Alex Palou’s magic number for clinching a second NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in a three-year span is eight.
If Palou pads his commanding lead in the standings by eight points in Sunday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway, he eliminates all other challengers for the prestigious Astor Challenge Cup.
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Yes, Sunday’s race is one of three events remaining in the season, but Palou’s current lead is 101 points, and the most a driver can earn in a single event is 54 points. That means if the driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda heads to the year’s final two races with a 109-point lead, the title is again his regardless of how his rivals fare.
Palou leads Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) by 101 points and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) by 105 points. Simply put, they are clinging to only a glimmer of championship hope.
The season’s final two races will be the BITNILE.com Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway on Sunday, Sept. 3, and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday, Sept. 10.
A unique element to this weekend’s event is the use of alternate, red-sidewall tires on an oval for the first time in INDYCAR SERIES history. Firestone developed an alternate Firestone Firehawk tire compound specifically for the unique characteristics of World Wide Technology Raceway, and each team will receive two new sets of those tires – one for practice, one for the race – and they must use the latter for at least two laps in the race. Per INDYCAR rules, each entry must qualify and start the race on a set of primary, black-sidewall tires.
Sunday’s race will air live on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network at 3:30 p.m. ET.
INDY NXT by Firestone also is competing at World Wide Technology Raceway this weekend. Its 75-lap INDY NXT by Firestone OUTFRONT Showdown will be Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET (Peacock, INDYCAR Live, INDYCAR Radio Network). HMD Motorsports’ Christian Rasmussen holds a 33-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Hunter McElrea heading into the pivotal championship stretch of four races in three weeks.
Those Clinging to Title Hopes
Officially, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Odyssey Battery Team Penske Chevrolet), Arrow McLaren Racing’s Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda) remain mathematically eligible for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES title as they sit in fourth through sixth place, respectively. But they are realistically out of contention as they trail Palou by 144, 151 and 162 points, which means Palou would need to skip the last three races to give them even a sliver of a chance.
Regardless of how Sunday’s 260-lap race plays out, Palou has good odds to lock up the title by next week’s race in Portland. The last time an INDYCAR SERIES driver clinched a crown in advance of the season’s final race was 2007 (Sebastien Bourdais in the Champ Car World Series). It has been 21 years since an INDYCAR SERIES driver had the title secured with two races remaining. That was Cristiano da Matta in 2002 (Champ Car), who clinched with three races left.
Here's perspective on Palou’s massive lead: It’s the largest for series leader with three races to go since 2008. The average margin in that span has been 28.5 points.
Not Palou’s Best Track
Palou has competed in four races at World Wide Technology Raceway, and he doesn’t have a championship-caliber record to show for them. His average starting position (12.75) and average finishing position (14.0) are well below his career norms. He has never led a lap on the 1.25-mile oval.
Last year was his best race at the track – he started fifth and finished ninth. His previous three finishes at the track were 11th, 14th and 21st.
Meanwhile, Newgarden has dominated, leading 264 of 720 laps en route to three consecutive victories. Newgarden has won the event four times overall, scoring his first victory in 2017 in his first season with Team Penske.
Dixon has been strong at this track, too, winning the first of two races held in 2020. He won the pole for the 2018 race, finished second in the 2017 race and has led 251 laps in his eight starts.
Therefore, it’s likely Palou’s championship celebration is on hold for at least another week.
Newgarden’s Run of Oval Wins
Remember 2022, when Ericsson won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge? That’s the last oval race in this series in which Newgarden wasn’t the prominent driver.
Newgarden has won six of the seven oval races held since Ericsson’s victory, the outlier being last year’s second race at Iowa Speedway when a mechanical failure while leading threw Newgarden’s car into the Turn 4 wall. He led 148 of his 235 laps that day, part of a remarkable recent dominance.
Newgarden has led at least 78 laps in six of those seven oval races, and in five instances he has led at least 123. Twice he has led more than 200. Add it up, and he has led 53.3 percent of the oval laps since Ericsson’s Indy victory.
Joining Team Penske certainly has benefited Newgarden. Since the start of the 2017 season, he has scored 26 of his 29 career victories with the team, with 13 of them coming on ovals. And while he has been a relatively good qualifier on ovals, he has only four such poles with Team Penske and just one in the races he has won (for the second race of 2020 at Iowa Speedway).
At World Wide Technology Raceway, Newgarden has led 484 laps in seven races. Only teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) has led half that many – 329, including his win in 2018. Power is the only driver to have led all seven races at the track since the sport’s return in 2017.
Newgarden is trying to become the second driver to sweep all the oval races in an INDYCAR SERIES season, but there’s a catch. Bourdais first did it in 2006 by winning Milwaukee, which was the only oval on the Champ Car schedule that season.
Best of the Rest
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Takuma Sato (No. 11 Deloitte Honda) is one to watch this weekend. In addition to winning the 2019 race, he won the pole for the second race in 2020 and has led 167 laps as part of his seven series races there. Sato will be making his final start of the season with Chip Ganassi’s team.
Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) and Dixon are the only other previous World Wide Technology Raceway winners in this 28-car field. Castroneves won in 2003, Dixon in the first race of 2020.
O’Ward and Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian) are the other drivers with more than 100 laps led at this track. Herta was particularly strong in 2021, leading 101 of the first 183 laps before his car’s driveshaft broke while leaving the pits.
O’Ward led 94 of his career 141 laps in the first race of 2020. Like Herta, O’Ward is still aiming for his first race win of the season.
History says the NTT P1 Award winner might not be the one in victory lane Sunday. Castroneves was the last to go flag to flag, and that was 20 years ago.
As for the rest of the field, Ed Carpenter returns to action driving the No. 33 Bitnile.com Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing while series rookie Linus Lundqvist makes his third consecutive start in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda as a stand-in for Simon Pagenaud.
Conor Daly will make his first career start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, driving the No. 30 Mi-Jack Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Daly, who has driven for eight teams in this series, has four top-10 finishes at this track, including a fifth-place finish in 2017 with AJ Foyt Racing.
Ready for PeopleReady
The $1 million prize for completing the second PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge is on the line this weekend for Palou, who earlier this year won a street course race (the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear) and a road course event (the first of his three such wins was the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway). Winning on an oval is his last box to check.
Only three additional drivers remain eligible for PeopleReady’s big bonus – they are the winners of the season’s other four street circuit races, as there no more of those left on the schedule. But each needs an oval win, and this is the last of those this season.
Ericsson won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) won the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) won the Honda Indy Toronto. Each of those drivers must win this weekend’s oval race and then one of the two remaining road course races to earn the $1 million.
Newgarden won all three legs of the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge last year, but he will finish this season with no more than two of the boxes checked. He has won all four oval races but did not win on a street circuit.
Each race winner receives $10,000 from PeopleReady. All winnings – for race winners and the big bonus – are split between the team, the driver and their selected charity.