David Malukas

Close championship fights have been a hallmark of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, as the decision has gone down to the final race of the season every year since 2006.

That streak looks to be extended this year, as just 60 points separate the top five drivers in the standings with three races to go. At the top, Pato O’Ward leads second-place Alex Palou by just 10 points as the series enters the Grand Prix of Portland this weekend.

But an even closer title bout is taking place in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, which also competes this weekend at Portland in a doubleheader. Indy Lights is the top rung on the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder system.

Just three points separate leader David Malukas of HMD Motorsports and second-place Kyle Kirkwood of Andretti Autosport with six races remaining in the 20-race season. At stake is a scholarship valued at $1.3 million that will guarantee entry into a minimum of three NTT INDYCAR SERIES races in 2022.

Malukas, 19, from Chicago, enters Portland on a hot streak. He swept both races last month on the World Wide Technology Raceway oval. Both Malukas and Kirkwood have six victories apiece this season.

“It’s no surprise that the points are so close, with the leader seemingly switching after every race,” Malukas said. “I’ve had good experiences at Portland and my engineer won at both Portland and Laguna with Rinus VeeKay, so I know we’ll be quick.

Portland has been fertile turf for both drivers in lower rungs of the Road to Indy ladder.

Malukas won an Indy Pro 2000 race in 2018 on the 12-turn, 1.964-mile circuit in Portland. Kirkwood, 22, from Jupiter, Florida, has enjoyed even more success in the Pacific Northwest city, winning two USF2000 races en route to the title in 2018 and triumphing twice in Portland in 2019 in Indy Pro 200 on his way to winning that championship.

“This is a different sort of year than two years ago in Indy Pro 2000, where I played catch-up for much of the year – I was down by over 40 points midway through the season in 2019,” Kirkwood said. “I took more risks that year, trying to catch up.

“Both David and I know that if we do something wrong, we will lose an immense amount of points and we know the other will capitalize. This is the closest I’ve battled with another driver in my entire car racing career, and I’m glad it’s against David. We grew up karting together and were on the same team when I was 12 years old.”

Linus Lundqvist of Sweden remains a distant contender, 59 points behind Malukas, with two victories this season. But it’s looking more and more like this will be a two-driver duel for the championship at the three remaining doubleheaders – this weekend at Portland, Sept. 17-19 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Oct. 1-3 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Both Malukas and Kirkwood know there’s far more at stake than a championship. The $1.3-million scholarship for the winner could propel them into a career in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.

“I can’t help but think about next year, trying to get to INDYCAR,” Malukas said. “The fact that it’s even a possibility is mind-boggling. I remember being a little kid and watching Scott Dixon on TV. I had a hoverboard and I remember after watching INDYCAR races, I’d drive around the dining room table pretending to race him.

“To think that I might be side-by-side with him in real life is a dream, not only for me but for my entire family. They’ve worked so hard for me over the years, and if this does happen, it will be the highlight of the year.”

Said Kirkwood: “Honestly, I think there was more pressure when I was trying to win the scholarships in USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 – it was crucial that I won those championships in order to move up the ladder. Now that I’m in Indy Lights with a team like Andretti, I’m able to put myself in front of so many people that I feel as though I have a good chance to get to INDYCAR whether I win or not.

“It’s a bigger scholarship, and obviously it would solidify a seat. Everyone’s asking me about next year, but I’m just focusing on what lies ahead over these next six races. It’s so close, it’s as if the season restarts now.”

Practice at Portland starts at 6 p.m. (ET) Friday, followed by qualifying for Race One at 7:35 p.m. Qualifying for Race Two starts at 2:25 p.m. (ET) Saturday, with the first race at 4:55 p.m. (ET) that day. The second race is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

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