Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

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The NTT INDYCAR SERIES will celebrate its youngest season champion in nearly two decades this weekend barring something of a motorsports miracle in Josef Newgarden’s favor.

The question is, will it be Alex Palou (24) or Pato O’Ward (22)?

Palou is the heavy favorite to win this championship, taking a 35-point lead into Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network). He can be assured of his first series title – in just his second year – by finishing 11th or better. Should the Spaniard driving the No. 10 NTT Data Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing not fare that well in the 85-lap race, he can still earn his place on the Astor Challenge Cup if O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) or Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) fail to do exceptionally well.

Newgarden, who trails by 48 points, needs to score the maximum number of points through winning the NTT P1 Award, leading the most laps and winning the race and then have Palou finish in one of the bottom four positions in the 28-car field. If all of that happens, the championship will be Newgarden’s third in five years regardless of how O’Ward finishes.

O’Ward’s path to the championship is only slightly easier than Newgarden’s. His best chance to earn the crown is to collect all 54 available points and then have Palou finish 12th or lower.

The championship will be decided at the final race for the 16th consecutive year, but as O’Ward has said, it’s Palou’s to lose. Should Palou finish this pursuit, he will become INDYCAR’s youngest champion since Scott Dixon in 2003. If O’Ward stages the upset, he would be the youngest since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001.

Banner Year for Ganassi

Barring a dramatic turn of events, Chip Ganassi Racing is going to celebrate yet another INDYCAR championship, its 14th in the sport, second only to Team Penske’s 16. But CGR’s season will be defined as much by depth as a single car’s accomplishment.

Palou heads to the finale with a chance to win his fourth race; he already leads the series with three, and he finished second to Helio Castroneves in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda) and Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) are positioned to give the Indianapolis-based organization three of the top five season finishers, and the trio already have combined for six wins.

Palou would be Chip Ganassi’s sixth different driver to win an INDYCAR title, following Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi (twice), Juan Pablo Montoya, Dixon (six times) and Dario Franchitti (three times). But dive deeper and consider the decisions Ganassi and managing director Mike Hull made last year as the pandemic-impacted season was wreaking havoc with the schedule.

Ganassi and Hull chose to bring Palou to the team even though statistically there wasn’t much to foretell this kind of success. Palou had only one top-five finish and three top 10s and one podium finish last season with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh. Palou ended the year 16th in points with only one lap led, that coming through pit cycles late in the season-ending race in St. Petersburg. He finished 13th.

Ericsson joined CGR in 2020, but he, like Palou, didn’t have a basket full of impressive results last season. The Swede failed to score a podium finish, crashed out of the “500” early and led only four laps during the season. Yet, like Palou, he took a big step this year, winning twice (in Detroit and Nashville), the latter impressive for the way he held back Colton Herta, the NTT P1 Award winner dominating the weekend in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian.

CGR also deserves high marks for the way it brought along Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion driving the No. 48 Carvana Honda. The difficulty of Johnson’s acclimation process can’t be overstated, yet he has improved seemingly with each outing and handled last weekend’s challenge at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca like a pro, scoring his best finish of the season (17th). The way he handled contact from Romain Grosjean at the top of the Corkscrew showed incredible car control.

Add it up. Ganassi likes winners, and he has a cast of them this season.

The End of a Winning Combination

Sunday, Ryan Hunter-Reay will compete for the final time in the No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport.

Hunter-Reay joined Michael Andretti’s organization for the start of the 2010 season in what was initially described as a three-race deal. But Hunter-Reay finished second to Team Penske’s Will Power in his maiden race and then scored his fourth career INDYCAR victory at Long Beach in his fourth start with Andretti.

“Luckily, he won Long Beach that year and that turned it into a full-year sponsorship,” Andretti said in a video recently released by the team.

That win was personally gratifying for Hunter-Reay as it came five months after his mother, Lydia, lost her battle with colon cancer. In her memory, Hunter-Reay formed Racing for Cancer, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the motorsports community together to promote early detection and prevention initiatives that support the global fight against cancer.

