Unanswered questions hanging over some of IndyCar’s title hopefuls ahead of Long Beach

Some important questions will be answered at this weekend’s Long Beach Grand Prix as the NTT IndyCar Series heads into its second points-paying contest of the season.

The first area where the 1.9-mile, 11-turn track should provide insights is whether the crushing form Team Penske demonstrated last month on the streets of St. Petersburg was a bad omen of what’s to come for the rest of the field over the remaining street course events.

Pole- and race-winner Josef Newgarden was uncatchable in the No. 2 Chevy as he hit the trifecta by leading the most laps — 92 of 100 – and crossed the finish line a full 7.9 seconds clear of Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward in the No. 5 Chevy. O’Ward was the only thing stopping Penske from a podium sweep as Newgarden’s teammates Scott McLaughlin and Will Power placed third and fourth.


Penske’s had great success on street courses as recently as 2022 when McLaughlin won at St. Pete, Newgarden won at Long Beach, and Power who’d go on to clinch the championship — won at Detroit, so the strong start to 2024 is by no means a first for the team. But what separates the recent run at St. Pete from past street course victories is the clear domination by the team as a whole, and the potential separation it holds over its rivals.

That’s the main question that awaits an answer during qualifying and the race: Was St. Pete the revealing of a big street course gap Penske has established over everyone, or just a really amazing one-off outing where its trio were on a different level? We’ll know by the end of the weekend.

On a related note, Team Penske’s ownership of St. Pete also reinforced how uncompetitive the likes of Andretti Global and Chip Ganassi Racing – winners of 80 percent of the street races last season — were in Florida. The same could be said for Arrow McLaren, which earned a podium with one of its three cars, but was no match for Newgarden.

Andretti won at Long Beach and Nashville in 2023 with Kyle Kirkwood in the No. 27 Honda, who was a non-factor at St. Pete, but did have Colton Herta qualify fourth and cross the finish line in fifth, albeit 10.2s behind Newgarden in the No. 26 Honda. New teammate Marcus Ericsson qualified sixth and ran as high as fifth until he was sidelined by a fluke issue with the air intake on the No. 28’s engine. It wasn’t a bad showing for Andretti by any means, but with Kirkwood’s wins in mind, the soft start to the new season was not anticipated.

The lone caveat to consider for Andretti this weekend is how far ahead and clear Kirkwood and former teammate Romain Grosjean were one year ago at Long Beach, when they qualified first and third and finished 1-2 with Herta not far behind in fourth.

Last year’s Long Beach winner Kyle Kirkwood had a quiet weekend at St Pete, but once the checkered flag waves on Sunday we’ll have a better picture of what kind of street course shape Andretti Global is in this year. Gavin Baker/Motorsport Images

Just as Long Beach will tell us a ton about Penske’s ability to wreak havoc moving forward, it will also answer whether Andretti can summon the edge it had last April. The Ganassi team finds itself in a similar situation.

Through eventual champion Alex Palou and former driver Ericsson, Ganassi won two street races as well in 2023, but it was lost in qualifying at St. Pete with Scott Dixon taking 11th in the No. 9 Honda and Palou a surprisingly poor 13th in the No. 10 Honda.

Palou was one of few contending drivers to make progress in the race and salvaged a sixth-place result while Dixon claimed ninth, and for Palou, it was a better start than the eighth he took at St. Pete in 2023. But in the same vein as Andretti, so much more was projected from the squad that utterly dominated the last championship.

If Palou is going to defend his title, and if Dixon is going to vie for his seventh crown, Ganassi will need to make its presence felt in Southern California, where Ericsson was third and Palou was fifth in 2023. Factor in a winless streak for Arrow McLaren that has reached 24 races, and Long Beach is filled with contenders who want to dispel the notion that they’ll be relegated to second behind Penske.

Central to their ambitions is their choice of powerplant, which is the last question of championship significance to monitor this weekend.

Outside of teams and drivers, there was one aspect of the St. Pete street race that stood out more than any other with Chevy’s mollywhopping of Honda on a style of circuit that has often favored Honda.

Known for its slight advantage off of slow point-and-shoot corners like you’d find on city streets, the Honda Racing Corporation US-built 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s were able to summon power and torque from low in the rev band last season and get better jumps leaving hairpins and tight 90-degree turns.

Honda won all five of the street races in 2023, and it’s here where Sunday’s 85-lap race will tell us how the rest of the street races — down to four after Nashville was converted to an oval event — should be determined.

As Newgarden and O’Ward and McLaughlin espoused after locking out the podium in St. Pete, their ability to run away and hide was clearly aided by the offseason improvements achieved by Chevy. If Chevy holds the upper hand this weekend, we’ll also know if some of the deficit shown by Honda teams at the first race wasn’t entirely of their making.

At the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, held just 60 miles from HRC US’s base in nearby Valencia, the tale of two engine suppliers will be told and the outcome will set the tone for which brand — if any — is in control as we get closer to the month of May and the Indianapolis 500.

Story originally appeared on Racer