An NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship was confirmed Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and a legend of the sport added another race win to his remarkable career total.
Strangely, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be remembered for much more than Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou and Scott Dixon. Yes, those two drivers were terrific in the 95-lap race, just as they have been all season. But the wildness of the afternoon took center stage in the season finale.
There were record passing numbers: Most on-track (432), most in the top 10 (101) and most in the top five (36). And that was just the half of it.
There were eight cautions, all for contact between cars. Race control issued a season-high 17 penalties, eight for avoidable contact.
There were six leaders and several other drivers who thought they might arrive in victory lane, several of which were seeking their first race wins of the season. There were season-best performances and memorable moments galore.
So, go back to the premise here: Wasn’t the day supposed to be about Palou and Dixon?
Start with Palou
The driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda entered the final weekend of the season with the championship in hand, which removed a ton of the pressure usually associated with these year-ending races. But Palou still drove as he has all season.
The third-place finish was less of a result than Palou deserved. Despite starting fifth, he led a race-high 51 laps, all of them in the first 58 times past the flag stand. He might have cruised to victory if not for the caution that came when the No. 29 Sapphire Gas Solutions Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport’s Devlin DeFrancesco bounced into the No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda driven by David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.
At the time, Palou had a commanding advantage on Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet), but O’Ward was fortunate to be on his way to his pit box when the caution came out. The result was, O’Ward shot to the lead for the restart and Palou, after pitting, was 15th.
Palou absorbed some contact while mired in mid-pack, but he got back to third place for the 10th podium season of his stellar season. He finished the year with a series-leading five race wins, an average finish of 3.7, a 78-point advantage over Dixon, and his second series title in three years.
Honor Dixon, Again
Dixon and strategist Mike Hull pulled another fast one on their competitors, coming back from a penalty for first-lap contact with the No. 20 BITNILE.COM Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay to secure their third win in the season’s final four races.
Dixon now has three or more race wins in nine seasons, and he pushed his career total to 56. The latter still has him second in the sport’s all-time list, but he is ever closer to A.J. Foyt’s 67.
(Think about that: Dixon is now with 11 race wins of a total that once seemed untouchable.)
It likely will take watching the replay several times to figure out how Dixon and Hull worked their magic, but here are the facts: They did it on three stops (Laps 17, 38 and 64) as second-place Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet) made four stops and Palou two. While Dixon was angry to have been penalized for hitting VeeKay exiting Turn 2 on the first lap, he quickly regrouped and executed a perfect recovery. It was so Dixon-like. Again.
McLaughlin’s Remarkable Jump
Like Dixon, McLaughlin incurred a penalty – two, actually – one for avoidable contact after running into the back of AJ Foyt Racing’s Santino Ferrucci and the other for pitting after race control had repositioned the running order. (Teammate Will Power was issued the same penalty on Lap 38.)
All McLaughlin did was drive his rear off. After starting second, he was hit in the side in Turn 2 of Lap 1 by the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard, who was penalized for avoidable contact. McLaughlin’s car got knocked into the gravel trap and by the time he returned to the track he was in 19th place.
Scrambling back to finish second allowed him to jump from fifth in the standings to third behind Chip Ganassi’s top two drivers. Doing so meant that McLaughlin finished as the top Chevrolet driver and, by association, the top Team Penske driver. Be honest: Who thought he’d finish ahead of a pair of two-time series champions – Power and Josef Newgarden – in just his third season?
Speaking of Ferrucci, his spectacular save of the No. 14 AJ FOYT/SEXTON PROPERTIES Chevrolet through the dirt on the front straightaway should be on every highlight reel of the season. It was remarkable.
Chevrolet entered the season’s final race trailing Honda by 16 points for the Manufacturers Championship, but Callum Ilott’s fifth-place finish, among other strong drives, helped reverse the positioning. Chevrolet won its second straight title by 12 points.
Ilott tied his season-best result. Coincidentally, he started and ended the year with fifth-place finishes.
Marcus Armstrong was the top rookie finisher, eighth in the No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing. That was enough to clinch Rookie of the Year honors for the New Zealand native and helped CGR achieve the unprecedented feat of taking the top two spots in the standings, with Palou and Dixon, while also winning the rookie title.
Armstrong never was the race leader Sunday, but he was on Dixon’s strategy late in the race before having contact with teammate Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda) in Turn 11 on Lap 68. Armstrong likely was never in danger of losing the rookie points lead, but Agustin Canapino (No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet) drove a terrific race in running as high as second. They finished 34 points apart in the standings in 20th and 21st place, respectively.
Helio Castroneves didn't win his final race as a full-time driver in this series, but he rebounded from a pair of complete spins to finish 13th in the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing. The race was Castroneves' 391st of his career, 16 shy of Marco Andretti's all-time record.
The 17-race season might be complete, but Armstrong will be back on track Wednesday to take his oval rookie test at Texas Motor Speedway. On Sept. 21, Palou and Armstrong will be celebrated as winners of their respective categories during an event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Offseason testing will be plentiful as INDYCAR, Chevrolet and Honda prepare to debut hybrid elements for the 2024 season. Next year’s race schedule is yet to be announced, but at least one new event was confirmed over the weekend: There will be a made-for-TV non-points race on NBC, an event currently known as a $1 Million Challenge, March 24 at The Thermal Club in Southern California. That 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course was the site of this year’s preseason test.