Two drivers. Opposite performances. One shared disappointment as the odd men out in the battle for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
Josef Newgarden, the one with the longest odds to beat Alex Palou for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship with his 48-point deficit to Palou, had to be nearly perfect. Meanwhile, Pato O’Ward needed to have a solid day. Both needed to bank on a poor performance from Palou.
To the credit of two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden, he did virtually all he could to catch 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Palou.
But a second-place finish in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet after winning the NTT P1 Award wasn’t enough for Newgarden to win his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
Newgarden finished second in the championship, 38 points behind Palou. It’s the second consecutive season that Newgarden finished runner-up to a Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Last season, it was six-time champion Scott Dixon.
“Pretty good day overall, but I’m disappointed to not convert the pole to a win,” Newgarden said. “Just coming up short in this race, coming up short in the championship is definitely disappointing. I think for us overall, we got to be proud of our fight … We’ll come back next year.”
Entering the weekend in Long Beach, California, third in the standings, it was evident Newgarden had to score maximum points if he wanted to have a legitimate shot at the Astor Challenge Cup. He accomplished that goal by winning the NTT P1 Award for pole and the one bonus point that comes with it.
Once the race started, Newgarden led the first 18 laps of the race and scored another bonus point for leading at least one lap.
While Newgarden was leading, O’Ward’s race got off to a disastrous start. On Lap 1, O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet was hit from behind entering the hairpin Turn 11 by Ed Jones’ No. 18 SealMaster Honda.
O’Ward went for a spin, but a full-course caution slowed the field and prevented him from falling a lap down. However, the incident put O’Ward at the rear of the field and forced him to mount a strong charge through the field.
His charge didn’t last long.
On Lap 19, O’Ward began to slow on the frontstretch. The culprit was a snapped half-shaft in the right rear of the car, almost certainly caused by the contact with Jones 18 laps earlier.
O’Ward’s championship charge was finished. With no chance of catching Palou thanks to the on-track incident, he had sharp words for Jones.
“It’s not the first time he has hit us and not the first time he has done something stupid all season,” O’Ward said. “I just wish he could use his head a bit more, at least respect the guys who are fighting for the championship.”
Never ones to give up, the Arrow McLaren SP team went to work on O’Ward’s black-and-orange Chevrolet so the Mexican driver could get back on track and score as many points as possible. While he wasn’t going to win the championship, he had a chance to keep third place in the standings.
O’Ward did just that, leaping past Marcus Ericsson in the finishing order to place 27th out of 28 cars. O’Ward ended the season third in the championship standings, just six points ahead of Dixon. It’s one rung higher than his previous best of fourth last year.
“We had a great season,” O’Ward said. “I’m so proud of the team, I’m proud of myself. Obviously it wasn’t the perfect of seasons, but I think that’s just how it’s going to be. You have to learn from the little mistakes you made.”
O’Ward, just 22, had a veteran mentality after first expressing anger toward Jones. His eyes already are set on the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, and he’s ready to work on ironing the wrinkles that prevented him from being champion this season.
“I feel like that gets you stronger,” he said. “I’m looking forward to next year. I think we have a great baseline to work from and see if we can get some more wins and challenge for another title.”