Pato O’Ward has gotten hot. Alex Palou is not. Josef Newgarden looks the part and the Ice Man lurks in the close distance. As the NTT IndyCar Series teams pack up to head out west, the focus turns to the championship among these four drivers. Currently, five drivers actually have a realistic shot at glory in a few weeks in Long Beach, but it’s really down to these four with Pato O’Ward holding a slim 10 point lead over Alex Palou in the hunt for the Astor Cup. Josef Newgarden (-22), Scott Dixon (-43) and Marcus Ericsosn (-60) are right behind.
Five drivers, three races, one championship trophy. How did we get here and who looks the part to win it? A couple of months ago, we were ready to just hand the trophy to Palou. He had a commanding lead. What happened?
Well, the month of August happened. The only reason the championship has tightened up so much is due to Palou’s woes in the three races last month furthering the proof that you can’t afford a bad race in this series. You can credit that plus his blown engine in the preseason test at Barber as to why he may not win the title now in Long Beach.
See, that blown engine has put them behind which has cost them grid spots due to penalties as an indirect result. In Nashville, he qualified third but due to a six spot grid penalty for an engine change, he’d start ninth instead. He’d only finish seventh as a result. A week later on the Indianapolis road course, he blew an engine while running fourth. That forced him to serve another penalty, this time nine spots seven days later at the World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. He was now coming from the back again and he crashed while doing so from an ill advised move by Rinus VeeKay.
7th, 27th and 20th respectively were his August finishes.
Meanwhile, O’Ward was 13th, 5th and 2nd in the same three races to amount a charge to the top of the standings. But, with only one podium in his last five races run too, it hasn’t allowed him to really separate himself much from Palou either. The 10 point differential right now is the fourth closest point margin since 2008. By comparison, the average points lead at this point of the season is 31.7. As you can see, this year’s is much closer.
In favor of O’Ward though, also since 2008, the driver who’s led the points with three races remaining has won the title eight times including each of the last five years. The thing is, that margin at this time of those seasons were 27 (2016), 18 (2017), 29 (2018), 35 (2019) and 72 (2020). The last time it was this small of a margin was at four points between Will Power and teammate Helio Castroneves in 2014. Power though, would still win the title when it was all said and done.
Newgarden, is the one who’s gained the most. He went from 88 points down leaving Road America and even 75 points arrears after Nashville to just 22 back now and well within striking distance.
That’s worrisome for the two in front with he and the guy behind Newgarden in Dixon, combining to win each of the last four season championships and them finding some momentum again.
Also, it’s not like Newgarden has really been all that far off either. He’s just had bad luck. He should have won the second race at Belle Isle. He also should have won at Road America. Instead, bad luck allowed O’Ward to win Detroit and Palou to win Road America.
He did win Mid-Ohio and Gateway and if you go back to the last six races, he has three top two results.
Dixon, hasn’t been very Dixon like in terms of podiums, but he does have three top four finishes in his last five races.
Ericsson, has scored the most points out of anyone since the Indy 500 including two wins now. Both of those came on street courses and the season finale is on a street course too. But, can he make up 60 points though in three races is the thing?
See, two of the three races are on natural road courses. It starts this weekend in Portland.
For this weekend’s race, 21 of the 26 races have been won by a series champion. 10 drivers won Portland and the title in the same year. Also, since we’ve returned here in 2018, both races were won by Indy 500 champions at that.
That favors maybe someone like Dixon.
Then it’s to Laguna Seca after that in which it’s a race that should look a lot like Portland actually.
The other aspect to this is that Ganassi has been the best on the season on natural road courses. Dixon has finished third, ninth, fourth, fourth and 17th. Ericsson was eighth, 10th, sixth, second and ninth on the same tracks. Palou though, was first, third, first, third and 27th. The thing is, that 27th was a top four at the time of his engine cutting loose. With two races on these types of tracks coming up, a top four is almost certain out of he and his No. 10 Honda team.
That puts the pressure back on O’Ward who’s only been fourth, 15th, ninth, eighth and fifth on these tracks. While they had a great test at Portland during the summer break stretch, did they find enough to get on the podium?
