Sunday, March 20, 2022

Three Things: Sunday Morning at Texas

 Good morning from Texas Motor Speedway!

It's an early start for the IndyCar series as we are about 45 minutes away from the green flag for the Xpel 375. But breaking news never sleeps, so let's get into it.

Harvey Out -- Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver Jack Harvey, who was set to go off 24th in today's race, was not cleared to drive after his accident during Practice 2 yesterday afternoon. He is being replaced by former RLL driver Santino Ferrucci, who was on site this weekend. While it is a very tough break for Harvey, Ferrucci is of course a solid replacement. The 23-year-old has run at Texas twice, with a best finish of 10th in 2019. The Hyvee 45 car will be moved to the back of the field.

PJ1 -- After yesterday's special practice that was run with the intention of putting some rubber down in the area stained by the PJ1 compound, it seems like it didn't work. It's estimated that the cars lose about 20 percent of grip moving up into the second lane. While it doesn't appear that it's a feasible option, does someone take a chance and run up there to set up a pass late in the race? I'm not sure if anyone will do that, given that loss of grip also relates to a loss of speed, but you just never know.

Who wins the race? -- If there is the possibility of passing, I'm going with Josef Newgarden. Though he is starting seventh, the Team Penske driver was just .02 seconds off polesitter Felix Rosenqvist's time, and was quickest in the final practice. Still, the first 22 cars in the field were separated by a half-second in the final practice, so if there is passing, it can be a very competitive race.

The rest of the podium -- I'm going with Scott McLaughlin and...Helio Castroneves. McLaughlin's confidence is at an all-time high, and Helio can still get it done on the ovals. There is certainly a lot of star power at the front of the field, so in all honesty, today looks to be a huge crapshoot, with the winner needing a bit of luck and a sense of perfect timing.

Enjoy the race! 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Rosenqvist Takes the Pole at Texas

Last year, Felix Rosenqvist was the forgotten man at Arrow McLaren SP.

While teammate Pato O'Ward's star continued to climb, Rosenqvist dealt with a lot of adversity in 2021, which resulted in a 21st-place finish in the season points. The 2022 season didn't get off to a good start, either, as the 30-year-old from Sweden started 21st and finished 17th at the St. Pete opener.

Rosenqvist was able to right the ship Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, and in a big way as he captured the pole for Sunday's Xpel 375. After posting the second-best time in the morning free practice, Rosenqvist moved up one spot on the timing chart thanks to a two-lap average of 221.110 mph in a highly competitive qualifying session.

Rosenqvist posted the quickest time early on in qualifying, then had to stand around and wait as several drivers took their shot. In the end, he took P1 by just .003 seconds over St. Pete winner Scott McLaughlin and .0034 over Takuma Sato.

Will Power, Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves round out the first three rows.

"It was two really good laps," Rosenqvist said. "I kind of felt already this morning, to be honest, that the car was in the window. There weren't many balance changes needed (after the morning session), and it was the same thing during the qualifying laps. It was just kind of like in the zone where you wanted it.

"The first lap was a bit loose, and the second lap was a bit under-steered, but you're never going to get it right. I think for the whole Arrow McLaren SP Team and the 7 Car in general, it couldn't have been better timing to get this pole. It's a good boost mentally for all the guys and girls working on the car, and I think everyone just showed today that we refocused and came back. A little bit of a disappointment in St. Pete and, obviously, last year, but coming back here just fully focused and doing our own thing and putting the car on pole is really amazing."

McLaughlin, who won the pole at St. Pete en route to winning his first career IndyCar race, brought along the confidence from that win, not to mention his season-best run at Texas last year, where he finished second.

"I certainly felt I had a little bit of scrub off turn one and two on that last lap, and that potentially -- it may have cost me a little bit, scrubbed a little bit of speed there," he said. "I knew it, so on three and four I was like, oh, I'm making a little bit of a weight jack adjustment and bars, but then I looked at the score and I was, like, 209.9 at the end. That might not be enough, and then sure enough they said P2."

Last year's series Rookie of the Year looks to make the jump to being a championship contender this year, and says that being consistent is the key. Start up front, race up front.

