Rasmus Lindh, David Malukas, Christian Lundgaard

Two longtime friends separated by just 11 points with two races to go. Welcome to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ Rookie of the Year pursuit. It’s personal.

Yes, Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas are the undercard to what has been a terrific Run to the Championship, but their battle that resumes this weekend at Portland International Raceway is true, and it has deep roots.

Years ago, they were racing in the same European karting events and were buddies off the track. Lundgaard was in a class just above Malukas, which allowed them both to soak in each other’s performances. The photograph above, which includes Swedish driver Rasmus Lindh, is from a 2016 event in southern Portugal.

Malukas has been on the path to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES since 2017, and he remembers the day last year when he learned Lundgaard would join him in the U.S.

“Let’s just say that when I heard Christian Lundgaard was going into the INDYCAR SERIES, I was like, ‘(Blank blank) it, that’s going to be really tough (for me),’” said the driver of the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.

It’s been interesting to watch these two young drivers develop at this level. Each needed a few races this season to gain his respective footing, but they have each been among the series’ best drivers since the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Malukas, the series’ youngest driver who turns 21 on Sept. 27, was the top-finishing rookie in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, finishing 16th. In the nine races since then, Malukas has an average finish of 11.6. Lundgaard’s average over the past eight races has been 11.7, with six top-11 finishes highlighted by a second-place finish in the Gallagher Grand Prix, the July 30 road race at IMS.

Lundgaard’s recent run might look even better had his car not incurred brake issues in the July 24 oval race at Iowa Speedway. The driver of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s No. 30 Mi-Jack Honda had finished 10th the day prior in the opening race of the doubleheader. Fifteen days after turning 21, Lundgaard was third heading to the restart with less than two laps to go in the Aug. 7 street race in Nashville only to get swallowed up by veterans and be relegated to eighth.

Malukas has done his best work on oval tracks, led by the second-place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway. It was there, while chasing down a pair of Team Penske drivers, that he showed what he has believed all along: That his program, along with his confidence, has been growing by the lap.

“I feel like ever since the Month of May came around (is) where we flipped the switch and started to get a lot better with the car and with the strategy, the racing and started to go forward,” he said. “After getting that podium and having a really good race there, it’s only helped it that much more.”

Malukas also has enjoyed several strong qualifying runs this summer, earning five top-eight starting positions in that eight-race stretch and twice reaching the Firestone Fast Six round (in Detroit and Toronto). Lundgaard has qualified in the top six of the past two non-ovals – on a road course and a street circuit – which gives him confidence heading to Portland’s road course and a similar one at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, site of the season finale Sept. 11.

The two drivers say they have used each other as a barometer, especially as the intensity of the Rookie of the Year pursuit has heated up. They also are together in the standings, with Lundgaard 15th and Malukas 16th.

Both drivers say their push to win the award has largely come from their teams.

“I don’t think it’s a big topic in Europe,” Lundgaard said of rookie honors. “For sure (RLLR) has pushed me further and further to understand how much it means. You only get one shot at it, so you’ve got to make the most of it. I think that’s what’s important about it.

“Fortunately, David is pushing me really hard with his pace. I think it’s going to be a tight battle to the end.”

Malukas said winning the award “wasn’t my main goal” for the season, but team owner Dale Coyne has chirped about it for months. Coyne’s team has had two drivers win the award since 2010 (Alex Lloyd and Ed Jones) with Santino Ferrucci claiming Indy 500 top rookie honors in 2019.

“Dale was in my ear every day, like ‘C’mon, we need this rookie championship; c’mon, go get it,’” Malukas said. “He was really pushing me and driving me forward.

“Lundgaard has definitely been pushing us 100 percent, especially after the IMS (road course) performance. I was like: ‘How am I supposed to get a podium? Yikes, that’s going to be tough.’ I mean, part of the push at Gateway was having that in mind.

“So, a lot of pushing going on.”

Lundgaard used a moment in Wednesday’s teleconference with the media to again push his friend, reminding Malukas of a conversation that supposedly happened earlier in the year.

“I know your mom said she was a big fan (of mine),” Lundgaard said to Malukas. “You said that earlier in the season.”

Malukas was quick to respond as only a true competitor would.

“She follows all (your social media), but she’s a big (Josef) Newgarden fan,” he said.

They both got a laugh out of it, but it will be all business during the next two weeks with an important award and a strong end to the season on the line.

“Can’t remember much (about the photograph above), but I remember we had a good time,” Malukas said. “We were good friends back in the day, and there’s another picture somewhere of him throwing me in the air.”

And now?

“I wouldn’t say we’ve become enemies, that’s for sure,” Lundgaard said with a smile.

The battle for this rookie award continues Friday with the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice of the weekend at Portland International Raceway. The session begins at 5:30 p.m. ET, with live coverage on Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, a 110-lap race, is set for 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.