Two races to go, with so many stories to consider.
Just three points separate the top two drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings, with third place a mere 14 points behind. Seven drivers have a mathematical chance to lift the Astor Challenge Cup as season champion. Just 11 points separate the top two drivers in a suddenly raging Rookie of the Year race.
It’s all on the line heading into the last two races of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season on consecutive weekends, the Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday, Sept. 4 at Portland International Raceway and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. And better yet, there are no clear trends or tea leaves indicating which driver will prevail.
But nearly every NTT INDYCAR SERIES team spent a day of private testing split between both racetracks in the last five days, giving a small indication of what perhaps could unfold over the final two race weekends of 2022, packed with equal amounts of pressure and excitement.
Three teams and nine drivers tested last Friday at Portland: Andretti Autosport (Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi), AJ Foyt Racing (Dalton Kellett, Kyle Kirkwood) and Team Penske (Scott McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden, Will Power).
On Monday at Laguna, six teams and 13 drivers tested: Andretti Autosport (DeFrancesco), Arrow McLaren SP (Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist), Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Palou), Dale Coyne Racing (David Malukas, Takuma Sato), Juncos Hollinger Racing (Callum Ilott) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard, Graham Rahal).
That lineup covers every team with a championship or Rookie of the Year contender. Ed Carpenter Racing and Meyer Shank Racing were the only full-time series teams not to test at either West Coast track Friday or Monday.
While times and speeds were not officially released from the private tests, various media reports and social media feeds have given an opportunity to try to make some itemized deductions:
Palou Could Loom Large
We know what Alex Palou is capable of at Portland, as he won the race last year from pole to accelerate his route toward the series championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing.
Much has changed in the team dynamic since those halcyon days. Palou and the team are locked in a legal dispute over the driver’s team destination next season, as both Ganassi and Arrow McLaren SP have laid claim to the Spaniard’s services starting in 2023.
Despite that major distraction, Palou and his Ganassi crew have done a remarkable job remaining focused on repeating as series champions for a second straight season. Palou is fifth in points, 43 behind leader Will Power, despite being winless this season in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
There’s almost no doubt Palou needs to run the table with two straight wins to erase that deficit and repeat as champion. But we know he can win at Portland, and testing at Laguna showed a victory there also is possible.
Palou led the full-day Laguna test, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Raw speed never has been a problem for the Spaniard.
But Palou’s speed gap – more than two-tenths of a second ahead of second-place Felix Rosenqvist – is surprising considering how close the field has been at recent races. Palou also was nearly four-tenths of a second ahead of the next-closest pursuer from within his team, Marcus Ericsson, who is fourth in the standings and only 17 points behind Power.
Sure, teams and drivers have differing checklists to complete at tests that may hide their ultimate pace. But it’s clear Palou isn’t going down without a massive fight the next two weekends.
Power Can Still Stand on Gas
Much has been made this season about the “new” Power, who has eschewed a “checkers or wrecker” mentality in favor of accumulating every possible point his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet can provide.
That strategy shift has worked, as Power leads teammate Josef Newgarden by three points despite having only one win to Newgarden’s series-leading five. Power is aiming for his second season championship, as he also won the title for Team Penske in 2014.
But Power still can put the pedal to the metal, as evidenced by his series-leading four NTT P1 Awards in 2022 – and the time sheet Friday from Portland.
Power led the all-day test at Portland International Raceway by more than two-tenths of a second over Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport. Newgarden was third, three-tenths behind his Team Penske teammate.
That bodes well for Power, who won in 2019 at Portland and won one of his record-tying 67 career poles in 2018 at the Oregon road course. If Power wins the NTT P1 Award this weekend, he will break the INDYCAR SERIES career pole record he shares with Mario Andretti. Just as important, Power will earn one point, which could prove pivotal in the late afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 11 at Monterey.
Malukas’ Momentum Continues
David Malukas reignited the Rookie of the Year race by finishing a career-best second on Aug. 20 in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway, pulling to within 11 points of leader Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Malukas and Lundgaard both tested Monday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, with Malukas’ No. 18 HMD Honda ending up sixth overall and Lundgaard 11th. Malukas was nearly a half-second behind leader Palou, but most importantly, he was four-tenths quicker than Lundgaard.
Again, it’s just testing. But this rookie fight looks to rage right to the final checkered flag in the rolling hills of Monterey.
This is the time of the season for frayed nerves and chewed nails, as the crucible of the championship and Rookie of the Year races heats to its most infernal intensity. Drivers are pushing to the precipice to find any edge, and sometimes they tip over the line.
That was evident at both tests. Media reports indicated there were numerous off-track excursions Friday at Portland, including series leader Power. That continued Monday at Laguna, where Rookie of the Year leader Lundgaard reportedly spun without contact early in his first run and Ericsson missed lost nearly three hours of testing due to repairs to his No. 8 Honda after he crashed in Turn 6.
No drivers were hurt, and all cars reportedly were repaired. But the pressure’s on.
DeFrancesco’s Double Duty
Devlin DeFrancesco isn’t contending with Lundgaard and Malukas for Rookie of the Year honors with two races to go, as he is 106 points behind Lundgaard in the standings. But the Canadian did set up himself for a solid final stretch of the season as the only driver to test Friday at Portland and Monday at Laguna Seca with Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.
DeFrancesco was the quickest of the two rookies at Portland and was behind only Malukas among the four rookies at Laguna Seca, within about a tenth of a second.