Five drivers for one very significant prize. Two hours of racing left in the 2022 season.
Let the final push for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship begin.
This weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca offers the kind of drama rarely seen in motorsports. There have only been a couple of occasions in this series’ history when so many competitors have had a last-race path to claim the prestigious Astor Challenge Cup. It has been 19 years since a race with this points structure saw five with such an opportunity.
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The individual storylines are dramatic, too. Another season title for Scott Dixon would tie A.J. Foyt’s all-time record (seven). Josef Newgarden will try to win his third series championship in six years, Will Power eyes the second title of his illustrious career.
Sure, Marcus Ericsson and Scott McLaughlin are long shots to walk away with the title, but nothing outside of a victory in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge would be sweeter than capturing their first series title. Fittingly, Ericsson etched his name on the Borg-Warner Trophy with the victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.
This will be the 17th consecutive year that the title will be won on the season’s final day.
Said Dixon of the five-driver pursuit: “I think it’s pretty cool that we don’t need any (point) resets or any chase championships or anything like that. It always comes down to the wire in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. It’s fun to be a part of.”
A look at five things to watch:
Power in Driver’s Seat
Let’s start with the standings and the scenarios in play to determine this year’s champion.
Power has the clearest path to the title, leading Newgarden and Dixon each by 20 points. He will win his first championship since 2014 if he finishes in the top three at Laguna Seca.
An important designation to remember is that Newgarden holds the tiebreaker over the rest based on being assured of finishing the season with the most race wins. The driver of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet has a career-best five race wins, two more than next-best McLaughlin. There have been three ties in the sport since 1999, with Juan Pablo Montoya crowned the champion that year over Dario Franchitti. In 2006, Sam Hornish Jr. had the tiebreaker on Dan Wheldon, and in 2015 it was Dixon getting the trophy after a points lockup with Montoya.
Unlike season finales from 2015-19, this is a single-points race, which means the most a driver can score is 54 points (50 points for the win, another point for winning the NTT P1 Award and two points for leading the most laps in the race). Leading even a single lap is worth a point, which is another thing to remember as teams consider when to have their driver pit. Power picked up a bonus point in Portland because his pit box was past the timing line when McLaughlin, the race leader, stopped in front of it.
Newgarden and Dixon can win the title by scoring 53 or 54 points and having Power finish no better than fourth. If they don’t win, it gets more complicated based on the point scale being top-heavy. If the highest of those two finished third without any bonus points factored in, they’d need Power to finish no better than 15th.
Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet) need significantly more help as they trail Power by 39 and 41 points, respectively. Winning the race guarantees them 51 points, which means in that scenario they’d need Power to finish around 20th without Newgarden and Dixon finishing in the top four or five. It can be done, yes, but as McLaughlin said, “it’s a long shot.”
“But we’re a shot, and I’m looking forward to it,” Portland race winner McLaughlin said.
An important factor could be recent testing. Team Penske opted to use its last test day of the season to prepare for the Portland race; Chip Ganassi Racing went to Laguna Seca instead. The Penske cars dominated last weekend; will the reverse happen this weekend?
Qualifying Position Usually Significant
The smoothest road to a celebratory weekend is a strong performance in qualifying.
The average starting position for a race winner this season is 5.2, with nine of the 16 winners having started on the front row. Two winners have come from the 14th position on road courses – Colton Herta in the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Dixon in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville – while Power came from 16th to win the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, but a title hopeful wouldn’t want to count on converting such a comeback.
“It’s like every weekend,” said Power, who drives the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “First thing (a good qualifying effort) does is keep you out of trouble in Turn 1. Obviously, the second thing it does is put you at the front.”
The setting at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is arguably the most picturesque of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, but its 11 turns over 2.258 miles are daunting. The coastal California breeze blows dust around, as if the aging asphalt wasn’t slippery enough to begin with. There are places to pass, sure, but all title hopefuls should be advised to keep the need for big gains to a minimum.
“It’s a hard track to get the car right,” Power said. “You’ve got to understand what you need.”
