INDIANAPOLIS – If he is granted proper access (and as IndyCar points leader, that seems likely), Alex Palou will nab a front-row seat for Sunday’s NASCAR crossover at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I never saw a NASCAR race in person, so if I have a chance, I will because it’s something I need to experience,” Palou told NBC Sports before pacing NTT IndyCar Series practice Friday on the 14-turn, 2.39-mile road course that is playing host to three series over three days this weekend.
“This year it’s been so fun to watch NASCAR on road courses. The races are super fun like the races in IndyCar when it’s wet. There’s lots of stuff happening. Big overtakes from three wide and stuff like that, so I think it’s crazy racing in NASCAR and super fun, so I just want to get to see the race in person.
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“I’ve been following all the races on TV, but you get a different atmosphere when you are here, and I want to hear 30 cars.”
Well, then how about 40 cars on the entry list for Sunday’s Cup race, Alex?
“Forty? Is it 40?” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver asked with looks of bemusement and incredulity. “Oh my God, these guys are crazy! I thought that (IndyCar) having 28 (for Saturday’s race) seems like maybe we went too far, but 40? That’s crazy.
“They are crazy, so that’s what I want to see: 40 cars. I think I never saw in person 40 cars. Like, 40 cars is huge. I saw it on TV, but it’s not the same as when you see a full straight full of big cars running.”
Palou was one of several giddy stars on both sides of the fence as IndyCar and NASCAR properly celebrated a motorsports crossover extravaganza for the first time at the Brickyard, which will be the site of IndyCar and Xfinity races Saturday and the NASCAR Cup circuit Sunday.
Marcus Ericsson, Palou’s Ganassi teammate who won this past Sunday at Nashville, also will stick around Sunday to see his first Cup race in person.
“A lot of action!” Ericsson told NBC Sports when asked what he hopes to see. “I think these guys on the road course is going to be pretty entertaining, so yeah it’s going to be fun.”
Though it’s the second consecutive year for a weekend tripleheader of the IndyCar and NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series at Indy, last year’s races at Indy were held without fans because of COVID-19 concerns. They also were hampered by pandemic restrictions that precluded any intermingling between series (drivers weren’t allowed in the paddock or garage except when they were raced).
This weekend also will mark the first time that all three series are running through the infield layout (after a 27-year Brickyard 400 run on the oval for Cup), so the information gleaned from an in-person scouting report could be valuable in NASCAR’s premier series
Joey Logano was among the Cup drivers who arrived early, watching IndyCar practice with son Hudson at the track owned by team owner Roger Penske.
During Xfinity Series practice, Conor Daly wandered through the Xfinity Series garage, catching up with friends he’s made while making three NASCAR starts (one Xfinity, two in truck). He planned to have dinner Friday night with Xfinity winner Noah Gragson (who has been his houseguest in Indy before).
“I like a lot of those guys,” Daly, who will be driving for Ed Carpenter Racing in Saturday’s Grand Prix, told NBC Sports. “I was texting (AJ) Allmendinger and said, ‘Hey AJ, if you win (the Xfinity race), we’re going to celebrate Saturday night.’ He said, ‘Well, I can’t because I’m racing Sunday (in Cup).’ I said, ‘Doesn’t matter!’
“I love all those guys are in town. It’s good to see everyone.”
Though he was planning to stick around for Saturday’s Xfinity race, Daly said attending the Cup race Sunday “depends on how Saturday goes for me.”
Rinus VeeKay, the 2020 IndyCar rookie of the year who won here in May, will be staying over Sunday at IMS (delaying a trip home to Florida) so he can cheer for William Byron.
The Chevrolet drivers spent Tuesday together at the GM Racing simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, with VeeKay coaching Byron on braking zones and corner techniques as well as taking a few virtual laps in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevy.
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“It’d be a pretty cool story if he does win,” VeeKay said of Byron. “It would be crazy. Very awesome. We both have limited practice (at IMS this weekend), especially for his first time here. Him seeing me drive a few laps in a stock car, even though I was a little bit slower than him, I did some lines that I normally do in IndyCar, and it really made him think. So I think it opened some ideas for him.
“It was nice to meet him, too. Really nice guy. And pretty young just like me. Yeah. I’m a fan of him now. So if I’m cheering for anyone, it’s going to be him.”
After a Saturday morning Q&A at Chevy hospitality with Byron, VeeKay is hoping to get a tour of Byron’s hauler and a closer look at his Cup car.
