Alex Palou

Many of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES competitors must still be shaking their heads as they reconcile what happened Sunday in the Grand Prix of Portland.

As is usually the case at Portland International Raceway, the action began in the first corner of the race. There wasn’t as much damage as in some years – see the start of the 2018 race as an example – but this ping-pong contact did its share of shuffling, sending the top four qualifiers, including NTT P1 Award pole winner Alex Palou and fellow championship contender Scott Dixon, back in the order for the restart at Lap 11.

From there, the three different pit strategies and various tire usage had several drivers entertaining thoughts of victory. Graham Rahal was one, Jack Harvey and Ed Jones among the others. Josef Newgarden came clawing back from the 18th starting position to have an opportunity to win. Of course, the group of hopefuls included championship leader Pato O’Ward, who led the first 28 laps as the leaders scattered in front of him.

But in the end, the two Chip Ganassi Racing drivers carrying PNC Bank livery – Palou and Dixon – came out best, with Palou scoring his series-leading third victory of the season and grabbing a solid hold on the point standings with races to go. Dixon finished third behind Alexander Rossi, the driver of the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda of Andretti Autosport who earned his best finish of the season similarly restarting back in the order after qualifying second.

What does it all mean? That the next 13 days, which includes Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sept. 26, should be as interesting and likely unpredictable as any the series has experienced this season.

Palou in Command

Palou entered the Portland weekend with a 10-point deficit to O’Ward, the closest margin of the top two drivers with three races to go in the past seven years. Then Palou earned the bonus point afforded the winner of the NTT P1 Award. With Palou having to take evasive action to avoid hitting Dixon on the first lap, the 24-year-old Spaniard didn’t lead the race until Lap 43, but he certainly made the most of point collection.

The only points Palou didn’t earn were the two for leading the most laps, a credit that went to Rahal. Still, it was an overwhelmingly productive weekend for the driver of the No. 10 PNC Bank Honda, who led the final 25 laps for his series-high third win of the season. Palou scored 16 points more than Dixon, 22 more than Newgarden, 25 more than Marcus Ericsson and a whopping 35 more than O’Ward to take control of the championship pursuit.

Palou is atop the standings for the ninth time this season, and this one couldn’t be more timely. Yes, there figures to be excitement aplenty at Laguna Seca and most definitely at the often-wild street race in Long Beach, but the list of realistic contenders is shrinking by the week. Dixon now trails by 49 points, which might be too much to overcome for a record-tying seventh series title, and Ericsson’s 75-point deficit seems unrealistic to climb back from given four drivers are ahead of him.

So, focus on the top three. Palou leads O’Ward by 25 points and two-time series champion Newgarden by 34. In just a few days, it’s again game on.

O’Ward Needed More Speed

O’Ward must be the one most in disbelief after his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet escaped the first-lap chaos, led the first 28 laps and then dogged Rahal for the lead through the middle section of the race. He seemed poised for at least a top-five finish.

But when 2018 Indy Lights champion O’Ward radioed to his crew about not having competitive speed on the two long sections of the 12-turn, 1.964-mile road course, that was the beginning of his fade.

O’Ward also got caught with the wrong strategy on the final pit stop, dropping him in the order. To wit, he was third on Lap 82, pitted on Lap 83, exited in 16th place, saw the caution come out on Lap 86 and couldn’t get much further up in the running order. He finished 14th, collecting only 17 points to Palou’s 52.

Now, O’Ward has work to do. The 22-year-old Mexican driver has never raced in INDYCAR at Laguna Seca, although he made five starts over two seasons in Indy Pro 2000, winning once. He has only one career start at Long Beach, a 12th-place finish in 2019 driving for Carlin.

Palou has only tested at Laguna Seca and has never been to Long Beach, but that might not matter after what transpired in the Pacific Northwest. He had never raced there, either.

McLaughlin Takes Control of Rookie Battle

Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) took a strong step toward becoming Team Penske’s first INDYCAR Rookie of the Year, an award that dates to 1979.

McLaughlin finished ninth in Sunday’s race, taking advantage of the first-lap incident to gain ground on the competitive NTT INDYCAR SERIES field. As several cars came together in the chicane that begins with the right-handed Turn 1, McLaughlin avoided the trouble and moved up to sixth place. He had started 15th.

With Romain Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) involved in that first-lap incident and finishing 22nd, McLaughlin’s advantage in the rookie battle is 38 points with two races to go. The New Zealander can clinch the title at Laguna Seca if he leads by 55 points or more.

Portland also will be remembered as the first track where McLaughlin led a lap in this series. He took the lead on Lap 80 as the various pit strategies were being executed, and he held it for five circuits before making his final stop of the race.

The top-10 finish was McLaughlin’s fifth of the season and second in succession. He finished fourth in the Aug. 21 oval race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

“We’re getting better and better,” McLaughlin said after the race. “Leading our first laps showed we are heading in the right direction.”

This Week’s Schedule

On-track action begins Friday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, a 750-mile drive south from Portland International Raceway.

Whereas Portland had a two-day INDYCAR show, the two events that end the season have three days of action for the series. The first 45-minute practice at Laguna Seca begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. (ET) on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ live streaming option.

Laguna Seca’s second INDYCAR practice is Saturday at 1:45 p.m. (ET) – that’s another 45-minute session – with NTT P1 Award qualifying at 5:05 p.m. (ET). Both will air live on Peacock.

Sunday’s schedule includes a 30-minute warmup at noon (ET) – again on Peacock – with the 95-lap Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC beginning at 3 p.m. (ET). The green flag is estimated at 3:30 p.m.

Like the Portland race, this one also is five laps longer than the most recent event in 2019. Colton Herta, who drives the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian, won that race for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.