Takuma Sato (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) is officially scheduled to make his 200th start in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Last month in St. Petersburg, Sato competed in his 200th event, but he did not start the season-opening race of 2020 – at Texas – due to a pre-race crash.
- Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian) is at the doorstep of a milestone of sorts, too. This will be his 50th INDYCAR start. Like Sato, he has won six series races in his career.
- JR Hildebrand (No. 11 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) is competing at Texas for the first time since 2017.
- Three of the past four NTT INDYCAR SERIES champions have won that year’s race at Texas. However, none of them started on the pole. In fact, the last INDYCAR driver to win a Texas race from the top qualifying position was Ryan Briscoe in 2010.