Thirsty and hungry. That’s Scott McLaughlin, driving the crew-named Thirsty 3s into championship contention, as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to its final race of the season in a few days.
Who expected the winner of three Australian Supercars titles would be in this position in just his second U.S. season with Team Penske? But here he is, maybe not necessarily a favorite but still swinging.
“I have nothing to lose,” said McLaughlin, who trails teammate Will Power by 41 points heading to Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. “I just need to focus on what I’m doing and just dot my I’s, cross my T’s and have a good run.
“An ideal weekend is a pole (and a) race win. It’s no doubt that I can go to Laguna Seca and win, and I’m ready to do that.”
Clearly, McLaughlin has a lot to overcome in the finale, but he has faced longer odds. He stunned the paddock by dominating the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, then nearly pulled the double on an oval in the season’s second race, the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, placing second by less than a tenth of a second to teammate Josef Newgarden.
McLaughlin’s third win of the season Sunday in the Grand Prix of Portland gives him two more than Power, and if the 2014 series champion and fellow frontrunners Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Marcus Ericsson don’t handle their business in Monterey, the title could go to the relative newcomer.
Newgarden and Dixon trail Power by 20 points each, with Newgarden owning the tiebreaker (most wins). Ericsson is fourth, 39 points out of the lead.
Crazier things have happened in this sport. Dixon lost the 2007 title when he ran out of fuel two corners from the checkered flag at Chicagoland Speedway, and he won it in 2015 at Sonoma Raceway when Juan Pablo Montoya ran into Power midway through the race and finished sixth as Dixon went to victory lane.
After all, this is already one of the closest five-way battles in series history, with five drivers still in the hunt for the title at the finale for only the second time since 2003. There were seven drivers still in contention in 2017, although the last race offered double the usual number of points.
This will be the 17th consecutive year the championship will be decided at the season’s final race. It’s always competitive, it seems.
Power feels good about his standing, but he also knows how quickly things can flip.
“Still a very tough fight,” he said. “We’ve got to (go) to Laguna seriously ready. As you know, in this series it switches incredibly quickly. Got to be smart.
“Twenty points? I would have taken it. Can’t complain.”
Franchitti: Dixon Still has the Drive
After watching Dixon charge from the 16th starting position to finish third while pushing Team Penske’s two race leaders to the end, four-time series champion Dario Franchitti said Sunday was proof that his friend still has the desire it takes to win an NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
“I’ve fought Will for a few championships, I’ve fought Scott for a few championships, and they’re two really good competitors,” Franchitti said during NBC’s post-race show. “But there’s a reason Dixie’s got six (series) championships. He doesn’t make many mistakes.
“There’s a lot of factors (that make him good), but the talent (is one), obviously. The fact he has so much experience, too. Normally, as your experience goes up the fire tails off, but his desire is still as strong as it was when he was a little chubby Kiwi kid first coming over here. So that’s a big help.
“He knows when to push, when just to hold back a bit, when to put the pressure on you. He was putting the pressure on the Penske guys; he just wanted to fight for every last tenth (of a second) in those last five laps.”
One other note about Dixon: The driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda has been sixth or worse in the standings after seven of the 16 races this season. But now that it matters most, he is tied for second with a pair of race wins in his comeback stretch.
But keep in mind that the other two drivers he’s battling also are former series champions. Power won his only title in 2014 after runner-up finishes in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Newgarden won championships in 2017 and 2019.
Ericcson: Winning Laguna Only Hope
Ericsson’s slide from first in the standings as recently as the July 23-24 doubleheader at Iowa Speedway to fourth heading to the season finale means his only chance at the title is to win the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, and even then he will need considerable help as he stands 39 points behind Power and 19 points behind Newgarden and Dixon.
Ericsson knows his odds of winning his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship aren’t good.
“To be honest, the championship is quite far away now,” he said. “So, I go into that weekend to win the race.
“We had a good test there (Aug. 29). We were fast; the car’s been good there in the past. So, I go there aiming to win and to see what other people are up to. That’s the mindset we have to have now.”
VeeKay Accepts Responsibility
Let’s start with the fact the 25-car field made it through Turn 1 without incident, then the race went 84 laps without a caution. That’s so uncommon at Portland International Raceway, where trouble lurks at several corners.
But as strange as those aspects were, the race’s one and only caution was also odd.
Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda were a lap down and on the far-left side of the front straightaway when Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 21 Bitcoin Racing Team with BitNile Chevrolet came charging past. Suddenly, VeeKay moved to the left and surprisingly clipped Johnson’s right front wheel with his left rear.
The impact knocked Johnson into the barrier and out of the race.
“That one was totally on me,” VeeKay said on Twitter. “I’m sorry to end (Johnson’s) day like that. (I) thought I was completely past him, but I wasn’t.
“Also sorry to (ECR), this was going to be a good haul of points.”
VeeKay was running ninth at the time. He was flagged for avoidable contact and finished 20th.
Start the Championship Countdown
Now, it’s time for the action to really heat up, with the first season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca since 2019. Prior to that, the track hosted the last race of the year from 1989-96.
In four days, this year’s field will be back on track for the first practice of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, the final race of the season. That session is set for 5:30 p.m. ET Friday, with live coverage on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Aside from chasing the Astor Challenge Cup, Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD are locked in a terrific battle for the Rookie of the Year Award. Lundgaard leads Malukas by five points.
Saturday’s action features the weekend’s second practice at 1:15 p.m. ET with qualifying for the NTT P1 Award at 5:05 p.m. On Sunday, the final warmup will be held at noon, with NBC’s broadcast of the 95-lap race set for 3 p.m.
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will end its season at the track, too, with two races. The doubleheader’s opener is at 3:25 p.m. ET Saturday; the capper is Sunday at 1 p.m. Both races will air live on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
After finishing third in the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland, Linus Lundqvist only needs to compete in the Laguna Seca event to win the series championship. The driver of the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing car holds a 103-point lead over Matthew Brabham (No. 83 Andretti Autosport entry).