Is it May yet? You betcha it is.
Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park – held on the last day of April – set the stage for what historically is a glorious month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be held Sunday, May 28, preceded by the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday, May 13.
The track George Barber built in Birmingham vaulted the NTT INDYCAR SERIES into May for the sixth time since 2014, and it was quite a weekend show. Track officials confirmed its largest attendance in at least a decade, and the on-track product had an interesting mix of speed, strategy and leader duels.
Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean, whose battle for the top spot in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg landed them both against a tire barrier, executed a cleaner finish this time, with each pulling off a pass for the lead. McLaughlin got the one that counted most to secure his first race win of the season and his fourth in the series overall.
Meanwhile, Grosjean waits for that first visit to Victory Lane. More on that in a minute.
Behind them was an aggressive drive from Will Power, who has won both types of INDYCAR SERIES races at IMS. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet has won five career races on the road course and the 2018 Indianapolis 500. He also is the reigning series champion.
Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou rounded out the top five at Barber Motorsports Park, and they happen to be the last two drivers to have finished second in the “500.” Both figure to contend for the victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
But first things first: How the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix was won, and how it was lost.
A Timely Caution
Given the competitiveness of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, races are usually decided by a single moment. In this case, it was the caution on Lap 39 for the stalled car of rookie Sting Ray Robb.
Robb’s No. 51 biohaven Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR had come to a stop two-plus laps earlier, but Race Control, as it has done on several occasions in recent years, allowed the sequence of scheduled pit stops that were underway to continue because Robb’s predicament was not perilous. That allowed drivers on both tire strategies – two stops vs. three stops – to continue without major implications, but it helped those on three stops more.
McLaughlin was leading this group, part of Team Penske’s decision to have all three of its cars on what was considered the less-preferred strategy. But it worked this time. McLaughlin’s No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet was able to pit for full service – fuel and tires – and line up directly behind Grosjean’s No. 28 DHL Honda, which was on a two-stop strategy.
Grosjean did well to hold back McLaughlin until he was able to make his second and final stop on Lap 58, but the Andretti Autosport driver had lost his advantage. It was quite the scrap the rest of the way, with Grosjean muscling past McLaughlin, who had cold tires after just pitting, on Lap 62 only to have McLaughlin regain the lead six laps later when Grosjean slipped wide in Turn 5.
Unlike in St. Petersburg, there was no need for post-race apologies.
Said a smiling McLaughlin, “I thought if I hit him this time, it would be bad.”
Grosjean Second Again
Fifteen drivers in Sunday’s race have won at least one race in their INDYCAR SERIES career. Somehow, Grosjean is not one of them.
It’s not as if the former Formula One driver hasn’t been competitive in his three U.S. seasons. This finish was his fifth runner-up overall and second in succession this season. He finished second to teammate Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) in the recent Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Grosjean said this “defeat” was among the more painful. He started the 90-lap race from the pole – he has two NTT P1 Awards this season – and led 57 laps. He had a 20-second advantage on the other drivers using the two-stop strategy.
Grosjean has led 146 laps since arriving in INDYCAR in 2021, including 90 this season. He offered one more bit of irony to his battle with McLaughlin.
“He reminded me on the podium that last year I (passed) him at the same spot,” he said. “Next year I probably won’t get him there if he’s not in front.”
Grosjean won’t have too long to wait for another chance to win an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race. The IMS road course has been one of his best U.S. circuits, with a pair of second-place finishes in 2021. He also won the pole for that year’s GMR Grand Prix.
“We’re knocking on the door, and eventually the door will open,” he said. “So, I am not too worried.”
The Month Ahead
Since the calendar has turned to May, it’s the right time to start assessing what’s ahead. The festivities speak for themselves; let’s look at the competition.
In the GMR Grand Prix, which will be held for the 10th time on Saturday, May 13, it will be wise to focus on Andretti Autosport, which won both IMS road races last year. Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) won the May race with Alexander Rossi, now driving the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, capturing the Gallagher Grand Prix on July 30. Rossi took the lead on Lap 42 when Herta’s car had a mechanical failure that led to his retirement. Herta led 17 laps.
Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) followed Rossi to the checkered flag, with Power third. Power also was third in the GMR Grand Prix as the pole sitter. Power has five wins and six poles at the circuit.
Practice and qualifying for the GMR Grand Prix will be Friday, May 12.
There will be nine former “500” winners in this year’s 107th Running. Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) returns for his second chance to become a five-time winner.
Meyer Shank Racing teammate Simon Pagenaud (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda), Power, Rossi, Tony Kanaan (No. 66 Smart Stop Chevrolet), Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 23 Dreyer & Reinbold Chevrolet), Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) are single-time winners of the race. Ericsson won last year.
Takuma Sato (No. 11 Niterra Honda) will aim for his third “500” victory, this time with Chip Ganassi Racing after winning previously with Andretti Autosport (2017) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2020).
It’s finally May.