The NTT IndyCar Series heads west for the final two races of the 2019 season. First up is the return to Portland for Sunday’s Portland Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET/NBC/INDYCAR Radio Network).
The penultimate race of the year should be another good one. Road course races in 2019 have been spectacular and this weekend shouldn’t be any different.
Penske/Ganassi/Andretti Should Once Again Be Strong
Combined, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport have won 11 of the last 12 Indy Car races on the season and all but six since this new car was unveiled for the 2018 season and beyond. In Portland, they have the most to lose. The top five in the points standings are filled with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti drivers. With them needing to win, I have a feeling one of them will.
With how this season has gone, expect a Penske, Andretti or Ganassi car to pull into victory lane on Sunday afternoon. They’ve won 78-percent of all races since 2015.
Three of the top five starters for Sunday’s race hail from one of these teams. Furtermore, so does five of the top seven.
Top 6 In The Standings Still Shining
Want to win in the NTT IndyCar Series, you need to be on top of your game. There are no fluke winners here. Just look at the last 13 races on the season – all 13 of them contested saw the race winner be in the top five of the current points standings.
Yes, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Takuma Sato have combined to win every Indy Car race since Long Beach.
All five are on top of their games right now and in an intense title race for the Astor Cup. With how this season has gone, expect one of which to win this weekend too.
Trend Says Ryan Hunter-Reay Will Win Sunday
At Mid-Ohio, Scott Dixon sat fourth in the NTT IndyCar Series standings. He’d win that day. Two weeks ago in Pocono, Will Power was fifth in the points. He’d win the ABC Supply 500. Last weekend in Gateway, Takuma Sato was eighth, he moved into a win and is now sixth in the standings. Does that mean the seventh place driver right now wins on Sunday?
That’s good news for Ryan Hunter-Reay. He finished second in this race last year and was third on the last natural road course of the season too. He will roll off sixth on Sunday.
Likely A Lot Of Green Flag Racing
The yellow flags are down this year. That’s a known fact. I don’t expect many on Sunday either. Last year, we only had four cautions in this race. This year, we’ve seen two or fewer cautions in three of the last five races including two of which going green flag to checkered flag without a stoppage.
Furthermore, natural road courses haven’t had many cautions at all this year. COTA and Barber each had one yellow flag fly each. The IndyCar Grand Prix had three. Road America and Mid-Ohio had none.
5 Natural Road Course Races, 5 Different Winners, 5 Different Teams
Odds are likely that we’re going to see a new winner in Sunday’s race. We’ve had five natural road course races run in 2019 and in all five of them we’ve seen a different winner from a different team.
Colton Herta (Harding Steinbrenner Racing) won in COTA. Takuma Sato (Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing) won a week later in Barber. Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske) won in Indy. Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport) was in June at Road America while Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) won the most recent race in Mid-Ohio.
So, who’s next?
If we want a new winner look no further than Ryan Hunter-Reay. He finished third in Mid-Ohio and third in COTA while also coming home runner-up in this very race last year. If not him, then Felix Rosenqvist would be a great pick. In his last four natural road course starts he’s finished 10th, eighth, sixth and second respectively. If not them, then Graham Rahal. His teammate won this race last year and he’s had four top nine finishes in five natural road course starts this season. Josef Newgarden also makes sense. He has three top four finishes in five tries himself.
But, what about those that fit the different team description too?
Dale Coyne Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Carlin, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports or Meyer Shank Racing are up then. Who are the favorites among these groups?
Sebastien Bourdais has to be one as he has a top 12 finish in all five tries but only two of which were in the top 10. Santino Ferrucci has two finishes better than 15th himself.
I doubt the Foyt duo will have much of a shot, same for Carlin. But, the ECR boys may. Ed Jones has a top 10 at Indy while Spencer Pigot finished fourth in this race last year and has two top seven finishes in his last three natural road course starts.
MSR also is a sleeper. Jack Harvey has three top 10 finishes in five tries including a podium in Indy and a top 10 in his last race at Mid-Ohio.
SPM is a contender too. James Hinchcliffe and Conor Daly have been quick this weekend and start eighth and ninth respectively.
Starting Spots Not Ideal For Championship Favorites
The top three of the standings failed to make the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday. Josef Newgarden comes into this weekend with the points lead but he only qualified 13th. His teammate Simon Pagenaud is 38 points behind him in second but starts just 18th. Alexander Rossi is third, 40 points out, but qualified seventh.
Where this is big is, none of the race winners in 2019 have come from ninth or worse. In fact, 28 of the last 31 Indy Car races have seen the eventual race winner come from a Row 4 starting spot or better.
Lack Of Wins Up Front
To piggy back from my point above, only three of the drivers in the top 10 of the starting lineup for Sunday’s race have won more than 10 times in the series. Second place starter Will Power has won 36 times. Third place starter Scott Dixon has 46 trips to victory lane. Ryan Hunter-Reay in sixth has won 18 times.
