Since 1997, the Texas Motor Speedway has treated fans to thrilling side-by-side IndyCar racing. Sunday’s PPG 375 was a return to the old days of close-quarters racing that saw Josef Newgarden victorious after a thrilling duel with Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou.
IndyCar has made substantial efforts to improve the racing at Texas Motor Speedway since the track’s reconfiguration in 2017. The PJ1 traction compound used by NASCAR has caused low grip levels for the Indy cars in the outer grooves, leading to a lack of passing and a processional-like race.
The series added aerodynamic tweaks to the oval package to help the cars follow better and race closer, but most drivers didn’t seem to think the changes had much of an effect.
“This year we had a legit second lane,” noted second place finisher Pato O’Ward during the post race press conference. Third place finisher Alex Palou quipped that last year there was only lane and a half’s worth of the racing groove.
“I think it’s more the track than the downforce,” said race winner Josef Newgarden in the press conference. “Two, three years ago it wouldn’t have mattered how much downforce you put on the car, you still weren’t going to use the second lane. It was unusable.”
Unlike last year, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series held a race the day before IndyCar. IndyCar held an “upper groove” practice session prior to the start of the Truck race to help give the track more grip. There was some concern that the Goodyear rubber laid down by the trucks could negatively affect the rubber laid by the Firestone tires in the Indy cars. Newgarden however, felt it actually helped.
“There’s always the inherent reduction in grip on the start of our race when the Trucks have been on. You have to give it about 10-15 laps to clean up their rubber, but I think from a long term standpoint in the race it was never going to be a negative to what we had done,” said Newgarden.
The race went through periods where the cars were both packed up, running close together and also strung out with large gaps between the cars. Regardless of how the race unfolded, there never appeared to be any doubt that passing could be easily accomplished.
Not long after the midway point of the race, Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden had lapped the field with ease. O’Ward was flying through the field and appeared to be able to put his car anywhere on track. Josef Newgarden was just fast enough to keep O’Ward in his sights, but could not close the gap without help from a caution.
O’Ward looked like he was going to cruise to a dominating victory until his teammate and the race’s pole sitter, Felix Rosenqvist, crashed with 73 laps to go.
That yellow flag set up a scenario that allowed most of the field to regain their lost lap. It also added the likelihood fuel mileage could play a factor in the outcome. With everyone trying to conserve gas on the ensuing restart, the field packed up and raced akin to how they would have raced 12 years ago.
The final run to the finish featured three more cautions for accidents, once again adding truth to the racing proverb “cautions breed cautions”. The field stayed bunched close together all throughout the final 60 laps with Newgarden, O’Ward, and Palou all swapped the lead multiple times while keeping David Malukas and Romain Grosjean behind them.
Finally, with two laps left, Romain Grosjean was caught in the wake of David Malukas and slid towards the turn 2 wall before spinning and colliding with the inside backstretch wall. Grosjean, who was running fifth at the time, emerged unhurt but disappointed. The race, which was setting up for another classic Texas photo finish, ended under caution.
Despite the lack of a green flag finish, Sunday’s race was a refreshing reminder of how thrilling IndyCar oval races can be when everyone races with respect and patience. It has also shown that the series has made great strides in improving the quality of racing on ovals. Perhaps now, after the last two years of talk, the series can finally move in the direction of bringing back more oval tracks like Texas to the schedule.