INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: Top 5 non championship things to watch for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Points Positioning

The champion is one thing, but where he finish in the final standings is another. We know Josef Newgarden likely isn’t going to win this year’s title and Scott Dixon has been mathematically eliminated. But, they’re both hoping to remain in the top four in the standings though too. They lead Marcus Ericsson by 39 and 19 points respectively.

The reason this is big for them is, Newgarden has finished in the top five for five straight years now including four of which in the top four. Also, since he’s joined Team Penske in 2017, 3 of his 4 finishes in the final standings have been in the top two. Can he go 4-for-5? He’s only 13 points from doing so.

In the case of Dixon, he’s finished in the top four in the final standings in four straight years now as well as 14 of the last 15 years. His worst end of years points finish in that span is sixth in 2016. Can he remain in the top four for his 15th top four finish in the final standings since 2006?

The thing is, Pato O’Ward has a very real chance of falling to fourth and letting both by. Newgarden and Dixon share the front row with O’Ward coming from eighth. If Dixon has a great day and O’Ward a bad one, he could go from second to fourth which would be a huge let down for the AMSP driver.

Long Beach is the perfect place for Rossi to end his winless drought – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Winless Droughts

We’ve had nine different race winners this season, four of which scored their first career trips to victory lane in the series. Despite that, four veterans also remain winless and hoping to end these droughts on Sunday at Long Beach. Can it happen?

Graham Rahal hasn’t won since the 2017 doubleheader weekend in Belle Isle. That’s a stretch of 72 races without a victory. Ryan Hunter-Reay hasn’t won since the 2018 season finale at Sonoma. That’s 46 races himself. His teammate Alexander Rossi is riding a 36 race drought with his last triumph coming in 2019 at Road America while Simon Pagenaud’s win at Iowa last year was his last. That’s a span of 24 races.

So, can any of them steal a win away from a championship front runner this weekend?

Rahal, has a pair of top fives in each of his last two Long Beach starts. He’s hoping to get into fifth in points for his first top five finish in the final standings since 2016. He’s been sixth, eighth, 10th and sixth respectively since. Nevertheless, this should be his seventh straight top 10 finish in the final points at that and ninth in the last 11 years.

For Hunter-Reay, he was fifth the last time out in Long Beach, but that’s his only top five since his 2010 win. He’s also had just one top five all season and sits a disappointing 16th in points. The only other time he’s finished outside the top 10 in points in his 12 seasons with Andretti was 12th in 2016.

Rossi is eyeing a three-peat at Long Beach since he’s dominated each of the last two visits to the track. He led 71 laps in 2018 and 80 in 2019. He’s also had speed this season too and if luck goes his way, he can easily find a third straight trip to victory lane on Sunday and maybe even get himself into the top 10 in points as a result of that. He was 11th in 2016, seventh in 2017, second in 2018, third in 2019 and ninth last year.

For Pagenaud, he’s a past winner here as well has having seven top eight finishes on the scenic street course in his last eight tries. He’s currently eighth in points and going for his sixth straight top eight finish in the final standings and ninth in the last decade. Since joining Penske in 2015, he’s finished 11th, 1st, 2nd, 6th, 2nd and 8th respectively.

How Do You Race Championship Drivers?

There’s two goals in any given NTT IndyCar Series season. First, you want to win the Indianapolis 500. Second, you want to win a championship. Once both are behind you, how do you race the year out?

See, only three drivers enter Sunday’s season finale with championship aspirations still in tact. The remaining 25 drivers on the grid this weekend are just racing for fun. In saying that, a key aspect comes into play and that’s how do you race the other drivers in the field?

We saw in Gateway last month how Rinus Veekay made an aggressive move on an early race restart in Turn 1 and took out two championship contending drivers in the process. While one could point VeeKay’s move was a perfect storm due to Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward nearly having contact in front of Dixon and Palou which sparked them to slow and a high speeding VeeKay not having enough time to check up and get out of harms way, still it was an incident and two drivers vying for the title were involved.

