AUSTIN, TX – After a week off, the NTT IndyCar Series teams are back in action this weekend in Texas. The inaugural IndyCar Classic (1 p.m. ET/NBCSN/IndyCar Radio Network) will take place at the Circuit of The Americas on Sunday afternoon.
Here are five storylines to watch.
$100k Bonus On The Line
We may have 24 drivers in Sunday’s 60 Lap race, but for one driver, his incentive is a bit more than his 23 peers. Will Power won the pole for this weekend’s race and due to that, he will be up for a $100k bonus on Sunday.
COTA is offering $100k large for the pole winner to win the race itself on Sunday. That deal was announced on Thursday afternoon. So, if Power can win, he will be $100k richer too.
He’s won a race from the pole 16 times in his Indy Car career. Only Mario Andretti (24), AJ Foyt (23) and Sebastien Bourdais (18) have done it more.
With a new track, it’s hard to know what to expect with the racing. Well, after four test sessions back in February and three practice sessions this weekend, it’s clear that we’re about to be in for a treat on Sunday.
COTA is a fast race track with low grip levels and high tire degradation. That will promote a ton of passing throughout the 60 Laps of action. We’ve seen it first hand this weekend alone, the drivers are really having to drive their cars around this track.
They’re very much on edge and working the steering wheel, which means they have to manage not only that, but tire fall off.
Combine that with 20 turns and 3.427-miles to try to get a setup right on, and you get what should be a crazy race.
Newgarden Back-To-Back Wins?
Just four times since 1980 has a driver won back-to-back races to start an Indy Car season off with. The last was Will Power in 2010. Josef Newgarden will try to become just the fifth driver over the last 39 years to do so on Sunday in his No. 2 Chevrolet. Newgarden, won the season opener on the streets of St. Pete two weeks ago and has been superb so far this weekend in COTA.
He will start seventh on Sunday and was first, ninth and fifth respectively in practice.
Penske/Ganassi/Andretti The Favorites?
Between them are 31 NTT IndyCar Series championships. In fact, out of those 31 titles, 16 of them have come consecutively. That’s why it wasn’t shocking to see Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport sweep the entire top five of the finishing order in the season opener on the streets of St. Pete two weeks ago.
That’s also why it’s not shocking to see them all dominate all the preliminary action so far this weekend in COTA either.
In practice session No. 1, seven of the top nine speeds belonged to drivers on these three teams. In session No. 2, six of the top seven were from them. In final practice on Saturday morning, it was more of the same with six of the top seven laps around the 3.427-mile Texas road course.
What about the starting lineup?
They earned six of the top seven starting spots to go along with seven of the fastest nine.
So, why would we pick anyone to beat them?
So, among these three organizations with nine combined drivers, who’s standing out?
Felix Rosenqvist is the top one in my mind. He’s +1600 and had a shot to win in St. Pete despite being a rookie driver. He finished fourth instead. He’s been really fast so far this weekend in being sixth, second and second respectively in the three practice sessions in his No. 10 Honda. He starts fifth.
His teammate Scott Dixon may not have been found near the top of the speed charts on Friday but that’s because he only had one hot lap in the first session but saw that lap impeded by traffic. The second session, they worked on different setups. It paid off. He was P6 in final practice on Saturday and is coming off of a runner-up result in St. Pete. He also starts sixth on Sunday.
Chip Ganassi Racing are ones to watch.
So is Team Penske. They led the way in both sessions on Friday with Josef Newgarden topping the speed charts in the opening session and Will Power being tops overall in the second one.
Newgarden, was first, ninth and fifth respectively this weekend with Power eighth, first and seventh himself. Their teammate Simon Pagenaud has been in the top 10 in all three sessions too with chiming in seventh in both practices on Friday and ninth on Saturday.
Want to pick against those three?
Power, earned the pole while Newgarden rolls off seventh himself.
Andretti Autosport has been strong too. Alexander Rossi is their top pick with being third in both sessions on Friday and quickest on Saturday morning. He qualified on the front row in second. Ryan Hunter-Reay is right there too though with being fourth in all three sessions and qualifying third.
Zach Veach is a sleeper with him being sixth overall in the second session on Friday and 11th in final practice. He’ll start ninth.
As it seems, this is their race to lose.
Will Honda Engines Hold Up?
There’s no doubt about it, the Honda engines are quick. In the season opening race weekend for the NTT IndyCar Series in St. Pete, Honda dominated the speed charts.
In the first practice session of the year, Honda’s had the top six speeds and eight of the top nine. In the second session, they had three of the top four laps and five of the top seven. In final practice on Saturday morning, Honda put two cars in the top three once again. For qualifying four cars made the Fast Six and had eight of the top 12.
The problem is, they had reliability problems in the race. Out of the six cars that failed to finish, four of them had mechanical issues. Two of those, were blown engines. The drivers that had them blow were quick ones – Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Bourdais, was the two-time defending race winner and Hunter-Reay was in the top two in all three practice sessions.
On Friday at the Circuit of the Americas, another Honda engine blew. This one, was another fast car too in Colton Herta. His Harding Steinbrenner Racing engine went up in smoke after he set the second quickest lap of the session. He was in the top two in all four test sessions on the Texas road course last month.
This was another catastrophic failure as his car ended up with flames on it. The American would sit out the second session of the day due to the fire damaging his car.
That now raises concern in the Honda camp. That’s three engines to blow in two race weekends. It’s one thing to be fast, it’s another to be reliable.
It’s rare to see engines have any sort of issues in Indy Car these days anyways. It’s not too often that this occurs. Honda had a problem a few years ago and had to dial it back on race days. Are they nearing a similar fate?
The teams hope not, but Herta’s engine certainly drew attention in the paddock
Penske The Favorites?
All weekend in St. Pete, the Penske drivers kept talking about how much importance that they put on the street course program in the offseason. See, prior to St. Pete, they were 1-for-10 in their last 10 street course starts. They only swept the front row in the season opener and took two of the three podium spots including a win. All three drivers finished in the top seven.
Now, can they back that up with a strong performance at COTA?
They were just ho-hum in the test in February, but that doesn’t mean anything. They may have been sandbagging a bit and could have decided to keep some cards in their pockets.
Will Penske go back-to-back to start the 2019 season?
They’ve been strong on natural road courses over the years and look to be back on their game again in 2019.