While the test session June 21 at Iowa Speedway was private, it sure looked like an official NTT INDYCAR SERIES Open Test as 20 of the 27 full-time drivers in the series turned laps on the .894-mile oval.
And who can blame them? The Hy-Vee INDYCAR Race Weekend on July 21-23 could be a pivotal short stretch in the race for the Astor Challenge Cup, as it’s the only doubleheader of the season. Any driver who found secrets of speed during testing this week could drive away with a big haul of points after the Hy-Vee Homefront 250 presented by Instacart on Saturday, July 22 and the Hy-Vee One Step 250 presented by Gatorade on Sunday, July 23.
The lineup of teams and drivers testing: AJ Foyt Racing (Santino Ferrucci, Benjamin Pedersen), Andretti Autosport (Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta, Kyle Kirkwood), Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou, Takuma Sato), Dale Coyne Racing (Sting Ray Robb), Ed Carpenter Racing (Ed Carpenter, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rinus VeeKay), Juncos Hollinger Racing (Agustin Canapino), Meyer Shank Racing (Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard, Graham Rahal). The only full-time teams not participating in the test were Arrow McLaren and Team Penske.
While times and speeds were not officially released from the private test, various media reports and social media feeds have given an opportunity to try to make some itemized deductions:
Practice Makes Perfect for Herta
Colton Herta was quickest during the test in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda, two-tenths ahead of the field. That speed came from hard work, as Herta also was the busiest driver. He turned 292 laps on the oval, 42 laps beyond a full race distance.
Herta’s fastest lap was recorded late in the day, when most teams zeroed in on testing the 2023 Iowa Firestone race tire. That experience and knowledge could prove pivotal as Herta aims for his first career oval pole and victory.
“We got through our program, and I was pretty happy with how everything went,” Herta said. “We started out with a pretty good car and we just kept making it better, so I’m pretty happy with the result. We should have some pretty good stuff to go off of when we come back here.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay had a quiet debut with Ed Carpenter Racing last weekend at Road America, starting 27th and finishing 17th in the No. 20 Bitnile.com Chevrolet.
But RHR found his stride on the Iowa oval during the test, ending up second quickest behind Herta.
Hunter-Reay has won three times on the Iowa bullring, in his series championship season of 2012, in 2014 and in 2015. Expect him to be plenty competitive in both races of the doubleheader as ECR flexes its oval-racing muscles, and it’s not a stretch to think Hunter-Reay could end a winless drought reaching back to the 2018 season.
Ecstasy, Agony for Lundgaard
Christian Lundgaard continued to set the pace for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, as he was sixth quickest overall, just one-hundredth of a second ahead of teammate Jack Harvey in seventh.
But it also was a frustrating day for Lundgaard due to a mechanical problem that cut his day short. Still, Lundgaard had a promising start and can rely on the data gleaned by Harvey and teammate Graham Rahal.
Pagenaud on the Rebound
The theme of drivers outside of the top five in points hovering at or near the top of the time sheets continued with Simon Pagenaud ending up third overall in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda fielded by Meyer Shank Racing.
Pagenaud was just a whisker behind Hunter-Reay on the charts and will look to add another Iowa win to his victory in 2020 at the track with Team Penske. A win or a strong finish would boost Pagenaud’s season, as he is 21st in the season standings.
Palou Looms Large
While Herta, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud were fresh faces atop an oval test for this season, the guy in fourth on the time sheet was not – NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship leader Alex Palou.
Palou was one of three drivers within three-tenths of a second of Herta, joining Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud. Palou also didn’t waste much time during the test, turning 260 laps. Only Herta (292) and Rinus VeeKay (276) made more trips around the oval Wednesday.
2021 series champion Palou has won three of the last four races this season to build a 74-point lead over teammate Marcus Ericsson in the No. 10 Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing.
It seems hard to believe, but none of Palou’s seven career victories have come on an oval. His only oval NTT P1 Award came last month at the big one, the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Would anyone be the slightest bit surprised if Palou won the pole and/or a race next month at Iowa?
Ganassi Train Keeps Rolling
The Year of Chip continued in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, even during this test.
Chip Ganassi Racing has won four of the eight races this season, more than any other team. Palou has three victories, Marcus Ericsson one. Note that six-time series champion Scott Dixon – the second-winningest driver in INDYCAR SERIES history – remains winless, and it’s unlikely that streak will last too much longer.
That domination didn’t ebb Wednesday at Iowa. All four Ganassi drivers – Palou (fourth), Dixon (fifth), Sato (eighth) and Ericsson (ninth) – were in the top 10 at the end of the day.