The day has come to settle the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season title, with five eligible drivers scattered throughout the 26-car field.
This much we know: Series points leader Will Power of Team Penske has the pole for today’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (2:40 p.m. ET, NBC; 3 p.m. ET, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and INDYCAR Radio Network), the place to be while guarding what effectively is a 21-point lead over teammate Josef Newgarden and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. Dixon teammate Marcus Ericsson has a 40-point deficit to overcome; Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin must rally from 42 points down.
SEE: Race Details | Starting Lineup/Tire Choice
Putting it simply, Power can secure his first series title since 2014 and the second of his career by finishing in the top three. Newgarden and Dixon must do really well and hope Power doesn’t earn a podium position. Ericsson and McLaughlin need to win the race to have a chance at jumping the other three for the title.
But Power is in a most enviable position. Not only does he have the first look at the green flag, the other contenders have a long way to go in the 95-lap race. McLaughlin starts seventh, Ericsson ninth, Dixon 13th and Newgarden 25th in the 26-car field.
“Well, it’s one point,” Power said of earning the point for the NTT P1 Award with Saturday’s record-breaking run to his 68th career pole. “I plan on leading the first lap (of the race), which is another point, and if you get on a real run, you can lead the most laps, it’s (two more points). Just keep going like that.
“Yep, super focused, man. I want to give all the boys my best, give my team the best because that’s what they’ve done for me this year.”
McLaughlin and Ericsson caught a small break Sunday morning when the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of reigning series champion Alex Palou received a six-spot grid penalty for an unapproved engine change after qualifying. That dropped Palou from fifth to 11th and elevated McLaughlin and Ericsson one spot in the starting order.
Palou could climb through the field quickly, if the morning warmup is any indication. He led with a lap of 1 minute, 12.9318 seconds, followed by McLaughlin at 1:13.4435. Among the other title contenders, Dixon was eighth, Ericsson 12th, Power 18th and Newgarden 19th.
Dixon is chasing what would be a record-tying seventh series championship; only A.J. Foyt has won as many. Newgarden is seeking his third season title, which would put him in a short list of drivers who have reached that mark. Ericsson and McLaughlin have never won an NTT INDYCAR SERIES title.
They aren’t the only ones seeking something significant in today’s race.
Front-row starter Callum Ilott, who is finishing his first full season in the series, will be chasing his first U.S. victory. David Malukas, who starts sixth, and Christian Lundgaard, the No. 16 starter, also want to achieve their first series wins, but they’re also battling for the Rookie of the Year Award. Lundgaard leads Malukas by five points.
“We’ve just been chipping away and trying to do a good job, and yeah, it’s been tough with no teammate to kind of have anything to learn from,” Ilott said. “To get to this stage and have a result like this … amazing job.”
Ilott said he recognizes he will start the race along someone going for a season championship. Therefore, he will drive alertly and accordingly.
“I’d love to win races if we have the pace to do it, (but) I’m not going to ruin anyone’s race to do it,” he said. “It’s more about working away. I’d love to finish the season with a top-five (finish), a top-three, take it as it comes.”
Team Penske has won 10 of the 16 races this season. Power would love to make it 11, but it’s not necessary in the overall picture. And yet, Power knows any of the other contenders can swipe the title from him if he isn’t careful.
Power said he expects a “tough race,” especially given that Dixon and Newgarden, who did not advance out of the first round of Saturday’s qualifying, will have an additional set of fresh Firestone Firehawk primary tires to use in what could be a winning four-stop pit strategy.
“It’s far, far, far from won, and I’m really aware of that,” Power said.