Astor Challenge Cup

Today’s question: There are three prizes available this Sunday on the streets of Long Beach. Who will win the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the series’ Rookie of the Year award?

Curt Cavin: Alex Palou will win this championship because even if the No. 10 NTT Data Honda has major trouble, Pato O’Ward and/or Josef Newgarden must finish in the top two to overtake him. Obviously, that could happen, but the odds are heavily against it. Forecasting a race winner is a far more difficult challenge given that eight of the drivers in this 27-car field have won an INDYCAR race on the Long Beach street circuit and three have won multiple times (Sebastien Bourdais three, Will Power and Alexander Rossi two each). I’ve correctly picked the past two race winners (Palou at Portland, Colton Herta at Laguna Seca), so why not make it three? So, I’m going with Herta, who also won the St. Petersburg street race. As for Rookie of the Year, surely Scott McLaughlin hangs on. He leads by 20 points, which means Romain Grosjean needs to finish in the top five to have a realistic chance. Of course, it can be done as Grosjean gained 18 with his podium drive at Laguna Seca. But as with Palou, the odds are with McLaughlin. The wild card is that neither driver has seen this track before.

Zach Horrall: I agree with Curt that this is Alex Palou’s championship, and it’s much deserved after the way he and his Chip Ganassi Racing team handled themselves when their backs were against the wall after two miserable races on the IMS road course and at World Wide Technology Raceway in August. I think it’s even more impressive when you think about his run the last two weeks at Portland and Laguna Seca. I think he knew those races would win him this championship, because he’s not a great street course racer. In five street course races, he has just two top 10s, with a best finish of third at Belle Isle-2. Play to your strengths! But you know who is a good street course racer, and especially at Long Beach? Alexander Rossi. He looks strong in this final stretch of the season, and Andretti Autosport has a good street course program. Rossi has won the last two races at Long Beach, and when you add all this together, I think it equals a Rossi three-peat at Long Beach. As for the other title battle, I’m actually going to give this one to Romain Grosjean. Sure, he’s fared better this season on road courses than street courses, but his aggressive drive Sunday really impressed me, and I think he’s coming into his own as an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver. On a track neither Grosjean nor Scott McLaughlin know, I think Grosjean’s open-wheel experience will help him more this weekend than McLaughlin’s stock car background. If Grosjean pulls this off having competed in three less races, I think you better watch him in 2022.

Paul Kelly: It’s unanimous: Alex Palou will seal his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship with a composed drive this weekend at Long Beach. As Zach said, Palou doesn’t have the greatest record on street courses this season, but it doesn’t matter. The gap is just too big for Pato O’Ward to bridge, even if Palou has trouble. O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP haven’t been in peak form in the last two races, and I don’t think they’ll discover the secret sauce of domination at Long Beach. As for Josef Newgarden? Sorry, but nope. He needs nothing short of an absolute miracle to win the title. As for the race winner, I like Colton Herta to sweep the Golden State slate of races this season. When the drummer for The Zibs is locked in, he’s as good as gone. Look at St. Petersburg and Laguna Seca, which he won in dominant fashion from the NTT P1 Award position. Look at Nashville, which he should have won from the pole, too. The Rookie of the Year battle might be the most compelling race this weekend. Romain Grosjean is the faster of the two protagonists, with three podium finishes this season, all on road courses, compared to Scott McLaughlin’s one, on an oval. Still, it will be tough to for Grosjean to overcome skipping the first three oval races of this season, including the double-points Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Plus, McLaughlin has found consistency in the stretch run, with finishes of fourth, ninth and 12th in his last three starts. That should be enough to hang on as the first series Rookie of the Year winner for Penske Racing, as incredible as that may be to believe. It’s about the only honor in the sport that The Captain’s drivers haven’t achieved. Scotty Mac will do it.