Today’s question: Winner Josef Newgarden and runner-up Pato O’Ward were the stars of the PPG 375 on April 2 at Texas Motor Speedway after combining to lead 224 of 250 laps. Who was the unsung hero of one of the wildest NTT INDYCAR SERIES races in recent memory?
Curt Cavin: Unsung? The answer, based on performance vs. experience, is probably David Malukas, who seems to further impress with each drive. But I’m inclined instead to highlight the performance of Romain Grosjean, who was making just his third superspeedway start after last year’s finishes of 26th at Texas Motor Speedway and 31st at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So where was he late in Sunday’s race at Texas? Battling for the lead, of course. Remarkable, I thought as it was happening, even as I admit now that I was holding my breath as he mixed it up with Josef Newgarden, Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou, among others, in that high-speed game of wills. Yes, Grosjean crashed in Turn 2 on the next-to-last lap, which forced the race to end under caution, but it’s not like he made a move that only an inexperienced driver would make. The dude was going for it, and he just happened to have slight – and very slight at that – contact with Malukas. I’m not sure Grosjean is ready to take the next step to be that competitive in next month’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, but for one day he was mighty impressive given his limited time in the series.
Joey Barnes: Honestly, beyond the stunning performances of Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward, who were both sensational in their own respective ways, the driver that was the “unsung hero” was Callum Ilott. There are layers to my reasoning. First, his ninth-place finish – coming in part by pace and missing the vicious crash that featured Devlin DeFrancesco and Graham Rahal late in the running – was his best on an oval. It shows a step up in his progression after not recording a single top-10 on that particular track discipline last season (previous best was in 11th at Iowa Speedway, Race 2, 2022). Additionally, the result comes after a career-best fifth at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding last month in the season opener. Through two rounds in 2023, he has already equaled his top-10 total from a year ago and sits seventh in the overall standings, which puts him ahead of the likes of Scott McLaughlin, Alexander Rossi and even reigning series champion Will Power. Avoid chaos and maximize results: It’s a theme that usually equals success. It’s only two rounds, so a bit early to call this group a dark horse contender for the title. Overall, though, it shows that Ilott and Juncos Hollinger Racing have ascended on the, let’s call it “preseason hype trajectory,” which means they are every bit the force to wreck shop on Sundays.
Paul Kelly: Agustin Canapino finishing 12th – ahead of reigning series champion Will Power and Indy 500 winners Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato – in the first oval race of his life was mighty impressive. But I keep coming back to David Malukas as my choice, for many reasons. One, Malukas already is the leader in the clubhouse for quote of the year with his post-race description of the PPG 375 as “beautiful chaos.” It was a succinct, perfect, genuine summary of an incredible race. Plus, Malukas’ delight at being “Little Dave” from Dale Coyne Racing with HMD competing among drivers from powerhouses Team Penske, Arrow McLaren, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport was just as real and joyful. Malukas is quietly becoming one of the better oval racers in the series in just his second season, as evidenced by his fourth-place finish Sunday on the heels of finishing second last August at World Wide Technology Raceway. This is no fluke, folks. Malukas yet again looked comfortable, confident and plenty competent while swimming amid a school of oval-racing piranhas. If you’re looking for a long shot pick for victory May 28 at the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, you could do a lot worse than Malukas. Hell, is he even that much of a long shot anymore?