INDIANAPOLIS — The final race of a three week stretch of competition in the NTT IndyCar Series season is abruptly coming to a close. Before we get to Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) at the World Wide Technology Raceway though, we first have to hit the rewind button to this past weekend’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
You can merge takeaways not only from Saturday’s race but also combine them into this Saturday’s as well.
- Penske has now won 2 of the last 3 races on the season. That comes after they started off 0-for-9. How many more victories do they get to close out the year? I think you can get another win or two from either Will Power and Josef Newgarden over the final four race stretch leading to another strong end of the season for a second straight year. In fact, it could continue this weekend with Penske having won 5 of the last 7 in Gateway as well as 4 of the last 5 on another short oval at Iowa including a clean sweep of a year ago there. They were 2-for-3 on short ovals in general during 2020, so I don’t see them all the sudden slowing down. Then, following a two week break, we go west for two more natural road course races (Portland, Laguna Seca) , a type of track to where Penske has won each of the last two on them on the season in dominating fashion. Finally, we close at Long Beach to where Penske says they have the top street course program as well. There’s no reason to doubt that they can end this season on a very high note.
- Speaking of end of season runs, Will Power is on the verge of another himself. He’s finally won to stretch his yearly streak to 15 straight seasons with at least one victory. But, the question now is, how many more come? He’s always at his best at seasons end. He had three podiums over the final five races in 2017, four podiums in the final five of 2018, three top twos in the final four of 2019 and two wins in the final five of last year.
- Is Rossi starting to turn things around? He was similar to Power in the bad luck category this year and now is beginning to turn it back the other direction. Rossi, started off the year with a first lap crash in Barber, a crash in St. Pete, a crash on the first lap in Texas, plagued with bad luck from the first caution in back-to-back weeks in Indy and Belle Isle 1, a broken wing in Belle Isle 2 and a bad caution flipping strategy in Nashville. But, when things go right, he has two top five finishes in his last three starts on the year including four top sevens in the last six.
- Can Herta continue podium improvement? He has a front row starting spot in almost half the races run this year. Herta’s also had just one win to show for it. He told me before the season even started that he wanted to turn top five days into more podiums. That’s where he was missing. Heading into this year he had four podiums in 32 tries. This season, he has three in 12. While he should have more than three at that, it’s still an improvement and that’s really the difference between being a championship contender right now and not for him. He had the same Barber crash at Rossi, had bad luck in Texas, was on the wrong end of strategy in Belle Isle 1, pit road problems in Mid-Ohio and crashed in Nashville.
- Rahal too would be a title contender if they could qualify better. He has nine top seven’s in 12 races and in the three that he didn’t score a top seven, all but one was going to be a top five result at that. He got into the tire barriers in St. Pete while battling in the top five finish with Rossi. His tire fell off in the closing laps of the Indy 500 while running in the top five too. Indy paid double points at that. He’d finish 32nd that day and still sits sixth in points. The thing is, where could he be better is, if he qualified closer to the front. 3 of his last 4 attempts, he’s started 13th or worse. He’s came from the top 10 only four times all year and none were better than 8th. Imagine those finishes if he started closer to the front.
- Points Battle – I know I said what Herta, Rahal, Rossi and Power needed to be in the game for the championship this year, but what about the ones that are actually vying for it now? It’s down to 21 points between 1st place Alex Palou and second place Pato O’Ward. Fifth place Marcus Ericsson made up a ton of points since Indy and is now only 62 back. There’s four races left, so who does what? For Palou and O’Ward, this track this weekend is the last one left that they’ve actually raced at before. This is a point to fare well because you don’t know what you’re going to get on the west coast swing. Palou, did have a podium in all four natural road course races entering Indy and was heading for another before his engine expired. He’s at his best on these circuits and 2 of the final 4 are on them. O’Ward is at his worst on them but said they figured something out in the Portland test that would help. It did too as he earned the pole and finished fifth on Saturday. Palou, has three podiums in the last 5 races on the season and six this year overall. O’Ward has just one top five since his win in Belle Isle and just two podiums in the last eight races on the season. That’s the differential between them now. Chasing them down are the last two drivers to win a series title. Scott Dixon is -34 after having a terrible weekend in Indy. He has just three podiums all season and one in the last six overall. Josef Newgarden sits -55 with just four podiums all year and only two top five results in the last seven races run. Ericsson, is the hottest driver lately with six straight top 10’s including two wins and a runner-up in that span.
- Leaders Circle – This is an underrated topic now too. As we’ve been trying to decipher, it looks like the top 22 in the final entrant standings for this year get the bonus money so long as they are back in 2022. If that truly is the case, then we have a hell of a battle on our hands right now. The No. 48 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing holds that final spot by four points over the No. 7 Chevrolet at Arrow McLaren SP. This car has scored more points than the 48 in the last six races and say they’ve found something to improve upon. Tony Kanaan is back in the 48 this weekend for the final time before handing the keys back to Jimmie Johnson for the rest of the way. Can Johnson hold Rosenqvist off? Then you have the No. 06 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing. We know they’ll be around full time in 2022 and that extra money would be crucial for them too. They’re only 17 points back. The Carlin entry (No. 59 Chevrolet) and the No. 4 Chevy at AJ Foyt Racing sit 37 and 44 points back respectively. On the good side of the bubble is the No. 45 Honda from Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. They’ve showed up to six of the last seven races and it would benefit them greatly to just run out the rest of the year. I mean they’re +14 and with a good shot to stay in for the bonus money. Ed Jones has his No. 18 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan +18 while the No. 29 Honda at Andretti Autosport and No. 14 for Foyt are +23 and +24 respectively.
- Grosjean is about to embark on his first oval and is actually very excited about it. Does this signify the first step of him being a full time driver in 2022? He’s the hottest driver on the market and hasn’t completely closed the door as it’s sounding ever more and more likely that he’ll be vying for a championship next season. His oval debut is this weekend in St. Louis after he scored another runner-up on the IMS road course. He’s now scored the second most points on natural road courses all season and three of his last four results in general have been in the top seven. He’s also qualified in the top seven in six of his last seven races as well.