By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The future of Texas Motor Speedway has become the focal point of the INDYCAR paddock, press and fans alike over the past few years. With the second round of the championship trail drawing near, there’s still such an unknown about the once revered 1.5-mile oval’s future.
However, there’s some buzz going into this weekend’s PPG 375.
Among the positives is a promising crowd showing up to support Pato O’Ward, who captured his maiden INDYCAR win in Texas two years ago. In fact, O’Ward bought an entire section of seats in order to promote the race.
Some may say last year’s eccentric battle between Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin also played a role in TMS staying on the 17-round calendar.
Regardless of what’s happened, the task always remain the same. What type of race product will the 28-car field produce on Sunday?
Like last year, INDYCAR will have an extra practice session after qualifying in order to get the upper lane some vital tire grip. It’s a direct response of the ongoing concern of the PJ1 compound, along with the track reconfiguration since 2017, compromising the action INDYCAR once provided.
Five-time winner Scott Dixon explained the unknowns as they’re sharing the track with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Something INDYCAR didn’t have to worry about last year.
With the largest INDYCAR field in Fort Worth since 2011, Dixon sees this as a positive in terms of putting up Firestone rubber on the 1.5-mile oval.
“I’d say the only positive for that is that we do have a lot of cars here this weekend, right, with 28 cars. I think that process should change a little bit quicker,” said Dixon.
“We’ll see where that takes us. It depends on the weekend and how it rolls ’cause some of those sessions, you’re right, the traction compound will probably be the biggest defining point I think that you deal with.
“Just last year when you got yourself out of trouble, you got onto that stuff, it was difficult to keep it all in one spot, keep it off the fence. Hopefully they haven’t had any of that recently laid down, and that may make it a much easier situation for ourselves going into the weekend, especially for the race.”
Two drivers will make their season debuts as oval racing provides specialists such as Ed Carpenter, the only part-time entry, and Takuma Sato, driving Marcus Armstrong’s No. 11 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Each hoping to highlight why they’re still among the sport’s best on ovals.
If a certain spark is there on the track surface, Texas Motor Speedway could see yet a positive chapter added with their history in the NTT IndyCar Series. Perhaps building additional layers of what’s yet to come on the ovals in 2023.
By the Numbers
What: PPG 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, April 2
TV/Radio: NBC 12:00 p.m. EST / INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channels 85 & 160)
Track Size: 1.5-mile oval
Race Length: 250 laps, 375 miles
2022 Race Winner: Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started seventh, three laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Kenny Brack – No. 8 Team Rahal Ford (22.854 seconds, 233.447 mph – April 28, 2001)
From the Driver’s Seat
Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
“I think our team has been very good there throughout the years. I remember even the early year of ’03 for me, I guess I did kind of run the practice, almost qualifying maybe in the CART era where it was super fast.
“(Tomas) Scheckter was a big guy around that place, super fast. Dan Wheldon later on, learned a lot off of those guys.
“That combo and even Dario (Franchitti) was super fast around that place, which when he came back through that period after 2009 and onwards.
“Yeah, I think always great teamwork, but we’ve had cars and configurations that have always been exceptionally good at Texas. I think the last few years we’ve had that as well.
“Last year I think as a team we kind of missed on the go time, turning into a bit of a fuel race, then there was a bit of a shift late in the race. I think we kind of got caught not keeping up at that point.
“It’s been a great track, as you pointed out. It’s a place I love to race at.”
Last Time at Texas
A thriller race that saw crashes, late-race duels and one man’s breakthrough in the sport.
Midway in the race, Devlin DeFrancesco certainly didn’t made many friends after drivers held the rookie accountable for a multi-car crash in the third turn. Such madness took place on the restart after cleaning up the front stretch following Kyle Kirkwood’s exit when he had a potential top-10 result in the making.
DeFrancesco’s error eliminated the likes of series winners Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves, the latter mentioning that it was up to DeFrancesco is he wanted to learn from his mistakes.
Following those crashes, the race battles fans were eyeing on were a pair of teammates from two organizations. The battle between Penske’s Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden, and Ganassi’s Scott Dixon and Jimmie Johnson.
No stranger to success at Texas, Johnson held his own and proved he hasn’t lost a step on the ovals. Both Ganassi racers fought hard for fifth in the closing laps with Dixon winning that exchange over Johnson. In the end, folks were impressed of Johnson scoring his first career INDYCAR top-10 finish, including Newgarden.
“Not to take away from Jimmie, but it has been a steep learning curve. He’s had to unlearn an entire career of operating procedures. The INDYCAR is so removed from what a stockcar is,” said Newgarden. “For him to be able to get on top of that so quickly, it makes sense it’s going better here at Texas, it’s closer to what he’s used to procedurally. I don’t want to act too surprised because he is a seven-time champ, incredible worker and teammate.
“Man, that’s really good, though. First INDYCAR oval race, sixth at Texas. These cars are hard to drive. The way that we draft, the way the groove works for us, you can’t go up a lane or two like in a stockcar. They’re scrubbing the car before he gets there. I need to watch this race back, see how he got there. I’m sure he’ll be a huge threat at Indy then. Great news.”
Johnson explained low fuel played a pivotal role on losing out on a top-five, which he would later achieve at Iowa Speedway months later.
“What a two-day adventure this has been. To be able to get enough laps in the race, to feel the tires from start to finish, green flag stops, being in dirty air, just how uncomfortable and treacherous that is. All of those little mistakes and little moments gave me a sense of the car and helped me feel really how to drive this car, how to create speed,” said Johnson.
“Second half of the race I started working my way forward in that final stint, had a very competitive car. Wished that I had maybe started the race a little further forward. I think I could have finished a little further forward.”
What may have saved Indy car racing in Fort Worth was the final few laps as Newgarden caught McLaughlin for the lead. Entering turn 3, Newgarden utilized the high line, an area most racers have avoided, to snatch the win from McLaughlin. Kicking off his million-dollar bid on winning the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge which he accomplished at Road America three months later.
“I was like Scott is going to be hard to beat with traffic. He’s been strong this whole time. He was strong last year, strong at the test. I thought if we just had clear running, we would have a great fight. We probably would have been dicing back and forth the entire time,” said Newgarden.
“It gets so difficult when you have cars that are about to go a lap down, fighting each other. Scott is trying to manage that. Hurts me to be able to close up on end.
“At the end I literally conceded with two laps to go. It’s just not going to happen. I literally almost lost it off four pushing hard to go ahead close. He did a good job. He was in position. He’s in position, he’s going to win this rails, bring it home.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Saturday, April 1
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice (9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series High Line Session & Final Practice (11:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. – Peacock)
Sunday, April 2
- NTT IndyCar Series PPG 375 (12:00 p.m. – 250 laps, 375 miles – NBC/INDYCAR Radio Network)
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