Could the NTT INDYCAR SERIES be on the verge of witnessing yet another first-time race winner?
Already this season, Kyle Kirkwood and Christian Lundgaard joined the winner’s club, and Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix could welcome another first-timer to victory lane.
A pair of non-winners – David Malukas and Romain Grosjean – reached the third and final round of NTT P1 Award qualifying Saturday, and Linus Lundqvist was the surprising second-round qualifier in the first series race of his career.
Malukas, who drives the No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, earned the fifth starting position for Sunday’s race (noon ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). That tied his best series qualifying effort on a street circuit or road course – he earned the fifth spot in the Honda Indy Toronto in 2022. Malukas is coming off his best-ever starting position: third in the second race of last month’s Hy-Vee INDYCAR Race Weekend doubleheader.
Grosjean is a two-time pole winner this season, and he again demonstrated how fast Andretti Autosport’s cars are on these temporary street circuits. The driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda will start sixth, with teammates Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) starting third and Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) seventh.
2022 INDY NXT by Firestone champion Lundqvist has had a spectacular weekend so far in his debut. Driving the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing, he earned the 11th starting position as he stands in for Simon Pagenaud, who has not been cleared to race following his multiple flips in a July 1 accident at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
“That was exactly what we hoped for and could have asked for,” said Lundqvist, who won last year’s INDY NXT by Firestone race at this track. “I knew it was going to be extremely tough to transfer out of the first group, but we made a smart choice to go (with alternate Firestone Firehawk tires) knowing that it was going to be a struggle in the Fast 12.
“Just reaching this point was really good.”
Lundqvist certainly faces an uphill battle in this 80-lap race, and history isn’t on his side. Only three drivers have won the first series race of their careers, most recently Buzz Calkins in 1996 when the field was loaded with newcomers.
But don’t rule out the season getting its third first-time winner. Grosjean, in particular, has been knocking on the door, with a pair of runner-up finishes earlier in the season. Getting three new winners doesn’t happen often, although it did in 2021 when Scott McLaughlin, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay all won their first.
Dixon Becoming Co-Iron Man
Scott Dixon is on the verge of tying Tony Kanaan as the INDYCAR SERIES’ all-time iron man, although there was a setback in Saturday’s qualifying when he first brushed the inside wall in Turn 11 and then hit the outside wall when the car wouldn’t steer.
“The front just turned a lot better than I thought it was going to, and I pushed and clipped the inside wall,” Dixon said.
Six-time series champion Dixon will start Sunday’s race from the 12th position. The good news is, that’s two positions higher than the driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda started last year when he won the race. In 2021, Dixon started second and finished second.
Kanaan made a record 318 consecutive series starts, which Dixon will match when he takes the green flag. The next-closest driver in the category is Marco Andretti, whose streak of starts ended at 248 races.
Dixon is moving up the list of career starts overall, as well. This start gives him 381, which ranks fourth behind Mario Andretti (407), Kanaan (390) and Helio Castroneves, who earns his 387th start this weekend. Castroneves can pass his longtime Brazilian friend and rival at the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday, Sept. 10.
Odds and Ends
- While Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) has dominated the oval races, winning the past five in the series, no driver has been able to take hold of the street races. The four such races this season have been won by four different drivers: Marcus Ericsson won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Kirkwood the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Alex Palou the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, and Lundgaard the Honda Indy Toronto.
- Newgarden hasn’t enjoyed the results in his hometown of Nashville that would befit a two-time series champion. His best finish in the two races was a sixth last year.
- While Newgarden is a Nashville-area native, Herta now lives there, too. The driver of the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian said he has heard that members of the paddock are telling people he will host a party after the race. Not so, he said. “Do not come to my house on Sunday night,” he said.
- Herta will start Sunday’s race from the third position, but he wasn’t happy with the decision by Andretti Autosport teammates to send Grosjean out ahead of him in the Firestone Fast Six qualifying round. “There’s six cars on track and they go out a second in front of me, and they back up into me (on the track),” Herta said. “It affects the car dramatically.” Herta said he was told it was a miscommunication and unintentional.
- Lundgaard, who won the series’ most recent street race in Toronto, said Saturday’s mixed weather conditions – first wet, then dry – prevented his team from trying several of its desired setup options. He will start 13th in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
- INDYCAR has mandated the use of aeroscreen cooling ducts amid steamy conditions expected for Sunday’s race.
- Christian Rasmussen will start on the pole for Sunday’s INDY NXT by Firestone Music City Grand Prix (10:10 a.m., Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network) after qualifying was rained out for the second consecutive year and the starting lineup determined by entrant points. Joining Rasmussen on the front row will be HMD Motorsports with DCR teammate Nolan Siegel. Rasmussen leads Siegel by 22 points.
- Rasmussen will start in the top spot for the third time this season. He won the pole for the series races at Barber Motorsports Park and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.