Other than that, the remaining seven have won a combined 14 times between them. Four of those seven have never won.
Do we get a new winner on Sunday?
Inexperience For Final 2 Races
When you get past Indy, the two most important races on the calendar are the final two. But, what’s unique about this year is the combined amount of races on each of the final two venues for the series in the last decade is – 1.
Other than last year, the last time Indy Car raced in Portland was 2007. The next race in Laguna Seca hasn’t had the series come there since 2004.
That’s why the final two races are the ultimate wildcards. There’s not much data you can take over from one to the other.
Also, at this point of the year, it’s all about the championship. Heading into Portland, five drivers are mathematically eligible to win the championship still. Anyone that’s 100 points or fewer out of the lead leaving Portland will have a shot to race for the Astor Cup in two weeks in Laguna Seca.
Heading into the weekend, Josef Newgarden sits atop of the standings with points scored. Simon Pagenaud is second while Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and Will Power sit third through fifth respectively.
With there only being one race run recently in Portland, Sunday’s race is wide open.
So, lets look at how each of them have done on natural road courses this season. Newgarden, has finishes of second, fourth, 15th, third and 14th respectively. He was 10th last year in Portland.
Rossi, has one win but that’s his only podium in five tries. He was ninth, fifth, 22nd and first respectively in the other four. He finished eighth in this race last year.
Pagenaud, like Rossi, has one top five podium too as his was his win in the INDYCAR Grand Prix. In fact, that’s his lone top five too. He has finishes of 19th, ninth, ninth and sixth respectively in the other four. He finished sixth at Portland last year.
Dixon, has been the best out of this group. He was 13th, second, second, fifth and first respectively in five tries and was fifth in this race last year.
That leaves Power. He was 21st in this race last year and has finished just 24th, 11th, seventh, second and fourth respectively on natural road courses in 2019.
Honda’s The Ones To Beat?
Honda has won four of the five races on natural road courses in 2019 including two straight. They in fact have won seven of the last eight on these types of tracks overall. In the last race at Mid-Ohio, they went 1-2-3. Last year in Portland, they went 1-2-3 as well including putting four cars in the top five and six in the top nine.
That’s good news for Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing, Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Meyer Shank Racing and Dale Coyne Racing this weekend.
They took eight of the top nine starting spots for Sunday’s race.
While Chevy has won seven of the last 11 races overall, five of those seven were contested on ovals. It’s Honda’s turn to flip the script but do their championship eligible drivers have enough time to close the gap in the drivers standings?
CGR Has Shown Natural Road Course Strength
So far, the top team on natural road courses has been Chip Ganassi Racing. That’s great news for Scott Dixon who has three top two finishes in his last five tries on these types of tracks. His worst finish since April is fifth at Road America and the only reason it was fifth was because Dixon spun while battling for position on the first lap and dropped to last. Despite no cautions to close the gap to the field, he still charged up to a top five.
What’s that say about this speed.
He won in Mid-Ohio and needs to win again this weekend. He heads to the Grand Prix of Portland 63 points down in the standings. With Josef Newgarden having two finishes of 14th or worse in his last three natural road course tries, Alexander Rossi having just one finish better than fifth in his five natural road course starts and Simon Pagenaud having one top five himself, this is Dixon’s chance to make up some of his deficit.
But, he’ll need to beat his teammate Felix Rosenqvist. The Swedish rookie finished runner-up in the last natural road course in Mid-Ohio. It was a 1-2 day for CGR in fact. But, if the race was a lap longer, Rosenqvist likely would have won.
The trends favor him this weekend too. He finished 10th in Barber to eighth the INDYCAR Grand Prix to sixth in Road America to second in Mid-Ohio. The only way to trend is to win on Sunday.
CGR starts P3 and P5 on Sunday.
Can Pagenaud Keep Momentum Going?
Leaving the June 23 race at Road America, Simon Pagenaud sat third in the NTT IndyCar Series standings, 54 points out. He’d win the next race in Toronto and move to 39 points arrears. But, the next week in Iowa, Josef Newgarden dominated in leading 245 of 300 laps and pulled 58 points ahead of Pagenaud.
The last two weeks though, Pagenaud has shined over Newgarden. He finished sixth at Mid-Ohio while Newgarden was 14th. Two weeks ago in Pocono, he finished third to Newgarden’s fifth. Last Saturday night in Gateway, he finished fifth to Newgarden’s seventh.
Now, Pagenaud has outpaced Newgarden and Alexander Rossi in four of the last five races which saw him cut 20 more points off his deficit as he moves past Rossi for second in the points standings, 38 points out, with two races remaining in the season.
Since his win in Toronto, Pagenaud has outscored Newgarden 184-161. He’s outscored Rossi 184-122.
With the season finale in Laguna Seca being double points, if he can close the gap even further Sunday in Portland, then Pagenaud very much can still win this year’s championship.
