Top single laps that shaped the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship

For the 16th straight year, the NTT IndyCar Series championship will be decided in the final race of the year. But, for Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon, how did we get to this point in where they sit in the standings?

Yes, Dixon has been eliminated but if some of these laps went his way, he would for sure be in the mix for the title on Sunday. For Palou, O’Ward and Newgarden, where would their seasons be right now if laps went differently?

1,840 laps have been turned but I can break it down to a handful that has shaped this year’s title. Here they are in order.

Lap 1 at Barber Motorsports Park

Josef Newgarden made a rare mistake on the opening lap of the season opening race and not only crashed, but he took out Colton Herta, Ryan Hunter-Reay and others in the process. Newgarden, finished 23rd as a result and scored just seven points for the day. Meanwhile, Alex Palou won and netted 53 points while Pato O’Ward started from the pole and finished fourth. That got him 34 points. Scott Dixon rounded out the podium in third with 35 points. As you can see, this moment is what put Newgarden in a massive hole to start the year off with.

Lap 17 at Barber Motorsports Park

It’s rare to have 2 laps in the same race in a season opener at that shape this season, but on Lap 17, Pato O’Ward hit pit road for what most of us assumed was due to him trying to do the race on an alternate strategy. We felt then that maybe he wasn’t doing any fuel saving and just qualifying laps every lap. Alexander Rossi thought the same and pit with him. The thing is, O’Ward’s plan wasn’t to pit early. It was to be on the other strategy, but he had a slow leak in one of his tires and it forced them down pit lane. That altered their strategy and handed the lead as well as the race win over to Alex Palou. He was on the winning strategy and won his first ever Indy Car race as a result. Palou, scored 53 points that day. O’Ward had 34. That’s a 19 point swing that O’Ward wishes that he could have back today. If the race continued straightforward, there’s no reason to believe that O’Ward wasn’t going to have at the very least a podium with Palou which means the gap would have been nothing.

Lap 117 at Texas

Prior to Jack Harvey’s mechanical failure on Lap 117, this race was shaping up to once again be Scott Dixon’s to lose. He had led all but eight laps until that point, but that yellow completely altered the complexity to this race.

Everyone pit during that yellow on Lap 119 and from then on, it went into a fuel saving race. Dixon, didn’t want to lead, neither did anyone else. Graham Rahal passed Dixon for the lead on Lap 139, but Dixon stormed back on Lap 151. Everyone was trying to save enough fuel to get to a point to where they could pit for one last time and make it to the end.

Dixon and Rahal pit from the top two spots on Lap 186. It was Lap 188 when Pato O’Ward hit pit lane and Josef Newgarden pit for his final time two laps later. Those two staying out a little bit longer proved to be the winning move.

Takuma Sato had yet to pit at that point but he last hit pit lane on Lap 166. There was no way that he could make it to the end, so the guys behind him were in the best position and they lineup behind was Newgarden, O’Ward, Rahal and Dixon.

Dixon, had the best car but the undercut worked against him. O’Ward, had a faster car than Newgarden, which left Newgarden puzzled, but O’Ward had the pace that Newgarden lacked and was able to pass him and pull away.

“Yeah, it was a decent day for us. Can’t be too disappointed with the second place,” Newgarden said that day. “Obviously we were in the catbird seat there at the end. Felt like it was going to be possible to get a win today.

“The only thing I was worried about, just seemed like we were lacking some speed for whatever reason. Pato’s Chevy seemed to be performing a little bit better than my Chevy. Regardless, with Chevy in Victory Lane, it’s a good day.

“We had great fuel mileage, great reliability, which are always qualities we get from Chevrolet. Pretty proud about that. Happy to have XPEL on the car, with them being the title sponsor.

“A lot of good positives, but just short at the end of the day.”

If that caution doesn’t fly though, Dixon likely wins this race. It cost him 17 points as a result too.

Lap 202 at Texas

Another race with 2 laps that shaped the season. Pato O’Ward passed Josef Newgarden for the lead on this lap in Texas 2 and would never look back to score his first career Indy Car win of his career. O’Ward scored 51 points for the day with Newgarden having 41. That’s another 10 point swing in favor of O’Ward but a 10 point deficit for Newgarden there as well as a 27 point gap in Barber.

