Alex Palou

Watch: Race Highlights

As to be expected, the challenging, undulating WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca was a penultimate thrill ride for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, helping set the scene for the 2021 season finale this Sunday in Long Beach, California (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Radio Network).

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES was back at the 11-turn, 2.238-mile circuit after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was worth the wait. This rollercoaster of a racetrack challenged the series’ best athletes and showcased the talents of the unlikely.

The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey felt like the same-old, same-old as Colton Herta won from the pole, just like he did in 2019. However, the storylines coming out of Northern California are plentiful, including key title battles and a host of impressive performances at one of the most famous, yet challenging, racetracks in the United States.

Allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear and unpack the 95-lap race in Monterey, California.

Palou Puts Stronghold on Championship

With a second-place finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Alex Palou is within sight of his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.

It’s an impressive turn of events considering nearly one month ago Palou had a run of bad luck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and World Wide Technology Raceway that dropped him from the championship lead. But now, it appears the Astor Challenge Cup could be Palou’s for the taking.

With his second-place finish in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, Palou extended his championship lead to 35 points over second place Pato O’Ward. Leading into the weekend, O’Ward was at a 25-point deficit in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.

As is his way of life, Palou is not stressing over the title fight this week. He said he will review some data, but he isn’t going to get in his way as he looks to win his first racing championship since his European karting days in 2012.

“There’s not that much (to review),” he said. “It’s like putting salt on food. You need to have a balance. Yes, as we’ve been doing, it’s been working. Obviously going to Long Beach, a street course and a track I don’t know, it’s going to be a big challenge. But I think we have the balance right.

“I’m fully focused. I have now probably the most important week of my entire life.”

Palou had top-six speed all weekend, and he proved to be race winner Colton Herta’s only true competition during the race as he ran second to Herta most of the day and scored his eighth podium finish of the season.

What’s more impressive is that Palou’s runner-up run came at a track where he’s never raced, only tested. That also wasn’t a problem the previous weekend when he won at Portland, so odds are it won’t be an issue this weekend in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, of which he’s the only championship contender without experience on the street course.

O’Ward rallied from what looked to be a challenging weekend on the West Coast when the race weekend started. He struggled to show speed in practice and had trouble keeping his car on the track. But he progressed all weekend and rallied to finish fifth after starting sixth.

“I’m disappointed and happy,” O’Ward said. “We did everything we could, and I fought like hell. We are still alive in the championship, and a lot of things can fall our way. We will go to Long Beach and try to win it and see where everything else falls.”

In a distant third in the standings is two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Josef Newgarden, who is 48 points back after finishing seventh in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Mathematically speaking, Newgarden has a chance to win his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, but the odds are low.

It’s going to be an intense weekend on the Streets of Long Beach as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship is decided in the final race for the 16th consecutive season.

McLaughlin Closing on Rookie of the Year Title after Strong Weekend

NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Scott McLaughlin didn’t have a career-best result at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but his 12th-place finish Sunday capped off one of his best overall weekends in the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet.

More importantly, his solid performance gave him the leg up he needs on Romain Grosjean for Rookie of the Year honors entering this weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. McLaughlin has a 20-point lead over Formula One veteran Grosjean in the Rookie of the Year standings, even after Grosjean finished third.

Three-time Australian V8 Supercars champion McLaughlin didn’t take solace in knowing he is the favorite to secure the rookie honors this weekend, because he knew what could have been.

McLaughlin, 28, showed impressive speed all weekend long. On Saturday, he led his first-ever NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice session and looked poised to start near the front.

However, a miscommunication brought him to pit lane too soon during qualifying when he thought the session was over. There was still one minute to go, and McLaughlin wasn’t on track to capitalize on his Firestone tires and put down a fast lap. He started 16th.

McLaughlin didn’t let that dampen his race day. He charged early and found himself in the top 10 in the early stages of the race. While the speed was there, the pit strategy was not in line for McLaughlin’s Team Penske crew, and McLaughlin made a costly mistake on pit lane when he slid through his pit box, which prevented him from earning his sixth top-10 finish of the season.