Last year, Pagenaud finished sixth in this race while Newgarden came home 10th. He’s finished ahead of Newgarden in four of the five races on natural road courses this season too.
Can Rossi Get Going?
When Alexander Rossi led 54 of 55 laps in the June 23 NTT IndyCar Series race at Road America, we thought that the battle was on between he and Josef Newgarden for this year’s championship. At that time, Rossi had four top two finishes in his last five starts on the season and trailed Newgarden by just seven points. The next best was Simon Pagenaud who was 54 points out.
It was shaping up to be a battle between Newgarden vs. Rossi. American vs. American. Penske vs. Andretti.
A race later in Toronto, Pagenaud made it a three man battle as he led all but five laps himself on the street course to pull within 39 points of Newgarden. Rossi, finished third while Newgarden was fourth that day as the lead for Newgarden shrunk to just four.
That’s where this whole thing really started to change.
Newgarden, won the next week in Iowa and has pulled his gap on second from four to 38. But, second isn’t Rossi anymore – it’s Pagenaud.
Rossi, hasn’t led a single lap since June 23 as he has just one podium in his last five starts. His last two results are now 18th and 13th respectively. He’s been outscored by Pagenaud by 62 points and Newgarden by 39 points since Toronto (5 races).
For a driver who’s been second in the standings every race since Belle Isle, he’s now fading.
Last year, Rossi finished eighth in Portland. He has just one podium in five starts on natural road courses this year. With the final two races being on these circuits, this battle may be between Penske teammates now, not Newgarden vs. Rossi.
Can Sato Get Momentum Going?
Takuma Sato got redemption last weekend in Gateway. Following a week of getting bashed by peers as well as race fans for a first lap incident the race prior in Pocono, Sato rebounded for a much needed win under the lights in St. Louis last Saturday night. Now, can he keep it up?
See, it wasn’t just that Sato was seeking redemption last weekend, he needed to turn his season back around too. At one point of the year, the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing driver was a championship contender. He had five top eight finishes in his No. 30 Honda in the first seven races including a third place run in the Indianapolis 500.
But, over the last eight races now, his win in Gateway is his lone top five in that time frame. In fact, heading into last weekend’s race, he had four straight finishes of 19th or worse. He went from a championship sleeper to just trying to stay in the top 10 of the points standings.
Now that he has some momentum back, he’s eyeing to keep it.
This weekend, we head to the Portland International Raceway, a place where Sato won at in fact a year ago. With coming off of a win in Gateway, going back-to-back will be a big momentum builder.
Ferrucci Looks To Close Out Rookie Of The Year Battle But Rosenqvist Will Make It Tough
The championship race is going to obviously take a majority of the headlines for this weekend’s race in Portland, but as we head down to the final two races of the season, another big storyline to watch is the Rookie of the Year battle.
Heading into this weekend, Santino Ferrucci holds a slim two point lead over Felix Rosenqvist. Colton Herta is 44 points arrears while Marcus Ericsson is -74 points out himself.
This should be a fun battle to watch at Portland as well as Laguna Seca as the rookie drivers are honestly shining again.
Ferrucci, enters this week on the heels of two straight fourth place finishes and four top 10’s over his last eight starts.
Rosenqvist, has three top six finishes over his last six starts in his No. 10 Honda.
Furthermore, since the race at Toronto in July, Ferrucci has actually in a tie for the fourth most points scored among all drivers in the last five events run. He, as a rookie, has scored as many points as Alexander Rossi and Will Power (122). The next best though is Rosenqvist who’s scored 115 points in that same time frame himself.
While Ferrucci has been very impressive, I have a feeling that Rosenqvist may have an advantage down the stretch. See, all three of Ferrucci’s top 10 finishes since Texas in June have come on ovals. All three of Rosenqvist’s top 10’s in his recent six race stretch have been on road or street courses.
The final two races are on road courses.
On natural road courses this season, Ferrucci has finishes of 20th, 15th, 10th, 19th and 12th respectively. On the same tracks, Rosenqvist has finished 23rd, 10th, eighth, sixth and second respectively.
The advantage is with Rosenqvist as Ferrucci just looks to close the season on a high note.
1. 9 Dixon – I think he pulls it off again. Dixon, has three top two finishes in his last four natrual road course starts, why not a fourth? He was third, 11th and fourth respectively in practice this weekend and starts third.
2. 12 Power – I do think he gets to finish where he starts. Power, has three straight top seven finishes on natural road coursest his season and was second in practice on Friday and third on Saturday.
3. 10 Rosenqvist – He goes off strategy again and nearly picks up a win. Rosenqvist, has four straight top 10 finishes on natural road courses and gets a second straight podium on one.
4. 88 Herta – The pole sitter gets his fifth top 10 in his last seven starts on the season. Herta, was first, fourth and first respectively in practice too.
5. 27 Rossi – I do believe he rebounds for a top five in his No. 27 Honda. Rossi, was second, sixth and fifth respectively in practice and rolls off seventh on Sunday.