Lap 34 at Indy 500

Stefan Wilson crashed on pit road towards the end of the opening pit sequence and it cost Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi dearly. They had yet to pit and with a caution for an incident on pit road, it means the pits would remain closed for an extended time. They couldn’t stay out much longer and had to do an emergency stop due to running out of fuel. With how these cars and their fuel cells are designed, it’s hard to get them refired after stopping due to low fuel. Both stalled on pit road and it took a lap to get them restarted. That effectively ruined each of their days with Dixon finishing 17th and Rossi 29th. Dixon only scored 36 points that day and since it was a double points race and Palou (85 points) finishing second and O’Ward (65 points) in fourth, this plus Texas are the two main reasons Dixon is where he’s at in points.

Lap 198 at Indy 500

Helio Castroneves used Alex Palou’s Indy inexperience against him and took him to school at the end of the 105th Running. He passed him on Lap 198 and would lead the final two laps en route to his record tying fourth Indianapolis 500 triumph. Palou, had to settle for second in heartbreaking fashion.

“To be honest, I think when I say we had the fastest car, I mean because as soon as Helio was passing me, I was able to get him back before turn three or even in turn one,” he said. “I was able just to manage when I wanted to pass him.

“But the thing is that after three, four laps, he was behind me, he was able to pass me and I couldn’t really do anything because it was overtaking me all the car.

“When he passed me, I was like, Oh, maybe that’s going to be bad for me just because we were reaching the traffic. As soon as you’re on traffic, you’re not P2 any more, you’re like P8. When you are P8 on a pack, it was not easy to pass today.

“So, yeah, I still tried, fight for it, turn three, turn four. It was not enough. For sure the traffic made the things a bit more difficult today. That’s part of racing. At some other areas, some other parts of the race the traffic was helping me. This time Helio was a bit luckier at the end. Yeah, he deserve it.”

After Castroneves passed him, he had a tow from Ryan Hunter-Reay around the 2.5-mile track. But, Hunter-Reay had a few cars in front of him too. Remember, the drivers all said that the top three or four cars could pass with ease. But, fifth on back, well it was difficult.

Palou, was too far back in the track to make a move count on Castroneves and he had to settle for second.

“It hurts. It hurts a lot,” Palou continued. “I didn’t expect that a second place would hurt that much until I crossed the finish line. But I’m super proud, super happy. I think the No. 10 NTT Data car was super fast. I had the best car for sure.

“I was really confident. It was a close battle until the end. The good thing is that the two cars were Honda powered. That’s good. Congrats to Helio and Honda.

“Yeah, I tried everything. It hurts. But to be honest, it’s good to lose against probably one of the best. Well, it’s one of the best, probably the best. Yeah, it’s Helio.

“I don’t know why, but he had three, and why he wanted four? He could have gave me one (smiling). I just wanted one. But it’s okay. We’ll come back next year, for sure.”

Palou said this disappointment is the beauty of racing.

“When it hurts, it’s good because you know there’s something better. When you win, it’s like the most satisfying thing.

“When you lose, for me, c’mon, we finished second in my second Indy 500. How can I be sad? I just hurts a little bit. Because I wanted that win more than anything, but Helio wanted it as well. I think all the 33 drivers wanted the same.

“I’m happy. I’m living the dream, man. I’m able to drive the fastest car for the best team around Indianapolis and and fight for it. Everything was good today.”

He lost 18 points in that process as he had 85 points compared to 103 for the winner.

Lap 199 at Indy 500

Pato O’Ward had a hard charging car for this year’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500. He had a potential race winning one at that. The 12th place starter drove himself up to the lead group near the midway mark and had a battle between himself Helio Castroneves and Alex Palou for the race win over the final couple of stints.

The thing is, O’Ward said that he just pushed too hard with a car that maybe wasn’t as capable in the end as it had been prior and it cost him a position on track at the finish. The Arrow McLaren SP driver was passed by Simon Pagenaud on the final lap and slipped from third to fourth as he crossed the yard of bricks for the 200th and final time.

The final lap pass cost O’Ward six points with Pagenaud scoring 71 and O’Ward 65 for the day.

