LONG BEACH, Calif — Sometimes you just have to save the best for last. That’s what we witnessed in qualifying for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network). The 16th and final race of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is upon us and the most wildest qualifying session of the year occurred on Saturday afternoon.
Colton Herta had the fastest car all weekend. He was outed in the first round. More on that later. Alex Palou was only 16th in practice this morning. That’s after Pato O’Ward was only 16th on Friday in practice. Neither made it to the Fast Six and both were left disappointed in the process.
Meanwhile, the guy that wondered why anyone was even talking to him on Thursday’s championship contenders media session was the happiest of the day on Saturday. Josef Newgarden knows that his pursuit of his third championship in the last five years is as tall as the Queen Mary sitting out a few hundred feet away from the track. While the hallway to the door with the Astor Cup championship trophy may be long, the door is at least open and Newgarden is sprinting his way now towards it.
The Team Penske driver came in clutch by virtue of earning his 15th career INDYCAR pole on Saturday with a time of 1:08.2241-seconds in his No. 2 Chevrolet. It was his fourth pole of the season and the odds of a win now are far greater.
The last five Long Beach winners came from the top 2 Rows. 80% of the winners this season from the top 10. Newgarden, has the best starting spot.
What he needs this weekend is to win the pole, lead a lap, lead the most laps and win the race as well. That’s a maximum of 54 points. The other thing he needs too is, Palou to finish 24th or worse.
With 28 cars here, that means he needs to win and have Palou finish in the bottom five of the finishing order without leading a lap on Sunday as well. If that all happens, Newgarden takes home the title.
Palou, qualified in 10th, so it’s entirely possible. The thing is, Palou has finished 24th or worse just once all season and in the race that he did so, he blew an engine while running fourth.
That’s why despite the pole, Newgarden knows it’s not going to be easy to win take home this year’s title. First things first was to win the pole. He’s not exactly had the best qualifying luck lately. He had nine top 10’s in the first 10 races of the season, including three straight poles heading into the break. He came out of it with four starts of 12th or worst in the next five.
Then, he gets the pole again.
“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.
“It’s been a hard couple of weeks. The last couple qualifyings have been demoralizing. To bounce back and show our form is very gratifying. Very pleased for our team and that’s what we saw.
“We’ve had a fast car this weekend. Actually like we started a little bit slower. It’s been kind of the opposite the last two weekends where we started really quick, then for whatever reason we just fade and don’t get it right on the day when it counts.
“Really proud of the team. Felt like our car was good from the start. Just needed the track grip to come up. The more grip we had, the better I felt our car was. Yeah, pretty happy for our whole team, especially Gavin, all the boys on the car, Hitachi, Team Chevy.
“Got one goal accomplished for the weekend. Hopefully we can finish things off tomorrow and have a clean day. Staying alive, man, for now.”
He won last year’s season finale but came up just short in the end for a championship to Scott Dixon. The same guy he starts next to on Sunday and the same one who is willing to help Palou keep the title in house at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. Sorry, Pato (smiling),” Dixon said.
“No, it’s definitely an interesting day. Lots of highs and a pretty good low this morning, clipping the wall in six and crashing the car.
“The car in qualifying was really good. A bit bummed. Helio totally screwed us on that last lap there. I think we definitely had enough speed to be right there for the pole. Obviously we didn’t improve enough just because we caught him throughout that lap.
“Kudos to the team for getting the car fixed. Actually did a fair bit of damage because all the brakes caught on fire, burnt a lot of the wiring and shrouds, all that stuff.
“Great starting position in P2. Definitely fight for the win. Obviously not fighting for the championship, which feels a little strange, but obviously we’ll be doing anything we can to try and help that trophy stay at home.”
Dixon, turned in a time of 1:08.4422-seconds in his No. 9 Honda for his second top three starting spot in the last three races and fourth on the front row this season. The six-time series champion was left frustrated with Helio Castroneves though as he felt the Brazilian driver slowed him up.
Castroneves (1:08.4827-seconds) starts third in his No. 06 Honda for his fourth top three starting spot at Long Beach in the last five tries. His potentially new teammate in Simon Pagenaud (1:08.6514-seconds) starts fourth in his No. 22 Chevrolet while Felix Rosenqvist (1:08.7461-seconds) and Romain Grosjean (1:08.7577-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six.
But, that’s where the drama of the day comes up. Arrow McLaren SP felt like their own car in Rosenqvist, shouldn’t have been in that final round. Instead, they feel like O’Ward should have.
