Christian Lundgaard

Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas continued their hotly contested battle for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ Rookie of the Year Award on Saturday with strong qualifying efforts at Portland International Raceway.

Lundgaard reached the Firestone Fast Six round for the third consecutive event and will start a career-best third in the No. 30 Shield Cleansers Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He also started third in last month’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

Malukas has spent most of the weekend near the top of the speed chart and was therefore disappointed to only have the 11th starting position in the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.

Still, the two drivers separated by just 11 points have a lot to race for when the green flag drops Sunday for the Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network). Lundgaard leads Malukas, but it won’t take much to flip the order heading to the season finale Sept. 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

“We’re in a pretty good place,” Lundgaard said. “It’s good to be the best of the best of the rest (behind the three Team Penske drivers in qualifying). The Penske cars have been strong all weekend; they’ve been setting the pace, for sure. Being up there in the mix is good.”

Lundgaard said he might have earned an even higher qualifying position, but he ran wide at the exit of Turn 7, dropping his car’s left-side tires into the dirt.

“(The car) bottomed out, so I lost some time there,” he said. “I think the pace is in the car, but I didn’t quite execute. But still, P3 on the grid is not a bad thing at all. We’ll go for it (in the race).”

Lundgaard and Malukas each have finished as high as second in a race this season, both within the past three series races.

Said Malukas of his qualifying position: “It’s a little bit unfortunate because we knew we had pace after (Friday’s practice). It seems like with the cooler track temps our car didn’t seem to perform as well. We were trying to catch up to it and couldn’t really find the time in (Saturday’s practice). In qualifying, I think we got a little bit closer, but with the track temp dropping, we couldn’t get as much as we wanted from it.”

Testing Appears To Help

How does Team Penske’s decision to test at this track Aug. 26 look now?

Last year, Roger Penske’s team qualified 14th (Will Power), 15th (Scott McLaughlin) and 18th (Josef Newgarden). Saturday, those same drivers qualified first, second and third.

McLaughlin (No. 3 Freightliner Team Penske Chevrolet) and Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) will start Sunday’s race on the front row, with Newgarden, who qualified second in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, starting eighth as a result of a six-grid penalty for an unapproved engine change following last month’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Many other teams opted to save their final test day of the season for Aug. 29 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, site of next weekend’s season finale, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

“We weren’t stellar here last year as a team,” McLaughlin said. “We (decided) early in the year that we were going to come (to test). So, yeah, hopefully we get to Laguna Seca and our cars aren’t too bad, that we made the right choice coming here, focusing on (this).

“I think going 1-2-3 in qualifying was a good test of that.”

AJ Foyt Racing also seemed to benefit from testing here. Rookie Kyle Kirkwood just missed advancing to the second round and will start 13th in the No. 14 Sexton Properties Chevrolet, one of his better qualifying efforts of the season. He earned the ninth spot at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and was 12th in qualifying in St. Petersburg and Long Beach.

Of course, testing didn’t mean everything to everyone.

Andretti Autosport also tested at PIR, and its best qualifiers were eighth (Colton Herta in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) and ninth (Alexander Rossi in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda). Herta will start one position higher due to Newgarden’s penalty. The team’s other two cars will start 15th (Romain Grosjean in the No. 28 DHL Honda) and 24th (rookie Devlin DeFrancesco in the No. 29 PowerTap Honda).

Herta’s Crew to the Rescue

Herta bounced off the Turn 1 barrier midway through the first round of qualifying, and the impact was so severe that it bent the right front suspension. Given there were only about four minutes left in the session, it appeared he wouldn’t advance to the next round. But his Andretti Autosport crew quickly went to work, getting the car out in time for one final lap.

Herta did the rest, turning a lap that earned him the fifth spot.

“I didn’t really help anybody making contact with the Turn 1 wall,” the driver said. “But the guys got it fixed in time, and the car felt good and straight. I wasn’t too worried about that (in the second round), but I think we just missed it a little bit on balance. We tried to get a little too aggressive.

“I’m happy how (the crew) rebounded because our day could have been over in Round 1.”

Rossi Leads Final Practice

Rossi jumped to the top of the speed charts in the 30-minute final practice Saturday afternoon, turning a top lap of 59.0532 seconds. Rossi qualified ninth.

SEE: Final Practice Results

Lundgaard continued his show of strength this weekend by ending up second at 59.1806. NTT P1 Award winner McLaughlin was 12th at 59.4759.

Less than one second separated the top 22 drivers in the final session, a possible harbinger of a tight race Sunday.

Odds and Ends

  • Alex Palou (No. 10 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda) was the only Chip Ganassi Racing driver to reach the second round of qualifying. He will start fourth. Fellow championship contenders from the team – Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 PNC Bank Honda) – will start 16th and 18th, respectively.
  • The 35-lap Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race will be held at 1:05 p.m. ET, with live coverage of Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Benjamin Pedersen will start from the front of the field after winning his first career Indy Lights pole in the No. 24 Global Racing Group with HMD car. Pedersen has led all three on-track sessions this weekend in Indy Lights. 
  • Reece Gold of Juncos Hollinger Racing won his second Indy Pro 2000 race of the weekend Saturday, but Louis Foster of Exclusive Autosport secured the series title before the season finale. Foster won the weekend’s first race and will move to Indy Lights in 2023. Exclusive Autosport won its first driver’s championship.
  • Michael D’Orlando of Cape Motorsports won the USF2000 season championship Saturday in the final race of the season, elevating him to a ride in Indy Pro 2000 for 2023. D’Orlando’s fourth win of the season vaulted him from third to first in the standings after Pabst Racing teammates Jace Denmark and Myles Rowe were involved in a first-corner incident. Denmark and Mac Clark of DEForce Racing won the other two USF2000 races of the weekend. Denmark’s win was his fourth of the season; it was Clark’s first series victory.