Lap 20 at Belle Isle 2

When you look at the box score of the second day of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, you’ll see that Josef Newgarden led 67 of the 70 laps from the pole and didn’t win. You’d also see Pato O’Ward was victorious by 6.7595-seconds in his No. 5 Chevrolet.

The box score may lie to you if you didn’t actually witness the race. The crowd of 8,500 spectators on Belle Isle that Sunday was treated to a phenomenal race, one of the best road/street course races that you’d ever see.

Newgarden, was hurt from an early change in pit strategy in the sense that Dalton Kellett stalled at pit exit on Lap 18 in his No. 14 Chevrolet. Everyone up front didn’t want to risk being caught out by a caution, so most hit pit lane on Lap 20 as a result.

That was the turning point of this entire race.

Those that pit included race leader and pole sitter Newgarden. He was on the Firestone primaries at the start and wanted to run that opening stint long. He broke out to a 10+ second lead but had to pit at that time.

So did Colton Herta and those behind him. The problem was, they didn’t throw out a caution and Newgarden was screwed. With not knowing what was going to happen, Tim Cindric elected to go with Firestone blacks again for Newgarden’s second stint. But, Herta was coming.

On Lap 30, Newgarden’s lead was 10.0894-seconds. Three laps later, it was up to 10.3294-seconds. That’s when the race changed. Herta cut the deficit to 8.9789-seconds on Lap 36. Then it was down to 7.8706-seconds by Lap 40. On Lap 43, it was 6.9597-seconds.

Herta, pit on Lap 45 for a fresh set of Firestone primary tires. The race was coming to him in the sense that Newgarden had to pit one lap later but had to use the alternate tires. On Lap 47, the lead was 3.0590-seconds with Newgarden barely leading Herta.

The guy that had started on the pole and led the entire race was no longer in control. Herta, was all over him but then the race changed again. Jimmie Johnson spun in Turn 1 on Lap 54. It bunched the field up but helped Newgarden in the sense he had less green flag laps to hold Herta off. Alex Palou was third at the time over 10 seconds back. Graham Rahal was fourth (+12 seconds). O’Ward was sixth at that moment.

So, how did O’Ward end up winning and not Newgarden and Herta?

Well, Herta wasn’t great on restarts. Newgarden, was able to pull away to over a second lead on the initial restart laps. So, when the green flag dropped, Newgarden pulled away. O’Ward then made a bold move to the inside of Scott Dixon entering Turn 1 and moved up into fifth.

Then, Romain Grosjean’s car stalled for a brake fire on track and brought out the third caution of the day. It gave O’Ward more life again.

O’Ward passed Graham Rahal with the same move that he did to Dixon on the seven to go restart and moved to fourth. He then was aggressive to get by Alex Palou for third two corners later.

Newgarden, pulled away from Herta to where O’Ward was coming. A lap later, O’Ward powered by Herta for second. He had six laps to get by Newgarden.

Newgarden, said his rear tires were gone on the reds and he slid out of Turn 6 with on Lap 67. That allowed O’Ward to make his move. He powered his way by Newgarden and never looked back en route to his second career Indy Car victory and Arrow McLaren SP’s ninth all-time.

“Definitely I think on the limit, but I think it was good hard racing,” Newgarden said of his late race battle with O’Ward there. “There’s a kink on the back straight so it’s not perfectly straight, so to be fighting side by side, I think you probably get a little bit of contact like that. It’s not completely abnormal down in that section of the track. But he was coming like a freight train. My tires were cooked, and he was having great drives off the corner, as you saw.

“I think that’s what kind of did us in. It almost did us in with Alex, too. Thankfully we were able to hold on to second, but yeah, just hard racing.”

O’Ward said Newgarden’s move with him was all fair game and that he doesn’t have an issue with it.

“Yeah, he was moving me on to the marbles,” O’Ward said of Newgarden. “He knew where to put me in order for me not to be able to get him, but I didn’t move, so we kind of both went into each other, I guess. That straightaway isn’t really straight.

“Yeah, it was a good battle, I think. I think it makes it more exciting whenever there’s a little rubbin’ rub.”

As far as the aggression in the end?

