Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Did IndyCar Just Pull a NASCAR in Its Biggest Race?

1. Did the Indy 500 one-lap shootout feel too much like a NASCAR move?

There was something familiar about how the 107th Indianapolis 500 ended, wasn’t there?

It sort of felt like how the Daytona 500 ended earlier this year. It had all the makings of it, for sure. There were chaotic restarts — one of them even ended in a crash. You also had not one, not two, but three yellow flags occurring in the final 10 laps. Of course, you also had a pass for the lead in the final lap of the race.

Really, the only thing that wasn’t there from this year’s Great American Race was the use of an overtime restart, but that’s because the NTT IndyCar Series doesn’t do overtime restarts. That’s too much of a gimmick.

After all, it’s not NASCAR.

Right?

Something happens when you put the finish line and first place right in front of a racing driver. They lose their absolute minds.

That’s especially the case when it comes to a crown jewel event such as the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500. Bunching up the field gives an opportunity for drivers to gain last-second positions, and it is oh so enticing to make daring moves to get them.

You can’t blame drivers for racing that way, but you can blame the sanctioning body for putting them in that position in the first place. There’s no hiding it, IndyCar officials put that last red flag out with only three laps to go for excitement. After such an incredible race, they can’t just let it end under caution. They remember the backlash they got last year and 2020.

But at what point does that feel too … well … NASCAR?

Josef Newgarden‘s pass on Marcus Ericsson on the final lap was certainly exciting and impressive. Not to mention, Newgarden’s win seems like a feel-good story after being in IndyCar for 12 years and never winning.

But there’s very little argument against that Ericsson sort of deserved that win. He was leading at a caution that should have been the end of the race. Instead, the red flag got put out immediately by race officials, which ultimately cost him an Indy 500 repeat win. It certainly doesn’t do race officials favors seeing as Newgarden’s car owner, Roger Penske, also owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar itself.

So, it feels a little manipulated, doesn’t it? Are you OK with racing purity and fairness being swept under the rug for the sake of entertainment?

Ericsson certainly wasn’t.

IndyCar at least hasn’t gone full-blown NASCAR yet. Not to worry, with no overtime rules, there’s still a limit to how many red flags and late-race chaos racing officials can conjure for excitement.

For now.

See also
Marcus Ericsson Is a Star in IndyCar

2. Why was Corey LaJoie the right choice to fill in for Chase Elliott?

Yes, we’re all happy for him. It’s doubtful you could find many people that disagree with the idea that Corey LaJoie‘s moment to shine in a competitive ride was a long time coming.

But is he truly the right man for this job?

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series inaugural race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway was LaJoie’s first ever start at the Midwestern oval on a NASCAR national circuit. He also didn’t have a great time there, as he finished dead last after suffering an engine failure in only 72 laps.

In other words, LaJoie has only 72 laps of racing experience under his belt at Gateway — that’s pretty low compared to other Spire Motorsports prospects. Plus, he only boasts two career top-five Cup finishes in 214 starts to boot. That doesn’t help the argument.

But for this weekend, it’s not really about who is the best pick for the Hendrick Motorsports car, it’s about who’s available. HMS had to pick somebody from either an allied Cup team (which it did) or pick from an allied NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team, and that’s a small number to pick from.

So, what about the Truck racers?

Well, there’s Carson Hocevar, Spire’s Xfinity driver who races Trucks full time and is taking over the No. 7 this weekend to make his first Cup start. He does have a number of starts at Gateway, including a top-10 result from 2021.

Then there are some drivers from Kyle Busch Motorsports, the team that hosts HMS drivers from time to time. Chase Purdy is two-for-two in top-10 finishes at Gateway, for example.

OK, you can stop screaming now. It’s time to argue LaJoie’s side.

Despite unimpressive Gateway starts, LaJoie has something that none of the other aforementioned Truck racers will have for some time: real years of Cup racing experience.

That’s all the while having to compete in a Spire Cup car, which is certainly a struggle on its own. It’s also not as if his numbers are stagnant. That No. 7 has slowly been getting better.

