Thursday, July 16, 2020

Track Walk: Iowa 2020

Iowa hosts IndyCar for a pair of nights
The fifth and sixth rounds of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season will be run at Iowa Speedway, as the 7/8-mile oval hosts its first doubleheader weekend. Both races will be 250 laps and take place on Friday and Saturday night. The first seven Iowa races were 250 laps before increasing to 300 laps in 2014. This is the first oval to host a doubleheader since the Twin 275 at Texas in 2011. Iowa will be the smallest oval to host an IndyCar doubleheader since the 1947 season. Four previous Iowa winners are entered for this weekend.

Time: On Friday July 17, coverage begins at 9:00 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 9:15 p.m. ET. On Saturday July 18, coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 8:45 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, James Hinchcliffe and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kelli Stavast and Dillon Welch will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule 
Practice: 2:00 p.m. ET (90 minutes)*
Qualifying: 5:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have taped coverage at 7:30 p.m. ET)*
Race: 9:15 p.m. ET (250 laps)
Practice: 3:30 p.m. ET (60 minutes)*
Race: 8:45 p.m. ET (250 laps)

* - All practice and qualifying sessions are available live with the NBC Sports Gold IndyCar pass.

Who's Out?
With a reduced 14-race schedule, IndyCar surged beyond the quarter post of the 2020 season during the second Road America race. This is the first marker to gauge where drivers stand in the championship. Some are sitting pretty, others have some work to do but have time, another portion have to be near-perfect for the remaining ten races and the rest are out already.

Every champion since 1947 has had at least one top ten finish in the first four races of the season. Through the first four races of 2020, a surprisingly 21 drivers have at least one top ten finish. The only full-time drivers yet to finish in the top ten are Jack Harvey and Marco Andretti. Harvey has yet to finish in the top fifteen while Andretti's best finish was 14th in the season opener.

Only once since 1947 has the IndyCar champion not had a top five finish in the first four races of the season. That was Gil de Ferran in 2000, who's first top five finish was in the fifth race of the season. In that season, de Ferran had three top ten finishes from the first four races and won the fifth race.

Fifteen drivers have a top five finish. The six drivers with a top ten, but without a top five are Santino Ferrucci, Charlie Kimball, Takuma Sato, Conor Daly, Oliver Askew and Tony Kanaan. Kanaan is not running full-time. Ferrucci and Sato are the only ones of those drivers with multiple top ten finishes.

In the last 88 IndyCar seasons from AAA, USAC, CART, IRL and IndyCar, only five times has a champion not had a podium finish in the first four races. Most recently was in 2018 when Scott Dixon's first podium was in the fifth race. Jimmy Bryan is the only champion not to have a podium finish in the first five races. He won the sixth race of the 1956 season.

On all five occasions when the champion did not get a podium finish in the first four races, all five of those champions had three top ten finishes. Colton Herta, Marcus Ericsson, Ferrucci and Sato all have at least three top ten finishes without a podium finish.

Nine drivers have a podium finish in 2020. Sixty-one champions won one of the first four races, 70 had their first victory by the fifth race and 73 had a victory by the sixth race. In the 21st century, 23 of 28 champions won within the first five races, but since reunification a third of the champions took longer than five races to get their first victories, three of those championship took seven races or more.

This is also the season where Dixon has won the first three races and holds a 54-point lead over Herta in second. Felix Rosenqvist is the other race winner and he is eighth in the championship, 85 points back.

Many drivers have started strong, but with Dixon's dominance and no drivers close to that level, it feels like more drivers are out of it than paper would suggest. One hundred points cover the top 13 drivers. The only drivers outside the top 13 with top five finishes are Rinus VeeKay and Alexander Rossi, who is coming off a third-place finish at Road America.

I would say those 15 drivers are still alive but the likes of Ferrucci, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Álex Palou, VeeKay and Rossi are on thin ice and need a big swing in results quickly to stay alive.

Is This Newgarden's Big Weekend?
Iowa has taken on an additional race and that plays into the favor of defending champion Josef Newgarden.

No driver has taken to the 7/8-mile oval better than Newgarden. Of drivers with at least three Iowa starts, he has the best average finish at 6.2. He has two victories, four podium finishes and five top five finishes in his last six Iowa starts with his worst finish in that span being sixth.

In his last five starts, Newgarden has led 111 laps, 282 laps, one lap, 229 laps and 245 laps. He has led 57.866% of the 1,5000 laps run in the last five Iowa races. Newgarden's 868 laps led is led 224 more laps than the next highest driver, Hélio Castroneves.

With Newgarden down to fifth in the championship, 67 points behind Dixon, an Iowa doubleheader could see Newgarden vault right back into the title fight if not send him ahead of Dixon.

Dixon has been respectable at Iowa with seven top five finishes and ten top ten finishes in 13 starts. However, he has never won at the track and his runner-up finish to Newgarden last year was only his second podium finish at the venue. He has led only seven Iowa races for a total of 128 laps. In six of those races he led 21 laps or fewer.

While Dixon looks to prevent Newgarden from slashing his lead this weekend, Ryan Hunter-Reay will try and keep the title of most successful driver at Iowa. Hunter-Reay has three victories at the track, the most all-time, but he has finished outside the top fifteen in three of his last four visits to the Hawkeye State. Prior to this stretch, he had four consecutive podium finishes. Despite his success, Hunter-Reay has only led 54 laps at the track with 37 laps being the most he has led in a race and he has only led in the race he has won.

Penske's Bagel
Newgarden is the favorite this weekend and it comes with Team Penske sitting 0-for-4 in 2020.

This is the first time the team has not won one of the first four races since 2013, when the team's first victory did not come until the eighth race at Texas with Castroneves. Since 1979, only seven times has Team Penske not won in the first four races of a season (1986, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2008 and 2013). In three of those other six seasons, Penske went winless (1996, 1998, 1999) In the other three, Team's Penske first victory came in race number six (1986), five (2000) and six (2008) Of those seven seasons, the only Team Penske won the championship was 2000 with Gil de Ferran.

Team Penske has won two of the last three Iowa races after not winning in any of IndyCar's first ten visits to the track.

Simon Pagenaud has started on pole position twice, but he has never finished better than fourth and he has led only 15 laps. He has completed 2,298 out of a possible 2,300 laps in his eight starts. He enters this weekend with four consecutive top ten finishes at the track.

Will Power leads all drivers with four Iowa pole positions, he has started in the top ten of ten consecutive Iowa races and his worst starting position was 11th on debut. Of drivers with at least three starts, Power has the second-best average starting position at 4.6, only behind Castroneves' 4.1, but the Australian's average finish is 11.5 and he has only one podium finish, a second in 2016.

Last year, Power led 49 laps before Newgarden took charge and an improper pit lane entry forced Power to serve a penalty, knocking him out of scoring a respectable finish. Those 49 laps led is the most he has led in an Iowa race. He has led a total 129 laps, has led in five Iowa races, including three consecutive years.

The good news for Team Penske is the team has won the last four races held on weekdays. Power won rain-delayed Monday races at St. Petersburg, São Paulo and Pocono in 2010, 2013 and 2016 respectively. Newgarden won a Monday race at Barber in 2018.

Ganassi's Unbeaten Start
While Penske is 0-for-4, Chip Ganassi Racing is 4-for-4, leading the Honda charge.

Prior to 2020, Chip Ganassi Racing had won the season opener seven times. The team had never won multiple races to open a season.

Dixon's success has been covered, but Felix Rosenqvist scored his maiden victory last Sunday at Road America, his first victory in his 21st career start. It is the first time since 2014 Ganassi has had multiple race winners when Dixon and Tony Kanaan split three of the final four races.

While Dixon and Rosenqvist have combined for the four victories, Marcus Ericsson heads into Iowa with the most consecutive top ten finishes from the team. Ericsson has three consecutive top ten finishes. After finishing sixth at Indianapolis, he was tenth in the first Road America race and he was fourth in race two. This is Ericsson's best stretch in his short IndyCar career and his fourth-place finish was his second career top five finish.

