Once again, an NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is positioned for a fantastic finish.
Seven drivers head to the year’s final two races within striking distance of the championship. Just 17 points separate the top four drivers. The top three have combined for nine series titles. Another contender is the reigning series champion.
The action begins to culminate Friday at Portland International Raceway, site of the season’s penultimate race, Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network). Fittingly, one of the championship contenders most in need of a race victory – Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou – won last year’s race on the 12-turn, 1.964-mile road course en route to the series title.
SEE: Portland Race Details
Palou just might be poised to claim his second consecutive Astor Challenge Cup. Earlier this week, the Spaniard, who will drive the No. 10 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda this week, posted the quickest time in testing at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, site of the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 11.
Palou is 43 points out of the series lead in fifth place. A gain of 49 points is possible in an NTT INDYCAR SERIES weekend. He knows the path to another title is straightforward.
“We need to focus on ourselves, try to win the last two races of the year and try to get this championship back home again,” he said.
Team Penske’s Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) are separated by just three points atop the standings. Both are former series champions, Power in 2014, Newgarden in 2017 and 2019.
Six-time series champion Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) is third in the standings, 14 points behind Power. Teammate Marcus Ericsson, the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner driving the No. 8 PNC Bank Honda this week, sits fourth and is 17 points out of the series lead.
With the top four drivers so closely bunched, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is virtually guaranteed to send its championship battle to the season’s final race for the 18th consecutive year. Twice in that span, in 2006 and 2015, drivers have tied for the most points, with a tiebreaker used to determine the champion. In most other years, the title was clinched on the final lap.
Dixon needs just one more championship to tie A.J. Foyt for the most in series history. Ironically, Dixon has lost three of the closest battles ever staged. In 2007, he ran out of fuel as the leader with only two corners to go at Chicagoland Speedway. Two years later, Dario Franchitti edged him again by stretching his fuel further than anyone else as Dixon finished a close second. But neither of those seasons compares to the competitiveness of 2006, when four drivers finished within 15 points. Sam Hornish Jr. and Dan Wheldon tied for first in points, with Hornish earning the trophy based on having more race wins. Helio Castroneves finished third, two points behind them. Dixon was fourth.
Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Freightliner Team Penske Chevrolet) and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) are the sixth and seventh drivers, respectively, in this year’s field. They know they have work to do being 54 and 58 points out of the lead.
“We’re still a shot for this championship, be it a longer one than others, but a shot,” McLaughlin said.
How To Race? ‘Race How You Race’
Now that the championship pursuit has developed some clarity, it’s time to revisit an age-old question: How do other drivers race those still in contention for the Astor Challenge Cup?
Alexander Rossi, who has been on both sides of the debate, recently suggested that title contenders are more likely to back out of a dicey situation when pressured due to the risk involved. Newgarden was told of that following the Aug. 20 race at World Wide Technology Raceway, and he responded with some level of disdain.
“Fascinating,” he deadpanned, drawing huge laughter from those in attendance.
Still, there’s something to it, and it’s certainly something to watch in these next two races. Newgarden also said the approach of a championship contender can’t change – at least not yet.
“I think you have to run a very tough race,” he said. “You’ve got to be on it; you’ve got to run hard. If you’re not on the limit, you’re typically getting left behind.”
Power agreed that drivers not in title contention are “aware” of those who are, “and there’s a bit of respect there.”
“But yeah,” he said, “you can’t race conservatively, you just can’t. At this point, as tight as this championship is, you’ve got to race how you race. You’ve got to race to get positions. You’ve got to race to try and win. That’s the game now.”
Those Who Know Victory Lane
The interesting dynamic of these final two events is that, relatively speaking, the teams don’t have volumes of data from which to draw.
Yes, there have been three races at Portland International Raceway in this iteration of the series, but only twice has the series been to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca since 2019.
Takuma Sato (2018), Will Power (2019) and Alex Palou (2021) are the active drivers who have won an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race in Portland; Colton Herta is the only active driver to have won a series race at Laguna Seca (2019 and 2021).
Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires victories aren’t applicable, but they’re worth noting given that some drivers tend to take to tracks better than others. Pato O’Ward swept the Portland doubleheader in 2018 and Rinus VeeKay (2019), David Malukas (2021) and Kyle Kirkwood (2021) have won there. At Laguna Seca, VeeKay and Kirkwood won a pair of Indy Lights races in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
More Than One Title at Stake
All eyes will be on the Run to the Championship featuring seven drivers. But there is plenty of interest in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ Rookie of the Year Award and the Indy Lights title pursuit. The former is particularly tight.
A few weeks ago, Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Mi-Jack Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) appeared to have the rookie award securely in hand. But that was before David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) delivered a stirring run in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, finishing second at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Lundgaard leads Malukas by just 11 points, a separation which could easily be erased at this weekend’s race. Neither driver has competed in an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at either of the remaining venues, although Malukas has the Indy Lights race win at Portland in 2021.
Lundgaard and Malukas are also the youngest two drivers in the series. Lundgaard turned 21 last month; Malukas celebrates that birthday on Sept. 27.
Linus Lundqvist, who at 23 is older than Lundgaard and Malukas, can secure his first Indy Lights championship this weekend by coming out of the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland with a 109-point lead. His advantage is 108 points. The series will stage a doubleheader next weekend at Laguna Seca, with 54 points attainable in each race.
Of course, Lundqvist, who drives the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry, will receive minimal points simply by participating in the event, so any driver hoping to overhaul him will realistically need to be within 72 points heading to the Monterey circuit.
Busy Stretch Ahead
Nearly all NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams have tested on the West Coast in the past week – some went to Portland International Raceway, the rest to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – and the competitors will spend much of the next 11 days at those venues.
This weekend’s schedule at Portland begins with the first of three practices, at 5:30 p.m. ET Friday. A second practice will be held at noon ET Saturday with qualifying for the NTT P1 Award at 3:05 p.m. ET and the final practice at 7:15 p.m. ET. All sessions can be viewed on Peacock Premium and heard on the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Sunday’s 110-lap Portland Grand Prix is set for Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Following a four-day break, the Run to the Championship will hit full stride with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey’s first practice on Friday, Sept. 9. The 95-lap race will air live on NBC, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network at 3 p.m. ET Sunday, Sept. 11.