LaJoie right now sits 19th in Cup standings and has an average finish of 19.1, which is the highest he’s ever had in any full-time season of any NASCAR series. He’s also earned those two top fives in just the last year, both coming at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

With 214 Cup starts, LaJoie has certainly waited long enough for an opportunity like this, and it’s a great thing that he got one.

3. Has Ryan Blaney finally entered the championship chat?

All right, this sounds like a knee-jerk reaction after only one win, but just hear it out.

Ryan Blaney isn’t in the chat for a championship contender because he won a race. Rather, it’s because of how he won it.

You see, Blaney’s win in this year’s Coca-Cola 600 is a treasure trove of interesting statistics.

For one, with 163 laps led, it’s the most laps Blaney has ever led in a Cup race. Second, it’s also the first time Blaney has ever won a race after leading 100 laps. He had led that many in 11 races before Monday, but never won any of them. Finally, it’s also the first Cup race Blaney has won where he didn’t make the final pass for the lead in the final 10 laps.

What do all of those stats have in common? They all support the idea that Blaney finally won a race on domination, not luck.

In other words, the No. 12 team’s performance on Monday seemed a little championship caliber, didn’t it?

Of course, leading a bunch of laps and winning a race doesn’t always constitute that a driver is ready to make a championship run, especially not in this day and age.

That said, there hasn’t been a single champion since the beginning of the playoff era in 2004 that has won the title without leading at least 100 laps in a race they won. The last champion to do so was Matt Kenseth in 2003.

Correlation may not mean causation in this case, but Blaney has checked off a box when it comes to performance, and now he is statistically in a better position performance-wise to win the championship than he ever has been.

See also
Is This the Ryan Blaney We Have Been Waiting For?

4. What does the future have in store for Zane Smith and Todd Gilliland?

They’re both here at the same time driving for the same team. The problem is there’s only one car.

With an impressive first career top-10 finish at the Coca-Cola 600, Zane Smith has made his bid for a full-time position in the Front Row Motorsports No. 38 car all the more difficult to pass up. Not to mention his dominance in the Truck Series, which has seen him earn a whopping nine wins in only 80 starts — two of those are from this year alone — and of course being the series’ reigning champion.

And if you asked most if Smith should replace Todd Gilliland in the No. 38 around a year ago, they’d likely say yes.

But that’s only if it was a year ago.

Gilliland improved greatly over the winter break. Since the beginning of the year, he’s earned three Cup Series top 10s, which is already an improvement from his two in the whole of 2022. He also has a higher average Cup finish than Smith this year with 20.2 in comparison to Smith’s 25.0.

So who deserves the ride? And who should have to settle for Rick Ware Racing?

Well, maybe neither.

Smith is already a promising Ford prospect and even got his first Cup race almost exactly one year ago when he had to fill in for the ill Chris Buescher at Gateway. Not to mention, there are some doors about to open in the Blue Oval camp. One of which belongs to Kevin Harvick, who retires at the end of this year.

OK, yes, Josh Berry is already heavily rumored to fill in that seat, but what about Harvick’s teammate, Aric Almirola?

It would be foolish of Stewart-Haas Racing to not be eying Smith for the No. 10 seat for when Almirola, who had announced and then canceled his retirement last year, eventually leaves.

Then there’s Michael McDowell. You know, the other FRM driver?

McDowell is 38 and the average age of driver retirement is getting younger and closer to the 40-year-old mark. How much longer does the Arizona native stick around?

With all of this speculation about who is performing better than who, maybe we should instead be looking at the bigger picture around both Smith and Gilliland. Because their jobs as Cup drivers may be more secure than we think.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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jdquick

But there’s very little argument against that Ericsson sort of deserved that win.

Wow, just wow, did you write that sentence? Ericsson did not deserve anything. You are not given something in life just because you deserve it and certainly getting passed by the winner proved he didn’t deserve the win. Danm, what a statement.

Kevin in SoCal

I think he means deserving the win based on easily being the leader before the last caution flew. But of course, the caution did wave and that changed everything.

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