News from INDYCAR: Race Preview: Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix

Preview: Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix
Chris Owens – IMS PHOTO,2021
INDIANAPOLIS (Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021) – The largest NTT INDYCAR SERIES field in a decade – for a race other than the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge – will assemble this weekend, appropriately at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix, the 12th race of the INDYCAR season and the first paired with NASCAR’s top two divisions exclusively on the Speedway’s road course, will feature 28 car-and-driver combinations, the most outside of the Indy 500 since 2011. Heading the list of competitors is Helio Castroneves, who became the fourth driver in history to win the “500” for a fourth time during the most recent race at IMS.

The large field reflects the growing interest in the series, which last week staged its inaugural race on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee. NBCSN had the largest television audience for an INDYCAR race on cable in 23 years, with more than 1.2 M viewers.

The race here on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit features six former INDYCAR champions, seven Indianapolis 500 winners, 17 drivers who have won INDYCAR races, and a season-high six rookie drivers.One of those rookies is RC Enerson, who will hope to give Top Gun Racing its first series start with the No. 75 Chevrolet. Formula 2 race winner Christian Lundgaard will make his series debut in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Cody Ware is back for his third INDYCAR race in the No. 52 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.

And, of course, there’s Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing. With stock car racing in town for the IMS tripleheader, more eyes than ever will be fixed on the No. 48 Carvana Honda.Unlike the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, won by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson, most of the INDYCAR drivers are familiar with this circuit as it will be the 11th race held on it since 2014. Saturday’s 85-lap race will be the fifth held on the IMS road course in the past 14 months.

Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing earned his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory in the most recent race, the GMR Grand Prix on May 15.INDYCAR practice begins at 3 p.m. (ET) Friday, with live coverage of the hour-long session on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service. Qualifying is set for 7 p.m. Friday, live on NBCSN.
The Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix will air on NBCSN at 12:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday.

Here is a look at things to come this weekend:

A Circuit of Champions

Nine of the previous 10 races held on this circuit have been won by drivers who had either won an INDYCAR championship or soon would. Those include four wins by Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet), three by Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) and one each by Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet).

VeeKay, who will drive the No. 21 Sonax/Autogeek Chevrolet, is the lone non-champion to have won one of the non-oval events.Power has easily been the circuit’s most dominant driver, capturing five poles and leading 285 laps.
In all, 28 drivers have led laps in these INDYCAR races, with Pagenaud and Dixon tied for the second-most laps led with 68 each.

Newgarden has led 59 laps, VeeKay 48, Castroneves 46, rookie Romain Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) 44 and Graham Rahal (No. 15 One Cure Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) 41.

The Most Recent Race

To preview a sporting event, it’s helpful to review the most recent outing at the same venue, which leads to examining the GMR Grand Prix in May.

Grosjean won the NTT P1 Award and led the first 24 laps. The INDYCAR rookie might have won for the first time in the series – he led a race-high 44 laps – if not for the second-half surge of VeeKay.VeeKay grabbed his first lead on Lap 48 and led 33 of the final 38 laps to score a 4.951-second victory. Grosjean was second, followed by Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing).

Newgarden finished fourth, with Rahal fifth. Like the Team Penske drivers and Dixon, Rahal has been historically good on this road course, posting top-10 finishes in each of the past nine races, with a pair of second-place finishes and six races led.

His average finish is 7.2, and that includes an incident in the 2014 race that forced him to finish 21st.

The Championship Pursuit

The 1-2 finish in Nashville by teammates Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) and Dixon increased the chances of one of Chip Ganassi’s drivers securing the organization’s 14th INDYCAR championship. With five races to go, Palou leads the standings with Dixon second and Ericsson fifth.

Palou finished seventh last weekend, but he only lost ground to his teammates. Palou still has the equivalent of nearly a full-race lead on Dixon – the advantage is 42 points – with Pato O’Ward’s 13th-place finish dropping him to third, 48 points out of the lead. Newgarden is fourth, but his 10th-place finish pushed him to 75 points in arrears of Palou. Ericsson is likely the only other driver who can overtake Palou; their separation is 79 points.

Dixon is the only driver among the top three to have won at any of the remaining five venues. In addition to the IMS road course, six-time series champion Dixon won last year at World Wide Technology Raceway, and he won the 2015 street race in Long Beach, California. Newgarden has won twice at Gateway (2017, 2020) and once on the IMS road course (2020).

None of the leading title contenders has won at Portland International Raceway or WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Palou hasn’t even raced at any of the final three venues (Portland, Laguna Seca or Long Beach).