“The problem is whenever you let people step around over you, then it becomes a habit,” he said. “You need to — I mean, people know that I’m not here to be fifth or sixth. They know I’m here to win. I’m pretty sure that’s the message that we portrayed today.”

O’Ward said that you have to balance the aggression but you also have to take note on who you’re racing around at the time too.

“Yeah, I didn’t forget the words that Taylor said. He’s like, okay, this is the caution, everybody is going to stack up, lap cars are going to go, blah blah blah. If you have a chance, take it, but if you don’t, keep the championship in mind. But in my head, the two guys that I’m fighting the championship with are in front of me, and I was not going to be pleased if we ended behind them, especially if we had a restart and we were all together, so if I had the chance I was going to strike. I just had to make sure every strike wasn’t like, Oh, am I going to get it? No, it had to be like boom, definite. Once you’re on the inside, it’s yours.

“Yeah, I mean, I think they were very clean passes. I don’t think I put anybody in jeopardy in ways of hey, I screwed your race or anything. I felt like I did it very clean. I knew I was racing around very professional drivers, very clean, hard racers, Josef, Colton, Palou, definitely on, Graham, some of them have been racing many years. Some of us have been in INDYCAR very little, but these guys are pros. I was around people that you can get within less than an inch and race.”

Pato O’Ward leads the field during June’s race at Belle Isle – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

He bested Newgarden by 6.7595-seconds while Palou got by Herta to finish third in his No. 10 Honda.

“Yeah, they were fried,” Newgarden said of his tires in the end. “I think probably the worst part was we had to put about 10 extra laps on those tires because we thought the caution was going to come out in that first stint around lap 18 I think we pitted, and you just can’t risk missing the caution. If you miss the caution, you’re just hosed. It just completely ruins your day.

“I think that compromised us more than anything. Then we had to run 25 laps on used reds, so that was not ideal, and then the cautions bunching us up probably hurt us, as well, just brought the whole field back to it. I think we probably could have held Colton off potentially if we just would have run cleanly to the end there. But that’s kind of impossible to say. I’d have to see that play out. I think, yeah, just the cautions and the potential caution is more of what hindered us today.”

This was the third end of the race battle in the last nine races between the two drivers. Newgarden actually beat O’Ward twice in the final seven races this year but is 0-2 against him in eight races this year.

“I don’t know that he’s done anything different, but he’s — I think he’s picked up where he left off last year,” he told me. “They were in the fight last year and they’ve got strong cars certainly at McLaren. They were in the fight pretty much all the way through last season. I think you’re seeing a lot of the same.”

Lap 52 at Road America

Josef Newgarden dominated the REV Group Grand Prix in Road America. He led 32 of 55 laps and was well in command until the final caution flew on Lap 52 when Ed Jones spun in Turn 12. Coincidentally enough, Jones’ yellow helped Newgarden too in the sense that he didn’t have to worry about fuel anymore. But, it also cost him a victory as well.

See, Newgarden hit pit lane for the final time of the race on Lap 40. Alex Palou pit one lap later on Lap 41. That extra four miles was going to be close in that Newgarden would have to save some fuel to make it the final 15 laps without stopping.

Others were trying to stretch it too. When Kevin Magnussen stalled on course on Lap 35, Jack Harvey, Conor Daly, Oliver Askew and Simon Pagenaud all hit pit lane to try and make it to the end. They would need one more caution to do so.

Max Chilton had just hit pit road at the time of the yellow while Takuma Sato topped off on Lap 36. They were all on an alternate strategy.

But, without a caution, they’d all lap after lap peel off. Askew, hit pit lane on Lap 52. A few seconds later, Jones spins. If Askew had waited one more lap, he may have won this race and stole a victory.

Talk about bad luck.

His luck pales to Newgarden’s though.

Newgarden, was dealing with some mechanical issues earlier in the race but they eventually went away. While he had the lead on the final restart, his car just quit on him. He went from the best car in the race and a win two laps away from him to 21st, one lap down.

That allowed Alex Palou to pass Newgarden on the outside entering Turn 1 and to never look back. He’d lead the final two laps en route to his second career Indy Car win and taking over the points lead again in the process.

