WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca

Alex Palou is assured of being the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, and Chip Ganassi Racing knows it will have the top two drivers when the season comes to a close following Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

But don’t say there’s nothing to play for. In fact, there is plenty.

SEE: Race Details

There is a lot of pride in being the top-finishing Team Penske driver, and Bus Bros. colleagues Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, separated by 22 points, each have a chance to be. The competition is even tighter at Andretti Autosport, where Colton Herta and Kyle Kirkwood are separated by a single point to internally finish No. 1.

Someone is going to be the Rookie of the Year, and there certainly is going to be a dogfight for the final positions in the Leaders Circle program, which supports full-time teams for the 2024 season. Honda will try to hold or build its 16-point lead over Chevrolet in the Manufacturers Championship, too.

There are also a host of drivers still in search of their first race wins of the season. Foremost in that group is Will Power, who has a streak of 16 consecutive seasons with at least one win, a mark that is second in series history only to Scott Dixon’s 19.

So, buckle up and arrange your bingo cards. There is still much at stake in the season finale.

Impressive Seasons of Palou, CGR

Before understanding what’s at stake, let’s understand the top of the standings and how Palou’s season is one for the ages.

The driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda enters the final race of the season with a 91-point lead over Dixon, and Palou will receive the Astor Challenge Cup as the season champion Sunday afternoon regardless of how Dixon fares this weekend. Palou is the series champion for the second time in three years.

However, Palou isn’t likely to coast through the 95-lap race. Another race win will make him the first driver since Will Power in 2011 to nab six in a season. Palou won three in his first title season, in 2021.

Palou also has a chance to stack his season against some of the best performances of recent years. He has finished eighth or better in all 16 races, and his point total stands at 618. Tony Kanaan had the same number of points under a similar scoring system in 2004 – the difference was Palou got nine points for being the polesitter of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and Kanaan’s season had one fewer race – while Dan Wheldon scored 628 points in his 17-race championship season of 2005.

Kanaan had three wins and an average finish of 3.0 in his title season, Wheldon had six wins and a 5.0 average finish. Palou is at five wins and an average finish of 3.8. Remember, Palou won last year’s series race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca by more than 30 seconds, which makes him a strong candidate to again reach victory lane.

Kanaan and Wheldon were the top two finishers in each of those seasons for Andretti Autosport. Palou and Dixon will give Chip Ganassi Racing its first 1-2 finish since 2009 (with Dario Franchitti and Dixon).

Top-Five Positions at Stake

While Palou and Dixon have their finishing positions secured, the rest of the top five figures to be hotly contested.

While Newgarden, who drives the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, won’t finish second for the fourth consecutive year, he will finish somewhere in the top five. Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) is almost certainly going to be among the top five, as well, although he is a bit more in jeopardy of dropping. Newgarden enters the weekend with 470 points, O’Ward 461.

Three other drivers will aim for one of the top five finishing positions: McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet), Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda) and Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet). They stand at 448, 423 and 393 points, respectively.

Power desperately wants to extend his streak of 16 consecutive seasons with at least one race win. O’Ward, who has had four second-place finishes this season, also seeks his first win of the year.

While Newgarden and McLaughlin battle for bragging rights at Team Penske, how Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian) and Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) fare in Michael Andretti’s organization will be interesting to watch. Herta still doesn’t have a win this season, and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is arguably his best track – he’s won two of the past three series races from the pole on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course. Kirkwood scored the first two race wins of his career this season, and he’d like to end the year with three.

Armstrong Likely Top Rookie

Marcus Armstrong is almost certainly going to finish the season with the most points among rookie drivers as he enters the finale with a 36-point lead on Agustin Canapino. But the seasons of both drivers are to be celebrated.

Armstrong has finished in the top 11 of more than half of his starts, and his place in the overall standings is higher than four drivers who have competed in all 16 races even though he has participated in only 11.

The driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda also did not have the opportunity to score additional points in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge as he is only competing in the road course and street circuit events in this first season.

Still, Armstrong has scored an average of 17.3 points per race, which is only a tick behind the averages of last year’s top rookie contenders, Christian Lundgaard (19.0) and David Malukas (17.9).

While Armstrong came to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES with considerable formula car experience, having won four races over three FIA Formula 2 Championship seasons. Canapino had no open-wheel background. Yet, the 33-year-old Argentine has waded these waters in impressive form.

The driver of the No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet finished 12th in the season’s first two races, added another such finish in the Honda Indy Toronto on the tricky street circuit at Exhibition Place, led a race and has only had one race that ended with an accident.

The Weekend Schedule

All 27 car-and-driver combinations were expected to be on track Thursday for the series’ official open test. Officially, action for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey begins Friday with practice at 5:30 p.m. ET (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network).

The rest of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES lineup includes a second practice Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, NTT P1 Award qualifying Saturday at 5 p.m. and the final practice at noon ET Sunday.

The telecast for the final race of the season will begin at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday with the green flag expected about 3:20 p.m. NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network will have coverage.

INDY NXT by Firestone also will end its season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The first race of the doubleheader is Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET with the second race Sunday at 1 p.m., both on Peacock, INDYCAR Live and the INDYCAR Radio Network.

Christian Rasmussen of HMD Motorsports with DCR brings a 65-point lead over his nearest challenger, Andretti Autosport’s Hunter McElrea, into the weekend.