With Sunday’s race being one that will likely feature championship drivers up front as well as drivers trying to fight for wins and podiums as well that aren’t in the hunt for a title, how do those not thinking points race those that are?

“The best way to score points isn’t really to take yourself out of the equation with a very aggressive move, knocking a front wing or something out of the car,” Sebastien Bourdais told me. “Fortunately this year we’ve been a lot on the receiving end, but yeah, we’ve definitely been very mindful and conscious of constraints and the need to finish the races.”

See, with the series being as difficult as ever to win in, you have to be aggressive in order to make gains. If you play it too conservative, they’ll eat you alive. If you play it too aggressive, you’ll likely find trouble. So, what’s the balance and now that a championship isn’t in sights anymore, how do you balance being aggressive, even in a tempered way, against someone who’s going for a title still?

“The management of aggression is definitely a harder thing to do when you’re trying to cover getting to the finish, not crashing more than you already have,” Bourdais continued. “Yeah, it’s not exactly what you want to be thinking about when you’re in the middle of a tight pack as it is these days.

“I think that’s kind of the name of the game. When you have a monotype series for the most part with two engines that are very closely matched and they’re very high density, you’re going to see very, very high aggression on starts and restarts because unfortunately everybody knows that this is when things are happening, and if you are looking for positions, well, you’re not going to have that many chances. That drives the aggression level up.

“When the gaps are as tight as they are, you have to use pretty much every opening that you see, even if it’s kind of a long shot and a risky move.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of guys that feel a huge urgency to make things happen right away, because we all know how hard it is to make it happen later on.”

As far as if Bourdais thinks some guys take the aggression too far?

“I think obviously sometimes the amount of risks that are taken is not directly related to the outcome of the situation. Sometimes you just get lucky and things kind of sort itself out. There’s a little bit of contact, but all the cars keep running. In Gateway’s case for sure it’s a very unforgiving track where as soon as there is any kind of contact, it ends pretty badly for most parties involved.

“Yeah, it is kind of the nature of the track, but yeah, I think we also have had deeper fields with more cars, which obviously also increases the probability of getting incidents on track.”

So, with a rookie of the fight and drivers trying to finish as high up as they can in points, how do all these drivers race one another without ruining someone’s championship hopes?

“For me, I’m just really trying to enjoy it because I feel like I’m up against very — these guys have a good head on their shoulders, and I wish I could say that from everyone, but some guys just don’t,” Pato O’Ward said on racing Palou and Newgarden vs the rest.

“It’s nice to fight against people that you can respect and that you can — you can really trust whenever you’re racing at 100 something miles an hour heading into a corner where things can go sideways very badly. But you can just compete against them fairly.

“I feel like it’s a little bit of what Josef said. I just think the respect, at least from all of us that have been in the fight all year, is strong. I hope they feel the same from me because I always try and be fair.

“It’s a lot more enjoyable when you can actually compete against someone and not always have to give in because you know that they’re just going to stick their nose in and ship you into the wall if you don’t give them their way.”

Palou agrees.

“Well, there’s some drivers that you cannot really trust in first corners, but not you. We have some drivers — but I think it’s good. I would say 90 percent of the grid you can trust, and it’s super fun, and just before getting into this room we were talking about supermarket experiences with Pato, and I think that’s what separates this series to another series. Like I’ve been lucky to race in Europe and experience in Europe, and the atmosphere with the drivers, it’s nowhere near to what we have here.

“It’s not like, oh, we are super friends and we’re just having a good weekend. No, we are fighting on track and we are not friends anymore on track, but out of it we respect all each other. So yeah, it’s a good stuff.”

Can Scott McLaughlin give Penske his 1st rookie of the year award – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Rookie Of The Year Battle

Last year, Rinus Veekay took home rookie of the year honors. The year prior, it was Felix Rosenqvist. Felix now drives for Chevy, but VeeKay last year was the first driver piloting a bow tie to win ROY honors since Stefan Johansson in 1992. The only other time was Eddie Cheever in 1990. Can Scott McLaughlin hold off Romain Grosjean this weekend?