“In the broad scheme of things, this was probably a really good, character-building weekend for me,” McLaughlin said. “I think I passed the most cars I ever had; I passed like seven cars on the start. I was having a lot of fun.”

Johnson Turns In Exciting Career-Best Day

NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Jimmie Johnson was putting it to his fellow race car drivers Sunday and charging hard for positions on his way to a career-best 17th-place finish.

At a racetrack where he has tested, Johnson showed the progress he’s made in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES season after a storied NASCAR Cup Series career that included seven championships. His previous-best finish was 19th at Barber Motorsports Park in April and on the IMS road course in August.

Johnson’s comfort in the open-wheel cars was displayed through his aggressive driving at different periods of the race. His two biggest moments came in the famed Corkscrew corner.

Near the midpoint of the race, Johnson charged his No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to the inside of James Hinchcliffe in the famous blind corner for position.

His biggest highlight reel moment came in the closing stages of the race when fellow rookie Romain Grosjean made a bold pass into the Corkscrew. The two made contact, but their world-class skill in other disciplines of racing helped them save their machines.

“It was a solid day for me here at WeatherTech Raceway,” Johnson said. “All-in-all, there was a lot of passing, and I really had a great experience learning how to set cars up and make passes and work my way up from the 25th starting position. All in all, it was a good day for our No. 48 Carvana Honda.”

Johnson, who has only run the road and street course races this season, has one more event coming up, and it’s one that has incredible meaning to him – the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. It’s a race Johnson has dreamed of competing in since he was a child, and in a matter of days his dream will come true.

Askew Posts Strong Result

Oliver Askew put his best foot forward at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, finishing a season-best ninth in his second race with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The finish upped his previous best result of the season by three places, when he subbed for the injured Rinus VeeKay at Road America and finished 12th in an Ed Carpenter Racing machine. It was his first top-10 finish in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES since he finished sixth at Iowa Speedway in July 2020.

Askew drove the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda to the solid finish after tying his career-best start of fifth and leading the RLL stable for much of the weekend, and he was a solid top-10 contender all race long.

It was more than just a strong result for the driver who has competed part-time in 2021. It was a strong job audition as Askew looks to find a full-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES ride for 2022. That seat could be the No. 45 Honda he is driving in the final three races down the West Coast.

“It was a long race, very physical,” Askew said. “I felt we had some good pace. Unfortunately, we lost a couple spots on pit lane on the first stop. But I’m happy with a top 10 today. We had great pace all weekend and have good momentum going into Long Beach.”

Jones Firing on All Cylinders To End Season

With a 10th-place finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Ed Jones posted his second consecutive solid performance as he charges to a strong end of the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season.

Jones ran closer to the front in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda than what the box score indicates. He and Dale Coyne Racing teammate Romain Grosjean executed a three-stop pit strategy that had them slightly off sequence with the race leaders.

On two occasions, Jones ran in the top five and in Grosjean’s tire tracks, giving him a taste of winning in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Unlike Grosjean, Jones was unable to march through the field in the closing laps in his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan car.

“I feel we had a top-six car,” Jones said. “We lost a few positions at the start of the race, made them back, and it was looking good. After the first stop, we came out in a difficult position and were a bit defenseless. We recovered to get back to 10th, which is good.”

Last weekend at Portland International Raceway, Jones finished 11th after starting eighth. His finish last weekend was also blunted by pit strategy, which saw him run as high as second behind Graham Rahal as they tried to a strategy that was different than the leaders. However, cautions did not play into their hands.

Sunday’s finish was Jones’ third top-10 result of the season, with his previous strong results coming as a ninth-place finish at Belle Isle-1 and a sixth at Nashville.

Things are looking up for Jones to finish the season strong. In three races at Long Beach, he has a best finish of third while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018. He also finished sixth in 2017 and 16th in his most recent outing in 2019.