Around the Corner: Thermal

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Scott Dixon Sting Ray Robb

Note: This new series will identify trends and provide statistics and other information fans need to know between the end of qualifying and Race Day for every NTT INDYCAR SERIES event.

We know what the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is: The fastest, most versatile form of motorsports in the world. But today’s gathering of the sport is the great unknown.

What will this non-points, big-money exhibition event held on a road course where the series has never raced produce? Will the dust and unpredictable wind of arid Southern California rattle some cages? How will the 27 drivers manage their Firestone Firehawk tires on a circuit that chews up rubber? And what happens in a race when there are no live pit stops, no caution laps that count, an intermission, refueling of the tanks and more push-to-pass than this sport is accustomed to?

Welcome to The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge (12:30 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).

On tap for the day – or the morning, according to West Coast watches – is a pair of heat races and a 20-lap dash for cash. First place is a grab of $500,000 and personal gratification. The second-place finisher settles for a cool $350,000, third $250,000, fourth $100,000 and fifth $50,000. Everyone else goes home with $23,000.

But while the field has spent the past two days pounding the pavement to the tune of nine hours of testing, virtually no one has leaned on each other. What happens when two cars want the same corner? Like in Turn 1. Or Turn 2. Or Turn 15.

Will these hate-to-lose drivers force the issue with these expensive machines? Why wouldn’t they?

This is the sport’s first non-points race since 2008 (in Surfers Paradise, Australia) and the first go-for-big-dough event since the Marlboro Challenge was staged from 1987 through 1992. There’s simply not enough history to draw from.

Similarly, there is no relevant race data to review. Yes, there has been a quickest driver in each of the four test sessions held this week – Alex Palou (No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) led both times Friday, and Callum Ilott (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) set the pace Saturday – but those were single-lap times. Even the pole-winning laps of Felix Rosenqvist (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) and Palou were literally set in a vacuum as the wind was gusting, pushing the cars into some corners, resisting them into others.

What else is TBD? How about the track temperature? Most of this Open Test was held amid conditions much hotter than will be present this morning local time. Thermometers topped 85 degrees Friday, and it was only slightly milder Saturday. Today, the forecast calls for the mid-60s when the first heat race begins.

Then there’s the strategies to be executed by these clever teams. The heat races seem straightforward as only the top six finishers in each will advance to the main event. But will a team without a realistic shot at moving on be willing to risk its equipment, opting instead to use the 10-lap heat race as something of a test? The 20-lap feature will have no such concerns, but that, too, comes with significant intrigue.

This series has never had a mid-race break like this one will have. At the end of the 10th lap, the field will retreat to pit road with its positions held. Fuel can be added, wing angles adjusted. The driver can be attended to. Then, after a lap under caution, the action will resume.

But who saved what with their Firestone Firehawk tires could be the difference at the pay window. One could imagine a driver who started the race in the back half taking it easy before halftime to preserve his tires. When the second half begins, will that extra traction propel him forward? Interesting question. No one knows if the plan will work given the talent of those he must overtake and the limited opportunities to do so.

This circuit is 3.067 miles in length, but there will only be 10 laps to make magic.

There are some big numbers in this field: Fourteen drivers have combined to win 10 series championships and 174 races. Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) has won six and 56, respectively. Palou is the reigning series champion for the second time in his career. Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Business Team Penske Chevrolet) are each two-time champions, and they put 71 career race wins on the table.

But this race today is about being No. 1 – in the race, in the history of the event.

Who wins and by what method? Who knows.

Today is the great unknown.