Saturday's motor sports: IndyCar, Texas try to save relationship with strong race

Associated Press

Fort Worth, Texas — IndyCar’s long relationship with Texas Motor Speedway is at a crossroads headed into the 35th race at the track that has always embraced the open-wheel series.

Texas has hosted IndyCar since the track opened in 1997 but its existing contract, done by Eddie Gossage, who retired as general manager last year, expires after the race Sunday. And now the future of this oval fixture on the IndyCar schedule is in jeopardy.

Simon Pagenaud speeds back onto the track after making a pit stop during the final practice round of the NTT IndyCar Series XPEL 375 on Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.

Attendance has dwindled for years and only a smattering of spectators were in the stands Saturday for three practice sessions and qualifying. IndyCar was up against the NCAA Tournament being played 30 minutes away from the Fort Worth track, but there also was a noticeable lack of promotion or activation in the fifth-largest market in the country.

But the bigger problem is a track reconfiguration and accommodations done for NASCAR made Texas a poor fit for IndyCar. Texas used a traction compound in the turns to help create a second passing lane for NASCAR, but the PJ1 compound doesn’t match with the Firestone tires used in IndyCar.

It makes a high line that is far too slick and dangerous for the IndyCar drivers: Will Power said the track “is like ice” in the second groove after he led six other drivers in a special practice session designed to create a second lane.

The 30-minute practice was Power’s brainchild, but the Team Penske driver said it would have only been effective if the entire 27-car field participated. But very few teams wanted to take the risk of wrecking a car Saturday afternoon with a Sunday morning race looming.

“I looked at it, and almost crashed,” Alexander Rossi said.

Even so, the seven drivers on track combined for 294 laps in a second lane that doesn’t exist.

“That’s 294 laps we didn’t run up there before,” said Jay Frye, IndyCar president of competition. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Power was not optimistic – he crashed in testing last week when he tried to run the top lane – and said he will not be the driver to try to create a second lane on Sunday. If others can prove it works, then he might give it a go.

“It’s good we’re trying, we’re trying to put on the best show possible. So it was worth doing to see if we potentially can ride two-wide,” Power said. “I think the problem is you are so afraid to get into that stuff and then you are just off into the fence. I did the special session because I want two-lane racing, but in the race situation, bit gun shy right now.”

Felix Rosenqvist, coming off a disappointing first season with Arrow McLaren SP, earned a much-needed pole in Saturday qualifying with a lap at 221.110 mph in his Chevrolet. The time stood as 16 drivers tried to knock him off the pole and Scott McLaughlin, winner of the season-opening race at St. Petersburg last month, just missed bumping the Swede from the top starting spot as the final driver out.

McLaughlin went 221.096 for Team Penske to just barely miss the pole but give Chevrolet a lockout of the front row. Takuma Sato qualified third in a Honda for Dale Coyne Racing and was followed by Power as Chevrolet took three of the top four spots.

Six-time Texas winner Scott Dixon, winner of the first race in a doubleheader last year, qualified fourth for Chip Ganassi Racing and was followed by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Meyer Shank Racing.

Jimmie Johnson, the winningest driver at Texas with seven wins in NASCAR, qualified 18th in his IndyCar oval debut. It was his best qualifying effort in 14 IndyCar races.

Xfinity Series

Ty Gibbs pulled off a brilliant move after taking the white flag to lead his only lap of the day, winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday night

On the second attempt to finish the crash-marred race in overtime, Ryan Sieg had the lead in the outside lane with Austin Hill running just inside his bumper.

Hill briefly grabbed the lead in the backstretch before Sieg reclaimed the top spot coming to the line with one lap to go.

But Gibbs, getting a big push from A.J. Allmendinger, spotted an opening between the two leaders, veered left to slip between their cars and got clear of both heading into the first turn.

Gibbs came off the second turn with a lead of several car lengths while a gaggle of machines bunched up behind him, none of them able to make any sort of run.

Gibbs took the checkered flag ahead of Hill by 0.178 seconds. Allmendinger wound up in third, while Sieg dropped all the way back to 10th.

“I did not expect this at all,” said the 19-year-old Gibbs, who claimed his second Xfinity win of the year and sixth of his career in just 23 starts. “I learned a big lesson: never give up.”

It was another heartbreaking Atlanta finish for Hill, a native of Winston, Georgia about 50 miles west of the speedway. He has finished second twice in truck races at the 1.54-mile trioval.

Now, he’s got another runner-up showing in the Xfinity Series, thought he was fortunate just to get to the line after fearing he was out of fuel on the final restart.

“Man, so close,” said Hill, who won the season-opening race at Daytona. “Being my home track, it stings a little more to be the first loser.”

Hill nearly made it a perfect day for the Peach State in the doubleheader preceding the Cup race Sunday.

Another Georgia native, 19-year-old Corey Heim, captured the first Truck Series victory of his career in the opener.

The 251-mile race on Atlanta’s repaved track with higher banking brought out 10 caution flags and wound taking almost 2 hours, 40 minutes to complete, finally finishing under the lights after nine extra laps.

The last wreck brought out a red flag to clear fluid off the track and forced a second green-white-checkered finish.

Gibbs, the grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs, made the most of the opportunity. There were no issues with Sieg, after the two had a nasty spat at Las Vegas.

“I’m going to go party with the boys,” he said during a jubilant celebration at the start-finish line.

With 11 laps to go, Trevor Bayne got loose and set off a big crash that took out multiple cars on the backstretch.

Among those collected in the melee was Justin Allgaier, ending his streak of 16 straight top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series going back to last season.

His three JR Motorsports teammates – Noah Gragson,, Josh Berry and Sam Mayer – were smashed up as well.

Gragson came into the race as the early Xfinity points leader, having won the previous race at Phoenix, finishing second two other times, races, and claiming third at Daytona.

Gragson dominated the opening stage, leading every lap until Berry passed him at the line to lead a sweep of the top four places by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team.

Gragson got into the wall early in the second stage, going down a lap, before fighting his way back into contention. But the big wreck finished off his chances of another strong finish.

He settled for 26th.