Chasing Alex Palou for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship is one thing, catching him is another.
Those with title aspirations resume their pursuit of the 2021 series champion this weekend in The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid. But the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course might not be the place to make hay as Palou finished second in last year’s race, and he finished third in 2021. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for the other contenders, and they have a significant amount of ground to cover as the second half of the season begins.
SEE: Race Details
Palou’s lead over second-place Marcus Ericsson is a staggering 74 points, the equivalent of nearly two races assuming the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10 The American Legion Honda continues to participate in the events. That said, the Spaniard’s cushion is cozy but not insurmountable. In 2020, Josef Newgarden wiped away most of Scott Dixon’s 72-point deficit over the final three races, forcing Dixon to place third in the season finale to secure his sixth series title.
More likely, Palou will need to have a difficult race or two to allow Ericsson, Newgarden (minus-81 points), Pato O’Ward and Dixon (each -98 points), and the rest of the field to have a chance at the title. But as Palou knows – and has said – there is plenty of road yet to travel, and it starts this weekend on the 13-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course.
The season’s halfway point officially comes at the midpoint of Sunday’s race (1:30 p.m., USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network). There will be much to keep track of as this event begins to unfold, including these five things, in particular.
Who Can Catch Palou?
Technically, much of the field can, but time is running short for many.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider any driver within 100 points of the lead, which encompasses four of those chasing Palou: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda), Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet), Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda). Let’s focus on how they’ve fared at Mid-Ohio.
Dixon is the most accomplished at the track, having won a record six races. He also has a third-place finish and a pair of NTT P1 Awards for being the fastest qualifier. Dixon hasn’t won at Mid-Ohio since 2019, a stretch of four races, but he has finished in the top 10 in each of those races, posting an average finish of 7.25. Clearly, he is always one to watch at this venue and is capable of securing the 54 available points.
Newgarden is a two-time Mid-Ohio winner, having captured the 2021 race from the pole. He also finished second in the first race of the 2020 doubleheader at the track.
Ericsson finished second in last year’s race. O’Ward had won the pole, but his race ended early when his car’s mechanical issues finally came to a head on Lap 52 of 80. He finished 24th.
Palou is riding a streak of three wins in the past four races and seeking his first Mid-Ohio victory. Like Palou, Ericsson has finished in the top 10 of every race this season.
Others Strong at Mid-Ohio
Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet) returns as the defending champion of this event, with last year’s victory his second of four as an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver. He led 45 of the final 52 laps and held off Palou by .5512 seconds. McLaughlin has twice started on the pole in his race wins, and his average starting position in those victories is 2.0. So, look out if he qualifies well.
Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) was the driver on the charge in last year’s race. He didn’t qualify well – 21st – and dropped to the rear of the 27-car field after spinning in Thunder Valley on the opening lap. But what a comeback it was.
Power’s team went to the three-stop strategy on Lap 10 and made it work. He reached the top 20 by Lap 18, the top 10 by the race’s halfway point and the top five by Lap 57. The podium finish was a key to his championship push, one of six podium finishes in the season’s final nine races.
Power has consistently been strong at Mid-Ohio, delivering nine front-row starts and seven top-three finishes in his 15 races, including a win in the first race of the 2020 doubleheader.
McLaughlin and Power are two of the eight Team Penske drivers to have won series races at Mid-Ohio. Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., Helio Castroneves and Newgarden won two each, with Ryan Briscoe and Simon Pagenaud each scoring single wins. The 12 wins for Roger Penske’s organization lead all series teams at the track.
The Local Teams
The season hasn’t been kind to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, but both teams seem to have a pep in their step at Mid-Ohio, the track they consider home.
The team co-owned by Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan now operates from Zionsville, Indiana, but Mid-Ohio is the closest track to Hilliard, Ohio, where the team was founded. Bobby Rahal won a pair of INDYCAR SERIES races and four poles at the track, and Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda) won the signature race of his career there in 2015. The younger Rahal was born in Columbus, Ohio, suburb of New Albany, located an hour due south of the track.
With this start, Rahal will tie Tony Kanaan for the most series starts (251) driving a Honda-powered car. Rahal’s first start with the manufacturer, in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, resulted in a victory. Honda drivers have won 11 of the 17 races at Mid-Ohio since 2007.
MSR’s headquarters is located 50 miles south of Mid-Ohio in Pataskala, Ohio, and its drivers both finished in the top 10 of last year’s race. Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) placed eighth, Simon Pagenaud (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) 10th.
Both MSR drivers have won series races and poles at the track, albeit all with Team Penske. Castroneves won his races in 2000 and 2001 while Pagenaud won from the pole in 2016. Pagenaud has finished on the lead lap in all 13 of his series starts at the track.
Honda also considers this a home track as it operates multiple manufacturing facilities and a major Research and Development center in Ohio. Combined, these businesses employ more than 13,000 associates and have the capacity to produce more than 650,000 vehicles and 1.18 million engines annually.
Rossi Gaining Traction
Palou and Ericsson have the most consistent starts to the season, each with top-10 finishes in the first eight races. But don’t sleep on the recent run of Alexander Rossi, who is building momentum in his first season in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.
Rossi has a string of five top-10 finishes, and he expected the recent Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR to be his fourth consecutive top-five finish. He settled for 10th place.
Mid-Ohio would be a good place for Rossi to earn his ninth career series victory and first with Arrow McLaren. He has finished in the top five in six of the past seven races, winning from the pole in 2018. Rossi was involved in one of last year’s signature moments when he dueled with contact with then-Andretti Autosport teammate Romain Grosjean, with both cars going off course in Turn 2.
Later in the race, Grosjean and Rossi were penalized for avoidable contact, but it wasn’t with each other. Grosjean bumped Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) and Rossi pushed Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 EVTEC Honda) off track – note that they all were driving for Michael Andretti’s team.
Ah, the Weather
Obviously, Midwestern weather can be unpredictable, but the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is prepared for the possibility of rain each day this weekend in central Ohio.
Introduced for this season, rain vanes developed in partnership with Dallara are available on each car to direct water away from the aeroscreen in wet conditions. INDYCAR reserves the right to make the rain vanes mandatory when conditions require.
Extensive wind tunnel testing of the rain vanes included a session supervised by Rossi. The driver of the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet observed, via video conference, the driver’s view through the aeroscreen under rain-simulated conditions.
To further increase visibility, the centerline wicker that runs vertically up the middle of the aeroscreen has been permanently removed.
INDY NXT by Firestone Part of Weekend Schedule
In addition to three days of NTT INDYCAR SERIES action, INDY NXT by Firestone will stage its seventh race of its 14-race season Sunday. The INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio will roll off at 11:30 a.m. ET for its 35-lap race (Peacock, INDYCAR LIVE and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
HMD Motorsports’ Nolan Siegel has won the past two INDY NXT by Firestone races and was an LMP2 class champion at last weekend’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race. His series lead over teammate Christian Rasmussen is 40 points.
The rest of INDYCAR’s Mid-Ohio activities (all times Eastern):
1:55 p.m.: INDY NXT by Firestone first practice
3:05 p.m.: NTT INDYCAR SERIES first practice
8:35 a.m.: INDY NXT by Firestone second practice
9:45 a.m.: NTT INDYCAR SERIES second practice
2:05 p.m.: INDY NXT by Firestone qualifying
2:45 p.m.: NTT INDYCAR SERIES qualifying
10:30 a.m.: NTT INDYCAR SERIES warmup
11:35 a.m.: INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio (35 laps or 55 minutes)
1:30 p.m.: The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid (80 laps)