Pato O'Ward

Note: This is a new feature series in which Eric Smith of takes a fun look before each NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at drivers who enter the weekend with an inside line to victory lane and drivers who could surprise with a strong result.

Sunday’s The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge, (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network) is a unique, nationally televised racing exhibition.

Prior to Friday’s five-hour Open Test, the only time the series visited The Thermal Club, a 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course near Palm Springs, California, was for a two-day test session in February 2023 when 2,560 combined laps completed. On the first day of this year’s Open Test Friday, 1,119 more laps were turned by 27 drivers.

Data from both Thermal tests and how drivers fared on the seven natural road course events at Barber Motorsports Park, Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (two races in 2023), Road America, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Portland International Raceway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca were used to set this primer.


Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet)

Three of Scott McLaughlin’s four career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victories have come on natural road courses. Scotty Mac was eighth-quickest in the 2023 preseason test at The Thermal Club and scored six top-10 finishes in seven natural road course starts a season ago, including a win at Barber Motorsports Park. While he was only 16th on the overall speed chart from Friday’s Open Test, he’s not concerned, saying his car is a small margin away from being inside the top five.

Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet)

Friday’s Open Test at The Thermal Club saw O’Ward show up with more pace than last year. He improved from 16th quickest at The Thermal Club in 2023 to sixth overall Friday. O’Ward had a top-10 finish in all seven natural road course starts last season, including five in the top four.

Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda)

The six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion reached victory lane 56 times at 27 different tracks. Can The Thermal Club become the 28th venue Dixon’s celebrates a win? Dixon set the 10th-quickest lap time in last year’s preseason test, which served as a precursor for a strong season on similar tracks. The Chip Ganassi Racing star had an average finish of 3.42 across seven starts on natural road courses in 2023, including two of his three trips to victory lane occurring on natural road courses and five consecutive top-three finishes to date on them.

Alex Palou (No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda)

With two championships in three seasons, the Spaniard is arguably at his best on natural road courses. Eight of his nine NTT INDYCAR SERIES victories are on these types of tracks, including half of them coming a season ago. Following a seventh-place result in the 2023 two-day test here and leading the way in both Open Test sessions totaling five combined hours Friday, there’s no reason to tab Palou as anything but the favorite. Palou also had five top-three finishes in seven starts on natural road courses last year, with an average finishing position of 2.71.

Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda)

Both of Herta’s NTT P1 Pole Awards in 2023 came on natural road courses. If not for the wrong strategy at Road America and a speeding penalty at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the Andretti Global driver could have reached victory lane at least once a year ago. Herta has a knack for these types of circuits, and his lack of pace (14th overall on Friday) almost certainly was due to the team not electing to send his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda out on fresh tires when the quickest laps for those on new Firestone Firehawk rubber laid down the quickest times. Five of Herta’s seven NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins have come on natural road courses. Three of those seven wins have come in California. Can he pick up another Golden State victory Sunday?


Alexander Rossi (No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet)

The California native was consistent on natural road courses last season, with six top-10 finishes in seven tries. On Friday, Rossi set the fourth-quickest time in the Open Test, leaving him in great position to strike if the opportunity arises.

Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda)

The Dane was the second-fastest driver in both the Open Test at The Thermal Club a year ago and Friday. Lundgaard also had six top-seven finishes in seven natural road course starts in 2023.

Marcus Armstrong (No.11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda)

The Thermal Club is one of the few tracks where Armstrong, the reigning Rookie of the Year for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, doesn’t face an inexperience disadvantage. He has as many visits here as everyone else – one. That’s allowed Armstrong to have breakout potential this weekend, chiming in third on Friday’s overall speed chart. That’s two spots better than he was on this track last season.

Felix Rosenqvist (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda)

Watch out for the Swede again this weekend. Rosenqvist qualified on pole in the final natural road course event in the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. He was runner-up the prior race, at Portland International Raceway. He was ninth fastest with Arrow McLaren in last year’s Thermal Open Test. The car he’s driving now, the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda, was 11th in the same test with Simon Pagenaud driving. Rosenqvist showed speed in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by being fastest in the opening practice session, qualifying second a day later and then coming away seventh in the 100-lap race. In Friday’s Open Test, Rosenqvist was fifth.

Romain Grosjean (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet)

The Swiss-born Frenchman excels on natural road courses. Three of his five career NTT INDYCAR SERIES runner-up finishes have been on these types of tracks, including a second-place effort with Andretti Global last season at Barber Motorsports Park. He was 14th overall in last year’s Open Test for Andretti Global, but the car he’s driving this season, the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet, was fourth while being driven by Callum Ilott. On Friday, Grosjean was 11th fastest overall.