Race Weekend Central

2024 IndyCar XPEL Grand Prix at Road America Preview

Take high-speed IndyCar machines, imagine having them race inside the trails in a national park like Yellowstone or the Great Smokey Mountains, and you have what is next for the 2024 season.

America’s National Park of Speed at Road America is round seven for the NTT IndyCar Series, with its over four miles of asphalt shrouded in the beautiful terrain of central Wisconsin.

One of the best road courses in the country, the 14-turn road course is comparable in facility size to Indianapolis Motor Speedway if the track was dropped into a setting for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

Great racing is always in store as drivers are challenged by various turn angles and elevation changes. 

Last Year

Before the green flag flew, the first big storyline was how the newly paved circuit would race. It was the first of two events in the 2023 season with a new surface (the other was WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca). In the race, drivers pushed their cars further beyond previous limits as the new asphalt had more grip than their muscle memory was used to, and it bit drivers multiple times in the race. All four yellows in the race were due to accidents on course. 

As for the race itself, Colton Herta started on pole and had the race in hand after getting out in front on the last round of green-flag pit stops. However, the decision to come in on lap 40, while the rest of the leaders pitted four miles later proved detrimental to the run to the finish. That one-lap difference forced Herta to conserve fuel in the final stages, which allowed Alex Palou, who came in on lap 41, to overtake the young American with seven to go. 

Herta faded to finish fifth, and the following week his team Andretti Global made crew changes, raising Rob Edwards to race strategist. Palou meanwhile took his second win in as many events after winning Detroit the week before.

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The fuel miscalculation ruined Herta’s best shot at a win in 2023. His 33 laps led were dominating but to come out empty-handed hurts. However it was his best showing as far as pace, as he’d not led in his five previous attempts in Elkhart Lake. Even with the drop to fifth in the closing laps, Herta kept an almost mind-blowing string of finishes going – in six races he has placed fifth in four of them. Couple that with his runner-up in 2021 and an eighth in his rookie year, the second-generation IndyCar driver is good here.

While 2024 started off really well, the last two events at Indianapolis and Detroit have dropped him down the ranking order in the points. After the Sonsio Grand Prix at IMS, he was third, but then his spin in turn 2 at the Indy 500 and his mistake trying to overtake Tristan Vautier that put him in the run-off at Detroit have dropped him to seventh. Unfortunately, this continues a trend as Herta is consistently fast, but once he gets behind mistakes will rob him of a decent result.

A win would be great not only to get him back in the W column but also leap him back into the Astor Cup trophy chase. Especially after the first stumble in decades (ok, just two years) by Palou at Detroit.

New Points Leader

The last time Scott Dixon was first in the championship, he was rolling into the Indianapolis Grand Prix in May 2021, seven months after winning his sixth title. 

Since then, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou has been the front-runner for their operation and won two championships while Dixon looked on.

This year has started a bit better for IndyCar’s top driver, as he is the only repeat winner on the season after taking the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix last weekend. With an 18-point lead over Palou compared to his situation a year ago where he was the one hounding the Spaniard, he controls his destiny. A record-tying seventh title is possible. 

Dixon has notched two wins at Road America, with six top-fives in nine races. As long as he doesn’t run afoul of Will Power, he will be a challenger Sunday.

The Poop Truck

Speaking of Power, the Aussie Team Penske driver does not want a repeat of his time last year at Road America. More is coming to light about the struggles he faced while racing full-time and caring for his wife who was facing medical challenges. Things seemed to boil over on the run to Canada Corner in practice in 2023, when he and Dixon made contact.

The ensuing crash ignited Power, who stormed up to his long-time rival and shoved him. It was clear Dixon knew the stress Power was under, as his countenance during the confrontation showed he was satisfied in letting the Penske driver blow of the steam rather than return the physicality. Just another example of Dixon’s respect for his fellow drivers.

The incident was one of multiple for Power throughout the weekend. Power had earlier offered criticism of the track for being too abrasive off the racing surface; specifically, the Toowoomba native said that a driver could reasonably expect to break their back when bouncing through the grass run-off areas around the track.

Later, stories circulated that a sanitation truck – like the ones used to clean porta-potties – was parked in front of Power’s motorhome by track owner Michael Kertscher. Power promptly responded by driving the truck toward Dixon’s bus and parking it there.

Power has had a better 2024, with three runner-ups and two sixths to go with his DNF at Indianapolis. His sixth at Detroit was shocking, not because of his capabilities in excelling on the street circuit, but because he was penalized three times by race control. 

With a never-give-up approach like that, Power is definitely in the title hunt. It’s been a bit rocky the few stops at Road America though, since his runner-up in 2020, he has only placed in the top 10 once, with a third in 2021.

Rest Of The Field

Kyle Kirkwood is having his best year in IndyCar. In six races, he has placed in the top 10 five times. The lone result not meeting that mark? The Sonsio Grand Prix on the Indy road course where he finished 11th. At Detroit he led for a significant portion of the race, tallying 24 laps, continuing to show he is strongest on street circuits. Heading to Road America, where he finished ninth last year, he is sixth in points and jumped Herta as the highest Andretti car in the championship.

Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden did not have a fantastic weekend after his glitz and glamour media tour. He finished 26th, the last car running and coupled with being docked all his points for the push-to-pass fiasco at St. Petersburg, sits 10th in the championship. He is a two-time winner at Road America and finished second a year ago, so getting things rolling in Wisconsin is more than possible.

Marcus Armstrong is coming off his best IndyCar result and first podium, a third at Detroit. The 2023 Rookie of the Year is starting to make sense of this tight championship, and returns to Road America where he qualified third and led three laps. 

What a week for Agustin Canapino with the various social media controversy on-going between his fanbase and Theo Pourchaire. After McLaren terminated a commercial partnership with Canapino’s Juncos Hollinger Racing squad, there is some negative attention on the former underdog team.

On Friday, JHR announced that Canapino will be taking a leave of absence for the weekend and Nolan Siegel will step into the No. 78.

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Fire on Fridays: What Agustín Canapino Did Was Way Worse Than Noah Gragson

Frontstretch Predictions

How does six for 21 sound? Would anyone take those odds? Because, that’s how many drivers I’ve predicted right to at least make the podium. Sic. It’s worse as far as nailing the exact finish, with my Pato O’Ward guess on his runner-up at the Indy 500 being the only right one.

But, there is one caveat. I am choosing to ignore last weekend because of my disclaimer post-Long Beach. If Dixon goes to an alternate strategy, all predictions are null and void. Boom.

I did have Dixon finishing third, with Power winning followed by Palou. So I got one right there.

Looking ahead for your entertainment:

  1. Herta – As I said above, redemption.
  2. Dixon – Has to be consistent to win this championship.
  3. Newgarden – Indy 500 hangover is over, he’s drank as much Back to the Future: Part III wake-up juice as he can and returns to form this weekend.

About the author

Tom Blackburn

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. Besides writing the IndyCar Previews and the occasional Inside Indycar, he will hop on as a fill-in guest on the Open Wheel podcast The Pit Straight. His full-time job is with the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. After graduating from Purdue University with a Creative Writing degree, he was commissioned in the Army and served a 15-month deployment as a tank platoon leader with the 3d ACR in Mosul, Iraq. A native Hoosier, he calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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