INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Can Rossi 3-Peat?

Alexander Rossi has had a very frustrating season in 2021. The Andretti Autosport driver thought coming into it that by time we got to Long Beach for this very weekend that he’d be in the fight for this year’s title. Instead, he sits a disappointing 11th in points with one race remaining.

See, what made Rossi giddy was that he really did expect a championship and with Long Beach being the season finale, what better place for him. Rossi, led 71 of 85 laps in a dominating victory in 2018. He followed that up with leading 80 of 85 laps a year later and won by 20.2359-seconds.

We didn’t come to Long Beach in 2020 but here are are back again in 2021 but in a vastly different situation. It’s not in April this year, it’s September and serving as the championship decider.

Rossi, has won just once since that race in 2019 as that came in dominating fashion at Road America a few months later. He led 54 of 55 laps that day and won by an astonishing 28.4391-seconds.

To be winless since is saying something. Does that drought end on Sunday’s though?

He starts 15th in what was a disappointing qualifying session for him on Saturday.


Scott McLaughlin at Nashville back in August – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site


Parity On Street Courses, But Why?

For some reason, street courses have seen a wide amount of parity lately. Since the start of the 2019 season on the streets of St. Pete, we’ve had 11 street course races. In those events, we’ve seen seven different winners.

2019:

St. Pete – Josef Newgarden

Long Beach – Alexander Rossi

Belle Isle 1 – Josef Newgarden

Belle Isle 2 – Scott Dixon

Toronto – Simon Pagenaud

2020:

St. Pete – Josef Newgarden

2021:

St. Pete – Colton Herta

Belle Isle 1 – Marcus Ericsson

Belle Isle 2 – Pato O’Ward

Nashville – Ericsson

Long Beach – ???

As you can see, Newgarden and Ericsson are the only repeat winners in this span. What’s odd is, among this group, they’ve all come from the big teams though. Penske, Ganassi, Andretti or Arrow McLaren SP have won these events.

Also, for Long Beach, we’ve had 6 different teams win the last 7 races on the scenic street course too. So, why all the parity?

Furthermore, you get some domination on them too. Rossi dominated in each of the last two years in Long Beach. Herta led 97 of 100 laps in St. Pete back in April. Newgarden led 67 of the 70 laps in Belle Isle 2 but didn’t win.

Will we see more domination on Sunday?


The crowd cheers the start of the 2019 race in Long Beach – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site


No Double Points Again, Is That A Good Thing?

Without double points for a second consecutive year, it does narrow down the list of drivers who can realistically win this year’s championship on Sunday in Long Beach. Is that a good or bad thing? While I get one notion says that you can make it more viable to see more drivers contending for a title, I also get the side that says that it’s a gimmick.

But, NASCAR does it. They take four drivers and place them on equal footing for the Championship round. INDYCAR last year and now this will award the champion on a seasons worth of points and not add double the value of the finale in hopes of someone catching the leader even easier.

So, do we just hand the title to Alex Palou then?

I don’t necessarily think so, but I also think this is more of a pure way to crown a champion as other than the Indy 500, every race is equal. In saying that, there’s a lot of drivers that say they need to do away with double points for Indy too.

I mean one bad Indy 500 can haunt your entire season. One good Indy 500 and mediocre results elsewhere can keep someone who doesn’t belong to be in the title hunt around longer too. But, others say double points for Indy should stay as that race is the biggest one of the season and holds more weight too.

Which bodes the question, should the season finale or any race for that matter award double points?

“I think it’s good we’ve dropped the double points in the finale,” Newgarden said. “I was never a fan of that, and I’m still not quite a fan of the double points at Indy. But like I said, we know the rules, we know the landscape going in, so I don’t think we can fall back on that. It would be an endless discussion of saying if this went different or that went different, I could go down the road and cite a lot of examples, but we always end up where we are, and unfortunately we’re a little bit short this year.”


The start of this years race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site


Should The Season Finale Be Moved Around Each Year?

For the first time ever, Long Beach will serve as the championship deciding race for the NTT IndyCar Series. This is actually the fourth straight year that a different track has hosted the season finale and brings up a legitimate question, should the last race of the season get moved around each year?

