More than any other word -- more than corkscrew or Andretti Hairpin or Rahal Straight - unfamiliarity defines what’s about to happen this weekend at INDYCAR's final race of the season. Only four of the 24 drivers who will participate in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey have raced at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in an Indy car, and only one of them -- Scott Dixon -- is in contention for the series championship.
The other three contenders -- Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud -- haven’t competed in an Indy car race at the storied road course.
That doesn’t mean they’re coming in blind, of course. They’ve tested. They’ve simmed. They’ve studied. They've even raced other types of cars, albeit often at slower speeds, but they don't have relevant Indy car racing experience there.
That’s what makes handicapping this championship so challenging. Fact is, none of the title contenders have raced at Laguna Seca with this equipment package. Dixon's last race there was 2002. Indy cars last raced there in 2004, but that was a Champ Car race and Dixon was in the Indy Racing League by then.
Given the tough-to-pass nature of circuit, qualifying is amplified. Saturday’s session will be as important -- if not more important -- as the race. Unless the tires fall off, which is a strong possibility, Laguna Seca won’t offer many opportunities to gain positions during the 90-lap race. So, where one starts could be essential.
The top three in the standings have combined to win seven pole positions this season. IndyCar’s road/street qualifying format is treacherous; a misstep in one session could end a contender’s chances. Likewise, winning the pole could go a long way toward winning the championship. The top qualifying position also comes with a bonus point, which might be the different between hoisting the Astor Challenge Cup and going home disappointed.
“I've been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna,” Rossi said. “It's no secret that we're expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of its history. … It's 100 percent going to be a critical qualifying session that you're going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds. The guy that's on pole, if he's one of the guys that are in the championship fight, it's going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”
One bit of relief for those concerned: There will be upwards of 10 hours of track time before the green flag waves Sunday afternoon.
With his 41-point lead and the finale’s double-points format, Newgarden has the most straightforward route to the title: Finish fourth or better and the championship is his. Finish deeper in the field, though, and it becomes more complicated. And dangerous for the Team Penske driver looking for his second career title in the series.
It's also worth noting that Newgarden has never race any type of car at Laguna Seca, although the abbreviated INDYCAR test in February allowed him to learn his way around.
“With double points, I've tried to make everyone aware all the way along that it's far from being over, that it's always going to be a difficult race in Laguna with a double-point situation,” Newgarden said. “That's where we find ourselves. We're in the better position. We definitely have a little bit of a comfort, but nothing that you can feel too comfortable about. We still have to perform really well.”
Claiming the championship means claiming familiarity of a previously unexplored venue. Until then, nobody knows.
INDYCAR concludes its 17-race season with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday. Television coverage will begin on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. PT local) with the green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m. local). Live radio broadcasts will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).