And then there were two.
That’s the situation as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES field has been narrowed to a pair of drivers in pursuit of the prestigious Astor Challenge Cup awarded to the season champion. And simply put, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou is still the most likely to be handed the trophy during post-race ceremonies Sept. 10 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Palou heads to the season’s penultimate race this weekend at Portland International Raceway with a 74-point lead over teammate Scott Dixon, and that’s a sizable advantage. Palou only needs to exit the weekend with a 54-point lead over Dixon to clinch his second series title in three years, and he shouldn’t need that much due to the points he will receive for participating in the final race. Another top-10 finish this week should effectively wrap things up.
Bottom line: Palou is still in command even as Dixon is riding a two-race winning streak after Sunday’s decisive victory in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline.
It’s time to look at Five Things that defined the weekend event at World Wide Technology Raceway.
How Dixon Did It
Oval races typically have a very small margin of victory, but Dixon registered the largest such finishing advantage of the season due to incredible fuel saving. His ability to conserve fuel allowed him to complete the distance in just three stops as the rest of the competitors needed four or more.
Interestingly, it was a social media posting last week by Mike Hull, Dixon’s longtime race strategist, that revealed the team’s plans. On X, formerly known as Twitter, he wrote, “It’s a 3-stopper.”
That Dixon was able to average 65 laps per stint when others couldn’t is a testament to his unique ability to control his gas pedal. Pato O’Ward, who finished second in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, knew Dixon would execute that strategy to perfection when his team told him mid-race about Dixon’s goal.
Not a goal, O’Ward thought. “He’s going to make it to the end,” he said.
Dixon finished 22.2256 seconds ahead of O’Ward, the largest margin of victory of the season. This was the fifth oval race of the season, and the previous largest win margin was Josef Newgarden’s 3.3755-second victory in the first race of last month’s Iowa Speedway doubleheader.
Before Sunday, the largest margin of victory overall this season was Palou’s 16.8006-second advantage over O’Ward in the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May.
The last time a driver won a series oval race by more than 10 seconds was Helio Castroneves in 2010 at Kentucky Speedway. He won that race by 13.16 seconds.
Dixon: Not All Easy
Dixon certainly made the drive look like one of those walks in the park, but he insisted it wasn’t, especially as he managed the restart on Lap 135 with Newgarden on his tail.
“There were definitely some tense moments,” he said. “I think probably the hardest part was the restart when we were leading (and) having to get a pretty high fuel number. We weren’t (on fuel pace). We were a ways off.
“But I knew we could kind of stress (drivers) in the second-through-fifth pack, get them into a pretty vulnerable situation. I knew once we caught the (lapped cars) we’d be able to save (fuel) and get beyond the fuel mileage that we need to get. It actually worked out perfectly. We were able to go further and beyond where we needed to.”
Dixon conceded that he could maintain “almost a flat-out pace” and finished about 1 mph higher than the team projected.
Another factor in Dixon’s victory was his ability to manage Firestone’s alternate, red-sidewall tires that were used for the first time in an oval race. Per series rules, competitors had to use that new set of tires for at least two laps, and most of the frontrunners failed to run as far as they did on the primaries. To no surprise, Dixon was the outlier.
The six-time series champion ran 65 laps on primaries to start the race – that included 13 laps of caution -- then went 61 laps on alternates. Palou ran only 45 laps on the alternates, Alexander Rossi 41, O’Ward and Newgarden 40 each.
To get fully on sequence for a three-stop race, Dixon made the second set of primaries last 70 laps before going the final 65 laps on the third set.
Dixon said it was more of a challenge than it appeared.
“I was moaning a lot,” he said. “I felt bad, like I felt slow. But then when I started looking at the (lap) times, (the crew said I was) doing the same pace as on the primary tire.”
The Use of Alternate Tires
The drivers were generally in favor of offering two sets of tire compounds on oval tracks as the series and Firestone do for road courses and street circuits.
Dixon even proposed a larger separation between the performance of the primaries and the alternates to create even greater speed and handling disparity.
“The tire was kind of interesting – it actually had a good amount of (degradation),” he said. “But I think for next year, I think you’d almost want to double that (degradation).
“I think having an alternate tire … I think for falloff like we see at Iowa (Speedway) where you go from an 18-second lap all the way to the 22s, 23s (and) you have good cars coming and going, people able to make changes throughout the race. I think that’s what they need to bring back here, a little bit more aggressive for next time.
“Ultimately, it worked out. It was a tough tire to manage. Probably 15-20 laps into my (alternate) stint I thought we were going to have to bail (from it). We actually saw (Will Power) bail off it very quickly. There were a few others you could see were really struggling with it and ultimately had to bail, as well.
“You really had to manage it, which is nice to have another kind of dimension to the race.”
“I think two different tires for the ovals is actually pretty cool,” he said. “I just think if they want good racing, we can’t be in single file. Then even the lappers can be racing with the leaders.”
O’Ward then paused to take note of several lapped cars who made passing unnecessarily difficult for him.
“Just get out of the way,” he said.
Trying To Keep Pace with Dixon
O’Ward and David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) were the only other drivers to finish on the lead lap with Dixon, and they were nearly a lap down to the winner at the finish. The next 14 drivers finished a lap off the winning pace while five more drivers were two laps in arrears.
Malukas spoke of one difficult moment he had with Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Odyssey Batteries Team Penske Chevrolet) in Turn 3.
“I followed the car in front (of me) on the inside,” he said. “Obviously for position, he squeezed down. I was right on the curb. It’s not like I washed up into him.”
Malukas confirmed “a tap” between the two cars.
“I managed to save it; I guess he did, as well,” he said. “He came to me at the podium and said something about it. I don’t know if he’s, like, (upset) by it, I don’t know.”
Four Eliminated from Title Contention
As mentioned, there are now only two drivers still in contention for the series title.
Newgarden, O’Ward, McLaughlin and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda) were added to the list of formally eliminated drivers with Palou finishing seventh in Sunday’s race. Palou’s streak of top-eight finishes has now reached 16 races over two seasons. The last time he wasn’t in the top eight was last year at Portland when he came home 12th.
While there isn’t much drama left for the series title, the fight for a spot in the top five should be intense with the combination of Sunday’s results – Newgarden was 25th, O’Ward second, McLaughlin fifth and Ericsson 10th – creating a dogfight of those four drivers within 43 points of one another.
The separation between O’Ward and McLaughlin is just three points in pursuit of the fourth spot. Ericsson is sixth, Power seventh. Power is still in the mix for a top-five standings finish, as well. He trails McLaughlin by 38 points with two of his better tracks to go.
Action for this weekend’s BITNILE.COM Grand Prix of Portland begins Friday with the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice at 6 p.m. ET. Two more practices and NTT P1 Award qualifying (3:30 p.m. ET) will be held Saturday, with all the aforementioned track activity available on Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Sunday’s 110-lap race airs at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.