Crucial Stretch arrives with Welcome Return to Toronto

Welcome back Toronto.

If it seems like it’s been forever since the NTT INDYCAR SERIES last held the Honda Indy Toronto at the storied Exhibition Place, it almost is. Today marks the three year anniversary. Sunday marks 1,099 days since the last green flag flew on the streets of Canada’s largest city. Since that race in 2019, Takuma Sato, Helio Castroneves, and Marcus Ericsson have won the Indianapolis 500, and Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, and Alex Palou have won series championships.

Much of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES looks different too. The Aeroscreen has been successfully fitted to these vehicles. McLaren Racing has joined the series. Roger Penske bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR. Popular Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe has become an NBC sports channel.

The driver line-up for the series has also been given a new look. Simon Pagenaud, who won the 2019 race, now drives for Meyer Shank Racing. Felix Rosenqvist, who finished fourth on the day, switches to Arrow McLaren SP. Colton Herta left Harding Steinbrenner Racing to drive for Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian.

22 car-driver combinations competed in the 2019 race, but only 10 of those drivers will be in that 25-car field and five of those have switched teams.

Different? Yes. Nevertheless, much remains the same.

The track remains 11 turns over 1,786 miles, and the route is still clockwise through one of North America’s most beautiful cities. Toronto’s skyline remains a stunning backdrop, and the race down Lake Shore Boulevard West is still breathtakingly fast.

And then there are the different types of surfaces that a street circuit next to Lake Ontario offers.

With that, let’s examine the five things that will come into play this weekend, for the 36th time that the event is taking place at Exhibition Place.

The favorites are proven

It’s fair to say that Scott Dixon, Will Power and Josef Newgarden have to be among the favorites to win a race in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, who have won nine season championships combined, and that’s true again this weekend.

Why? Not only have they won several series races at the Exhibition Place, they are also among the few drivers who have competed with circuit experience this weekend. Simon Pagenaud is the only other driver to have won a series race there, and it’s from pole.

The first of Power’s three Toronto wins came in the 2007 Champ Car. Try to guess the runner-up. It was Neel Jani who started a strong sports car career after one season in the series, winning the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. After joining Team Penske, Power also won Toronto in 2010 and 2016, and he has a pair of poles on the temporary street circuit.

“The track is just difficult because there are so many different levels of grip,” said Power, who drives the #12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “For example, you never feel on top of the track (because the car is skidding). The car never drives well, (so) it’s quite difficult to tell your engineer what to do because there are so many compromises.

“It’s a track where it’s easy to make mistakes… that could be one reason you see champions win (most races). Yes, a tough route. A lot of chaos can happen there, a lot of chaos.”

Dixon, the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda rider) is also a three-time Toronto winner, winning the doubleheader in 2013 and winning again in 2018, all for the Ganassi team. Like Power, he has sat on the bar twice.

Newgarden’s victories came in 2015 and 2017 – the first with CFH Racing, the second with Team Penske – and he won pole in 2018.

Ganassi, Penske teams strong in the past

It’s not uncommon for NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams owned by Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske to have won races at a specific location in the past, and Exhibition Place falls into that category.

However, this circuit is unusual in that both Teams have had notable success there, with Chip Ganassi Racing sharing the most wins by team with Newman-Haas Racing – seven each – and Team Penske winning five, including three of the last four races.

Ganassi’s wins came with Dixon (three), Dario Franchitti (two), Michael Andretti (one) and Alex Zanardi (one). Andretti holds Toronto’s record for a total of seven wins, five with Newman-Haas, and they spanned three decades (1989-2001).

Said Pagenaud, who has finished fifth, second and first in his last three Toronto races but now drives the #60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing, “It’s a circuit that I really enjoy. I love the rhythm of the track and it’s a place I feel very comfortable in.”

Advice: Don’t try to predict who will win the NTT P1 Award this weekend. In nine races this season there have been nine different pole winners. The current record for most different pole wins at the start of a season is 10 in 1952. The record for most pole wins in a season is 12, set in the 1999 CART season.

