By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Alas, the final NTT IndyCar Series doubleheader has finally arrived to kick off the final month of what can be best described as a glass case of emotions. Already we’ve seen those emotions kick into high gear with silly season madness before the Harvest Grand Prix can even get going.
After a real underwhelming campaign by Zach Veach, Andretti Autosport have pulled the plug on keeping the 25-year-old, who hasn’t finished in the top-10 since the season opener at Texas where he finished fourth. The decision led to James Hinchcliffe taking over the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda for the final three races, beginning with the series’ third trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Another driver won’t be competing at Indy will be last year’s Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew, who wasn’t medically cleared due to concussion-like symptoms he’s been carrying since his violent shunt towards the inside wall in last month’s Indianapolis 500.
Arrow McLaren SP went with three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves to pilot the No. 7 Chevrolet, marking the first time since 1999 the Brazilian will run an Indy car sanctioned race that wasn’t owned by Roger Penske.
Both drivers are determined to deliver solid results that could seal their fates as far as being back on the IndyCar grid on a regular basis again with Hinchcliffe only running a limited schedule this season and Castronves being an Indy specialist since 2018.
Lost in all of this, but ever so important is the battle for the Astor Cup which has all but boiled down to the last two champions – Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden.
The five-time champ has a 72-point lead after two rough outings at Mid-Ohio. Pending on circumstances, there’s a fair chance Dixon can leave Indy with a sixth title but it’s the least on his mind because anything can happen in the doubleheader.
“The obvious goal is to go out there and try to win, but unfortunately there’s 23, 24 others that have the same goal,” said Dixon. “Try to do better than we did at the last doubleheader at Mid-Ohio where I definitely made a very large mistake, that gave away some pretty easy points there. For us personally, hope we have a smooth weekend, one we can fight for a win.”
Newgarden may have had a not so ideal seventh in the GMR Grand Prix nearly three months ago, but aside from that very race won by Dixon, Team Penske have been the class of the field as they won the other races held at the 2.439-mile road course. For him to retain the No. 1 plate on his Chevrolet in 2021, things need to go his way this weekend to send the title fight all the way to St. Petersburg later this month.
“Honestly every year before it starts back up again, I always wonder if we’re going to have kind of the grit and performance that’s needed to run for a championship. It’s so difficult to be in the fight nowadays in INDYCAR,” said Newgarden. “I mean, you have to be on it every weekend. The team has to be perfect. You have to do a great job as the driver. Everybody has to do a great job every single weekend. You have to have good consistency, you have to have performance at the right points.”
A lot is on the line for both races at Indianapolis and fortunately, fans will be able to witness the madness unfold. While those races are held in a rather unorthodox with the doubleheader races being on Friday and Saturday, the crowd won’t mind as they’ve been craving for action in their backyard all season.
Time will tell how both races will pan out as 25 cars strong will take the green flag and as soon as Friday, the championship trail could be decided.
By the Numbers
What: Harvest Grand Prix, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 12 & 13 of 14
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course – Speedway, Indiana (Opened: 2000, first INDYCAR event was 2014)
When: Friday, October 2 & Saturday, October 3
TV/Radio: USA Network (Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET) & NBC (Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET) / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 205)
Track Size: 2.439-mile road course
Race Length: 85 laps (Friday) & 75 laps (Saturday)
2020 GMR Grand Prix Winner: Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Starting seventh, 26 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (67.7044 seconds, 129.687 mph – May 12, 2017)
From the Driver’s Seat
Josef Newgarden – No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet
“What I’m hoping is that these last three races we just have the good end of the luck to finish the season. But we’re going to focus on probably racing the same we raced back in July. We’ll try for a fast strategy. You have to have a really good qualifying lap. Pretty critical around this track. If strategy doesn’t come into play, qualifying up front is really, really important. Putting a good lap together, racing a similar race like we did in July, hoping there’s not odd cautions in there, I think we should be all right.”
Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
“I don’t think you can really rely on past races, even if it’s at the same track. I think obvious situation there is that the track conditions are going to be a lot different. I think 90 degrees to maybe in the 50s somebody said to me yesterday. We’ll see.
“I think it’s going to be similar to when we typically race in April. Obviously this year’s schedule has been a little bit crazy. Yeah, I think things will change. Race distances have changed. We have two different race distances. Fuel mileage will favor one group slightly more than the other. I think our team is confident in the cooler conditions, we seem to fare a little bit better, especially for qualifying speeds. Hopefully that plays true.
“Again, you just can’t rely on any of that stuff. It’s a new weekend, one we’re going to have to approach flat out and make sure we get the best out of it.”
Last Time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
Back in July, Scott Dixon ended the Simon Pagenaud and Will Power stranglehold at Indy by scoring a convincing victory, beating Graham Rahal by a whopping 19.947 seconds.
How Dixon got to the top spot boiled down to the only full course caution period caused by Oliver Askew in the final corner of the circuit. This led several pit strategies to unfold with the five-time series champion reigning supreme.
“I think we got a little lucky but it also played into the aggressive strategy we had with electing to take the primary Firestone tires at the start with everyone else on reds,” said Dixon. “The yellow came out right in our window and it hung out the leaders but we definitely had the pace. We made some simple changes to keep up with a cooling track but after that, the PNC Bank car was on rails and we just took off.”
Askew’s accident had a tremendous affect on Rahal’s strategy which he felt his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda had a car strong enough to compete for the fun, but had to settle for his best result this season.
“I thought the strategy was honestly working perfectly,” said Rahal. “Honestly, with the two-stop coming out of the pits after the first stop and still being right with (Will) Power and (Jack) Harvey and all the good guys, the guys I was racing at that time, all I kept thinking was when the pits cycled through for the last time.
“We’d have about a 25- or 30-second lead, but obviously the yellow came out and kind of nullified our strategy because then everybody just got to pit under yellow and then there was just one more to go. But obviously, Dixie had tremendous pace during the late part of the race. I was on black tires struggling a little bit.”
Pagenaud rounded out the podium after clawing his way from the 20th starting position. Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay rounded out the top-five while Power had a disappointing 20th place finish.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Thursday, October 1
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice (2:25 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
- NTT IndyCar Series Harvest Grand Prix Race No. 1 Qualifying (6:20 p.m. to 6:50 p.m. – NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold)
Friday, October 2
- NTT IndyCar Series Harvest Grand Prix Race No. 1 (4:00 p.m. – 85 laps, 207.315 miles – USA Network)
Saturday, October 3
- NTT IndyCar Series Harvest Grand Prix Race No. 2 Qualifying (10:20 a.m. to 10:50 a.m. – NBC Sports Gold)
- NTT IndyCar Series Harvest Grand Prix Race No. 2 (2:30 p.m. – 75 laps, 182.925 miles – NBC)