Scott Dixon probably wasn’t going to repeat as NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion. After all, despite winning six series championships – the second-most in the sport’s history – he has never won titles in consecutive years. His came in 2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2020.
The easy explanation for Dixon being eliminated from contention Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is to say he got struck in the Corkscrew by Takuma Sato. But Dixon had been struggling to contend long before that.
After starting eighth and moving to the fifth spot on the opening lap, the handling of Dixon’s car often was a handful. On the Firestone’s primary black tires, Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing couldn’t match the speed of others around him, and his car was sliding where it wasn’t supposed to.
Then, the Sato incident occurred.
Sato spun in the treacherous turn and then started to back across the track. Dixon tried to avoid the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, darting toward the dirt on the left side. But Sato’s car kept rolling backward, and the impact was firm. The damage to Dixon’s right sidepod and undertray was visible even at speed, and he was left to soldier on as best he could.
Dixon was 11th at the time of the contact and finished 13th, but it didn’t matter. With teammate Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT Data Honda) grabbing 40 points for the second-place finish, Dixon’s deficit swelled from 49 points to an insurmountable 72.
Assuming Palou participates in next week’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, all drivers not within 49 points do not have a chance. That means Palou’s only significant challenger is Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet), who finished fifth Sunday. His deficit is 35 points.
Newgarden Barely Hanging On
Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) also has been bidding to add another series championship to his resume, but it also likely won’t come this year.
Unlike Dixon, Newgarden managed to stay in title contention – barely – as he battled through an extra pit stop and difficulty keeping his tires under him to finish seventh. He will go to Long Beach with a 48-point deficit. He would need to score the maximum number of points -- win the race and lead the most laps -- and have Palou finished 25th or worse in a 27-car field without leading a lap. In that scenario, O’Ward also would need to finish third or worse for Newgarden to mount a miracle comeback.
“It was just hard to do more than we did starting 17th,” Newgarden said. “We can’t start back there; we know that. Just a punch to the gut (in qualifying) with the way that went – two weekends in a row.
“It’s still a little bit hard to digest. We’re not sure what’s caused that, but I’m proud of my team.”
Newgarden’s INDYCAR titles came in 2017 and 2019, so he probably won’t be able to go every other year on the Astor Challenge Cup. He’s not willing to go out without a fight, but he fears the title opportunity is gone.
“We’ll go to Long Beach and at least get second out of this championship,” he said.
Ericsson Eliminated but Undeterred
Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) continued his strong run in the second half of the season with a sixth-place finish.
Ericsson stood 13th in the standings after the two races at Texas Motor Speedway in early May, and he was still 10th following the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. In the nine races since, he has won two races to climb to fifth.
In this race, the Swede had to go 30 laps on the same set of tires during the middle stint, but he handled the difficulty like the series veteran he has become.
“It was a tough day, I think,” he said. “We had a good car, but we had some traffic in the first stint that we had to (pit early) out of that traffic. Then, we had to run long on each stint, and today with the (tire) degradation on this track, it was tough for us to keep the pace over the stints.
“P6 was a good result, but we were hoping for a little bit more.”
Johnson Hangs on for Best Result
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) finished 17th, his best result as an INDYCAR driver. But even more rewarding on the weekend of his 46th birthday was the way he battled.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson had a lengthy duel with six-time INDYCAR race winner James Hinchcliffe (No. 29 Genesys Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport) and escaped heavy contact from Romain Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) at the top of the famous Corkscrew. Both drivers did well to hang on.
“I thought our day was over (following the contact),” Johnson said. “I couldn’t believe that he threw it in there that late on me. Luckily, we both saved it. I thought I (broke) my wrists, too, as the wheel went whipping around. We both saved it.
“I was worried about getting a penalty for being inside the green (restricted area), but thankfully I didn’t get that penalty, and I was able to get that career-best finish.”
Contact Befells Rossi
Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda) had perhaps his best chance to win a race this season go bad on the second lap.
Rossi, who started second, had an opportunity to pass Andretti Autosport teammate Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) on the inside in Turn 5 after Herta drifted briefly into the dirt in Turn 4. Rossi tried to pounce, but once alongside Herta his car wiggled and then pushed into Herta’s, causing contact that sent Rossi to the left-side barrier.
After being helped from the gravel trap, Rossi continued, finishing two laps down in 25th.
Arrow McLaren SP Extends Sponsorship
The Arrow McLaren SP sponsorship will remain intact – for drivers Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist – for 2022 and beyond as part of multiyear partnership extension with Arrow Electronics, the team announced Sunday. The sponsorship extends to McLaren Racing’s Formula One team, as well.
Since 2019, the partnership between Arrow Electronics and McLaren Racing has enabled the two organizations to put a shared belief in technology and innovation to at the center of a joint commitment to drive progress and bring services and solutions to the team and their respective networks.
In August, McLaren Racing announced it had acquired majority stake in Arrow McLaren SP.
Odds and Ends
- Honda clinched the Manufacturers Award with its ninth win of the season. Honda won its first INDYCAR championship 25 years ago, and this is its fourth consecutive Manufacturers Award.
- Entertainer Alfonso Ribeiro, a longtime friend of Bryan Herta’s, spent the weekend on Colton Herta’s pit box, listening to the team’s radio. Ribeiro, who was in the crew photograph following Herta’s NTT P1 Award qualifying run, also sang the national anthem and gave the command to start engines Sunday.
- Next week’s season-ending event at Long Beach begins Friday with the first 45-minute practice at 6 p.m. (ET), live on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service. There will be a second practice of the same duration Saturday at noon (ET), followed by NTT P1 Award qualifying at 3:05 p.m. (ET). The green flag for the 85-lap Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is set for Sunday at 3:45 p.m. (ET), with live coverage on NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
- Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood won the second half of the Indy Lights doubleheader, sweeping the weekend and extending his points lead over David Malukas of HMD Motorsports to 15 points. A pair of races remain, Oct. 2-3 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Kirkwood now has nine wins, one shy of Greg Moore’s series record set in 1995. Should Kirkwood win the championship, it would complete his championship sweep of the Road to Indy program. He won USF2000 in 2018 and Indy Pro 2000 in 2019.