MADISON, Ill – All the preliminary action is over – it’s time to race the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (8 p.m. ET/NBCSN/INDYCAR Radio Network) on Saturday night. As usual, the expected crowd of 30-35k at the World Wide Technology Raceway will be charged with energy. This race on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule has become one of the most energetic crowds that the drivers will race in front of all season.
In turn, the drivers get hyped up too. Factor in this being a primetime race and you see why the drivers have to temper their emotions before taking the green flag at an estimated time of 7:45 p.m. locally (8:45 p.m. ET) on Saturday evening.
But, can they do so enough?
Colton Herta leads Zach Veach on track Friday night in Gateway
See, since the series started coming back to Gateway in 2017, we’ve had a first lap crash in both races. That always is going to garner attention. But, when you throw in the frightening first lap incident during last Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at the Pocono Raceway, you get an even bigger storyline.
Will the drivers play nicely on Saturday? Depends on who you ask.
“It’s a very important race for me and I need to have a good one,” said Conor Daly who qualified 18th but was fastest in final practice on Friday night. “So, I’m going to go really, really hard and really, really aggressive because I need to. Go big or go home.”
Daly’s reasons to go hard and different than some others. He’s in a part time role and needing to show that he belongs here on a full time basis next season. This race, as of now, will be his final time in the seat for Carlin. He needs to leave a good impression.
The reason he’s aggressive though is the same as everyone else’s – track position.
See, Gateway isn’t an easy track to pass on and after what we saw in two practice sessions on Friday, I don’t think Saturday’s race will be any easier. Yes, we have a new left side tire that has more tire fall off than last year’s but it’s a big unknown on what kind of impact this will have on the race., But, the good cars are the good cars for a reason. Give them clean air up front and they set sail.
So, when the cars are bunched up on the start, that’s the absolute best time to make up ground. If you don’t make a bulk amount of passes on the drop of the green flag, you may not get a chance to after.
“It’s more of a track position race than I think of a lot of other places we go,” said James Hinchcliffe. “Qualifying is very important here. Pit sequence is going to be key here. We didn’t see a whole lot of tire degradation here last year. We have a tire compound on the left sides here which might be more of an issue.”
When I asked him about tomorrow night’s start being as aggressive as its been in the past, he didn’t balk.
“Honestly yeah,” Hinchcliffe continued. “I think you have to with the level of competition that you see in IndyCar right now. With everybody knowing this is kind of a track position race than some of the others I think there’s going to be more of a focus on making sure your starts and restart are very good. Aggression levels are going to be high but we just have to make sure we make it to the end.”
Most of the other drivers agreed. The start is going to be intense and will likely spark another crash.
“It always is you know,” said Graham Rahal. “It’s always slippery and that good stuff.”
Rahal did note that you can’t be overly aggressive though because there’s not much real estate on the 1.25-mile track to pass on. He blames that on his fellow drivers though as he says if they’d all work together and practice on the second groove in Turns 1 and 2, you’d get a two lane track there. Instead, he says they all complain about it but don’t do anything to fix it.
“You can’t be that aggressive here because there’s no real second groove in 1 and 2,” Rahal continued. “You have to play it smart rather than aggressive. We will see where this thing shakes out and just try to hang on. It’s supposed to be a pretty nice night tomorrow night. That will be plenty good track conditions. I don’t know with the tire being different this year compared to last.”
When told Will Power said that they can build in a second lane here, Rahal got frustrated.
“Well tell Will Power to do it. I’m serious. He’s always the one that says that but he’s not going to try it. I mean if a lot of guys went and did it sure it can be developed. But, no one wants to be the guy to do it. We can sit and say yeah we think that can happen. Somebody has to commit themselves to do it. Then, you can comment from there.”