By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The NTT IndyCar Series will run its first of five oval races of the season this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Unlike last year, it’ll be a single race at the 1.5-mile oval as part of a two-day show.
There’s a lot of anticipation for Sunday’s XPEL 375 with the sport being three weeks removed from Scott McLaughlin scoring his maiden series win at St. Petersburg. The new Penske INDYCAR winner will look to have another strong oval outing where it all began in Texas last May.
However, there’s other headlines further down the grid. Among those being several rookies making their oval debuts, but also series sophomore Jimmie Johnson.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s oval debut so happens to be at the site at one of his strongest tracks in his stock car career. From 2002-2020, Johnson won in “The Lone Star State” seven times, the most among any racer in TMS history.
Johnson’s teammate Scott Dixon also had memorable moments in Texas as well. It was the site of his first INDYCAR title in 2003 and visited victory lane five times, including last May. So happens to be the last time he’s reached the top step of the podium with his winless streak now at 14 races.
One man could equal Dixon’s Texas wins and that’s Helio Castroneves, who’ll be racing at TMS for the first time since 2017. The four-time Indy 500 champion hasn’t finished on the podium since Indy, but a result could bring positive vibes for Meyer Shank Racing going forward.
Further more, two drivers will make their first start of 2022, both of them being oval specialists.
Ed Carpenter will run a third Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet but unlike recent years, he’ll not be in the familiar No. 20 machine. Instead, he’ll bear the No. 33 for all five oval races.
The other specialist being JR Hildebrand, who’ll drive Tatiana Calderon’s No. 11 Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing. It’ll be the Californian’s first year competing in more than the Indianapolis 500 since 2017 where he scored two podiums at Phoenix and Iowa.
With 27 drivers accepting the challenge, Sunday’s race has some unknowns. Strategy will be key, but also how the racing product will unfold. There’s plenty of biggest question marks regarding the latter because of the top groove which hasn’t been a preferred line in recent memory.
This was a direct result of NASCAR using PJ1 over the years which has drawn ire to INDYCAR competitors and fans alike. It’s resulted in single file racing on the bottom, making track position vital. Time will tell if the race will see multi-groove madness or more of the same, but the race will certainly have its headlines that’ll carry over to Long Beach April 10.
By the Numbers
What: XPEL 375, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 2 of 17
Where: Texas Motor Speedway – Fort Worth, Texas (Opened: 1996, first INDYCAR event was 1997)
When: Sunday March 20, 2022
TV/Radio: NBC, 12:30 pm ET/ INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 160), 12:30 pm ET
Track Size: 1.5 mile oval
Race Length: 248 laps, 372 miles
2021 Race Winners: Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Started third, 206 laps led) (Race No. 1) & Pato O’Ward – No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet (Started fourth, 24 laps led) (Race No. 2)
Track Qualifying Record: Kenny Brack – No. 8 Team Rahal Ford (22.854 seconds, 233.447 mph – April 28, 2001)
From the Driver’s Seat
JR Hildebrand – No. 11 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet
“We’re treating Texas like a race that we’re there to go compete at. But it does function a little bit like that in a way that you get used to how each other talks over the radio.
You get used to that communication with the strategist and the engineering group, and I think in some ways having to do that in a little bit more of a quick-fire sort of environment where at Texas you don’t really have a lot of time.
“You’ve got to figure a lot of things out while you’re sitting on the pit lane in one-hour practice sessions, that does accelerate that process a little bit before you show up at Indy.”
Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
“I really believe all tracks have their own rhythm to them. Ovals are a little easier to find in some respects, maybe come quicker just because the lap is shorter. It’s easier to pick up the rhythm of a track with four corners versus one with 17 or something like that.
“There is a rhythm to Texas. It is much different than what I have felt in the Cup car. But where it is similar is just how aggressive you can be in turns three and four, then really how cautious you need to be turn one, kind of getting the car pointed and heading off the back straightaway for turn two.
“It’s a lap where you start tiptoeing, making sure you really hit your marks, to then really moving down the back straightaway and throwing all the aggression you can at turns three and four.”
Last Time at Texas
A year ago, Texas was the site of the only doubleheader weekend where a legend and a rising star reigned supreme.
Saturday’s race was dominated by Scott Dixon, who led 206 of 212 laps. Despite the dominance, it wasn’t a total runaway as fellow Kiwi Scott McLaughlin ended up 0.265 seconds shy of scoring his maiden win in his oval debut.
For Dixon, it was his second straight Texas win dating back to 2020. However, the victory turned out to be his lone visit in 2021.
“It was really cool to look at that monitor on my steering wheel and see that it was the 3 car (McLaughlin). I haven’t even got to see Scott yet, but definitely a congratulations to him. That was a tremendous run,” said Dixon.
“Definitely very fast. There wasn’t much deg at the end of the race there, especially with the cooler conditions. Exit of two just became a very long straight until you got back to turn one. Definitely didn’t want him to get too close to get that big run through three and four, as I think you could definitely pull the pass off as we’d seen earlier in the race.
“Huge result for a race for a couple of Kiwis, which is great to see. Commenting pre-season, people are like, How do you feel about having another Kiwi on the grid? I’ve been waiting 20 years for it. It’s great to see him over here. He’s a massive talent. He’s going to have a lot of victories, man. I have to try to hold him off while I can.”
As for Sunday, it was a complete 180 due to a multi-car crash as the field took the green flag. The incident was notable for Conor Daly’s Carlin landing upside down and eliminated 1/4 of the field.
From there, it became a game of strategy and making the right move for P1 supremacy. Dixon had the race in control, but Graham Rahal, Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward made it difficult for him to sweep the weekend.
Ultimately, the battle for the win came down to Newgarden and O’Ward with the latter’s daring move on the backstretch giving him the lead. It’s all he need as he went on to win for the first time, becoming the first Mexican racer to win an Indy car race since Adrian Fernandez in 2004.
“I feel like we truly earned our win,” said O’Ward after the race. “I knew we had a very, very quick car. It’s just very, very tough to pass. Everybody kind of got boxing in the same strategy. Everything had to be done out on track. I knew I had to keep the tires under me, attack whenever I had the fuel to do it.
“But the Chevy mileage was great. I really have to thank the whole Arrow McLaren SP No. 5 Chevy crew. They gave me a very strong car, something that I could truly attack whenever I had to. It was some great fun. I’m very proud of what we all accomplished as a group.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Saturday, March 19
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice (11:00 am to 12:00 pm – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (2:00 pm to 3:00 pm – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Final Practice (5:00 pm to 6:00 pm – Peacock)
Sunday, March 20
- NTT IndyCar Series Pre-Race (Noon – NBC/SiriusXM)
- NTT IndyCar Series XPEL 375 (12:30 pm – 248 laps, 372 miles – NBC/SiriusXM)
- NTT IndyCar Series Post-Race Show (Approx. 3:00 pm – Peacock)