"I said to you guys at St. Pete that a top seven every race is really our goal," he said. "I think it's going to be good for our points and everything like that, but knowing that we had a great car coming here, I knew that we could keep that momentum. The points are tomorrow, so we have to make sure we have a clean race and be solid. I feel like we've got a race car that can compete for the race tomorrow."

Jimmie Johnson, making his first IndyCar oval start, will roll off in the 18th position after notching a two-lap average of 219.856 mph. He was just .3 seconds off of the pole speed -- the entire field is separated by just .6 seconds -- and out-qualfied oval veterans like Jack Harvey, Ed Carpenter, J.R. Hildebrand and Graham Rahal.

A total of 27 cars will make up the grid Sunday for a race scheduled to be 248 laps. The green flag flies at about 11:45 a.m. CDT.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Three Things: Friday at Texas

After 985 miles and 13 1/2 hours on the road yesterday, I've made it to Texas!

It's great to be back at TMS. I was last here three years ago when I covered the race in 2019, and with the race running three months earlier than it did now, the weather is quite a bit different. It was pushing 100 degrees on race day then, but it will be about 20 degrees cooler when they take the green flag Sunday morning.

Yep, I said Sunday morning, as the flag will drop before noon local time. Like most of you, I wish it had stayed a night race, but after dealing with a long, cold Chicago winter, the opportunity to spend a day enjoying sunshine and 80 degrees is more than appealing.

Can you tell that I'm excited? I'm also pretty pumped that I will be meeting my friend, Scott, and introducing him to IndyCar. Scott and I went to high school together and played on the baseball team, and we reconnected on the socials about 10 years ago. But, I haven't seen him since our five-year class reunion, which was in...1992. Hopefully I bring a new recruit to IndyCar.

Anyway, what are a couple of storylines early into the weekend? Let's check out a couple (or three).

Jimmie Johnson -- After a year of driving just on road/street courses, JJ gets his oval baptism in an IndyCar on a track where he won seven times in Cup and has Victory Lane named after him. He's hoping for a career-best weekend in IndyCar, as he is eyeing a Top 10 finish. Whatever happens, this weekend gets him more oval experience as he builds up to his first Indianapolis 500.

PJ1 -- As a writer, I have a pretty decent vocabulary, which includes the ability to eloquently weave cuss words with the best of them. Still, PJ1 is a dirty word that I blush when I utter, as the "adhesive compound" has basically led to just one racing line in the corners. 

A 1 1/2-mile track at 210-215 mph means laps are being turned in the 23-24 second range, which really shortens up the straights. Meaning, there is little time to set up a pass. In order to make the racing better, there has to be at least one more lane for the drivers to navigate that doesn't turn into an ice rink when they get up there.

Marshall Pruett was on the track today and he posted a video where he said he TMS has recently dragged a metal grate over the compound, which has stripped off some of the compound and made the two lanes a little more equal.

IndyCar's next (and hopeful) solution is to send several drivers out prior to the post-qualifying practice session to try to rubber in some of those areas. Will it work? It remains to be seen, but if not, does it drive a wedge between the series and TMS?

If that happens, there will definitely be an impasse. IndyCar has been running at Texas since the facility opened in 1997, and they have long been a good partner, even in the dark days of the split. But if the racing -- and TV ratings -- are dull, where do we go from here? IndyCar's appeal comes in the excitement of its racing, and if that isn't there, maybe it's time to start conversations elsewhere. 

Who bounces back? -- While the Top 10 of the St. Pete race had a lot of familiar names, the second 10 had some surprising ones, including Pato O'Ward (12th), Helio Castroneves (14th), Simon Pagenaud (15th), Josef Newgarden (16th) and Alexander Rossi (20th). 

If you want to condend to win a championship, this series only allows a couple of mulligans, and these guys have all used one (or at least half of one). With the exception of Pagenaud and Rossi, the others have wins here, and Simon and Alex have run well here too, so everyone has some past success to draw on.

I think the person who needs to get it together this weekend is Rossi. In his last 17 races, he's finished 20th or worse six times and managed just one podium. In 2020 he had five podiums but finished ninth in points because he finished 20th or worse four times. 

What's going on? I'm sure Alex wants answers as well, and he has to find them soon. Not only to get his season back on track, but as a pending free agent he needs to start piling up some good results. Of course, everyone in the paddock knows he's one of the most talented drivers in the series, but ball don't lie, he's not getting it done. 

