PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway

That was fun, wasn’t it?

The first oval-track event of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season featured a spectacular afternoon of racing at Texas Motor Speedway, with 439 passes for position, which was almost 150 more than occurred in the same race a year ago.

The PPG 375 also had 26 lead changes, the most at Texas since 2000. Overall, there were 1,070 on-track passes, 609 more than in 2022 and the second-highest total since INDYCAR began tracking that statistic in 2006.

“2 and 3 wide at +220 mph – incredible skill and precision,” INDYCAR President Jay Frye noted on Twitter.

Josef Newgarden not only secured his second consecutive win in the event, he extended Team Penske’s track record to 12 race wins there. But nothing about the victory in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet was easy as Arrow McLaren Racing’s Pato O’Ward challenged Newgarden throughout and was hot on his tail when a caution came with less than two laps remaining, which effectively ended the race.

With Easter this weekend, the series and its fan base have time to savor the Texas-sized excitement before embarking for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a street race on Sunday, April 16 that airs at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

Let’s look at some of the notables of the past weekend in Fifth Gear:

Newgarden vs. O’Ward

Holler if you’ve seen this before, and you won’t be alone.

Sunday’s elite duel between the Team Penske and Arrow McLaren Racing drivers has been a staple of the past three seasons, with this the seventh time in the past 41 races that they have finished 1-2 in a race. Five of them have been in oval races, including twice at Texas in the past three years.

Newgarden has won five of those races, O’Ward two.

  • 2020 at World Wide Technology Raceway: Newgarden first, O’Ward second.
  • 2020 in St. Petersburg: Newgarden first, O’Ward second.
  • 2021 at Texas Motor Speedway: O’Ward first, Newgarden second.
  • 2021 in Detroit: O’Ward first, Newgarden second.
  • 2021 at World Wide Technology Raceway: Newgarden first, O’Ward second.
  • 2022 at Iowa Speedway: Newgarden first, O’Ward second.
  • 2023 at Texas Motor Speedway: Newgarden first, O’Ward second.

Newgarden is 32 years old, O’Ward will be 24 early next month. Their positions with their teams are secure, so this battle figures to rage on. Better get used to it. The drivers have.

Said Newgarden: “Pato gave me all the respect in the world when he was racing next to me.”

Responded O’Ward: “That’s how it should be; it shouldn’t be any other way.”

The pair combined to lead 214 of Sunday’s 250 laps. They also should be top contenders at the next oval race, the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Look at Lead Group

Yes, O’Ward’s mid-race dominance in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Racing Chevrolet led to nearly all of the field being lapped – all but Newgarden – and a caution allowed a few to get back on the lead lap, but there was quite the storm of contenders in that final chase to the checkered flag.

Any one of the lead group – Newgarden, O’Ward, Alex Palou, David Malukas, Scott Dixon, Scott McLaughlin, Colton Herta or Romain Grosjean – could have won the race had it developed even a little bit differently.

Palou was holding his own with more-worn tires, the result of not pitting with the others late in the race. He called it the best oval race of his still-short career, which includes a second-place finish in the 2021 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

“It was the first one that I could drive how I wanted, and I could attack and know what I was doing,” the driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda said.

For having never driven an oval before 2020, Palou’s record at Texas is impressive. He won a pole in 2021 and has finishes of fourth, seventh, seventh and third in the past four races.

“Really, really happy as if I won,” he said.

Grosjean also will call this his best oval performance since joining the series in 2021. This was only his third superspeedway race, and he led Laps 220 and 221 in the No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport while contending in the lead group until light contact with Malukas on Lap 249 contributed to him hitting the Turn 2 wall.

“Not something you could figure yourself saying, ‘Grosjean (possibly) winning on an oval,’ right?” he said. “But we were out there, a top guy.”

Speaking of Dixon

Wasn’t this exactly what we’ve seen from Dixon throughout his career? He might not have had the fastest car of the race, but his finishing position showed he did the best with it.

Dixon finished fifth, the 194th such finish of his decorated career. That broke the tie he shared with Mario Andretti for most top-five INDYCAR SERIES finishes.

Here’s how Sunday relates to Dixon’s season: He led only three laps, one more than he did in the year’s first race, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Largely, Dixon has yet to appear to have been a factor at the front of the field in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Yet, with finishes of third and fifth, he’s third in the standings, only 15 points behind the leader (O’Ward).

Young Guys Rule

Sunday’s focus was on O’Ward, but the 21-year-old Malukas quietly delivered yet another strong performance by finishing fourth in the No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD. That’s the second straight top-10 finish of the season for the second-year series driver, putting him sixth in the standings after two races.

Callum Ilott also had another quality result in his second full season, finishing ninth after earning the fifth spot in St. Petersburg. The driver of the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet is seventh in the standings.

Series rookie Benjamin Pedersen had a nice bounce-back from his last-place finish in St. Petersburg by finishing 15th in the No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet. He finished six positions and two laps ahead of his more experienced AJ Foyt Racing teammate, Santino Ferrucci, in the No. 14 car.

Agustin Canapino isn’t one of the sport’s young guys – he’s 33 – but he is a rookie in the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet and drove like a veteran Sunday. For the second series race of his career, he again didn’t put a wheel wrong and has two 12th-place finishes to begin the season.

The race’s other rookie, Sting Ray Robb, had a tough ending to the race, hitting the inside backstretch wall on Lap 209, but he had performed well up to that point in the No. 51 biohaven Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR and led a lap for this first time this season.

Odds and Ends

  • Felix Rosenqvist continued a trend at Texas. The pole sitter has failed to win a race at this track each year since Ryan Briscoe in 2010. In fact, only six pole winners in 36 races at Texas have reached victory lane. Rosenqvist (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Racing Chevrolet) has won the past two poles there but has finished 21st and 26th in the races.
  • Andretti Autosport’s Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) has quietly strung together good finishes at this track. This seventh-place finish, with four laps led, gave him three top-seven finishes in the past five races.