Many followers of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES have noted this is the closest top-six battle this late in the season in the history of the series’ current 20-plus-year points structure.
But Scott McLaughlin says, why not make it seven drivers in this championship hunt?
Yes, the driver of the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske driver is the seventh driver in the standings as the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix lines up in Nashville as the 14th of the season’s 17 races. McLaughlin is 81 points out of the series lead, but he soon will receive a bonus point for winning the NTT P1 Award on Saturday and odds are good that he will lead a lap given his front-row starting position. That, too, is worth a point.
SEE: Starting Lineup/Tire Choice
“I’ve said it all along, I feel like a little bit of an underdog in this,” McLaughlin said of the title pursuit. “There’s no reason why we can’t go on a run. These are four tracks that I really enjoy.”
Obviously, McLaughlin has a lot of ground to cover and make up, and it begins with today’s 80-lap race around the 11-turn, 2.1-mile temporary street circuit. He figures to get a strong challenge from No. 2 starter Romain Grosjean, who has yet to win a race in this series. This is Grosjean’s best starting position since winning the pole for the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May 2021.
McLaughlin also must climb over some series heavyweights, four of which have combined to win 10 season championships. Among those are Team Penske teammates Will Power, the series leader and 2014 champion, and two-time title winner Josef Newgarden, plus six-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s teammate, Alex Palou, also in contention and is defending his championship.
But McLaughlin will have a head start today on those drivers. Palou will start fourth in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Honda with O’Ward fifth in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet and Newgarden sixth in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet. Power will start eighth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, Dixon 14th in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and Marcus Ericsson, who is nine points out of the lead in second place, starts 18th in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Ericsson won last year’s inaugural Nashville race from the same 18th starting position. He and his crew used crafty pit strategy to overcome a penalty for running into the back of Sebastien Bourdais on the restart at Lap 5.
Rookie Christian Lundgaard is the other driver starting in the first three rows – he rolls off from the third position – and like Grosjean, the driver of the No. 30 Shield Cleansers Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan is seeking his first race win in the series.
After this Nashville race (3 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network), the series heads to World Wide Technology Raceway for an oval race on Saturday, Aug. 20 and then to the West Coast for permanent road course races at Portland International Raceway (Sunday, Sept. 4) and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (Sunday, Sept. 11).
“We ran fourth (at World Wide Technology Raceway), at Portland I outqualified my teammates,” McLaughlin said of results he posted last year in his rookie campaign in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. “Feel like our cars are quicker there this year; no reason we can’t be fast there again.
“Laguna, I love that track. I just made a mess of qualifying (last year), as I did (at many tracks). Really excited for this final run. Anything can happen; it’s INDYCAR.”
Today’s action begins with the green flag targeted for 3:30 p.m. (ET). In addition to NBC and its streaming service, Peacock Premium, the INDYCAR Radio Network will have the call on INDYCAR.com and the INDYCAR Mobile App powered by NTT DATA.
Here’s what you need to know in preparation for today’s action:
Be Careful on Start, Restarts
The starting line for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix is not in the traditional location.
Instead, the race will begin on the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge coming back from downtown Nashville and heading into Turn 9. This allows the drivers to start on a longer straightaway as opposed to the short straightaways and multiple corners that make up the complex around the finish line.
The difference from a year ago: Turn 9 has been narrowed to accommodate a new set of spectator suites, so watch for congestion at that location. That’s where Colton Herta lost his chance to win last year’s race. He overcooked the corner with six laps to go while chasing Ericsson.
Last year, dozens of drivers overdrove Turn 9. The bumps across the bridge make for a challenging ride, and the while the transitions from the concrete bridge to the asphalt streets have been smoothened, there’s still reason for the driver to be on high alert.
Also new this year: All restarts will take place in that location, as well.
Heat, Humidity Again Factors
The weather again will be something to watch and feel.
Temperatures are expected to return to the low 90s, which will make for another hot day in the cockpit for the 26 drivers. Yes, Saturday’s thunderstorms brought much-needed rain to the region, but the humidity quickly returned.
Some drivers will wear cool suits, others will not – the additional weight and the reliability of the suit are factors teams consider when outfitting the driver with the torso-covering device.
But 80 consecutive laps will be more than any driver has experienced this weekend, and on the bruising temporary street circuit the toll on the bodies will be real. Drivers who maintain supreme focus will be the ones to excel. INDYCAR has mandated the use of an Aeroscreen topside duct to funnel air into the cockpit for this race.
About Those Tires
The heat and humidity also will make a slick racetrack, creating a struggle to find grip on a bumpy course that’s already making it hard to keep the race car under control.
NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams have two compounds to work with, knowns as the primaries and the alternates. The alternates usually have red sidewalls, but new for this race are green sidewalls to showcase Firestone’s commitment to sustainability initiatives.
These tires include rubber in the sidewalls that comes from guayule, a drought-resistant, heat-tolerant, woody desert shrub natural to the American Southwest. Natural rubber is extracted from branches, bark and the root of guayule.
Also, Firestone Racing has supplied more than 1,500 race tires for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. Firestone Racing’s parent company (Bridgestone) is based in Nashville, and it has donated over 10,000 tires to help build the safety barriers in runoff areas around the course.
Dixon Leads Warmup
Six-time series champion Dixon led the warmup this morning at 1 minute, 15.6050 seconds in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Dixon’s quick time came on one of his final laps of the 30-minute session.
SEE: Warmup Results
Colton Herta rallied from the disappointment of crashing in qualifying Saturday by ending up second at 1:15.6760 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. NTT P1 Award winner McLaughlin was third at 1:16.0134 in the No. 3 DEX Imaging Chevrolet.
Dale Coyne Racing with HMD could have some work to do between the warmup and this afternoon’s race. The warmup ended when rookie David Malukas stopped on track in the No. 18 HMD Honda, reporting a loss of power to his crew.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism