Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

Watch: 'Three Things' Race Preview Stats: Starting Lineup, Tire Choice

It is a jam-packed, grand finale weekend for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at it crowns a champion at one of the series’ most prestigious races: The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach from the streets of Long Beach, California.

A grid of 28 cars comprise the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES field at Long Beach in two years, as this race was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved from its traditional April date to the closer for this season.

While every athlete in the field will strive to win the 37th INDYCAR SERIES race at the Southern California street circuit, three drivers, in particular, have much more on the line. Points leader Alex Palou and second place Pato O’Ward are looking to win their first Astor Challenge Cup, while two-time champion Josef Newgarden is a longshot to win his third title.

Firestone is supplying more than 1,600 tires for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. The tires feature the same technology that Firestone Racing used at the season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, which is also a street circuit that features a mix of concrete and asphalt surfaces. Each entry has received seven sets of primary (black) tires, four sets of alternate (red) tires and five sets of rain (gray) tires.

It’s a picture-perfect day for a race along the Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach. Temperatures are expected to be near 72 degrees by the time the green flag drops during the first weekend of fall. The sunny day is expected to feature 63% humidity and 6 mph winds.

You can catch the action live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 3 p.m. (ET). You can listen to the radio broadcast live on network affiliates, SiriusXM 205 and 211, and INDYCAR Mobile App powered by NTT DATA.

Here’s what you need to know to get ready for today’s action:

A Champion’s Racetrack

This weekend, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES ends its season at a racetrack with one of the strongest championship pedigrees in open-wheel racing – the Streets of Long Beach.

It’s purely by happenstance that the season champion will be crowned at this track, due to the pandemic, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the names and champions that have won the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

In 36 previous INDYCAR SERIES races on the Streets of Long Beach, 29 races have been won by drivers who were already INDYCAR SERIES champions or on their way to the top of North America’s premier open-wheel series – that’s just shy of 85 percent of the races here.

What’s more, 14 times the winner of Long Beach has gone on to win the championship in the same season. The star-studded list includes Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Tracy, Sebastien Bourdais, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud.

Long Beach is an extremely challenging racetrack. It’s bumpy, it’s always changing, and its tight confines breed mistakes. Only the best, most precise drivers win at Long Beach.

Four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Bourdais won at Long Beach in three consecutive seasons on his way to a championship from 2005-07. The driver of the No. 14 ROKiT / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet said the key to success at Long Beach is finding your comfort zone. Easier said than done.

“It’s obviously a tough track, because there are a lot of irregularities and changes,” Bourdais said. “You go from concrete to asphalt, rough to smooth, fast to very slow, curb-hopping and things like that. When the track doesn’t necessarily give you that consistency in things, you have to swing it a bit and force it through and find your own comfort zone instead of just leaning on it because it’s there. It’s never really there. It’s quite a heartbreaker racetrack.”

All three championship contenders are winless at Long Beach, with Palou making his first career Long Beach start. But the question begs: will one of them become the 15th driver to use a Long Beach win as a catalyst for a championship?

Changes Will Create Deserving Winner

The Streets of Long Beach a challenging racetrack for many reasons, and a changing track may be one of the biggest.

Those changes are amplified this year because the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has not competed on this circuit since April 2019, 17 months ago.

The California sun has continued to bake this racetrack, as it always does. And these drivers are used to racing in Long Beach in April, which has an average temperature of 72 degrees and less humidity. The high on Saturday was 77 degrees, while the average for September is 83 degrees.

Plus, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has never been here with the aeroscreen. And given this is a street circuit, any routine street work, tar application or asphalt patchwork can result in real change to this surface.

But that’s what six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2015 Long Beach winner Scott Dixon thinks makes this racetrack, and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES as a whole, so great.

“You can rely on data and video of experiences you’ve had before, but each year, especially on a street course, the surfaces change or where they put the concrete wall can be different,” Dixon said. “Looking at Turn 8, I think there’s nine different surfaces as you’re going through that corner. That might have changed from six the year before.

“I think that’s what’s really fun about the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is that there’s never a constant. You’re always trying to evolve as things change.”

Moral of the story: today’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is going to be a challenging race, and the athlete that can conquer this course will be a deserving winner of one of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ crown jewel races.

It’s the Championship – and More

The biggest storyline heading into today’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is the battle for the Astor Challenge Cup between Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden.

Palou holds a 35-point lead over O’Ward and a 48-point lead over Newgarden, a two-time champion. Newgarden is putting the pressure on his young rivals, winning the NTT P1 Award for pole and earning the extra bonus point that comes along with it in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.

Palou starts 10th, one of his worst qualifying performances of the season, in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. O’Ward lines up eighth in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.

While these three drivers will be going all-out to win the race and claim the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, keep your eye on a host of other drivers who would greatly benefit from a win in the season finale.

First start with the drivers who won last season but have yet to visit Victory Circle in 2021: Felix Rosenqvist, Simon Pagenaud and Takuma Sato. The latter two drivers have been two of the bigger storylines of Silly Season, with both drivers rumored to be moving to new teams in 2022, according to media reports.

And then there are the winless drivers this season who are already announced or expected to be venturing on new paths for 2022 like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Jack Harvey, Romain Grosjean, James Hinchcliffe and Ed Jones, among others.

Some of the talk this weekend in Long Beach has been how just one win can be career-altering in terms of landing a new job. Many drivers have been pointing to 46-year-old Helio Castroneves, who entered the season with a part-time ride, and thanks to his historic fourth Indianapolis 500 win, parlayed it into a full-time 2022 ride.

“Look what happened to Helio, right?” said Hunter-Reay, who is leaving Andretti Autosport. “He goes out for a one-off, now going into a full program. If you hit a stride, never say never. Things can be reworked and things like that.”

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, one of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ most prestigious races, can be that catapult for some drivers to help solidify their plans for 2022, and for others it can send them into the offseason with momentum to build on for next year.