Sponsored by DHL since 2011, Hunter-Reay has amassed 15 victories with the Indianapolis-based team, including the 2014 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in which he held off Helio Castroneves by .0600 of a second, the second-closest finish in “500” history.

Hunter-Reay won the 2012 series championship with four race wins. He enters his 198th start with the team possessing six poles, 1,276 laps led and 42 podium finishes.

Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda) has called him “without a doubt, the best teammate I’ve ever had.”

Hunter-Reay has the third-longest tenure with the same team among active drivers. Dixon has been with Chip Ganassi Racing since the middle of the 2002 season while Power joined Team Penske for the first race of 2009.

Fun Watching the Rookies

Think back to the start of the season and the enthusiasm building for this rookie class, easily the most decorated in INDYCAR history.

Johnson arrived sixth in NASCAR history with 83 Cup Series victories and the seven championships that has him tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Scott McLaughlin had just finished winning his third consecutive Australian V8 Supercars title. Grosjean was a 10-year Formula One veteran with 10 podium finishes. The group has not scored a victory this season, but they have been in contention for a win on several occasions.

Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) won the NTT P1 Award in qualifying for the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May, then delivered the first of two second-place finishes on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit. Grosjean’s late-race march through the field last weekend at Laguna Seca earned him his third podium finish in 12 races, and he has finished in the top 10 six times.

McLaughlin (No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) was new to the oval tracks, but he has handled them in impressive fashion. He finished second and eighth at Texas Motor Speedway and finished fourth at World Wide Technology Raceway. At Indy, he stayed on the lead lap, completing all 200 laps despite finishing 20th.

The 82 points McLaughlin scored in the four oval races is the reason why he has a 20-point lead over Grosjean for the Rookie of the Year Award. McLaughlin can clinch the crown by finishing third or better.

Should McLaughlin hang on, he will become the first Team Penske driver to win the award that dates to 1979.

Eyes on Harvey, Pagenaud, Too

Jack Harvey has already announced this will be his final race with Meyer Shank Racing, a pairing that began with the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Harvey was to drive a different Andretti Autosport entry in that race, but the team asked its partner, Michael Shank, to take Harvey’s Indy-only program to accommodate Fernando Alonso’s interest in competing in the race in a joint venture between McLaren and Andretti.

Harvey has helped MSR grow into a full-time, two-car operation, and a byproduct was Castroneves’ “500” victory in May. Further sign of MSR’s growth, a new 43,000 square-foot race shop is under construction in Pataskala, Ohio.

MSR has announced that Castroneves will continue in the No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda in a full-time role in 2022, and there is media speculation that Simon Pagenaud will replace Harvey in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. Pagenaud has driven for Team Penske since the beginning of the 2015 season, winning 11 races, including the 2019 “500,” and the 2016 series championship.

Castroneves and Pagenaud were INDYCAR teammates at Team Penske for three seasons (2015-17).

Additional Awards at Stake

Honda clinched its fourth consecutive Manufacturers Award and 10th overall at last weekend’s race at Laguna Seca, an ideal punctuation to the 25th anniversary of the company’s first manufacturers’ title in 1996. Honda-powered cars have won nine of the 15 races this season, and its drivers occupy five of the top seven positions in the standings.

The driver’s championship and the Rookie of the Year Award are still up for grabs, but there are two other honors to be secured this weekend.

Herta leads Newgarden and O’Ward in the three-driver chase for the NTT P1 Award, presented to the pole winner that scores the most points after winning the NTT P1 Award at a race. Each of these drivers has won three poles this season, but Herta’s lead in the category is based on winning two of the three races in which he has started from the top spot. Newgarden won the award in 2018, and Team Penske drivers have captured the past seven awards.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan drivers Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal are the top contenders for TAG Heuer’s “Don’t Crack Under Pressure” Award given to the driver who advances the most cumulative places during the season. Sato has advanced 87 positions, Rahal 80. Also in contention are Ericsson (78) and Hunter-Reay (65).