At its core, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship hinges on the ability of Pato O’Ward or Josef Newgarden to win Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network). Otherwise, Alex Palou likely hangs on to his large points lead and captures his first series title.
But here’s encouraging news for the challengers: In the past 15 years when INDYCAR’s title fight has gone to the season’s final race, a driver trying to erase the deficit went to victory lane five times, most recently Newgarden last year in St. Petersburg, Florida. And it would be fair to say six times since Dario Franchitti, who entered the 2007 finale with a three-point lead over Scott Dixon, was trailing Dixon on the final lap at Chicagoland Speedway. Franchitti took the lead in Turn 3 when Dixon ran out of fuel.
The challengers who delivered final-race victories were Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, Helio Castroneves in 2008, Franchitti in 2009, Dixon in 2015, Simon Pagenaud in 2017 and Newgarden in 2020. Hornish, Franchitti and Dixon did so to win the title.
Palou can take solace in the fact he has the largest lead in this 16-year stretch for a driver entering a single-points race. The Spaniard has 35 points more than O’Ward and 48 more than Newgarden. Based on the points structure, Palou can secure the title by finishing 11th or higher in the 28-car field. He will still be the champion in most scenarios that don’t include O’Ward or Newgarden winning the race.
The maximum number of points available this weekend is 54, which includes 50 points for the win, one point for winning the NTT P1 Award, another point for leading a lap, and two more for leading the most laps. Every participating driver is assured five points, meaning the most to be gained on Palou is 49 points.
Since 2006, the series leader entering the final race has held on nine times, which means six times he did not. However, the largest deficit lost in a single-points race was 17, which makes Palou’s 32-point lead seems strong. Such an advantage is even considerable in a double-points structure. In the six years when INDYCAR allocated last-race points in that fashion, the average lead was 42.3 points, and only in 2015 did the leader fail to hang on.
Dixon won the 2015 title by scoring the biggest last-race comeback of the past 15 years. He vaulted from third to first in the standings by winning the finale at Sonoma Raceway, overcoming the 47-point deficit to Juan Pablo Montoya as Montoya finished sixth. Graham Rahal had been second entering the finale, but he finished 18th.
Palou, who drives the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, should be glad Franchitti is a team consultant and not challenging him for this championship. Franchitti is one of four drivers since 2006 to erase last-race deficits, and he did so four times.
Palou’s driving style is considered patient and calculated, although he has shown the willingness to attack when the opportunity presents itself, as it did Sept. 12 when he won at Portland International Raceway. It’s anyone’s guess how Sunday’s 85-lap Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach plays out, but Palou would do well to follow the plan of past champions and follow the strategy of his nearest challenger. In racing, it’s called “covering” the opponent to avoid being caught on the wrong strategy.
Based on recent history, Palou will finish close to O’Ward and/or Newgarden. Eight of the nine drivers who held on for titles in the final race finished within a few positions of their nearest challenger, and six times they finished ahead of them. In those other three cases, Dixon finished second to Castroneves in 2008, Newgarden was eighth and Alexander Rossi sixth in 2019, and last year Dixon was third as Newgarden won the race.