The NTT INDYCAR SERIES had a million-dollar weekend at Road America, on the track and in victory lane.
The number of interesting aspects to the Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR were almost too numerous to count and are the foundation of today’s Fifth Gear.
The spotlight featured Josef Newgarden earning a $1 million prize from the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge for being the first series driver to win on all three different types of circuits this season – oval tracks, street circuits and a permanent road course – but there was a seismic shift in the point standings, team battles throughout and another strong performance from the winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Add it up: It made for great viewing and something for fans to chew on as they await the next race, The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the All-New 2023 Civic Type R on Sunday, July 3 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
Let’s get right to it.
Newgarden Again Dominates Road America
Newgarden, the driver of the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, deserves to have four career NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins in the past seven races at this picturesque 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course in Wisconsin, but he has only two as victories in 2017 and 2021 slipped out of his grasp. Last year’s loss was particularly painful when a mechanical failure with two laps to go saw the field motor past him after he led 73 of the first 78 laps.
Two-time series champion Newgarden won this race by 3.37 seconds over Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) as Ericsson passed Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda) on the final restart. Rossi was bidding for his first race win since 2019, coincidentally at Road America.
Newgarden pushed his season win total to three races and is third in the standings, only 32 points out of the lead as the season approaches its official midpoint. Newgarden won for the 23rd time in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career, tying him with Tommy Milton for 19th place on the sport’s all-time list. The next win pulls him alongside Ralph DePalma and Bobby Rahal. Two more ties him with Gordon Johncock.
“It’s been a little bit too up and down for us (this season) – kind of feast or famine,” Newgarden said. “I think we genuinely had the potential for four or five wins up to this point.
“We’ve got to up our consistency. It’s a little abnormal for us … (but) I’m not going to lose sleep on why that was happening. Sometimes you get in these little micro trends where we don’t have the consistency we need.”
Standings Shakeup at the Top
With series leader Will Power having two moments of trouble and finishing 19th, Ericsson regained the points lead for the second time this season. The Swede’s margin over Power is 27 points.
Eight of the top 10 positions in the standings changed hands this weekend, but what should concern the title hopefuls is Newgarden moved up two positions. He stands to gain more in the weeks ahead.
Newgarden is the defending champion of the race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where he has won twice overall. He also has two career wins at Toronto’s Exhibition Place – site of the Honda Indy Toronto on July 17 – and could be in line to sweep the Iowa Speedway doubleheader sponsored by Hy-Vee on July 23-24 as he has won three races at the short oval track. Two races after that comes the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, an event Newgarden has won three times, including the past two.
Ericsson has become a legitimate threat to win the championship. He has finished fourth, first, seventh and second in the past four races.
“We’ve put ourselves in a really good position now, leading,” Ericsson said. “So, we just have got to keep doing what we’ve been doing. The last 12 months we were the top scorer in the championship. I think that says something about where we’ve been performing since Detroit last year.”
Two title contenders took big points hits Sunday, gaining only five points each. Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) finished 26th when his car had a mechanical failure nine laps from the finish. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou (No. 10 The American Legion Honda) got back on track after early contact with Ericsson – more on that in the next item – but still finished last in the 27-car field.
O’Ward and Palou fell a position each in the standings, to fourth and fifth, respectively.
Team Battles Highlight Road America
Ericsson found himself amid a dustup with Palou, his Ganassi teammate, in Turn 5 on the race’s fourth lap. Their slight wheel contact led to Palou driving into the gravel trap with damage, something the reigning series champion wasn’t happy about.
“I think everybody saw that,” Palou said. “I just think he was trying to win the race on the third lap. … We can play this game, as well.”
Although replays suggested Ericsson simply capitalized on an opening to gain a position, Palou’s comments added spice to the race and provided intrigue for how they work together moving forward.
Michael Andretti’s team had some hotly contested racing between Romain Grosjean (No. 28 UniFirst/DHL Honda) and Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda), but it lacked the comments delivered by Palou. However, it was fun to see three Andretti drivers dueling in the final laps, with Rossi holding off Grosjean for third place, with Herta giving the team three finishers in the top five.
Andretti Autosport is a team to watch in the second half of the season. Rossi has strung together three straight top-five finishes to climb to seventh in the standings, and Herta, who won the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will be the defending champion of the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (Sept. 11).
“Nice little resurgence from the team (for) the second half of the season,” Herta said. “Seems like we’re on the upward spiral, and it’s good to be part of it.”
More Competitive Racing
Sunday’s race featured another large dose of thrilling action, particularly behind Newgarden and Rossi, who combined to lead 42 of the 55 laps – and more given that all the other laps led were by drivers who were out of pit sequence.
The exchanges mid-pack were tremendous, especially with so many different fuel strategies in play. The result were 226 total on-track passes, just off last year’s series record 231 at this track. For position, there were 191 passes, just off last year’s record of 194.
The action came on the heels of a similar race at The Raceway at Belle Isle Park, where there were a circuit-record 280 total on-track passes, with 148 of them for position. Fifty-nine passes were in the top 10, with 23 in the top five. INDYCAR president Jay Frye called those “big numbers for a street course.”
Several drivers had noteworthy runs, including Felix Rosenqvist (No. 7 Vuse Arrow McLaren SP) who continued to impress with his fourth consecutive top-10 finish. He led seven laps en route to finishing sixth. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had one of its best races with Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda) finishing eighth, rookie Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Fleet Cost & Care Honda) 10th and Jack Harvey (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) 13th.
Simona De Silvestro (No. 16 Paretta Autosport Chevrolet) achieved her goal of completing all 55 laps. She finished 21st in a competitive 27-car field. She will compete at Mid-Ohio and in the Nashville street race on Aug. 7.
Up Next: Second Half of Season Begins
After five consecutive on-track weekends, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES now takes a two-weekend break before the second half of the season gets rolling with the Mid-Ohio race on July 3.
Newgarden won last year’s race after leading 73 of the 80 laps. Ericsson and Palou finished second and third, respectively, with Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) fourth. Dixon has won a track-record six races at the track, most recently in 2019.
The Mid-Ohio race will be the ninth of 17 events scheduled for this season. There is still a variety of races to come, with four held on permanent road courses, three on ovals and two street races. The season ends Sept. 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.