Pato O'Ward

All eyes are looking ahead at the return of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES this weekend after the Olympic break, as the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix roars to life Friday through Sunday on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee.

But three teams managed to get in a final run of testing last week before Nashville, as Chip Ganassi Racing, Arrow McLaren SP and Meyer Shank Racing tested Friday, July 30 at Portland International Raceway, home of the Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday, Sept. 12.

Times and speeds aren’t released from private tests, but various reports and social media content offered us a look at how these drivers got around the 12-turn, 1.964-mile circuit.

Here are five takeaways:

Pato Power

Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP was the quickest driver at the test, as he continued to build his reputation as perhaps the fastest driver in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES this season.

O’Ward has won two races and two NTT P1 Awards this season, and he’ll need to keep that speed to challenge championship leader Alex Palou for the title over the final six races of the season. O’Ward is second in the standings, 39 points behind Palou.

Top Three Strong

The top three in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings is comprised of leader Alex Palou, second place Pato O’Ward and third-place Scott Dixon. So, guess who were the three quickest drivers at this test?

Yep, you guessed it – just in a slightly different order.

O’Ward was quickest, followed by six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Dixon and then Palou.

But there was almost nothing between the top three on the final time sheets, as O’Ward led Dixon by just a tenth of a second, and Palou trailed his teammate Dixon by a scant three-hundredths of a second.

These three drivers have been season-long powerhouses in 2021, and it sets the stage for a tantalizing stretch run of six races to crown a series champion.

Tight Competition

Less than two-tenths of a second separated the top three drivers at the test – O’Ward, Dixon and Palou. But the tight gaps extended even further down the time chart.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson and Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves reportedly ended up deadlocked for the sixth-quickest time, but they were less than three-tenths of a second behind leader O’Ward.

While it appears that Palou, O’Ward, Dixon and probably Josef Newgarden of Team Penske will be the title protagonists down the stretch barring a late-season surge or collapse, the tight time sheet indicates a number of drivers not in the championship hunt could grab maximum points with a win in any of the final six races of the year.

It’s vital for any title contender to stay on the podium consistently in this final dash, even if not on the top spot.

Seven-Time Is Getting There

Yes, Jimmie Johnson was eighth on the time chart at the end of the test in his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

But the real number that should be observed isn’t his final position; it’s his gap to the top. And seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson continues to get closer and closer to the elite of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES with every session.

Johnson reportedly was only a second behind teammate Palou at Portland, yet another track where he has never raced.

Remember the sessions early in the season when Johnson lagged sometimes two and even three seconds off the pace? Those days are gone, as the legend is learning at a rapid pace.

Harvey Continues To Knock on Winner’s Door

Meyer Shank Racing already scored the biggest victory of the season when Helio Castroneves won the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 30 for the Ohio-based team that surprised many against the might of such teams like Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren SP.

But would it really be a surprise if Jack Harvey scored his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory in one of the final six races? Probably not.

Harvey was fourth quickest at the test, only a sliver over two-tenths of a second behind leader Palou. He has knocked at the door of his first win for so long that his knuckles must be bruised; his time must be coming soon.

Happy Jack is leaving Meyer Shank Racing at the end of this season, so he could give the team an ideal going-away gift. And a second win also would further validate the rise of Meyer Shank on the INDYCAR team pecking order, as so far this season only Chip Ganassi Racing (four wins) and Arrow McLaren SP (two wins) have more than one victory.