He needs to have a turnaround, and soon.

Did I miss anything? Do you have some thoughts? Follow me on Twitter at @15daysinmay and let's talk about it!

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

St. Pete Rehash

The long winter is over!

No doubt, it was great to see cars back on track at St. Pete this past weekend as IndyCar kicked off the 2022 season at one of what is becoming one of the best stops on the schedule. If you haven't had the chance to attend an event there, make it a point to do so in the future. I've been to St. Pete three times -- well, just counting trips to the race, because if you count the trips to see my grandma back in the 70s and 80s, it's a lot more than that for sure!

But anyway, it's a great place to be in February, the community completely embraces racing and it seems like the event gets bigger every year. 

Let's get back to the weekend. If you remember my Fearless Predictions post, this weekend put one of my predictions in the toilet, but it's not a bad thing. Let's run through the Top 5 and see how it went.

Winner: Scott McLaughlin. I had picked Romain Grosjean as the first driver to get his first win this season, but McLaughlin parked it for the first time in his IndyCar career in a big way. After winning a fierce battle to capture the pole, the Team Penske driver bookended his day by leading the first 26 laps and the final 20 circuits to beat defending champion Alex Palou to the checkers by .5095 seconds. Josef Newgarden is still the QB1 of the Penske stable, and for good reason as he's scary good and in his prime, but McLaughlin will close that gap this season.

Second: Alex Palou. For the Champ, a runner-up finish with the winner right in front of him may have left him wanting more, but the weekend ended lots better than how it had been going. Palou was 20th in the first practice, crashed hard on Saturday morning and only qualified 10th on the grid. But, as per his usual, Palou patiently worked his way up through the field and began his title defense on a positive note. Since crashing out at Gateway last August, Palou has finished P1, P2, P4 and P2.

Third: Will Power. Power qualified next to McLaughlin on the front row, but only led one lap on the day at a place where he's had a ton of success. Power was a bit upset with Jimmie Johnson in the late stages of the race, but given the way last season ended for him, getting back on the podium is a great result.

Fourth: Colton Herta. Honestly, I expected more from him on Sunday, but that's just a representation of where the bar has been set for the soon-to-be-22-year-old. But when a guy wins the last two races of 2021 and comes in having won St. Pete as well, he looked primed for a repeat win. All he really did Sunday was not be perfect, and in this current alliteration of IndyCar, that's what it takes to win races.

Fifth: Romain Grosjean. My pick to win his first IndyCar race came home with a Top 5 after having the same type of weekend as Palou. Quickest in Friday practice, he inexplicably drove into the back of Takuma Sato in FP2 and damaged his car. While he recovered to make it to the Firestone Fast Six and qualify P5, he probably drove (or flew) away from St. Pete thinking he could've done more. I'm really excited to see him at Texas in three weeks.

Strategy. Two stops or three is always the question at St. Pete (as well as a couple of other venues), and on this day, the two stop strategy was the one that worked. Of the top 11 finishers Sunday, just one (Scott Dixon in P8) made three stops. Of course, for a few drivers who started midfield, like Pato O'Ward, Jack Harvey and Helio Castroneves, going off-sequence was necessary to find some track position, but with just one caution on the day there wasn't enough mayhem to flip the field.

Godspeed Danny Ongais

We lost another driver from my youth this past week when it was announced that six-time IndyCar winner Danny Ongais passed away, aged 79.

Ongais took a roundabout way to get to open wheel racing, starting out on motorcycles in his native Hawaii. After a stint in the Army, he returned home and started drag racing, and not getting involved with open wheel racing until his late 20s. 

While many have memories of his horrible crash during the 1981 Indy 500, Ongais was a versatile driver who won five times in 1978, but sub-par finishes in the other events led him to finishing just eighth in points. 

Fast and aggressive, Ongais had just four Top 10 finishes in 11 Indy 500 starts, but his best drive may have come in his final race in 1996. After having not raced at the Brickyard in 10 years, Ongais was tapped to drive in the car qualified by Scott Brayton, who was killed just a few days after capturing his second straight pole position. At age 54 the oldest driver in the field, Ongais started last but worked his way through the field to finish the race in seventh. 

Ongais also drove sports cars and had a victory at the 1979 Rolex 24.