The first oval race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is on tap for this afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway, and the most successful driver in the event’s history has expectations for it.
“It could be a completely wild race,” Scott Dixon said.
Dixon knows of what he speaks when it comes to racing on the 1.5-mile, high-banked track in Fort Worth. He has won five races, including three of the past five and four of the past eight, leading nearly 23 percent of the laps in his career. Dixon has experienced pack racing and runaways, but seldom has he seen a lead group so closely matched as this one is for the XPEL 375.
The separation between the top 15 cars in qualifying was .772 of a mph. Those were two-lap runs covering 3 miles, and you could throw a blanket over them.
NBC’s broadcast of the 248-lap race begins at 12:30 p.m. (ET) with a simulstream on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ live streaming service. The INDYCAR Radio Network also will have the call on the network affiliates, SiriusXM 160, racecontrol.indycar.com and the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA.
The green flag will come at approximately 12:40 p.m.
Different Racing Conditions
There is much to consider, including the conditions. These are certainly different, as it’s the first of the 35 races at the track held this early in the calendar. For years, this was a June event, and last year’s doubleheader was staged May 1-2. Ambient and track temperatures should be lower than in the past, which should improve grip and, as a result, passing abilities. Plus, INDYCAR has offered additional downforce for the teams to work with.
You’ll hear a lot today about the outside groove, which has traditionally been a passing zone. In recent years, NASCAR applied a compound known as PJ1 to benefit its cars, but it worked against INDYCAR SERIES cars, reducing the grip of the Firestone Firehawks by as much as 20 percent.
Traction seems to be better there this weekend in part because NASCAR hasn’t raced at TMS since mid-October. Also, the PJ1 was replaced with a resin substance that doesn’t negatively impact INDYCAR SERIES cars to the same degree. Plus, INDYCAR allowed seven volunteer competitors to spend 30 minutes running last year’s Firestone Firehawks with extra downforce through the middle groove late Saturday afternoon. They turned 294 laps at a conservative pace to add more rubber to the higher lane.
The drivers are eager to see the benefits. Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport thinks the combination of the extra running and the cooler temperatures should be helpful.
“I’ll take a quarter of a groove (wider),” he said.
Dixon, Castroneves, Penske Drivers among Favorites
Whom to watch? Obviously, start with Dixon, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver who has led 1,043 laps in his Texas career. He qualified in the fifth position for this race, the second event of the season.
Helio Castroneves last raced at this track in 2017, but he has four career wins and is quickly back to form with a sixth-place qualifying position in his first non-Indianapolis 500 oval race with Meyer Shank Racing. With Team Penske’s Will Power qualifying fourth and Josef Newgarden seventh, former Texas winners occupy four of the top seven starting positions. Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward, the most recent race winner, will roll off from the 10th position.
Series points leader Scott McLaughlin, who qualified second, is nicely positioned for what would be a significant victory. The PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge features a $1 million bonus to the first driver who can win on a street course, a road course and an oval track this season. The bonus will be divided between the team and driver and their chosen charity. McLaughlin has already won on a street course – last month in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- and he finished second and eighth in last year’s races at TMS.
Keep in mind that Team Penske has won a record 10 of the 25 races it has competed in here. Its drivers start second, fourth and seventh today.
Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren SP starts on the NTT P1 Award pole for the first time in his oval-track career, and he has a history of strong runs at TMS. He was running second to Dixon late in the 2020 race until an accident 10 laps from the finish. Takuma Sato will start third in his first oval race for Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.
Another driver to keep an eye on is Graham Rahal, who has an average of 5.6 in the past seven TMS races, keyed by a win in 2016. But Rahal has a long way to go after qualifying with the slowest speed among the 27 cars. Still, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver knows he has a good race car, and he knows he can win.
Johnson Highlights Oval Debuts
And then, there’s Jimmie Johnson.
Don’t underestimate the eyeballs following the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval race. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver will start a career-best 18th in the series but more importantly will face oval-track traffic for the first time in this new phase of his latest challenge. The interesting twist is that he won seven official Cup races at TMS, and Victory Lane is named in his honor.
Also new to superspeedway racing is Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean, the 10-year Formula One veteran whose only previous oval race was last year at World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile track with flatter corners and significantly different characteristics. He starts 13th today.
Johnson and Grosjean are two of the seven drivers experiencing this track for the first time. Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires products Devlin DeFrancesco (starting 17th for Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), David Malukas (19th for Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) and Kyle Kirkwood (23rd for AJ Foyt Racing) have raced on ovals but never a superspeedway. Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing and Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had no ovals in their European upbringing. They will start 20th and 25th, respectively.
Regardless of how it plays out, NBC Sports plans to give plenty of post-race analysis. Once the network time slot ends, the broadcast will continue on Peacock Premium. Lead announcer Leigh Diffey vowed to offer “a healthy” amount of streaming coverage, perhaps as much as 30 additional minutes.