The time is almost here to crown a new NTT IndyCar Series champion. One race remains in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) and three drivers from three different teams enter with aspirations of hoisting the Astor Cup championship on the west coast this Sunday afternoon.
It’s the 16th straight year that the championship decider has come down to the last race.
So, who wins?
For starters, trends say not Pato O’Ward despite his prowless this season and how good he’s been on street courses. The reason is due to the last 18 championships having been won by either Penske, Ganassi or Andretti including Penske and Ganassi combining to win each of the last eight titles.
Between Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, they have five of the top six currently in points. The only driver not of them?
The last time a team other than the “Big 3” won a championship was Panther in 2002 with Sam Hornish Jr. Is Arrow McLaren SP ready to win a title in just their second full time season in the series? The fact that they are in this position speaks volumes about how well run they are and how bright of a future that they really do have.
Plus, if O’Ward wins the title, he’d be the youngest series champion in the history of the sport. Right now, that distinction goes to Sam Hornish Jr. from his first of two straight titles with Panther in 2001. He was 22 years, 3 months and 4 days old then. O’Ward just turned 21 this past spring.
Pato O’Ward is looking to make history Sunday in Long Beach – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site
On top of that, only 12 times since 1960 has the champion been under the age of 27. That could eliminate 24 year old Alex Palou too as just six times ever has someone 24 or younger won the title.
Jacques Villeneuve (1995), Louis Meyer (1928), Juan Pablo Montoya (1999), Scott Dixon (2003) and Hornish Jr. (2001, 2002) are it. Can Palou join that list? Can O’Ward?
The other telling tidbit is Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon have won each of the last four championships and if you count Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Will Power (2014) these four drivers have won every title since 2013.
Are we ready to add a new name to the mix? Has the pendulum swung younger? Is this that time?
So, trends then say this championship would go to Newgarden. He’s won them every other year, so he’s due. 2017, 2019….2021?
Trends may say Newgarden, but I say he’s too far out. So likely is O’Ward. The last time a driver leading the points this time of year with one race remaining that didn’t win the championship after the season finale concluded was in 2015. Juan Pablo Montoya was 34 points up on Graham Rahal but Scott Dixon, who was 47 points behind, ended up winning the race at Sonoma as well as the title.
The kicker there was, that race paid double points. They don’t do that anymore. The last time someone came from behind to win the title in the final race with normal paying points was 2012. Ryan Hunter-Reay was 17 points down heading to Fontana that year. Will Power crashed and Hunter-Reay triumphed. That was the final time in a four consecutive year streak that saw the second placed driver entering the season finale ended up taking home the Astor Cup trophy after. Dario Franchitti did it the previous three times with entering the last race 5 points behind Scott Dixon in 2009, 12 points arrears to Will Power in 2010 and 11 points away from Power again in 2011.
If you go back to 2008 though, it’s only happened five times in a 13 year span. None of which other than the double points year exceeded 17 points.
O’Ward is 35 points behind. Newgarden is 48.
If Newgarden is going to win the title, he has to hope for a miracle. Being 48 points back means that he has to win, score max points by winning the pole as well as the most laps to get to 54 points scored this weekend. You get five points just for showing up and starting the race and the sixth point goes to the 24th place finisher. Six points gives Palou 523 for the season. 54 gives Newgarden 523. They’d tie. The tiebreaker then would go to Newgarden who’s had three runner-ups compared to Palou’s two. Also, he’d have to hope Pato O’Ward just doesn’t win or lead the most laps. You get 40 points for a runner-up which would give O’Ward 522 points. If he leads a lap by doing so, he’d get to 523. O’Ward has had one runner-up so even if he leads a lap in the race, then Newgarden owns the tiebreaker.
That’s asking for a lot.
Newgarden, has had a lot of qualifying woes lately. In nine of the first 10 races, he had a top 10 starting spot including three consecutive poles heading into the summer break. In the five races since, he’s qualified 12th or worse in four of them.
O’Ward meanwhile has three poles this year but has also had just one top five starting spot in his last eight starts. Palou though has seven top seven qualifying efforts in the last eight races.
Qualifying means so much at Long Beach, so Newgarden and O’Ward could have an uphill battle if they don’t qualify ahead of Palou.
Palou, needs to just finish 11th or better no matter what. He owns the tiebreaker over O’Ward in runner-ups (2-1) and wins right now at 3-2. He’s finished 11th or better in 11 of the 15 races run this season with the only times he didn’t being 17th in St. Pete, 15th in Belle Isle, a blown engine at Indy and a crash in World Wide Technology Raceway.
Plus, it’s not like O’Ward and Newgarden have been blazing the trail lately anyways. Palou has five podiums in his last eight starts. O’Ward and Newgarden each have two in the last seven.
That’s the difference right now. Both O’Ward and Palou have nine top five results. Newgarden has seven. For top 10’s, Newgarden has 12 with O’Ward and Palou both with 11. Podiums is the difference.
Palou has eight. O’Ward and Newgarden each have five.
This battle will be close though despite all of this. O’Ward and Newgarden are at their best on street courses. Palou isn’t.
Both O’Ward and Palou are rookies at Long Beach. No testing sessions to help either. In 2 of his 4 finishes outside the top 11 this year for Palou, they were each on street courses. O’Ward meanwhile had a pair of podiums in Belle Isle including a win over Newgarden in Race 2. He was on the podium in last year’s season finale at St. Pete.
Newgarden, has six top two’s in his last 10 street course starts. He has a pair of runner-ups in four starts on them this season at that. Trends say he will come home runner up though. His 2021 street course finishes?
2nd, 10th, 2nd, 10th….2nd on Sunday?
O’Ward has a car to win Long Beach and I truly think he can. But, he and Newgarden have to win. It does them no good to finish second. If O’Ward finishes second (40) points and has no bonus points for the pole, leading a lap or the most laps, then all Palou has to do is start the race. He gets five points by doing so. That takes him from 517 to 522 points. O’Ward has 482 points now, so 40 points gives him 522. They tie.
If he leads at least one lap, he gets to 523 points. Palou just has to finish 24th or better. If he wins the pole and a lap, he gets to 524 points. Palou then has to get to 23rd or better. If he finishes second and get the max four bonus points, then he’d have 526 points. Palou then would only need nine points to tie him. You get nine points for finishing 21st.
So, if O’Ward doesn’t win, then Palou just needs a top 20.
Then you have Newgarden. Palou basically has 522 points right now since he’ll get five on Sunday. 522-469 = 53 points. That is a race win, plus a lap lead and most laps led. That’s all Newgarden can do. He needs max points.
With the pole, the best Newgarden can do is 523 points. Palou would need to be 24th or worse. If O’Ward leads a lap, starts on the pole and finishes second, again the best Newgarden can do without a pole is to lead the most laps and win, then O’Ward scores 42 points. That gets him 524 points. So, Newgarden has to hope O’Ward doesn’t win the pole either.
That’s why Palou is in the drivers seat. Plus, he has three other teammates to help. If a teammate wins, it’s all over. If he needs a teammate to go to the back, he has three to do it.
By having to just be 11th or better and the luxury of three teammates at his disposal leads me to believe Palou can sneak out this year’s title.