Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Michael McDowell will remember this one for a long time. And judging by all the congratulatory gestures that he received on the cool-down lap, so will his fellow competitors.
Let’s not mince words. What McDowell did on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course was straight up domination. It’s one thing to do what McDowell has previously done to get a win at Daytona, where finishes are often the result of chance and luck.
Luck had nothing to do with what the No. 34 team did to the field on Sunday. This was not a come-from-nowhere win. McDowell has been a solid contender this season from week to week, often on the same level if not above cars that are better funded than Front Row Motorsports. The fact that a FRM car blistered the field that includes more experienced and ingrained Ford teams like Team Penske and Stewart-Hass Racing speaks volumes not just about all the work that Front Row Motorsports has done, but the gains that other Ford teams need to make.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
Is next week a go-for-broke race for Chase Elliott and the No. 9 team?
It certainly looks like it. That’s not to undersell the regular season finale at Daytona, but the drafting at restrictor plate tracks is a game of chance where your fate is not in your own hands.
Watkins Glen is the opposite of that. As you saw Sunday, if you have a car that is hooked up and your team is on point in the pits, the chances of winning dramatically increase.
A few years ago, a lazy assumption would be “it’s a road course, so bet the house on the No. 9 car.”
Elliott does not currently have that same dominance. Since his 2021 win at Road America, Elliott is winless on road courses. That’s not to say the No. 9 team is chopped liver on road courses. In the three road course events Elliott has run this year — at Sonoma, the Chicago street course,and Sunday at Indy — the Dawsonville, Ga. driver has placed no worse than fifth. That includes qualifying third and finishing second on Sunday.
Elliott isn’t unbeatable on road courses. Regardless of that, his momentum and ability to still run well on them make his odds of a postseason berth on a win at Watkins Glen next week a good possibility.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Due to the race having just one caution, missteps were magnified on Sunday. Usually, a restart in the middle or end of a race can allow a driver to atone for something going wrong on the track or the pits. Many drivers never got that chance, and Daniel Suarez was chief among them on a day in which he led the first five laps. Like McDowell and Elliott, Suarez needed a win to clinch a postseason berth. Odds of that took a punch to the gut as the No. 99 team was held up during a round of pit stops, and with the race being under green flag conditions at the time, it was even more detrimental.
Suarez finished third ahead of Tyler Reddick, whose consistent day netted a fourth-place finish ahead of Alex Bowman. The top five was filled with three drivers who needed a win to clinch a postseason spot, but all Suarez and Elliott could do was look out their windshield as McDowell was the victor.
When… was the moment of truth?
When McDowell led for the third time with 30 laps to go, it was a lead he’d never give up. From there, the only hope that the rest of the field would have as McDowell pulled away was a caution flag to set up a late-race restart. That’s not to say there were not on-track incidents in the late going, but none warranted a caution, thanks in part to more run-off room. As a result, the race was light on the cautions, something that played right into McDowell’s grateful hands.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
It’s the final road course race of the regular season.
For Bubba Wallace, it’s a chance to get back some of the points lost on Sunday thanks to Suarez having a good day and building a cushion in case there is no first-time winning the next two weeks. Before Sunday, Wallace was 58 points to the good. That margin is 30 points smaller.
If the playoffs started now, Wallace would be in on points.
The trouble for Wallace is the next two races at Watkins Glen and Daytona. Wallace, who finished a respectable 18th on Sunday, has very little margin for error at this point being 28 points above the cutline, and that margin evaporates at Watkins Glen either with a bad finish or if drivers who are proven road course drivers win in upstate New York — such as Elliott, Suarez, Ty Gibbs, Austin Cindric or AJ Allmendinger.
How…will the racing look like at Indianapolis in the future?
Nothing is official, but all signs are pointing toward NASCAR moving racing from the road course back to the traditional oval next season.
There’s an argument to be made that the current schedule is over-saturated with road course events and that one way to alleviate that is to move racing back to the oval.
Based on fans disguised as empty seats on Sunday, there was nothing spectacular about the fan enthusiasm for racing at Indianapolis, regardless of it was on a road course or not.
A degree of excitement was injected by Charlotte Motor Speedway ditching its fall race on the quad-oval in favor of the ROVAL, but lightning did not strike twice for a similar tactic at the Brickyard.
Racing may be more exciting on the traditional oval. Or it may not be. Regardless, the bigger issue to confront is how to hold events at one of the grandest of racing cathedrals without the backdrop of gaping empty stands.
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