Big Machine Music City Grand Prix

The stretch run for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is upon us.

This weekend’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville is the first of five series events to be held over the next six weekends. Following it will be the Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Saturday, Aug. 12), the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway (Sunday, Aug. 27), the BITNILE.COM Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway (Sunday, Sept. 3) and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (Sunday, Sept. 10).

SEE: Race Details

One race on the street circuit, one on an oval track, and three on permanent road courses.

While 13 drivers remain mathematically eligible to win the Astor Challenge Cup, which goes to the season champion, the realistic number of title contenders is significantly fewer. Like, say three. Or maybe two. Perhaps even one.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou (No. 10 The American Legion Honda) certainly has put a hurt on the competition this year, with four race victories and an average finish of 3.5, the latter being comparable to Tony Kanaan’s other-worldly 3.0 average finish in 2004. If the Spaniard continues to excel at Nashville and hold steady in the races that follow, he should secure his second series championship in the past three years. Realistically, Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) is his most likely challenger, and the gap between them stands at 80 points even as Newgarden has won the two most recent races at Iowa Speedway.

This will be the third street race held in Nashville (Sunday, noon ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network), and there is much to chew on in the hours before cars begin practice Friday (4 p.m. ET, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). In addition to the title battle, there is a new driver in the field amid the jockeying for seats for the 2024 season.

Consider many of the items in this edition of Five Things.

Palou in Command

Newgarden put a dent in Palou’s commanding lead with the sweep of the Hy-Vee INDYCAR Race Weekend two weeks ago at Iowa Speedway. But remember: Palou’s 80-point lead is still so sizable that is nearly a cushion of two races.

To summarize the top of the INDYCAR scoring system, 49 points are the most a driver can gain on another driver if both participate in a single event. With Palou averaging 39.75 points per race this season, it will take several maximum weekends for Newgarden – or anyone else – to cause the leaderboard to change.

While Palou does not have a race win in Nashville, he has reason to be optimistic about his chances this weekend. For starters, his teammates have won the two series races on this 11-turn, 2.1-mile temporary street circuit: Marcus Ericsson in 2021, Scott Dixon last year.

Palou finished seventh and third in the Nashville races despite breaking his front left wing in last year’s race in contact with Will Power’s car coming over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Newgarden or Nobody?

With Newgarden second in the championship standings, Dixon stands third in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, with Ericsson fourth in CGR’s No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda. They trail Palou by 120 and 147 points, respectively.

Dixon has a lot of work to do if he is to earn his record-tying seventh series championship this season. He trails Palou by the equivalent of 2.5 races. His hope rests on the fact he has a history of late-season success in this series. Sixteen of his 53 career race wins have come in August or beyond.

Besides winning last year’s Nashville race, Dixon is a former race winner on the IMS road course and at World Wide Technology Raceway – both wins in 2020 – with a combined 11 podium finishes at the five remaining events on the schedule.

Dixon has the best average finish in Nashville, with a runner-up in 2021 to go with his race win. But it’s getting late early, as Yogi Berra famously said, so it will behoove Dixon to make significant hay this weekend.

The Remaining Season Goals

Right behind Ericsson in the standings are Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet) and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet), both 148 points in arrears. All three drivers need a lot to go right to win the championship.

In addition to a season title, the goal of every driver is to win at least one race during the season. Ericsson and McLaughlin won races this year in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park, respectively, so now it’s a matter of adding to their totals. O’Ward, like his Arrow McLaren teammates, is still in search of his first race win of the season, so that’s top of mind for him.

O’Ward is one of five drivers who won a race last year but hasn’t yet this year. The others: Dixon, Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet), Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian) and Alexander Rossi (No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet). Dixon and Power both have long streaks of consecutive seasons with at least one race win. Dixon is trying to extend his series record of 18 seasons (he has 20 winning seasons overall). Power’s consecutive streak stands at 16.

Felix Rosenqvist (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) is one of the former series race winners who also has not won a race this season, and his weekend optimism is driven by the face he is one of four drivers with top-10 finishes in each of the first two Nashville races. He finished eighth in 2021, seventh last year.

Dixon, Palou and Newgarden are the other drivers with a pair of top-10 finishes in this event. Newgarden finished 10th and sixth.

Herta Looking for Breakthrough

It’s interesting how different the finishing results have been in Nashville, with three drivers leading the 2021 race and four different drivers leading last year’s race. Sixteen drivers have at least one top-10 finish over the two years.

Herta has been blazingly fast each of the two years and has led the most laps (39), but he doesn’t have much to show for it. He won the NTT P1 Award in ’21 but drove into the Turn 9 tire barrier while chasing Ericsson late in the race. Last year, he overcame a poor qualifying session – he started 23rd – to finish fifth.

In recent weeks, Herta appears to be hitting his stride. He has qualified in the top six for four of the past five races, and he scored his first podium finish of the season – a third – in the most-recent street race, the Honda Indy Toronto. Perhaps this is his weekend to take the top step on the podium.

Andretti Autosport cars have performed well on this circuit. James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third and fourth, respectively, in 2021 while Rossi was fourth and Herta fifth last year.

Lundqvist Making Debut

Linus Lundqvist, who won last year’s INDY NXT by Firestone championship, will make his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda intended for Simon Pagenaud. The 2019 series champion is still recovering from the accident he endured July 1 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Lundqvist’s final victory of his INDY NXT championship season came at Nashville, beating Sting Ray Robb to the finish line by more than seven seconds. Lundqvist led all 35 laps.

Lundqvist is one of the many drivers trying to secure a ride for the 2024 season. All eyes are on Palou, Ericsson, Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport), David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) and others as the Silly Season builds toward a crescendo.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda) is another driver to watch this weekend and beyond. His first season in this series has been productive, with six top-11 finishes in eight races. He leads the rookie standings by 24 points over Agustin Canapino (No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet).