Race Weekend Central

IndyCar Preview: Title Race Heats Up at Mid-Ohio

Suddenly, there are just five rounds remaining in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, and that’s bad news for anyone not named Josef Newgarden.

After running away with a late-night win at Iowa Speedway last weekend, the Team Penske driver holds a 29-point advantage over Alexander Rossi, who now has only a handful of opportunities to make up the deficit in the season-long standings.

Luckily for Rossi, the series heads this weekend to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where the young American cruised to victory last year, leading 66 of 90 laps at the tight, twisty road course.

But he’ll need a repeat of 2018 if he wants to get the better of Newgarden, who has been stunningly consistent all season. Aside from two poor results in the IndyCar Grand Prix and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, the 2017 series champion has not finished outside the top five — that’s a remarkable 10 top fives in 12 races.

Although it’s hard to say that he’s gotten the better of Rossi so far this season — the Andretti Autosport driver has nine top fives this year — he has done one thing better than the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner: find victory lane.

His win at Iowa was already his fourth of the season but only the first where he’s looked like the runaway favorite from the drop of the green flag. What has truly set Newgarden apart this year has been his ability to fight to the front of the field, whether it be through strategy or sheer force, and then stay there. At St. Petersburg, Detroit and Texas, he got to the front with some quick laps and well-timed pit stops but valiantly fought off the likes of Rossi and Scott Dixon to find the top step of the podium.

By comparison, Rossi has dominated in his two wins this year at Long Beach and Road America, winning both races by huge margins. But he hasn’t found a way to get to victory lane in close races like the Indianapolis 500 or DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.

That has to change if Rossi wants to keep his destiny in his own hands. While not mathematically necessary, this weekend feels like a must-win for Rossi. Newgarden regained some breathing room last weekend, and with the clock winding down on the season, Rossi will have fewer and fewer chances to catch back up.

So far this weekend, he hasn’t shown the pole-winning speed he had last year at Mid-Ohio, nor the world-beating pace he had at Road America last month, but he did put the No. 27 Honda on the outside of row one during qualifying on Saturday, July 27. While solid, he was almost half a second off the pole-winning time, so his front-row car won’t necessarily carry him to the front on sheer pace alone. So if he can’t manage to replicate his Road America dominance on Sunday, he’ll have to beat Newgarden at his own game.

Then, we’ll know if we have a real title fight on our hands.

How They’ll Line Up

Mid-Ohio master Dixon came flying out of the gates, buoyed by a miracle podium in Iowa, and showed some early speed at the track where he has won five times, putting his Chip Ganassi Racing machine P1 on the speed charts in the opening session. But the defending series champion fell off a cliff on Friday afternoon, ending the second and third sessions all the way back in 15th and 16th before ultimately qualifying eighth.

Newgarden, who ended Friday morning’s practice in fourth, had a similar, yet less severe falloff. Before backing his Team Penske Chevrolet into the turn 9 tires to end his Friday early, the championship leader only managed to lay down the 11th-best lap of the session. When he got back out on track on Saturday morning, Newgarden regained a few spots on the charts, ending the third session in seventh.

His teammate and championship contender Simon Pagenaud, however, put up a few blistering laps to end both of Friday’s sessions third and second. The third Penske driver, Will Power, who is coming off another poor result in what has been a disappointing season, had a solid start to his weekend, putting his Chevy Dallara in the top 10 in all three sessions.

But once the third practice had concluded, there was little doubt as to who was the favorite for pole. Colton Herta, in his Harding-Steinbrenner Honda, was quickest in both practices two and three, setting a fastest lap of just over 123.7 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the youngest winner in series history wasn’t able to put down a flyer when it counted, failing to advance to the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday afternoon. Instead, he’ll take the green flag from the seventh spot on the grid.

Ultimately, it was Power who walked away with the NTT P1 Award on Saturday afternoon, his third of the season. With a blistering time of 1:05.16, the Aussie set the fastest lap of the weekend and put himself in prime position to come home with his first win of the year. A distant fifth in the championship standings, he’s effectively eliminated from the title chase, but a win could turn his season back in the right direction and serve as a springboard into 2020.

Rossi, who nearly matched Power’s lightning-quick pole winning lap in the second round of qualifying, wasn’t able to find the same speed in the Fast Six and will start alongside Power on the outside of the front row.

But when the field makes the charge down to turn 4 for the first time tomorrow, he’ll have his mirrors full of the last person he wants to see. Newgarden recovered well from his Friday spin and ended qualifying just a few ticks behind Rossi in third, which will see him line up directly behind Power on row two. He’ll be lined up alongside his teammate and fellow championship hopeful Pagenaud.

Who to Watch

Unless Pagenaud or Dixon can go on a run to end the season, all eyes will be on Newgarden and Rossi until the checkered flag flies at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September. In what boils down to a head-to-head battle, Rossi, at the very least, needs to finish ahead of Newgarden this weekend. Opportunities to make up the points deficit are dwindling, and the recently re-upped Andretti Autosport pilot can’t afford to waste any of them. But Newgarden will be doing his part to hold onto that points lead, and as he’s shown at Mid-Ohio before, he’s not afraid to make a bold move to get the job done.

While it’s not exactly a true must-win weekend for Rossi, it is for Dixon and the Chip Ganassi Racing crew. He salvaged a terrible night in Iowa with a podium finish but still sits almost 100 points back of Newgarden. In order to have a serious shot at defending his title, he’ll need some more of that Iceman magic and rack up a few more wins in the remaining rounds on the calendar. He’s starting near midfield, but you can never rule out the five-time champ, especially at a track where he’s pulled a rabbit out of the hat before (he won from 22nd on the grid in 2014).

But there will be plenty going on outside of the title chase this weekend. Power, despite sitting fifth in the points standings, has had a disappointing, mistake-riddled season. Coming off two poor results at Iowa and Toronto, the Aussie could really use a win, if only to give the No. 12 Penske crew a shot in the arm to close the season strong. He’s started off strong with his third pole of the season, now he just has to convert the 57th of his career into another win.

Sebastian Bourdais and Felix Rosenqvist also had solid qualifying efforts, rounding out the Fast Six, and will start alongside one another in row three. Bourdais drove from 24th on the grid to a sixth-place finish last year at Mid-Ohio, so watch for the Frenchman to make a charge toward the front.

Full Honda Indy 200 Qualifying Results

How to Watch

Sunday’s pre-race coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, with the green flag expected to drop just a few minutes later at 4:05 p.m. ET. Live streaming is available on the NBC Sports App with a cable subscription.

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