“A win is a win, and it always feels awesome even if it’s your lucky day or just because you have really good pace, but for sure the first win, it’s always awesome just because it’s the first one, and you knew you could win but you never really know if you can win until you win it,” Palou said.

“But yeah, this feels super special, as well. We’ve been close. Indy road course, Detroit, Indy 500, and today I was like, oh, no, we need to get that win.

“It was good, but yeah, as I said, a win is a win. It’s always the best thing.”

Palou, drove a masterful race and was just biding his time waiting on an opportunity to occur like the one that did. He challenged Newgarden hard all race but could never have enough to get by. Then, his No. 10 Honda positioned himself there to do so and earned his seventh top five in 10 races this year to regain the lead by 28 over ninth place finisher Pato O’Ward.

“I don’t know, it was a really good weekend overall,” he said. “We started not super, super good, but we made some progress, and I feel like we always are really good when the weekend ends, and we were getting — every run we were doing with the reds, with the blacks, we were getting even closer to Josef. So I was really happy.

“And then yeah, I don’t know what happened to him, but we took the lead, and that was super exciting, and yeah, we had good power, we had good car setup, and yeah, just super happy.”

Alex Palou celebrates his win back in June at Road America – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Palou said that he felt like he had a great restart anyways.

“It’s always hard going out of Turn 13 just because you have the dip there, but I was good,” he said of the final restart in the end. “I was on my Push-to-Pass, and as soon as I saw I was in fifth gear and I saw I couldn’t get him, I saved my Push-to-Pass, and as soon as I saw that there was something weird, like I was getting a lot of tow I thought, I pressed it again and said, oh, wow.

“So I didn’t really see if he had an issue or not. Obviously I saw later, but at that moment I just thought, oh, wow, we had a lot of power, so I was like, oh, yeah.”

As to what would have happened if Newgarden never had the problem?

“I don’t know. It’s always tough to say,” he said. “I thought we had a chance, but yeah, you never know what could have happened. I think he had a really strong performance during the weekend and also in the race, but we were getting closer each restart, so yeah, I was hoping for a good chance.

“Yeah, I thought during the whole race we were quite strong on the straights, so yeah, I don’t know because we have a really old engine, but HPD did an amazing job of getting that old engine running so fast because we were super strong on all the straights. I knew I could pass him either in Turn 1 or before Turn 12, I thought that was my chance also because it’s a really long straight and I could get a big tow. But I don’t think without the issue he had I would have overtaken him in Turn 1 at that moment.”

Palou scored 51 points for the win. Newgarden had just 13. That’s a 38 point swing.

Lap 67 of Big Machine Spiked Cooler Grand Prix at Indy

Alex Palou started in the back but came all the way up to fourth by the closing laps of the second visit to the IMS road course this year. The Ganassi driver then blew his engine on Lap 67 which in turn, opened the championship back up for the taking. At the time of his motor blowing, he had a lead over 50+ points. That soon evaporated which due to another engine breaking loose, it would cost him nine spots on the grid for the next race at Gateway.

Lap 65 at World Wide Technology Raceway

Due to that grid penalty as mentioned above, Palou was starting in the back again. But, he quickly was knocking at the door of the top 10 before getting collected in a Lap 65 crash on the restart with teammate Scott Dixon and second year driver Rinus VeeKay. Palou, would finish 20th as a result after being 27th seven days prior. That was 15 total points scored in two races. Dixon was 19th. Meanwhile, Newgarden and O’Ward were 1-2 with Newgarden having scored 78 points in the same two races and O’Ward 73 himself.

Indy and Gateway paved the way in the second half of the season to where we are now.

Lap 51 at Portland International Raceway

The opening lap crash could be on here if the Lap 51 caution didn’t fly on Sept. 12. See, with Dalton Kellett and Callum Ilott stalling on track on the 51st lap, the championship likely would be Pato O’Ward’s. Instead, he had pit just before the caution came out in hopes of not becoming a sitting duck in pit strategy. The right strategy was actually for those that were affected by the opening lap yellow and the second caution of the day essentially flipped the field back and affected O’Ward and Graham Rahal the most. Instead of a 1-2 day out of them, they finished 10th (Rahal) and 14th (O’Ward) respectively while Palou (1st), Dixon (3rd) and Newgarden (5th) took home top fives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s