Rosenqvist and Ericsson made their Iowa debuts last year, and the result were little to desire. Rosenqvist was 14th, one lap down and he clipped a spinning Sage Karam early in the race. Ericsson had a strong first trip to Iowa. He started tenth and was challenging for a top five finish before being penalized for an improper pit lane entry on his final stop. This dropped him to 11th, one lap down.

Ganassi has two Iowa victories, but it has not won since 2009.

Ericsson could do something that has never been done at Chip Ganassi Racing. Ganassi has never had three different drivers win a race in a single IndyCar season. Ericsson's first career victory could add a little more history for the team.

This is the first-time Ganassi has opened a season with four consecutive victories, but it is not the first time the team has won four consecutive races. In 2013, Dixon won three consecutive races at Pocono and the Toronto doubleheader and Charlie Kimball's first career victory followed at Mid-Ohio.

Ganassi's longest winning streak is six races, which happened in 1998. Alex Zanardi won at Gateway with Jimmy Vasser winning the next race at Milwaukee. Zanardi followed it up with four consecutive victories, taking the checkered flag at Belle Isle, Portland, Cleveland and Toronto.

Who is Next to Visit Victory Lane?
Including Ericsson, nine drivers entered for Iowa do not have an IndyCar victory. Two of the drivers were on the podium last weekend.

Patricio O'Ward was a lap and a half short of being the maiden winner on Sunday at Road America. O'Ward led 43 of 55 laps from pole position, only to not have the tire life down the stretch and he fell to the charging Rosenqvist.

It was O'Ward's first podium finish and it lifted him to fourth in the championship, 63 points behind Dixon. O'Ward has three consecutive top ten finishes after having only two top ten finishes from his first nine IndyCar starts. He has won at Iowa, having taken first place in the 2018 Indy Lights race at the track.

Álex Palou was third in the first Road America race and he followed it with a seventh-place finish in race two. With these results, Palou is top rookie in the championship, 12th on 79 points, 94 points off the championship lead.

This will be Palou's second oval event with his Texas debut ending prematurely after being collateral damage when Rinus VeeKay spun exiting turn two.

Santino Ferrucci rounds out the top ten in the championship with 87 points, just over half Dixon's total through four races. Ferrucci enters Iowa off the back of three consecutive top ten finishes, a career best for him. Last year, Ferrucci had a strong start at Iowa before finishing 12th. It was the only oval race in 2019 where he did not finish in the top ten.

Zach Veach has been sliding down the championship since the calendar flipped to July. With three consecutive finishes of 14th or worse, Veach is now 13th in the championship. Last year, Veach's best finish came at Iowa, a seventh from 20th on the grid.

Rinus VeeKay has finished 13th and 14th in the last two races after picking up a fifth-place finish at Indianapolis. VeeKay's only appearance at Iowa was in U.S. F2000 in 2017. He was runner-up to Oliver Askew. Askew has taken a dive in the last three races, having dropped from ninth to 19th in the championship.

Conor Daly will be back in the #59 Gallagher Chevrolet for Carlin this weekend. Daly has finished sixth in his last two races with Carlin. He was 13th in last year's Iowa race, his best result at the oval. That 13th place finish is Carlin's best Iowa finish.

Jack Harvey makes his first Iowa start since 2015 in Indy Lights. Harvey has not finished in the top fifteen yet in 2020, despite starting in the top ten in the last three races and on the front row twice. At Texas in June, he matched his career best oval finish of 16th.

With Rosenqvist off the back of his first career victory we could see first-time winners in consecutive races since 2008 when Graham Rahal won at St. Petersburg and Danica Patrick won at Motegi.

Qualifying Format
Another doubleheader and another qualifying format will be utilized this weekend.

There will be one qualifying session on Friday afternoon prior to race one. Each car will make two laps. The first qualifying lap will set the grid for race one while the second lap will set the grid for race two.

