Earlier this week, NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie David Malukas tried to inject drama into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship by encouraging runaway leader Linus Lundqvist to lay off the gas pedal so the title could be clinched in the season’s final race.
“I’d say take it easy this race,” Malukas jokingly advised Lundqvist heading into Sunday’s Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland. “You’re still in the (lead), then you get it on in the final race. (That’s where) you get everybody.”
“It’s much cooler,” Malukas said with a smile. “Not as cool if you have already (clinched).”
Lundqvist did his part to hear his friend out, but that won’t be his approach as the event begins with Friday’s first practice (4:25 p.m. ET, INDYCAR Live! and INDYCAR Radio Network).
“So now you know,” Lundqvist told the media gathered for the group teleconference. “If Portland doesn’t go well, Race 1 at Laguna Seca doesn’t go well, now you know why.”
Fact is, Lundqvist has a commanding 108-point lead heading into the event at Portland International Raceway. If Lundqvist comes out of Portland with at least a 109-point lead, he will pop the champagne Sept. 10-11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Lundqvist, who has won a series-high five races this season, said he plans to attack Sunday’s 35-lap race in the same manner he has the previous 11 races. Interestingly, it might be his team, HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing, that corrals him.
“This is usually the case where I go for a win and the team says: ‘Don’t worry, you’re fine. (Think) big picture, look for the points,’” he said. “But, I mean, the best and safest way (to the title) is to qualify up front and try to run away with (the race win). That’s going to be the plan.
“Scoring the most points is the safest way of doing it.”
Lundqvist has produced an outstanding season, with seven poles added to his five wins. He has finished outside the top four only once – he was fifth in the first Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race in May – and has qualified on the front row in all but one of the 11 events.
During one three-race stretch, he led all 90 laps.
“Yeah, we’ve had a great season,” said the 23-year-old driver from Stockholm, Sweden. “Obviously, (I’m) looking forward to the West Coast races now. Obviously, we have a good margin. But we’re still here to win a couple more races, what we enjoy doing. That’s definitely the target. It seems to be the best way to try to win the championship, as well, to win races.
“Obviously, you look a little bit at the points. Obviously, you play it on the safe side. We’ll see how it goes.”
Lundqvist’s title march shouldn’t have been a surprise. While Kyle Kirkwood and Malukas were carving up the Indy Lights competition last year with a combined 17 wins in 20 races, Lundqvist won the other three races, including the first and last of the season. A second year in the series provided valuable experience, he said.
“A second year always helps because you kind of hit the ground running when the season starts again instead of starting from scratch,” Lundqvist said. “But honestly, looking back at last year I’m actually pretty proud of the season that we had. We were fast and good enough to challenge for the title until with three races to go we had the tire blowout at (World Wide Technology Raceway).
“This year everything that we did last year we just did a little bit better. It was more natural to me, the driving style of the Lights car, how the team operates, the people within the team. I’d just say that we turned everything up a notch … and became a better package all the way around.”
Lundqvist’s team is owned and sponsored by Malukas’ father, Henry, which has given Malukas an insider’s look at Lundqvist’s stellar season.
“I’m a little bit biased, but I definitely saw all that HMD Motorsports had to dominate,” David Malukas said. “I’m not surprised that Linus took it and ran with it, kept running with it. An impressive season for him.”
But it’s not over. Three races remain, the first coming Sunday. Despite Malukas’ playful advice, Lundqvist won’t take a conservative approach.
“Hopefully we can have a good run at Portland and go to Laguna with a little bit less pressure,” Lundqvist said. “Just enjoy it.”
Sunday’s Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland airs live on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network at 1:05 p.m. ET.