INDIANAPOLIS — There’s four races remaining in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. Like most seasons before it, the race to the finish to crown a champion is likely going to come down to the final race which this time occurs on the streets of Long Beach. It’s the fourth straight year we’ve ended the season at a different venue. We closed 2018 in Sonoma, 2019 in Laguna Seca, 2020 in St. Pete and now 2021 at Long Beach.
One stagnant is that the World Wide Technology Raceway has been late in the season which is why Alexander Rossi says the best of the best win on the 1.25-mile oval in the shadows of the iconic Gateway Arch.
“I mean, I think the guys that are winning champions late in the year are qualifying up front,” he said to me. “That’s pretty much everything these days. If you’re in championship contention, you have a draw that goes later, you’re starting in the top five, it’s pretty hard not to kind of stay there unless crazy situations obviously.
“It is a very difficult place to pass. If you have a good car, you can pretty much maintain what you’re doing.”
He’s not wrong in the sense that this is a tough race track to pass on and the faster cars on the season are towards the top of the points. In saying that, they have the best qualifying draw which means they’re starting closer to the front. With fast cars being in the front on a track that’s hard to pass on, the only way by is for them to make a mistake. But, there’s a reason they’re up in the top of the standings and that’s because they’re usually on top of their games and their mistakes are by the minimum.
Hence champions winning here.
Conor Daly agreed.
“I think in my case, from what I’ve seen, couple lucky yellows can make anyone a winner really. So I don’t know,” Daly told me, who shifts back to Carlin for the final time of the season on Saturday.
“If you start up front there, I feel like, if you’re quick there, no matter what, I don’t know, it seems to be one of those places that if you’re pretty bomb proof up front, you got a quick car, it’s going to be really hard to make that pass.
“I remember watching Josef try to win, door slammed Pagenaud out of the way. Sometimes maybe that’s what is going to have to happen. Josef is a champion. That’s what it’s going to take.”
We’ve seen seven straight Gateway winners coming from a top five starting spot and five of the last seven from the top three. Also, 12 of the 13 races run in Gateway were won by a series champion. The only one not was Takuma Sato in 2019.
On top of that, other than Josef Newgarden, we’ve had a new winner of this race each time. Names like Paul Tracy (1997), Alex Zanardi (1998), Michael Andretti (1999), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Al Unser Jr. (2001), Gil de Ferran (2002), Helio Castroneves (2003), Josef Newgarden (2017,2020), Will Power (2018), Takuma Sato (2019) and Scott Dixon (2020) all won on the 1.25-mile oval heading into this weekend.
That’s good news for everyone not named Alex Palou as the current INDYCAR points leader will have a nine spot grid penalty on Saturday for having to change another engine. His No. 10 Honda blew late in last Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Vodka Grand Prix in Indianapolis while running fourth and as a result, saw his points lead evaporate to what was over 50 points at that time to now at 21 over second place Pato O’Ward.
So, not matter where Palou qualifies on Saturday afternoon, he will have to drop nine spots back which essentially takes him out of a win. He was 15th in Belle Isle when his first grid penalty happened and seventh in Nashville.
That opens the door for O’Ward who nearly won both Gateway races a year ago and calls this one of his best tracks left on the schedule.
“Looking back at last year, Gateway was one of the best weekends that we had, and we’ll be looking to go one place better this weekend,” he said. “I think we have very strong cars on short ovals, and I’m excited to see what our package can do this weekend. We’re going to be going for it. We’re closing out the championship, there’s only four more rounds, and we’re in the fight.”
O’Ward, needs a strong run in the sense that he’s not had a podium since Belle Isle back in June. He’s had just two podiums in his last eight starts which has to be concerning for Palou in the fact that he’s had five podiums in that same span but holds a slim margin over O’Ward.
This is also good for Scott Dixon who’s had three top four results in his last four starts on the year and heading to a track to where he won at just last season. Dixon only trails his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate by just 34 markers and going to places to where he has a distinct advantage with the two in front of him in the championship never having raced at any of the three west coast tracks before.
Josef Newgarden may be sitting the best for this weekend with him being 55 points out but arguably the best driver in Gateway. He’s the only multi-time winner in the tracks’ history and driving for a Team Penske organization that’s starting to get hot again.
Penske has won two of the last three races and it really should be five of six. Will Power had Belle Isle 1 won until his ECU failed him under the late red flag period. Newgarden, had the race won a day later in leading the first 67 laps but he was on the wrong tire strategy with three to go. A week after that, Newgarden led 32 of 55 laps in Road America from the pole and was leading coming to the final restart with two to go but suffered a mechanical failure.
He made up for it in the next race and won in Mid-Ohio. Power then won last week in Indianapolis on the road course.
Team Penske has also been the top dog on short ovals in the series these days anyhow. Penske started off great in this event with going 4-for-4 until Sato’s win in 2019. Dixon won Race 1 last year but Newgarden won Race 2 to putting Penske 5-for-7 in St. Louis.
Also, heading into last year, Pagenaud had a top five finish in his first three tries at Gateway but just one podium, a third in ’16. He was 19th and 16th last year.
Power won this race in 2017 but was only 20th, 22nd and 17th in his next three starts, two of which ending in crashes before a third place run in Race 2 last year.
“Winning is absolutely what makes me happy,” Power said. “I’m very moody when I haven’t won for a while. Just ask my wife.”
For Iowa, another short oval, they swept both races in 2020 and four of the last five times they’ve visited there. In saying all of this, is Penske the top team on short ovals in the series today?
Finally you have Marcus Ericsson in fifth (-62) who’s the hottest driver in the series right now. The Swede has scored the most points since the Indy 500 including a top 10 in each of the last six races including seven of the last eight overall. Among those are three top two results.
That’s why Saturday’s one day show is going to be very interesting in the sense that you don’t have a lot of time to get it right. You have practice in the heat of the day, followed by qualifying, then a night race. This will shape the championship push as we head out west in two weeks.
As far as my weekly prediction article, this weekend is different due to the one-day show. Not much from practice will dictate how the race will look and by time we get to qualifying, it’s too late to fully guess who will win with such a short turnaround.
Here’s my picks.
- 5 O’Ward
- 2 Newgarden
- 27 Rossi
- 12 Power
- 9 Dixon
⏰8 pm ET
🟢8:45 pm ET
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Distance: 260 Laps/325 Miles)
Race: 13 of 16