LONG BEACH, Calif — The time is here. We’re ready for the 16th and final race of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. That will occur Sunday on the streets of Long Beach for the annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network). So, who wins the race and also takes home the distinction of being season champ?
28 cars are going for the race win. 3 of those 28 are fighting for a season championship while 2 are after a Rookie of the Year battle.
Coverage: 3 p.m. ET
Green Flag: 3:45 p.m. ET
Radio: INDYCAR Radio Network
Phone: INDYCAR App
Race Distance: 85 Laps/167.28 Miles
Race: 16 of 16
Track: Streets of Long Beach
What’s At Stake
- Championship On The Line – 3 drivers (Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward -35 and Josef Newgarden -47 are eligible
- Rookie Of The Year Honors – Scott McLaughlin leads Romain Grosjean by 20 points.
- Points Positioning – Scott Dixon looking for 15th top 4 finish in last 16 years. He’s +19 on 5th. Josef Newgarden eyeing 6th straight top 5 finish. He’s +39. Also, Newgarden can be in the top 2 for the 4th time in 5 years at Penske. He’s -13 for that feat.
- Winless droughts – Graham Rahal (72 races), Sebastien Bourdais (51 races), Ryan Hunter-Reay (46 races), James Hinchcliffe (44 races), Alexander Rossi (36 races), Simon Pagenaud (24 races) and Takuma Sato (22 races) are all winless this season. 6 of the 7 on this list are all past Long Beach winners with Rahal not ever having won in Long Beach but his last win actually being on a street course though.
Who Will Win?
As previously mentioned, 28 drivers are after the final race trophy of the 2021 season. Winning the season finale is bragging rights since there’s no more races to be had until months later. But, as some may think why wouldn’t the championship eligible drivers win? In NASCAR, since the Championship 4 format was adopted in 2014, the champion also won the season finale in all seven years.
That doesn’t always happen in INDYCAR. In fact, the last time the season champion won the season finale was Simon Pagenaud at Sonoma in 2016. Scott Dixon did it one year prior in 2015. Dario Franchitti accomplished that feat in 2007 at Chicagoland and again in 2009 in Homestead, but other than Sam Hornish Jr. also doing it in back-to-back years at Texas in 2001 and again in 2002, no one else has done it since 1992.
That’s right, just six times in the last 29 years has someone won the final race and the championship.
That doesn’t bode well for Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward or Josef Newgarden. Especially in the sense that in order for O’Ward and Newgarden wanting to win the title, they have to win Sunday’s race.
Palou, just needs to finish 11th or better should any of them win. If Newgarden doesn’t win, then he’s out. If O’Ward doesn’t win, then he can’t finish worse than second. If he does finish second, then all Palou has to do is finish 24th or better which is why I feel like this is his title to lose.
If he does win it, he’s become the seventh youngest champion ever at 24 years, 5 months old. He’d also be the first non Chip Ganassi Racing champion not named Scott Dixon since 2011.
The thing is, the door is open. Palou has four finishes outside the top 11 this year. Two of them were at the Indy road course when he blew an engine while running fourth. The other was a week later at the World Wide Technology Raceway when he was collected in a crash while running in 10th. The only other two instances though were on street courses.
That’s why the door is open.
O’Ward scored a pair of podiums in Belle Isle including a win. He had a podium in last year’s season finale at St. Pete too. That’s three podiums in his last five street course starts.
Newgarden, was second to O’Ward in Belle Isle and runner-up to Colton Herta back in St. Pete this past April. In fact, he won last year’s season finale and has six top two finishes in his last 10 street course starts.
So, it’s entirely possible for either O’Ward and Newgarden to win and Palou to finish outside the top 11 in the process.
Four times we ended the championship in a tie. In 1985, we ended with a one point gap.
If O’Ward does win, he’d be the first non Penske, Andretti or Ganassi champion since Hornish Jr. with Panther Racing in 2002. He’d also be the second youngest ever as Hornish’s two titles in 2001 and 2002 were the current youngest as he was 22 years, 3 months, 4 days in 2001 and 23 years, 2 months and 13 days in 2002. O’Ward will be, 22 years, 4 months and 20 days on Sunday.
Some keys though are:
- The last five Long Beach winners started in the top 2 Rows.
- Also, the trends say that anyone coming from the top 5 Rows on Sunday will end up celebrating in victory lane on Saturday afternoon. 80% (12-for-15) of the races this season were won by top 10 starters. Furthermore, 24 of the last 28 (86%) overall were won by top 10 starters in general. Also, among those 24 winners, 23 of them came from the top 4 Rows at that.
So, we can narrow this down to really the Fast Six. That bodes well for Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist and Romain Grosjean.
Then there’s this:
- We’ve had 6 different teams win the last 7 races on the streets of Long Beach. (AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Andretti Autosport (2 in-a-row) have won). That means Dale Coyne Racing, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing, Carlin and Meyer Shank Racing are up.
- We’ve also had 7 different drivers win the last 11 street course races in general but they all hail from either Penske, Ganassi, Andretti or Arrow McLaren SP. The only team on here not to have won at Long Beach is McLaren but Pato O’Ward has won a race this year so Felix Rosenqvist the winner on Sunday?
The next trend is, since the new car came out in 2018, the “Big 3” have won 50 of the 62 races run (81-percent). Penske has won 25 times with Ganassi (16) and Andretti (9). But, RLL is next best with four victories while no one else has more than two.
Throw in RLL and you get 54 of 62 races (87%) won by these teams. Also factor in Harding Steinbrenner Racing with the Andretti alliance and you get 52/62 (84%) and 56-for-62 (90%) in these factors.
Only other teams to win are Arrow McLaren SP (twice this year), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2018 at Iowa), Dale Coyne Racing (2018 – St. Pete), Ed Carpenter Racing (2021 – GMR Grand Prix) and Meyer Shank Racing (2021 – Indy 500).
Colton Herta dominated Laguna Seca in 2019. He led 83 of 90 laps that day. In the first trip back there a week ago, Herta led 91 of 95 laps. That’s 174 of 185 laps (94%). Does that bode well for Alexander Rossi and here?
He’s led 151 of the last 170 laps (89%) including both reaching victory lane. Each race he started on the pole too. He led 71 of 85 laps in 2018 and 80 of 85 laps a year later.
So, in respects to that, who wins the race?
- 3 of the last 5 races at Long Beach saw 1 or fewer caution.
- The last 4 years saw 6 different lead changes in each including 5 of the last 6 races overall.
- 2 Newgarden
- 5 O’Ward
- 9 Dixon
- 26 Herta
- 22 Pagenaud
Alex Palou – Chip Ganassi Racing