INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: Top 5 favorites/race preview for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

TRACK: Portland International Raceway (1.967-mile, 12-turn road course), DISTANCE: 105 Laps (216.04 miles)

Favorites – Wide Opened Race Again?

Josef Newgarden

Hard to overlook him despite being 0-for-2 in podiums at Portland. He does have two top 10’s though (10th, 5th).

Will Power

He should have won in 2018 but did end up doing so in 2019. He’s usually very good at the end of seasons with three podiums in the last five races in 2017, four podiums in the final five in 2018, three top twos in the final four races of 2019 and two wins in the final five races last year. It’s Will Power time.

Alex Palou

While he’s a rookie at Portland, he did win Barber and Road America this year for two wins on natural road courses. I’m not overlooking him this time around.

Colton Herta

He’s at his best out west. He was fourth here in 2019.

Alexander Rossi

He has the best average finishing spot in two races at Portland. Rossi, was eighth in 2018 and third in 2019.

Race Preview

Following another couple of weeks off, the NTT IndyCar Series teams return to action this weekend to kickstart a three week west coast swing to wrap up the 2021 season. Following a wild month of August, Alex Palou’s stanglehold on the standings has since evaporated and allowed Pato O’Ward to not only catch him in the points, but pass him as the second year Mexican driver leads the second year Spaniard by 10 with three races remaining.

The good news for O’Ward is, in each of the five years as well as 6 of the last 7, the driver holding onto the points lead with three races remaining in the season has held everyone off to win the title when it was all said and done.

The last driver to lose the points lead in the final three races was Juan Pablo Montoya back in 2015. He was 42 points up with three races left and lost in a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon who was actually 48 points back at this time of that 2015 season. The thing is, the final race that year paid double points. This one doesn’t.

The last time someone came back in the final three races to steal the title away in which we didn’t have double points was 2013 when Dixon trailed Helio Castroneves by 49 at this point.

That’s great for O’Ward.

What’s not great is the fact that the 10 point margin between he and Palou is the fourth smallest since 2008. Prior to this season, the average lead with three races-to-go was 31.7.

In 2016, the gap was 27 points. 2017’s was 18. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, it was 29, 35 and 72 respectively. This is the tightest gap since Will Power led Castroneves by four points in 2014. Its been single digits three times at the three race to go mark and in two of them, the driver leading the points at that point failed to win the title.

O’Ward, has two straight top five finishes and scored his first podium in the last race out since his dual podium weekend in Belle Isle. Palou, was ninth, 27th and 20th in the last three races.

It all started with a grid penalty in Nashville and instead of starting third, he rolled off ninth. He only made it back up to seventh when it was all said and done. A week later in Indy, he was fourth in the final laps of the race before blowing an engine. That cost him nine more spots for qualifying in Gateway in which he was collected in a crash and saw his what should have been a 50+ lead evaporate to 10 points arrears.

Is this a championship race between the two of them?

O’Ward, would be the youngest driver to win a championship if he could hold the field off. Palou, would be the seventh youngest.

Also, no team other than Penske, Ganassi nor Andretti has won the title since 2003. Could O’Ward buck both trends?

The drivers chasing him all being to Penske or Ganassi with the next two behind them, Josef Newgarden (-22) and Scott Dixon (-43) having combined to win each of the last four titles.

Plus, O’Ward and Palou have never raced on either of these final three tracks before. Newgarden and Dixon have.

How much of a factor does that really come into play? Portland has only been around for most of these drivers since 2018 (2 races). Laguna next week in the same boat. Long Beach is the one that’s had the most history among these three races.

Before we get to Long Beach though, we first come back to Portland for the first time since 2019. Last year, this race and all three out west were casualties of COVID. Now, we’re back with all eyes on the championship.

Also, with Portland only hosting two races since INDYCAR return and neither having an Aeroscreen, that could wipe out any past notes too, making this weekend’s race very unpredictable. Dixon and Newgarden have yet to score a podium in Portland while Palou and O’Ward are rookies.

Newgarden is coming on strong of late with two wins in the last four races. Dixon, has three top fours in his last five. Marcus Ericsson (-60) has scored the most points since the Indy 500, so there’s a good chance the trio behind O’Ward and Palou can close the deficit even more this weekend in Portland.

Of Note

21 of the 26 Portland races were won by a season champion. The last 2 winners since the series returned, has also won an Indy 500 too.

Key Stat

9 of the last 10 at Portland have been won from a top 3 starter.

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