If so, he’d be the first Penske driver to capture these honors.

This was a highly touted rookie class this year with McLaughlin, Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson. But, I think most thought we’d not really have a ROY discussion though with Johnson not racing on ovals and Grosjean skipping the superspeedway’s at Texas and Indy.

With the Indy 500 paying double points and McLaughlin racing a Penske car there as well as Johnson and Grosjean sitting that one out, we all thought the award would easily be handed to McLaughlin. Instead, Grosjean has done a hell of a job to closing that gap and enters Sunday’s season finale at Long Beach just 20 points behind.

McLaughlin had three top eight finishes in the first five races run including a runner-up in Texas 1. Its been the 10 races after that point to where the pendulum has swung.

McLaughlin was only 20th in the Indy 500 so his advantage wasn’t as much as he had hoped for a double points race. That was the start of seven race stretch that saw him finish 20th or worse in five of them. He was 14th and 12th respectively in the other two.

World Wide Technology Raceway started a turnaround in being fourth there and a top 10 in Portland, but Grosjean was already back. The former F1 driver had four top sevens in that same span and was runner-up on the Indy road course prior. He’s stormed back and is on the cusp of winning Rookie of the Year honors despite missing three races.

Can McLaughlin hold him off though and become just the fourth Chevy driver to ever win the distinction of Rookie of the Year in INDYCAR? He starts 13th, Grosjean in sixth.

Will Dixon Ever Win A 7th Title?

It’s weird to ask that question about a driver who’s life as the defending series champion lasts until the checkered flag drops on Sunday. But, can Scott Dixon ever get that seventh crown or has the window drastically shut?

For someone that would have seven championships, it’s rare to find a feat that he’d have never accomplished before, but in this instance, a title on Sunday in Southern California would have been the first time that Dixon has gone back-to-back.

His first three titles came in five-year increments. 2003, 2008, 2013. Then, he exploded with championships won in 2015, 2018 and again last year (2020). That’s three championships in a six year span including 2 of the last 4. Can he pick up another next year?

It’s going to likely take multiple wins to do so, something he’s only done once this season.

Dixon, has reached victory lane just once in his last 21 starts. That’s the longest drought in nearly two decades between first and second wins for him.

What’s crazy is, from July 2019 through August 2020 (Gateway 1), Dixon had 11 podiums in a 15 races span. Among those 11 top three finishes were five wins and five runner-ups. Over the last 21 races, Dixon has had just one win (Texas 1), one runner-up (Nashville) and only five podiums.

That’s why he’s in the position that he’s in today.

The thing is, despite being in this position, it’s not like his season has been all that “off.” Dixon still has eight top five finishes and 11 top 10’s. The only thing absent has been turning those top fives results into podiums.

But, the thing also is, if cautions came differently too, Dixon may not be behind either. He may be the one in the drivers seat instead.

For Texas 2, Dixon was well in control of a weekend sweep until Jack Harvey brought out an ill timed caution for him while he was leading. Same thing in the Indy 500 when Stefan Wilson’s pit road crash on the opening sequence cost Dixon dearly. He hadn’t pit yet and ran out of fuel while coming to pit road. His car wouldn’t refire and he’d lose a lap as a result of trying to get it going again. After dominating the Month of May, he’d finish 17th instead. He was caught in a crash not of his doing in Gateway last month too while running in the top 10.

Just think of where he’d be if those three instances went differently. That’s why I say that if luck flipped its script for Dixon, he’d be on the verge of a historic weekend.

Still, he’s heading towards another top four finish in points no matter the outcome which would be his sixth straight and 16th in the last 17 years. Now, can he get that seventh crown?

Time is against him. Just 10 times has someone won the title at 41 years of age or older. Three drivers were 42. One was 43 and four more were 44. No one was 45 while two drivers won at 46.

Among the drivers to be crowned a champion at 41 years old and up, only one came since 1990. With his stats declining this year and the trends not being on his side, this is a legitimate question.

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