Josef Newgarden Alex Palou

There are five races left in the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, with a total of 270 points up for grabs.

That means every driver from leader Alex Palou down to 13th place Romain Grosjean – 265 points behind Palou – remains eligible to win the Astor Challenge Cup as season champion in 2023.

But let’s get real.

This title race looks more like a championship fight between two drivers, Palou and Josef Newgarden, second and 80 points behind Palou. Scott Dixon is third, but 120 points is a lot to make up on his teammate in just five races, especially since Palou will score five points at every remaining race even if he finishes last. So that essentially adds 25 points to Palou’s margin every driver must make vanish.

So, considering this is one of the biggest weekends of the year for combat sports with the Terence Crawford-Errol Spence Jr. boxing match and UFC 291, it’s a fitting time to look at the two former series champions who most likely will square off over the last five races to decide the title, Palou and Newgarden.

Following is a head-to-head comparison of the records of Palou and Newgarden at the five remaining tracks on the schedule over the past two years, with this writer’s deduction of which driver has the edge at each facility. Newgarden joined the series in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Palou in 2020 with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh, but the last two seasons should provide the most accurate analysis. Both Palou and Newgarden have been with their current respective teams, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, since the start of 2021, when Palou joined Ganassi.

Shall we? (Key: Q – qualifying position; P – finishing position)

Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, Streets of Nashville, Aug. 6

  • 2021: Palou Q9, P7; Newgarden Q12, P10.
  • 2022: Palou Q4, P3; Newgarden Q6, P6.
  • Edge: Sure, Palou has the statistical edge in Newgarden’s hometown, but it’s slight. Neither driver advanced much from their starting position either year, which is more an indication of the tight confines of the Nashville track than their respective ability on temporary street circuits. It’s not easy to pass at Nashville, and potential carnage lurks around every corner. So, it’s vital that both drivers start up front and avoid chaos to stay there. It would help Newgarden considerably to outqualify Palou, something he’s only done once in four previous races this season on temporary street circuits, in Toronto. But ominously for Newgarden, Palou has beaten him to the checkered flag in all four races in concrete canyons this year. Slight edge to Palou.

Gallagher Grand Prix, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Aug. 12

  • 2021: Palou Q6, P27; Newgarden Q20, P8.
  • 2022: Palou Q7, P10; Newgarden Q5, P5.
  • Edge: The IMS “roval” looks like an ideal circuit for Palou, who was weaned on European tracks with sweeping corners, smooth surfaces and large run-off areas like the IMS road course. And the Spaniard did win the GMR Grand Prix by 16 seconds in May on the track. But for whatever reason, the summer road course race at IMS has been a bit of a bogey event for Palou for the last two years. Meanwhile, Newgarden has been solid both years, climbing to eighth from a poor qualifying performance in 2021 and qualifying and finishing fifth last year. Sure, Palou has the better form book this year on the IMS road course, but history can’t be ignored. Newgarden could claw back a few points here if trends continue. Very slight edge to Newgarden.

Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, World Wide Technology Raceway, Aug. 27

  • 2021: Palou Q21, P20; Newgarden Q3, P1.
  • 2022: Palou Q5, P9; Newgarden Q3, P1.
  • Edge: Let’s not waste much time here: This is Newgarden’s race to lose. He is the dominant oval racer of the last two years and of this generation in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. He has won five consecutive ovals dating back to last year and has won this race two years in a row. Is anyone betting against him to increase those streaks to six and three? Good luck with that. Palou never has won an oval race during his three-plus seasons in the series. The Spaniard and CGR should be in damage control mode, much like they were at the Iowa doubleheader, which Newgarden swept. Palou needs a race like the Hy-Vee One Step 250 presented by Gatorade last Sunday at Iowa, in which he drove from 12th on the starting grid to finish third. Huge edge to Newgarden.

Grand Prix of Portland, Portland International Raceway, Sept. 3

  • 2021: Palou Q1, P1; Newgarden Q18, P5.
  • 2022: Palou Q4, P12; Newgarden Q8, P8.
  • Edge: Add both these drivers’ finishes over the last two years, and the digit is identical – 13. But Palou won here from the pole in 2021, which should be the tiebreaker when comparing both drivers’ performance in the shadows of Mount Hood. Plus, there have been four races so far this season on permanent road courses like PIR, and Palou has outqualified and finished ahead of Newgarden in all of them. Three of Palou’s four wins have come on road courses this year. All four of Newgarden’s wins in 2023 have come on ovals. Edge to Palou.

Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Sept. 10

  • 2021: Palou Q4, P2; Newgarden Q17, P7.
  • 2022: Palou Q11, P1; Newgarden Q25, P2.
  • Edge: Newgarden’s performance in this race was one of his best in the 2022 season, as he rallied from 25th on the starting grid to finish second. Too bad it was obscured like a solar eclipse by Palou beating him to the checkered flag by a whopping 30 seconds in the biggest beatdown of last year. Newgarden has a strong record in the golden hills of Laguna Seca the last two years, finishing seventh and second. Problem is, Palou has finished second and first in the same races. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is one of Palou’s best tracks on the schedule, and its position on the calendar couldn’t come in a worse slot for Newgarden if he still trails entering the season finale. Significant edge to Palou.

So, in summary, Newgarden and Palou each have major edges at one of the remaining races. World Wide Technology Raceway should be a playground for Newgarden, while it’s easy to imagine Palou running rampant out front at Laguna.

Palou has slight-to-average edges at two remaining tracks, while Newgarden still could have an advantage on the IMS road course despite Palou’s victory there in May.

That would add up to a spectacular finish if Palou didn’t have a points lead of nearly 1.5 races with five events left. Also consider that only one leader with five races remaining has lost the championship since the existing bodywork was introduced to the series in 2017, with Will Power erasing just an eight-point gap to Marcus Ericsson over the last five events in 2022.

Only one driver since 2017 held a bigger lead with five races left than Palou’s 80-point margin this year, as Dixon led Newgarden by 96 points with five to go in 2020, a season trimmed to just 14 races due to the global pandemic. Dixon earned his sixth championship that year.

But these are all just numbers. Stranger things have happened on the track, where the racing gods seemingly pick no favorites.

Let’s see how this title showdown unfolds and relish it.