Well, it’s finally, assuredly the Month of May now for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
The two oval races at Texas Motor Speedway – last Saturday’s Genesys 300 and last Sunday’s XPEL 375 – helped set the stage for what should be a dramatic few weeks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the GMR Grand Prix road race is set for Saturday, May 15 followed by the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 30. In between those races will be qualifying for the “500,” the most important NTT P1 Award session of the season.
As a refresher, Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing won last year’s GMR Grand Prix, Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport captured the “500” pole, and Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for the second time in four years.
INDYCAR rolls into Indy with significant momentum and storylines aplenty, the latter including four different winners in the season’s first four races. Dixon is the points leader in pursuit of his record-tying seventh season championship, and there will be nine former “500” winners – the most since 1992 – competing for another place on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Take a deep breath because things are about to get even more intense.
The following is a recap of where we stand as the season reaches its first quarter pole.
Youngsters Here to Stay
Three of the four race winners so far this season – Alex Palou, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward – are 24 years old or younger.
Palou won his first INDYCAR race – the season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park -- just 17 days following his 24th birthday. O’Ward’s maiden series victory Sunday in the XPEL 375 at Texas came four days ahead of his 22nd birthday. Herta scored his third career win – in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- 26 days after celebrating his 21st birthday.
Those three wins weren’t flukes, either, as their drives in the first oval events of the season proved. O’Ward finished third and first in the two races, Palou finished fourth and seventh, and Herta was positioned to score a pair of top-five finishes until his right rear wheel bearing caught fire in the first race. He finished fifth in the second race.
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, who finished ninth Sunday, still has four months until his 21st birthday to win his first series race, and he was the only Chevrolet driver to qualify in the Fast Nine Shootout for last year’s “500.”
The under-25 crowd in the “500” also will include Pietro Fittipaldi, 24, in the Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda.
Old Guys Can Still Rule
Dixon, who finished first and fourth in the Texas races, continues to show that 40-somethings can still play a leading role in this series.
Over the past year, Dixon, Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay have all turned 40 years old, and they have combined to win 72 races and seven championships. At Indy, Dixon and Hunter-Reay have each won the “500,” and Carpenter is a rare three-time NTT P1 Award winner at Indy.
Dixon’s win Saturday night was the 51st of his career, bringing him within one race win of Mario Andretti for second place on the sport’s all-time list. Only A.J. Foyt has more with 67. But Dixon took sole possession of a record previously shared with Foyt – most seasons with at least one race victory (19), and Dixon extended his all-time mark of consecutive seasons with a win (17).
In last year’s “500,” Sato and Dixon became the fourth pair of drivers over 40 to finish first and second. Sato is one of four drivers to win the iconic race twice over the age of 40 – the others were Mauri Rose, Bobby Unser and Emerson Fittipaldi.
The nine former “500” winners scheduled to compete in this year’s race are: Juan Pablo Montoya (2000, 2015), Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009), Dixon (2008), Tony Kanaan (2013), Hunter-Reay (2014), Alexander Rossi (2016), Sato (2017, 2020), Will Power (2018) and Simon Pagenaud (2019).
Those Who Excelled at Texas
Start with O’Ward, who scored his first INDYCAR victory, and McLaren, which won in INDYCAR for the first time since Johnny Rutherford swept a doubleheader in April 1979 at Atlanta. Now Zak Brown, McLaren’s team principal, must make good on a promise to give O’Ward a test in a Formula One car at Abu Dhabi at season’s end. Dixon obviously benefited from the Texas two-step, as well, jumping from third to first in the standings.
Among the non-winning drivers, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, a two-time series champion, climbed back into title contention by finishing sixth and second to gain six positions in the standings. Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey also made a bold statement by finishing seventh in the first race, and he was third in the second race when his right-rear wheel bearing failed.
Rookie Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske gave a surprisingly good account of himself in his first oval starts, finishing second and eighth. He was overjoyed by finishing two-tenths of a second behind fellow Kiwi Dixon in the Saturday night race.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal (fifth and third) and Palou (fourth and seventh) also shined in the Lone Star State.
Those Who Lost Ground at Texas
Start with Sebastien Bourdais, who saw his No. 14 ROKiT AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet knocked into the Turn 2 wall by Newgarden in the first race and was again hit from behind – this time by Fittipaldi – to ignite the seven-car pileup coming to the green flag in the second race. Bourdais entered the weekend seventh in the standings – the highest two-race start for the team in more than a decade – and exited 14th with an expensive repair bill coming for the team.
Kanaan knows he only has four chances this year to compete in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 48 American Legion Honda he is sharing with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, and two of them didn’t go as planned at Texas. Kanaan had the fastest car in Saturday’s practice, but he started 23rd and 20th in the two races due to the grid arranged by entrant points after qualifying was rained out. In the first race, Kanaan’s car didn’t have the gearing ideal, which limited his ability to pass cars at the end of the straightaways, and his car took damage in the big crash to start the second race.
Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport still can’t catch a break. He finished eighth in Saturday’s race but was collected in Sunday’s seven-car incident. Teammate James Hinchcliffe had a pair of tough finishes on this trip, finishing 23rd and 18th with a crash in the first race.
The GMR Grand Prix is the next race on the calendar, but there have been two INDYCAR races on the IMS road course since last year’s July 4 event – the INDYCAR Harvest GP doubleheader last October. So, let’s consider who ran well in those races.
Drivers now with Team Penske have won eight of the nine races, with Power leading the way with four wins. Simon Pagenaud has won three times, the first with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and the second two with Roger Penske’s organization.
Newgarden won the Oct. 2 race; Power won the next day from the pole. Both drivers started on the front row, continuing a trend. Five of the nine IMS road races have been won by pole sitters, six from the front row.
Buckle up. Indy, here we come.