Iowa is notorious for never having winner from pole position. The pole-sitter has never finished on the podium at Iowa, let alone won the race. The best finish for the pole-sitter is fourth with Scott Dixon in 2008 and 2014, Simon Pagenaud in 2016 and Will Power in 2017. The pole-sitter has never led the most laps in an Iowa race and the average finish for a pole-sitter is 9.23. The most laps led for an Iowa pole-sitter is 50, which came in 2015 with Hélio Castroneves.

The front row produced a winner on two occasions, 2013 with James Hinchcliffe and 2016 with Josef Newgarden. Four times has the race winner started third, including last year with Newgarden. No position has produced more winners. Six of 13 races have been won from outside the top five and four of those winners have started outside the top ten.

Fast Facts
The Friday race will be the 13th IndyCar race held on July 17 and the first since Will Power won at Toronto in 2016.

The Saturday race will be the tenth IndyCar race held on July 18 and the first since Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Iowa in 2015.

This will be the final IndyCar weekend before Scott Dixon turns 40 years old on July 22.

The Iowa winner has gone on to win the championships four times (Dario Franchitti 2007, Franchitti 2009, Ryan Hunter-Reay 2012, Josef Newgarden 2019).

Iowa has never produced a first-time winner.

The Friday race will be the first IndyCar race to fall on a Friday since the 1969 Indianapolis 500, Mario Andretti's only Indianapolis 500 victory.

The driver that has led the most laps at Iowa has only won five of the 13 races (Franchitti 2007, Hinchcliffe 2013, Newgarden 2016, Castroneves 2017, Newgarden 2019).

The average starting position for an Iowa winner is 7.153 with a median of four.

An Iowa winner has never started on the third row.

The average number of lead changes in an Iowa race is 9.923 with a median of ten.

The most lead changes were 16 in 2010. The fewest lead changes were four in 2018.

The average number of cautions in an Iowa race is 4.769 with a median of five. The average number of caution laps is 51.923 with a median of 51.

The most cautions in an Iowa race is 2014 and the fewest is two in 2018. The most caution laps were 73 in 2015. The fewest caution laps were 17 in 2018.

Since engine competition returned to IndyCar, Chevrolet has won five of eight Iowa races.

Honda has opened the IndyCar season with four consecutive victories. That is the most victories for the manufacture to start the season sine engine competition returned to IndyCar.

This four-race winning streak for Honda matches its longest since the 2012 season. Honda won four consecutive races in 2013 (Pocono, Toronto doubleheader and Mid-Ohio) and in 2018 (Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Pocono).

Andretti Autosport leads all teams with seven Iowa victories. Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske each has two victories. Ed Carpenter Racing and Arrow McLaren SP each have one victory.

These Iowa races are the fifth and sixth of the 2020 season. This is the earliest Iowa has ever been in an IndyCar schedule. The earliest Iowa had been was the seventh race in 2009.

The last ten Iowa winners have come from the Western Hemisphere.

The only European winners at Iowa are Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon.

Possible Milestones:
Scott Dixon is one victory away from becoming the third driver in IndyCar history to reach 50 victories.

Will Power is two victories away from tying Al Unser for fifth all-time on 39 victories.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is two victories away from becoming the 22nd driver in IndyCar history to reach 20 victories.

Will Power is two pole positions away from becoming the second driver in IndyCar history to reach 60 pole positions.

Scott Dixon needs to lead three more laps to surpass Al Unser (5,802) for fifth all-time in laps led.

Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead 55 laps to reach the 1,600 laps led milestone.

Conor Daly needs to lead 28 laps to reach the 100 laps led milestone.

Felix Rosenqvist needs to lead 21 laps to reach the 100 laps led milestone.

Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta split the races. Newgarden will be on the podium in each race. Alexander Rossi gets a career best finish at the track. Scott Dixon's championship lead will still be respectable after this weekend. Takuma Sato is not in the top ten of both races. Will Power moves up at least two positions in the championship. Conor Daly will finish ahead of both Ed Carpenter Racing drivers in one of the races. The pole-sitter will be different for each race, but the pole-sitters will come from the same manufacture. A driver without an IndyCar victory will finish in the top five for at least one of the races. Neither race will see an American finish dead last. Sleeper: Marcus Ericsson.