Scott McLaughlin

The Astor Challenge Cup, awarded each season to the champion of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, is on ceremonial hold for at least another week, but it won’t take much for Chip Ganassi Racing to have its own celebration this weekend at Portland International Raceway.

Alex Palou is this close to securing the season title, and he and his Indianapolis-based organization could be breaking out the bubbly Sunday evening as the first group in 16 years to accomplish the feat this early in the year. The last time a driver wrapped up the title ahead of the season finale was in 2007 when Sebastien Bourdais was crowned the Champ Car World Series champion following the penultimate round in Surfers Paradise, Australia.

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Palou brings a 74-point lead over teammate Scott Dixon into this weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland, the largest advantage for the series leader since unification in 2008. The 26-year-old Spaniard driving the No. 10 The American Legion Honda only needs to exit the weekend with a 55-point lead to know the championship is his for the second time in three years.

How Palou wraps up the title this weekend is central to the Five Things to Know about the event.

Do the Math

For the same of simplicity, assume that Palou and Dixon, the only two remaining hopefuls for the championship, participate in this weekend’s race and next weekend’s season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Dixon has 491 points and with 54 points available at each race, the most he can earn this season is 599. Thus, Palou’s magic number currently is 600, and he stands at 565. Easy math: Score a combined 35 points over the next two races.

Without bonus points, Palou only needs to have an average finish of 12.0 to win the title even if Dixon were to score all the available points. Keep in mind that Palou is riding a streak of 16 consecutive races with finishes of eighth place or better with four wins, and last year he won the Laguna Seca race by more than 30 seconds.

In other words, Palou is in great shape for title No. 2.

Dixon’s Path to No. 7

The driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda has done almost everything he can of late to give himself a chance to tie A.J. Foyt’s record for most series championships with seven. Dixon has won the past two races and similar to Palou, he is on a streak of 12 consecutive races with finishes of seventh or better.

This might have been a true dogfight to the end of the season had Dixon not had a mechanical failure in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in the year’s third race. There, he had a mid-race retirement and finished last in the 27-car field, scoring just five points.

Dixon has finished third at Portland each of the past two years, but he will need to be better than that this weekend to at least postpone Palou’s championship celebration. Dixon’s other four finishes at the 12-turn, 1.964-mile permanent road course are seventh in his first two years in Champ Car (2001, 2002), fifth and 16th. He must win or finish second with Palou scoring minimal points to extend this.

If Dixon somehow stays in the game for another week, he surely will need to win the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 10 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. However, it’s another track where he has never gone to victory lane, and his only podium there was a third-place finish in 2019.

Battling for a Top-Five Finish

While the championship pursuit might not hold much drama, the fight for a spot in the top five of the standings certainly does. Simply put, it’s a crowded field.

Six drivers are going for four positions, and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) is aiming for his fourth consecutive runner-up finish.

Newgarden, a two-time series champion, enters this weekend in third place with 440 points. He is followed by Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) with 429, Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Freightliner Team Penske Chevrolet) with 426, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda) with 397 and reigning series champion Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) with 388. That’s 58 points separating third from seventh.

Power (2019) and McLaughlin (2022) are former race winners at Portland, and Power finished second to his teammate last year. Both drivers have won NTT P1 Awards as the fastest qualifiers at the track, and last year McLaughlin led an event-record 104 of the 110 laps. Looking ahead to next week, neither of them has won a race at Laguna Seca. In fact, Newgarden, O’Ward and Ericsson will seek their first wins there, as well.

So, it figures to be quite a scramble the next two weeks.

Armstrong in Command

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda) returns to action this weekend and resumes his pursuit of the series’ Rookie of the Year Award.

Despite not competing on the oval tracks this season, Armstrong holds a 20-point lead over Agustin Canapino (No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet). They sit 20th and 21st in the overall standings.

The 23-year-old New Zealand driver has made a strong case to return to Chip Ganassi’s organization with six of his 10 finishes in the top 11. That’s particularly impressive given that 17 drivers in this weekend’s field of 27 have won races in this series, and eight were the top rookies of their season.

Canapino has produced a strong year given it’s his first driving open-wheel cars. The 33-year-old Argentine has three top-12 finishes and has several moments where he has raced in the top 10 before fading.

There will be six rookies in this weekend’s event, with defending IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship winner Tom Blomqvist, a 29-year-old Englishman, making his second start in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda in place of Simon Pagenaud. Blomqvist competed in the Honda Indy Toronto in July but was collected in the first-lap multi-car accident.

Juri Vips, a 23-year-old Estonian, will make his series debut in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s No. 30 Honda. He has participated in two tests with the team, last year at Sebring International Raceway and in April at Barber Motorsports Park. Like Blomqvist, he is also confirmed to participate in next week’s race at Laguna Seca.

Sting Ray Robb (No. 51 biohaven Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) and Benjamin Pedersen (No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet) are the other two rookies in this field.

Linus Lundqvist, a series newcomer who has driven MSR’s No. 60 car in the past three races, is not driving this weekend, but he has had a significant week. Thursday, he was confirmed to a multiyear contract with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Television Numbers on Strong Path

Last weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway averaged 1.132 million viewers on NBC and Peacock. That’s the eighth race this season to average 1 million or more viewers.

With two NBC races to go, this season is on pace to be the most-watched NTT INDYCAR SERIES season since 2008.

The first series practice of the weekend is Friday at 6 p.m. ET (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). Saturday’s action on the same outlets will have the second practice at noon ET followed by NTT P1 Award qualifying (3:30 p.m.) and the final practice (8:15 p.m. ET).

Sunday’s race will be at 3 p.m. on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

INDY NXT by Firestone also is competing in Portland this weekend. Sunday’s INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix of Portland will feature 17 car-and-driver combinations in the 35-lap race at 1:20 p.m. ET (Peacock, INDY Live!, INDYCAR Radio Network).