In 2018 we ended the year in Sonoma. A year later, Sonoma was replaced by Laguna Seca. Last year, since we couldn’t go west due to COVID, the last race was held on the streets of St. Pete. This time, COVID moved Long Beach back to now which serves as this year’s final race. Next year will be a fifth as we go back to Laguna on Sept. 11, 2022.

Now that we’ve moved it around in each of the last four years and a soon to be fifth, should INDYCAR start allowing tracks to bid on the final race? Could that be an extra stream of revenue coming in?

I mean NASCAR has discussed this the last few years but haven’t ever actually done it. They ended the year in the playoff format from 2004 through 2019 in Homestead. In 2020 they moved it to Phoenix as they’ll end the year out west for this year and next too. Which brought the question up as why aren’t they moving it around like they initially discussed?

INDYCAR due to some unforeseen circumstances has. I mean, look at the Super Bowl. It’s moved around each year. So is the NCAA Tournament. Big championship deciding events are shuffled around each year. INDYCAR has indirectly done that the last four years and makes you wonder if that should stay.

Some current drivers are open to it. They even have a perfect track in mind to go to soon.

“Like an oval I think is a perfect scenario, if it’s a great racing oval,” six-time champion Scott Dixon said. “Like an Iowa would be insane. Maybe it doesn’t work for the time of year.”

Josef Newgarden agreed on Iowa too.

“I would also agree, an oval is fun, too. Iowa would be super crazy, but probably not the right place to end the year.”

It wouldn’t be terrible. Iowa in September isn’t bad and the weather may actually be more favorable.

Part of the argument though would be that it makes it an even bigger event. It’s not just another race on the schedule that so happens to crown a champion. The track and the series would build it up. Plus, it doesn’t give a distinct advantage to any one driver each year if a certain track remains as the last race and that driver may or may not be good there.

With being a bigger event too, I feel like a case can also be made to keep Long Beach in this spot. I get that the April date is tradition, but this being the season finale just feels right.

April’s race to me gets overshadowed a month later by Indy. This separates the two.

Plus, I can make a case that this weekend in Long Beach feels bigger. It’s not just another race that happens to be a crown jewel. It sets a championship. I feels right to be honest.

Being able to finish a race in a major market like Los Angeles and to do so in a race that has favorable weather and you get what I feel a perfect scenario.

“It’s great to be back. I don’t know, now that you’re here in the space, it feels like normal Long Beach in a lot of ways,” Josef Newgarden said. “Definitely missed this track, missed the crowd, missed the energy. Feels like it hasn’t really dipped, to be quite honest, coming back two years later, which is really great to see.

“Excited to be here. Excited that hopefully we’ll be back in April, no problems as well next year. It’s just a classic. You can’t not go to Long Beach on the year. It’s something you’d miss if we weren’t here. It’s nice to be here.

“Also just being in L.A., it’s a great market to end the year. I think that adds an element to it that should probably be talked about.

“There’s a lot that goes into it, right? There’s so many other logistics, other variables to consider. Yeah, if you’re looking at it from a pure excitement standpoint, it’s interesting. It adds an element of chaos sometimes which can be very exhilarating.”

Dixon says that if you do a street course race as the finale, this is the place to do so.

“I think if you’re going to have a street course, this is the one,” Dixon said. “Look at last year, we were just talking about points, Pato and the points fight this year, how it’s kind of similar, their starting positions are kind of similar. Josef won the race last year. I got on the podium as well. It was chaotic, man. There was a lot of passing, a lot of close moments.

“I think St. Pete played really well. I think Long Beach will play really well as well. Yeah, I don’t know.”


The respect between Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou has been high this year – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site


Who Wins The Championship On Sunday?

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?

O’Ward.

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 also say Newgarden is too far out too. 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.

Advantage: Palou.

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. But I like to roll the dice and with Palou’s finishes this season on street course races being where they are and the same tracks favoring O’Ward and Newgarden, I’ll take…

O’Ward with the upset.

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