The first lap of the first race every season is also tricky. Rookies are ready to prove themselves and it’s the first time this particular set of drivers have lined up two-by-two. This year was no exception, except that Josef Newgarden was the cause of the issue. Lap one, cresting the hill to Turn 5 his tires just got loose and he spun. It first appeared that he collected half of the field. Turns out it was only approximately four other drivers, but it was a spectacular scene. Felix Rosenqvist got into Max Chilton’s car and ended up airborne with his front wing sliding the opposite direction on the track. Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Real retired immediately. Rosenqivst and Colton Herta got their cars back out on track but then later retired. Only Max Chilton managed to get on the track and say through the race, but he ended the race sixty-five laps down.
That incident was followed laps later by Jimmie Johnson solo spinning in Turn 15 causing another caution. After that, the race was relatively quiet. We had great moments of Alexander Rossi stalking Pato O’Ward, but they were on a three-stop strategy and despite starting the race one-two (well technically two-one since Pato was on the pole), they did not win.
Speaking of people who didn’t win – anyone who was playing the Blue Flag Drinking Game. Truthfully I lost count of the number of times Jimmie Johnson was blue flagged. Also at the end of the race Conor Daly was holding up Alex Palou. He was also blue flagged a few times (at least it appeared that way to me watching the broadcast). It’s surprising out of Daly, he’s typically one who shows sportsmanship and one of the first to call out others when they don’t. My thought was that Palou was in a Honda powered car and Daly and Power (who was attempting to pass Palou for the lead) were Chevrolet powered cars.
Under NTT INDYCAR rules, a car is blue flagged if another car is attempting to overtake them (aka they’re slower and need to move out of the way). This rule was changed in 2021 to require the slower car to allow the faster car to pass them immediately, if they are a lap down. Th rule is silent on if the two cars are on the same lap. Putting my lawyer hat on for just a moment: never have silence in the rules, especially when you’ve made a distinction. Rules aside, you have to also think about sportsmanship. Daly typically is someone who will yield if holding up drivers, especially race leaders. However as mentioned above there’s the idea of engine manufacturers at play. Plus, Daly was driving to stay on the lead lap. Had Palou passed him, he would have ended the race a lap down.
Winning this race came down to the strategy of pit stops. In every practice leading up to the race, the discussion was this being a three [pit] stop race. Everyone was wrong as every driver who podium was on the two-stop strategy. It’s a gamble, choosing to do the lower number of pit stops. You have to be in fuel saving mode during the long middle-section between stops, and you are vulnerable if there’s a yellow and you’re out low on fuel. However the trade off is that you don’t spend as much time on pit road. Alex Palou, Will Power, and Scott Dixon took that gamble and ultimately it paid off. At the first round of pit stops by the leaders, Palou took first place and, except for later pit cycles, held onto the lead. It was Palou’s first win, and everyone knows that Chip Ganassi (his team owner) likes winners!