“Simply because it’s so competitive,” Power said of the nine different pole winners. “There is no one who dominates, no one stands out. You can try to choose the polesitter for the weekend; you just couldn’t. Even (among) the drivers (they) couldn’t choose who could be on pole, which for me is a great thing.”

Toronto-area drivers Dalton Kellett (No. 4 K-LINE/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) and series newcomer Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda by Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport) are among 13 drivers who will have their exhibition place in this series -make debut.

DeFrancesco will pay tribute to his home race with a special livery of Sunnybrook Hospital to commemorate his “Racing for Tiny Babies” initiative.

Resetting the score fight

For a refresher, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES reached its halfway point on the July 4th holiday weekend with the 80-lap Honda Indy 200 in Mid-Ohio presented by the all-new 2023 Civic Type R. This race, the ninth on the 17 race schedule, was won by Scott McLaughlin who will drive the No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet this weekend in Toronto. The win was McLaughlin’s second win of the season.

Eight drivers are within 100 points of Marcus Ericsson’s series-leading 321 points and five of those have won races this season, led by the three Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet). Newgarden and McLaughlin are the only drivers with multiple race wins.

Ericsson (No.8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) leads Power by 20 points while Newgarden is 34 points behind Ericsson. Reigning series champion Alex Palou (No.10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) is 35 points off the lead and still looking for his first win of the season.

The next drivers – Pato O’Ward (No.5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet), Dixon and McLaughlin – are 65, 67 and 69 points clear of the lead respectively. O’Ward has one win this season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst on May 1st at Barber Motorsports Park.

Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No.27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda) is 92 points adrift of Ericsson but this could be a big weekend for the Californian, who was on the podium twice in Toronto and finished second behind Newgarden in 2017, third behind Pagenaud and Dixon in 2019.

Busy track ahead

It’s mid-July, not even the middle of summer. But the time to win that NTT INDYCAR SERIES Championship is near.

Over the next four weekends, drivers and their teams will compete in five races highlighted by the Hy-Vee-sponsored July 23-24 doubleheader at the Iowa Speedway. This is followed by the Gallagher Grand Prix on July 30th on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway street course, followed by the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on August 7th on the streets of Nashville.

That means there are 270 points up for grabs before the Nashville race, which is 62.5 percent of the remaining points to determine the season champion.

After Nashville, the season concludes with an oval race – the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway on August 20 – and two road races, the Portland Grand Prix at Portland International Raceway on September 4 and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on September 11th.

In other words, the opportunity to grab that championship race is now.

weekend schedule

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES action begins with Friday practice at 2:30 p.m. ET.

The Saturday schedule includes practice for the second series of the weekend at 10am ET, followed by qualifying for the NTT P1 Award at 2pm. A pre-race warm-up will take place on Sunday at 10:55 a.m., with the Honda Indy Toronto being broadcast live from 3 p.m. The green flag will be set at 3:30 p.m

Sunday’s 85-lap race will be exclusively broadcast live in the US on Peacock Premium, the first streaming-only race in NTT INDYCAR SERIES history. Peacock Premium is also home to all of the series practice and qualifying races – live and on-demand – this season.

Peacock Premium is also offering all Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races this season, although the series will not be raced in Toronto this weekend.

Because NBCUniversal is a Comcast subsidiary, eligible Comcast Xfinity X1 and Flex customers, along with Cox Contour customers, are included with Peacock Premium at no additional cost. For all other customers, the price is $4.99 per month.

To learn more about Peacock Premium, watch this video with NTT INDYCAR SERIES host Leigh Diffey. Sign up for the streaming service at www.peacocktv.com/sports.

In Canada, the race will be streamed live on Sportsnet 360.

The action can also be heard on the INDYCAR Radio Network, which includes the INDYCAR Mobile App, network partners, SiriusXM 160 and racecontrol.indycar.com.

About Stephanie McGehee

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