Note: With eight of 17 races completed in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, the Writers’ Roundtable will answer five questions about the 2023 season between today and June 27.
Today’s question: What was the most entertaining race so far this season?
Curt Cavin: As I generally lean toward oval races, I’ll give a shoutout to the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway. The late-race duel between Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward was particularly good, with four lead changes in the final nine laps, and the race was more than that, too. Drivers worked the outside lane, some better than others, and there were new characters in contention, such as second-year driver David Malukas (finished fourth) and Romain Grosjean. It was particularly good to see the former F1 drivers – Marcus Ericsson (eighth) and Grosjean (14th) – adapting to the Texas bullring, and Grosjean might have finished fifth had he not clipped the back corner of Malukas’ car in a fierce battle for position. And how about Agustin Canapino’s clean run in his first oval race – he finished 12th as the race’s top rookie. There were four teams represented in the top four at the finish, with Team Penske edging Arrow McLaren, Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, and eight different drivers led the race. For me, it was two-plus hours of motorsports joy, superspeedway fun I wish we could see more of during the season.
Joey Barnes: Certainly, as a native of the Lone Star State, Curt’s choice of the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway gets a nod of approval from me. I’ll lean a completely different route, though, and go back to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. There may not be another race this year that was as punch-drunk as that one. It had absolutely everything to the point that you had to keep asking yourself, “What next?!” Qualifying delivered its own drama with an Andretti Autosport resurgence as three of its drivers made the Firestone Fast Six, led by Romain Grosjean’s stunning run to pole by .4155 of a second – an uncharacteristically massive margin in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES – over teammate Colton Herta. Then came the race, which opened with something no one really wanted to see: a massive, first-lap crash with too many heavy hits to count – fortunately, all were OK. Once everything resumed, the tussle for race supremacy was between Grosjean and defending event winner Scott McLaughlin. Every lap turned continued to heighten the drama with the feeling a clear breaking point was in the cards, which happened when the two came together battling for the lead on Lap 72 of 100. In my opinion, to date, that remains the best chance Grosjean, a veteran of 180 Formula One starts (2009, 2011-20), has had for a maiden victory since his switch to North America’s premier open-wheel championship in 2021. After all that chaos, which were incredible scenes in Turn 4, there was still a race to be won. Everything cycled around to Pato O’Ward as the leader, who had quietly driven a mistake-free race. The laps ticked down and it appeared the young Mexican was going to celebrate in Victory Lane. Suddenly, the strong drive came undone as a random mechanical gremlin momentarily plagued O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet with four laps remaining. The lapse was enough for Marcus Ericsson to ease by and inherit the lead and coast to the win. The storylines leaving the first race of 2023 were in full abundance and left many salivating for three weeks and set the stage for the next round in Texas.
Paul Kelly: No quarrels with Curt’s pick of Texas and Joey’s pick of St. Pete. Both were thrilling, entertaining races that put the best aspects of INDYCAR competition on center stage. But, man, it’s tough to overlook the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Josef Newgarden’s long-awaited first “500” victory was punctuated by Joe New running into the frontstretch grandstands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and forming perhaps the first motorsports mosh pit, something I’ll always remember. But that was just the garnish atop an intoxicating cocktail of speed and drama during the entire race, especially the final 20 laps. There were an unprecedented three red flags in the last 15 laps, including one that set up a one-lap showdown for immortality and a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Newgarden caught leader and reigning champion Marcus Ericsson on the back straightaway, completed the pass before Turn 3 and held off Ericsson on the front straight with the now-standard snake-charmer move to win by .0974 of a second, the fourth-closest finish in “500” history. It was only the third time in the century-plus history of this race that the lead changed hands on the last lap. Newgarden’s decisive move was the last of 52 lead changes, the third most in “500” history. There were so many other compelling stories during the event, including Rinus VeeKay’s continued mastery of Indy 500 qualifying at such a young age, pole sitter Alex Palou driving from being pinned against the pit lane wall by VeeKay to finish fourth, Santino Ferrucci delivering the first top-three finish at Indy for an AJ Foyt Racing car since 2000, 14 of the 33 drivers in the field leading at least one lap, Tony Kanaan making his final INDYCAR SERIES start and more. The Indianapolis 500 is the shop window for the world for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, and the planet had to like what it saw Sunday, May 28. The race was one of the most compelling advertisements for the scintillating competition of the series in recent memory.