Kyle Kirkwood

The first two Big Machine Music City Grand Prix races were won from the 18th and 14th starting positions, and Kyle Kirkwood won Sunday’s race after starting eighth.

But while Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon went to victory lane in chaotic races with an average of 8.5 caution periods, Kirkwood’s drive – and the third street race in Nashville – was significantly more straightforward.

Still, don’t ask Kirkwood to explain exactly how he got to the front. He admits that as a series sophomore, he’s still learning the intricacies of NTT INDYCAR SERIES races, particularly in an event like this with so many variables.

“The first pit stop, a lot of things happened there,” Kirkwood said after the 80-lap race. “I passed a few cars, (but) it wasn’t a bunch. I passed Colton (Herta), (David) Malukas, and I think Will (Power) technically for position.

“We kind of overcut Romain (Grosjean) and got (Scott) McLaughlin and (Alex) Palou pitted. I think that’s what kind of what cycled us up there.”

Kirkwood credited his strategist, former INDYCAR SERIES race winner Bryan Herta, for the game plan and the calls that helped him get to the lead. Once there, he held it.

“It wasn’t like I drove through the field from eighth place,” Kirkwood said. “It was more like we played our strategy, played our cards right, did everything right when we had clean air. It cycled us up to the point.”

The race wins keep piling up for Bryan Herta, who at times seems to be a step ahead of his strategy rivals. Whether it’s with Dan Wheldon in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Alexander Rossi winning the “500” in 2016, or with his Herta’s son, Colton, or Kirkwood, he continues to work his magic.

Palou Still Dominating

And then there were eight for the Astor Challenge Cup.

Yes, that’s the number of championship contenders remaining as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is down to its final four races.

Thank Palou for that. The driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10 The American Legion Honda continued his remarkable year Sunday in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix with yet another top-three finish. With the third-place finish, his average result per event is a stunning 3.23, a figure that is challenging Tony Kanaan’s 3.0 from the 2004 season.

Not coincidently, Palou is on the verge of becoming the first series driver since Wheldon in 2005 to clinch the title ahead of the season’s final race. Kanaan also did it the year prior.

Let’s do the math to determine the drivers who still have a chance to catch Palou.

INDYCAR’s long-used scoring system offers a maximum of 54 points per race, and four races remain, beginning with Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (2 p.m. ET, USA Network, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). That’s 216 points a driver can earn.

Palou has accumulated 513 points through the season’s first 13 races, which means if he does not compete in any more races a challenger needs to have at least 297 points. That’s how many Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has.

Lundgaard will be eliminated once Palou begins practice for this weekend’s event, and that will leave seven in title contention: Palou, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden (minus-84), Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (-126), Team Penske’s McLaughlin (-142), Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ericsson (-156), Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward (-160) and Team Penske’s Power (-176).

Interestingly, Kirkwood was eliminated from the championship pursuit Sunday despite winning the race.

For the record, the first tiebreaker is number of race wins, and Palou and Newgarden each have four. Among the top eight drivers in the standings, only Ericsson and McLaughlin – one each – have wins.

One more note about how Palou’s season compares to those standout seasons of Kanaan in 2004 and Wheldon in 2005: Comparing the first 13 races of each season with nearly identical scoring systems, the Spaniard has 10 more points than Kanaan and eight more than Wheldon. The difference is in Palou receiving six points for qualifying in the fourth position for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. In the earlier years, only the pole winner at Indy received a bonus point.

Four Hunting $1 Million

With Sunday’s race being the last to be held on a street circuit this season, the field is set for pursuit of the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge’s big prize.

The requirement for claiming the program’s $1 million bonus is winning a race on all three types of venues in the same season. That’s a street circuit, a road course and an oval.

There have been five street circuit events but only four winners, as Kirkwood won two of them (the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix). Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ericsson won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and Palou won the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. The other street circuit winner was Lundgaard in the Honda Indy Toronto.

To capture the $1 million as Newgarden did last year, one of these four drivers will need to win the season’s final oval race, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline on Sunday, Aug. 27. Palou has already checked the road course box after winning three: the GMR Grand Prix, Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR and The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid.

Power’s Pre-Race Panic

Sunday is one day Power won’t soon forget, more for the beginning of the race than the end of it.

Preparing to climb into the car, the reigning series champion realized he didn’t have his ear pieces, and it was a mad scramble to get a pair. The sight of him hustling to retrieve them will be remembered for some time.

Due to the last-minute issue, Power and his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet weren’t ready to leave pit road with the rest of the cars, and the delay nearly cost him a lap to the field. Power vowed never to have that happen again, insisting he will have “five spares” with him from now on.

But it was more than just panic – the scramble contributed to him falling from the seventh starting position to finish 10th.

“It was not a very good day,” he said, laughing. “I had to use a lot of fuel when I got in the car late. That stopped us from going an extra lap (in the race’s first segment). We lost a lot of positions just in that sequence – went from like third to 10th or 11th.

“It’s almost like not starting. Normally we have a spare pair of ear buds in the bag. For some reason they were gone.”

Power said the lateness of Saturday’s qualifying session led him to leave the primary pair in his motorhome.

“Not a good situation,” he said. “I’m going to have about five spare pairs from now on … a good lesson to learn.”

This Week’s Indy Schedule

Fans won’t have much time to wait for the season’s next race – on-track action resumes in four days.

The first practice for the Gallagher Grand Prix is at 9 a.m. ET Friday, and the day is filled with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and INDY NXT by Firestone. INDYCAR SERIES qualifying is at 12:30 p.m. ET with the final pre-race practice at 4 p.m. All sessions will be live on Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

INDY NXT has all its action Friday, with the practice at 11 a.m. ET followed by qualifying at 2:20 p.m. ET. The 35-lap race is at 5 p.m. ET (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).

Palou won the INDYCAR SERIES’ most recent IMS road race, the GMR Grand Prix, and Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi is the reigning champion of the Gallagher Grand Prix, although he won that race for Andretti Autosport. Matteo Nannini won the INDY NXT race at IMS in May for Juncos Hollinger Racing.