He’s only had five podiums all year, two were at Texas and two more at Belle Isle. Take those doubleheaders away and he has one left in nine races. He’s also only had three in the last nine races. Palou, has six podiums five of which being in the same nine race span that O’Ward has three.
Newgarden though is coming off of a win, should have won at Road America to where it was a race he led a race-high 32 laps and was leading coming to the restart with two laps-to-go before a mechanical malfunction. He then dominated the next natural road course event at Mid-Ohio to where he started on the pole and led 73 of 80 laps en route to the victory there.
His natural road course races this season saw him crash on the opening lap at Barber, was fourth and eighth on the Indy road course layout, 21st in Road America with a car that should have won then he backed that up with at win in Mid-Ohio.
This could be his time to shine. He noted that the team is arguably at their best on street courses and he’s not wrong. He had a car to win both Belle Isle races, was runner-up in St. Pete and if not for a crash in qualifying at Nashville, had a Fast Six capability out of them that weekend.
Palou meanwhile was 17th, 15th, 3rd and 7th on street courses. O’Ward was 19th, 3rd, 1st and 13th himself.
Then there’s Dixon who I’m wondering if he can close that gap from top fives to podiums. For whatever reason, the podiums have stalled out for him. He’s only had three all season, one of which in the last 10. He had six in the first eight races a year ago but just four over the last 19. That’s not going to cut it.
He does have seven top five finishes. By comparison, Palou has the same amount. O’Ward has one more at eight with Newgarden having one less at six.
The difference for Dixon is, he’s not taking those top fives and turning them into podiums. Palou’s six and O’Ward’s/Newgarden’s five each is where the difference lies. Can he turn it on over the final three weeks to score his first ever back-to-back championship seasons?
He was 48 points down with three races left in 2015 and ended up winning the title. This time though, the season finale isn’t double points. Dixon trailed by 49 points in 2013 and did win the title without the aid of double points, so it’s entirely possible.
Also in his case, the ill timed Texas 2 and Indy 500 cautions ruined potential race wins for him. If those yellows don’t occur, we could be having a different conversation right now too. We can’t overlook that fact.
We also can’t overlook that Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Scott McLaughlin, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta may play into this too. While they won’t win a championship, they could win any of the final three races?
Penske has won the last 2 and 3 of the last 4. Power has 3 podiums in his last 5 starts on the season now. Pagenaud and win at any given moment and McLaughlin is getting more and more comfortable.
For the Andretti duo, they should have won multiple times this season by now. They’ve just had bad luck.
Herta has a front row starting spot in literally half the races run (7-for-13). He has one win to show for it.
He was collected in a first lap crash in the season opener at Barber. He had a mechanical failure in Texas 1. He was a victim of the first caution for the Indy 500 and was 16th. He was the wrong end of strategy in both Belle Isle races in finishing 14th and 4th respectively. In Nashville he was the best car/driver out there all weekend. He was quickest in every practice session then dominated from the pole. He even led 39 of the 1st 74 laps before crashing while running second in a day that got away from him due to all the cautions tying up strategy. He then had a drive shaft failure while leading in the last race at Gateway.
For Rossi, he started the year off with a front row starting spot but pitted too early and ruined his strategy. A week later, he endured an incident in St. Pete with Graham Rahal. Then came a crash on the first lap in the second Texas race, only to be 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, a bad caution flipping strategy in Nashville and finally a crash while running third after his final pit stop in Gateway.
Last season came a crash while having a race winning car in the season finale on the streets of St. Pete. In Gateway was another first lap crash. For the Indy 500, came a questionable penalty on pit road while having a car that ran in the top three most of the afternoon. For Road America 1 came an early problem. Same for the Indy road course on July 4 last year with a mechanical issue. His ECU failed him at the start of the season opener in Texas.
If bad luck stays out of the way of Power, Herta and Rossi, watch out. That’s why this could be Newgarden’s title to lose now despite being third in points. Dario Franchitti was 23 points out with three races left in 2010 and ended up winning the championship. Newgarden, has one point advantage over Franchitti in that stand point.