“It’s two of the biggest racing series in the U.S., but it’s two very different things,” VeeKay told NBC Sports. “You’ve got the big, heavy taxi cabs, and then you’ve got the IndyCar, which is made for road courses and built for this. So I think it’s going to be very cool. It’s two different fan bases.
“IndyCar needed a little boost. We’ve got Jimmie Johnson coming over here, bringing a lot of NASCAR people over to IndyCar. But I think this having a crossover, it’s going to be important to them. I think it’ll attract many IndyCar fans to NASCAR scene and NASCAR fans to the IndyCar scene.”
Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion who is midway through his rookie season on street and road courses in IndyCar, said he had been inundated with text messages from friends wanting access to the paddock. Chad Knaus, his former crew chief at Hendrick, was on Johnson’s pit stand Friday during qualifying.
“It’s an awesome weekend,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Marty Snider. “What a great day for race fans. Very special for me to be at the same track with my NASCAR family. I hope the schedule works out where I can visit and see some guys. Just a fun weekend and excited for the Cup cars and know they’re going to put on a great show this Sunday.”
Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon was undecided if he could attend Sunday but is hoping that future crossover tripleheaders will have more frenzied and longer schedules, noting that the first Cup practice isn’t until directly before the IndyCar race.
“Say Xfinity, then IndyCar, then Cup would do a practice,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “I think that would be quite fun. For fans, that’s what you want to see is on-track action.
“The format and thought behind it is amazing. How often do you get to see three of the largest series just about in the world racing all in one weekend? For me personally, road-course racing is probably (NASCAR’s) best races, and I think this track will play that way, too. Just because you’ve got such long straights, big braking zones. The flow should be a little bit better just because there’s lots of areas to run off as well if you do get collected.”
As the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric has grown up around the IndyCar paddock, but he still vicariously enjoyed the reactions of others who were new to the experience Friday.
“I’ve been inside that garage area enough that it’s not new to me, but it’s really new to a lot of other people in the (NASCAR) garage area,” said Cindric, who hung out in the Penske paddock Friday and expects to see IndyCar teammates Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud in the NASCAR garages Saturday and Sunday as he races Xfinity and Cup. “So it’s kind of fun to see everyone’s perspective on how things work, even having some of our leadership on the NASCAR side observe IndyCar practice from the pit stand, listen to the timing and scoring, the telemetry and so on and what’s different and translatable. I think that’s important as a race team having two programs at a racetrack at the same time is pretty cool.
“I think a lot of street races that IndyCar has, you have so many different kinds of cars and it gives the race fan so many different things to look forward to, it’s not just the same thing at a different rate of speed. It’s clear the difference in speed and driveability of an IndyCar to a NASCAR. We’re braking at the 800 (foot) marker going into Turn 1, where IndyCar is braking just before the 200.
“A race fan can see that difference. To look forward to that and look forward to the different types of racing and maybe anticipate how different battles can happen throughout the race because the race plays out so much differently between the two series and rules and packages and cars and aero and so on. It gives the race fan something to look forward to every day.”
Felix Rosenqvist was looking forward to a Saturday morning “seat swap” (minus actually turning a lap) with Austin Dillon, giving the Arrow McLaren SP driver a much-anticipated chance to see the No. 3 Chevy up close.
“That’s going to be cool,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports. “It’s still very foreign to me what they’re doing. it’s obviously a way different scene and just the whole vibe is different, so yeah, it’s always nice when you get a chance to see it a bit closer.
“Just to sit in the car. To hear a little bit about what do they talk about it, what’s their approach for a weekend, because in IndyCar we talk the same language and have the same vibe going through the weekends. I bet the NASCAR guys are just like “What are they talking about?”
NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said Cup teams might be very interested in IndyCar conversations given the arrival of the NextGen car. The new model for the 2022 season in Cup is patterned in many ways off the common chassis and parts that the IndyCar series has used successfully for several years.
“There’s a new car coming to NASCAR, and there’ll be a lot of crew chiefs, team managers paying real close attention to how that (IndyCar) garage works,” Burton said. “Because I think they know a whole lot more about what the Cup Series is going to be doing next year than the Cup Series does.
“There’s a lot to learn. Knowing the crew chiefs, the team managers and engineers, they’re going to be paying attention. They’re not coming here without a purpose with the IndyCar race here. They’re going to be paying really close attention. They’ll be trying to learn as much as they can. I think there’s a lot that IndyCar does and how the teams operate that can apply in the future with what’s going on in Cup.”