The prestigious Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach did not disappoint as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES race along the Rainbow Harbor saw jaw-dropping moments and three drivers duking it out to the final lap in Southern California.
The street course race returned to its rightful April date, which was a mainstay on the INDYCAR SERIES calendar until the event was canceled in 2020 and postponed to September in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, whether it was Colton Herta losing a potential race win by slamming the Turn 9 wall, Simon Pagenaud ramping up into the flowers along the fountain or Josef Newgarden finally crossing Long Beach off his win list, there was a lot to digest this past weekend.
Allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear and unpack the 85-lap race in Long Beach, California.
Sunday’s race offered an interesting shuffle to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship standings as four drivers moved at least three positions in one direction or another, most notably with Josef Newgarden leaping three spots into the points lead after winning in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.
Romain Grosjean jumped four spots to sixth in the standings after finishing second in the No. 28 DHL Honda, and Pato O’Ward also rose four spots to ninth with his fifth-place result in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Marcus Ericsson dropped three places to eighth when a late-race incident relegated him to 22nd in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Things are still tight at the top of the standings as Newgarden now leads Scott McLaughlin by just five points after McLaughlin led the points after the first two races.
Statistically speaking based on the last three seasons, the championship winner is allowed one bad race before June. Newgarden had his at St. Petersburg, where he finished 16th, and McLaughlin’s came at Long Beach, where he finished 14th after clipping the Turn 11 wall and going for a spin in the No. 3 Snap-on Team Penske Chevrolet.
However, keep your eyes on defending champion Alex Palou, who remains third in the standings after finishing third on Sunday in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. He cut his deficit to 15 points from 30 last weekend. Palou has yet to finish outside the top 10 in 2022, and that could be the kind of consistency that wins the Astor Challenge Cup.
Is Team Penske the Team To Beat?
Team Penske is back.
That seems odd to say given that the organization scored three wins last season and finished second in the championship with Josef Newgarden, but Penske has come out of the gate stronger than any other team so far in 2022.
Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin opened the season with a win in St. Petersburg, and Newgarden won races two and three at Texas Motor Speedway and Long Beach, respectively. Not to mention, Team Penske’s other driver, 2014 champion Will Power, is fourth in the standings and has finished third, fourth and fourth in three races so far.
It’s been 10 years since Team Penske opened a season this strong – in 2012, Helio Castroneves won the season opener, and Power won the next three races to start the season. While impressive, this isn’t a rare feat – Chip Ganassi Racing opened the 2020 season with the first four wins between Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist.
Still, considering it took Team Penske until the 10th race last season to score a win with Newgarden at Mid-Ohio, it’s an impressive turn of events. It created a sentiment that Team Penske was behind the 8-ball and had a lot to prove this season, which Newgarden said he found humorous.
Now, Newgarden believes Team Penske, and specifically his No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet team, have leveled up.
“When I look at the last two years and just falling short on the championships, we do just need to find another gear,” he said. “It's not like we've been in a bad place. We've been in the conversation every year and pretty much most races we're in the conversation, but we just didn't go to that next level.
“I don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but I feel really good about where it's going.”
O’Ward Finally Breaks Through for Top Five
After a challenging start to the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, a fifth-place finish in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach felt like a win for Pato O’Ward.
O’Ward, who finished third in the championship last year, scored finishes of 12th and 15th to open the season at St. Petersburg and Texas, respectively, though better finishes were likely if not for a foiled tire strategy at St. Petersburg and pit lane issues at Texas in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
When added to a dismal 27th-place finish to end 2021, three consecutive bad races created a sense things were getting worse for the Mexican driver. But O’Ward got his season going with his first top-five finish since placing fifth last September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“After the first two races of the season, I’ll take finishing fifth,” O’Ward said “It is a good, solid foundation to build on for the rest of the year. We can work from here. We learned some good things through warmup and the race that should help us when we come back and when we go to another street course.”
It was also an impressive rebound for the weekend. He started by landing 14th in Practice 1 on Friday and 21st in Practice 2 Saturday before qualifying 11th.
“I think this is a very solid start to our charge for a championship,” O’Ward said. “I know it’s the third race, but his is what we needed. Barber (Motorsports Park) is next, and I love that place.”
O’Ward opened the 2021 season at Barber last year with the NTT P1 Award for pole and a fourth-place finish.
Kirkwood Has Career-Best Day
Sure, it’s only his third career NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, but Kyle Kirkwood showed his massive potential Sunday by finishing 10th in the No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet to earn his best finish so far in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
More than anything, it was proof of Kirkwood following through on moments of potential this season while A.J. Foyt Enterprises looks to get back to its winning ways of the past.
Still, Kirkwood, who won all three championships on the Road to Indy, is a perfectionist. In his mind, there was still more left on the racetrack, which surely leaves a sense of optimism radiating through this team that hasn’t won an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race since Long Beach 2013.
“The race went exceptional for us at AJ Foyt Racing,” Kirkwood said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t make some passes happen, but we got into the top 10. We were absolutely solid on the red tires. I felt like we could make some passes, but everyone was a little too bunched up in the first stint to make that happen.”
In St. Petersburg, Kirkwood opened the season by qualifying 12th, but a three-stop pit strategy left him with an 18th-place finish. At Texas, he was rising through the field with daring passes until contact with Devlin DeFrancesco left him with a 25th-place result.
“It’s a sweet win for us, because we’ve had a couple of finishes we didn’t want with the pace we had,” he said. “Today, we had the pace, and we were able to show that.”
Let Grueling Stretch Begin
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is about to enter a grueling stretch of the season that could make or break 2022 for many competitors.
The next race is the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst Sunday, May 1 (1 p.m. ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network). That race kicks off a non-stop stretch of five races in seven weeks.
After Barber comes the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course May 14, then Indy 500 qualifying the following weekend and the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29.
Immediately after the Month of May, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on June 5 and the Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America June 12.
Be on the lookout for attrition to take center stage for the remainder of this spring for cars, teams, crews and even the drivers, some of whom will surely be worn down by the intense schedule.
Plus, this stretch could have huge championship implications. With 50 points awarded to race winners, and the Indianapolis 500 serving as a double points race, that makes 300 points available not including bonus points for the NTT P1 Award and laps led.