LONG BEACH, Calif — Josef Newgarden had to win the pole, take a bonus point for leading a lap in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network), lead the most laps and win the race. That would get him 54 points.
That’s the most he could score. That would put him at 523 points for the season. Alex Palou currently has 517. He’ll get five points just for showing up to Sunday’s race. That’s 522. In order to pick up the extra two points (Newgarden holds the tiebreaker) he’ll need to finish 23rd or better.
That’s why Newgarden felt like on Thursday during the championship drivers’ press conference that he didn’t feel like he had much of a shot. That’s asking a lot.
But, after Newgarden scored his 15th career NTT IndyCar Series pole on Saturday in Long Beach, the door that was already open, just opened wider.
“I feel like I’m nearly dead. Just put me out of my misery at this point,” Newgarden said.
“But we’re, like, clinging to life. It’s a little bit, I don’t know, a hard place to be. We were in a similar situation last year. I just wish we were in a closer striking distance to Scott (Dixon). We’re even worse than that this season. We’re just in it.
“Not much more to think about than trying to just go win the race. We did that last year at St. Pete. We approached it with let’s focus on ourselves, try to win the race, see what happens. We’ll do the same tomorrow and see where everything lands at the end of the day.”
The pole is a good spot to start. He just feels like qualifying would have went better since we exited the month long break. See, in the 10 races prior, he had three straight poles including nine top 10 starting spots in general. In the five races entering this weekend, he had four of them being 12th or worse.
“Yeah, I wish we didn’t lose that the last couple weekends,” he said. “That would have been nice to have that mojo. It’s really what’s done our fate in for this weekend, is just not qualifying well. It’s nice to have that back.”
Alex Palou starts 10th on Sunday and honestly just needs to finish 11th or better and the title is all his. Pato O’Ward is 35 points back and has to at the very minimum lead a lap and finish second, starts eighth.
Palou, isn’t looking to be the first driver since 2015 to give up the points lead in the final race. That was a double points event too. The last to do so without double points?
Will Power in 2012.
“Yeah, I think we are in a good position,” said the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. “We have a really fast car. Obviously we didn’t get through because of that yellow flag, as others. We are fast. I think we have lots of chances, but we still need to finish the job tomorrow. It’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of fast drivers here, lots of good cars. There’s some drivers starting up the back as well.
“We’ll try to have a good run and overtake some cars before that. I’ll try and win the championship, not think about other options.
“Yeah, I think we had a really good season so far, and still until today. Been really good. We’ve been performing really well. I’ve been really excited going to races. I think our pace during the race, it’s much better than on qualifyings normally, so should be a good day tomorrow.”
When asked if he wants to know what the others are doing, Palou said he has a good view of them already at the start so he doesn’t need to know much.
“Well, the good thing is that I’m going to see them both, so they’re not really far off (smiling),”he said.
“No, I think we need to focus on doing a good race. We have a good car and we have potential to try and fight for the win tomorrow. Like our car was really good and we were going to make it into the Fast 6, like many others obviously. But we have a good car. So I think we’re in a good position tomorrow to fight. We’ll go for it.
“Maybe after last pit stop when I know everything is smoother, maybe I’ll want to know. But as long as we’re having a good race, I’m not going to have to worry about what the others do.
“Even if I know what the others are doing, it’s not like I’m going to go faster or slower, so… Yeah, I think I’ll wait until the checkered flag to ask.”
Does Newgarden having the pole and being in position to put pressure back on Palou affect him?
“Yeah, I knew that before,” Palou said. “I knew they were going to be quick. So, yeah, I mean, it doesn’t change much. I think again, if we just have a good race tomorrow, we just need to finish where we start. But we normally go to the front. That should make us to get that championship home.
“Yeah, it doesn’t change much, him getting that one point.”
For O’Ward, he leaves the race track ticked off for a second straight day.
O’Ward was only 16th overall in practice on Friday. He said that’s where his No. 5 Chevrolet was then in terms of speed as they were struggling for pace everywhere.
“Yeah, messy for us,” O’Ward said, who trails Palou by 35 points entering the season finale weekend. “Yeah, I didn’t really get a read. It’s kind of hard to tell where we’re truly at. But, yeah, that’s as much as I have honestly. It was very messy for me.
“It’s hard to say where we’re at. The car didn’t feel the best. I’d be lying if I said it did. So we need to find what is wrong with it I guess and trying to go into a direction that’s going to help us for qualifying. I think qualifying here is going to be everything.”
After a wholesale of changes overnight, he came out with a top 10 in practice on Saturday morning. He had Fast Six pace in qualifying but due to Ed Jones, James Hinchcliffe and his own teammate going faster during a local yellow, it bumped him from sixth to ninth.
After a lengthy review by INDYCAR, they determined only Jones would get penalized meaning despite evidence that their own car in Rosenqvist went through the yellow at speed, O’Ward would only move back up one spot.
“Yeah, our car has been good. I mean, we didn’t roll off the best, but I think we made some really good changes, just kept improving,” said O’Ward. “We had enough for the Fast 6. Yeah, we should have been in the Fast 6, so…
“Yeah, I mean, really, really happy for Felix, that he went into the Fast 6. I mean, we’re in the same team and we have literal data that shows that at least two of the cars that didn’t get penalized kept going quickly in the yellow flag. I don’t know. Maybe rules don’t apply the last race of the season when everything’s at stake.
“It just sucks. Sucks that we’re stuck there because we should have transferred. We had the car to fight it. I don’t know if for pole, but we definitely had a car to be in the Fast 6 and start within the first two rows.
“Kind of sucks to get hosed by a very odd call. I’m still seeking for answers. But, yeah.”
O’Ward will try to now hold off Josef Newgarden who’s 13 points behind as well as Scott Dixon who’s 37 behind too. They share the front row. He could potentially fall from second to fourth in the standings.