And yet, there are as many twists and turns in these races as there are at this track. A caution at the wrong time, as Newgarden experienced last weekend at Portland International Raceway, can have a big impact on the finishing order. Newgarden seemed to be in good shape in fourth place until he had to restart on Lap 88 of 110 on primary Firestone Firehawks as the other Grand Prix of Portland frontrunners had the faster alternate tires. He got dropped to ninth and finished eighth, an eight-point blow.
“We didn’t predict the caution,” Newgarden said. “There’s always the risk the caution comes out in that final stint, but I wasn’t thinking about that. It went green the entire race. I thought the primary tire would have better durability there at the end. That argument holds up a little better when there’s no caution.”
Still, it’s difficult to predict.
“Qualifying out front keeps you out of trouble,” said Dixon, the driver of the No. 9 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “(But) the caution can flip the field at any point.”
Teammates Influencing Championship?
Don’t discount the team aspect of this championship pursuit. Note that not only are three of the five contenders Team Penske drivers, they are also employed by Roger Penske. Which means? Dixon knows.
“I think I called it with 10 laps to go,” he said, referencing a comment he made on his Chip Ganassi Racing radio. “I’m surprised they haven’t swapped (positions) yet.”
Power confirmed that he was “on the radio asking for” McLaughlin to allow him to get past for the lead and, subsequently, the race win. It would have been worth 10 additional points, which would have given him an even greater cushion heading to Laguna Seca.
McLaughlin seemed to indicate he would have obliged had the team asked him to let Power past.
“I didn’t know he was asking for team orders, a switch or whatever, but I can’t control that,” he said. “I just drove my race.”
But he added this: “I’m a team player … if things happen, yeah, I’m ready to do what I need to do for the team.”
Could such tactics be in play this weekend? Anything is possible, but this sport does not have a history of that, and neither does Team Penske nor Chip Ganassi Racing. But just the suggestion of it speaks to the closeness of this competitive championship and those that have come before it.
In 2015, all Montoya had to do to become champion was not damage his car trying to pass Power, his teammate. Montoya scrambled back to finish sixth, but Dixon won the race and held the tiebreaker.
The point is, positions matter as points come with them.
Others To Watch
Drivers in championship contention have won 12 of the 16 races this season. That’s five for Newgarden, three for McLaughlin, two for Dixon and one each for Power and Ericsson.
Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) has won two of the other races with Andretti Autosport drivers Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) and Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda) grabbing one win each. Which means, there are 17 drivers seeking their first wins of the season.
Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) is one of the drivers who won last year – he won three races en route to the series title – but has yet to reach victory lane in 2022. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Bitcoin Racing Team with BitNile Chevrolet) and Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) are the other drivers seeking to post a win for a second consecutive season.
Herta has won the past two races at the track, both from the pole. Castroneves is the only other driver in the field to have won a series race at Laguna Seca, and that was in 2000. Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 Sexton Properties Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing) and VeeKay are recent Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race winners at the track. Kirkwood won both such races last year.
The other former NTT INDYCAR SERIES race winners in this field are Felix Rosenqvist (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet), Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Takuma Sato (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) and Simon Pagenaud (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing).
Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda with Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) are not only seeking their first win in the series, they covet the year’s Rookie of the Year Award. Lundgaard leads Malukas by five points.
Power is worth watching on this historical note: His next race win gives him 42 for his career, tying him with Michael Andretti for fourth place on the sport’s all-time list.
The action begins to heat up Friday with the weekend’s first practice at 5:30 p.m. ET. A second practice will be held Saturday at 1:15 p.m. on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
The same outlets will carry qualifying for the NTT P1 Award will be Saturday at 5:05 p.m. ET.
The final race day of the season will see a pre-race warmup at noon ET with the broadcasts for the 95-lap race beginning at 3 p.m. NBC will have the coverage, with simulcast on Peacock Premium and INDYCAR Live! The INDYCAR Radio Network also will have the call.
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires also will conclude its season this weekend, with a doubleheader featuring 35-lap races. The Saturday show is set for 3:25 p.m. ET with the capper Sunday at 1 p.m. Both races will air live on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Linus Lundqvist (No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing) needs only needs to compete in one of the races to secure the series championship. He holds a 103-point lead over Matthew Brabham (No. 83 Andretti Autosport entry).