See, Will Power brought out a local caution towards the end of the second round. O’Ward, sat sixth at the time. Three drivers (Ed Jones, James Hinchcliffe and Felix Rosenqvist) all turned in quicker laps even though there was a local yellow.
INDYCAR reviewed that for over 20 minutes and felt that just Jones would get penalized. Rosenqvist and Hinchcliffe kept their laps meaning Rosenqvist moves onto the final round, Hinchcliffe starts seventh and O’Ward in eighth.
That honestly pissed the team off. They said they had data to support that Rosenqvist went through the local yellow at full song, meaning his lap should have been disallowed. If he and Jones did, they feel so did Hinchcliffe which would have meant O’Ward would be in the Fast Six instead.
Now, he starts eighth. It’s the seventh time in the last nine races that he failed to get inside the top five of the starting lineup. He did win from 16th in Belle Isle 2 though, so it’s not like it’s all for not.
To have Palou behind him, a teammate in front of him and a vastly better race car now than yesterday, he’s got a shot to win in his No. 5 Chevrolet.
O’Ward wasn’t happy with his car on Friday. They rebounded to be eighth in practice on Saturday morning. That’s exactly where they’ll start. Can they get a win though? He has three top fives in his last four starts on the year, but if he wants to become the first champion not of Team Pensken, Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport since 2003, he honestly needs to win.
Palou has to finish 11th or better and he’s right there in 10th.
Rosenqvist, his teammate, has found speed to close out the season. Before the month long break, his best starting spot in eight tries was 13th. In the six races since, he’s been 10th or better in four of them including three top fives. Credit that Portland test.
Here are my other main takeways too.
Andretti Struggles Again, Big Gaffe For Colton Herta
Coming into the qualifying session, this was Andretti Autosport’s pole to lose. Colton Herta was fastest in both practice sessions and that comes after leading all but four laps in last weekend’s race at Laguna Seca from the pole. His teammate Alexander Rossi looked quick and entered as the race winner and pole winner too the last two years here. He’s combined to lead 151 of the last 170 laps at Long Beach. Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe each looked solid as well.
After three rounds, only one car starts in the top 10. That’s Hinchcliffe. This was his best starting spot of the year (7th) as he’s really came along in the qualifying department as of late. In the first nine races of the season, Hinchcliffe qualified 16th or worse in seven of them. His best start to that point was 12th in St. Pete.
From July 3 on (7 races) he’s been 13th or better in five of them including three top 10’s.
That’s their lonebright spot.
Hunter-Reay was only 11th. He’s not qualified in the top 10 since Mid-Ohio in qualifying on July 3.
Rossi, was just 15th. It will be his first start since the GMR Grand Prix this past May that he’s not been in the top 10 at the drop of the green flag. In fact, Rossi has started on the front row in each of the last two races on the season and on the pole in each of the last two races at Long Beach. He had 10 straight top 10 starting spots.
That coincides with the bizarre round for Herta. He went too long on Black’s in order to hopefully conserve a fresh set of Red’s for the Fast Six. It cost him. He pushed too hard and scrapped the wall pretty hard on his in lap. It bent the toe link and when he got on the faster alternates (Red’s) the damage was already done. He’ll start 14th. It’s his worst starting spot all year as he’s been in the top 10 in the previous 15 races run this season. In fact, Herta had 10 straight top six starting spots prior to this weekend at that.
Rookie Of The Year Battle – Grosjean In Fast 6, McLaughlin Out In Round 1
The underrated battle this weekend is the one for Rookie of the Year. Scott McLaughlin leads Romain Grosjean by 20 points. If he can hold him off, McLaughlin would be the first Team Penske driver to ever win this award. But, if he’s going to do so, he needs some help now.
McLaughlin failed to make it out of the first round in qualifying. That’s his ninth straight time he’s been bounced in the opening round as well as 10 of 12 this year. He starts 13th on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Grosjean will roll off sixth. It’s his eighth top seven starting spot in 13 starts this year. He’s also finished on the podium in two of the last four races run as well. Is this is chance?
Group 1 vs. Group 2
What a brutal first group of qualifying in the opening round on Saturday. You got 11 of the 15 race winners in it, all three championship contenders, 3 of the 4 Penske’s, 3 of the 4 Ganassi’s and the pole winner the last two years here. Only 6 could move on.
In Group 2, you had nine of the bottom 11 in the entrant points standings. It should have been a cakewalk for Herta. Instead, he was the one bounced in Group 2 while all three title contenders made it out of the first group.
RLL/ECR’s Qualifying Woes
I thought at some point Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing would have figured out their qualifying woes this season. Instead, they never did. They’ll start 16-19-28 on Sunday.
Takuma Sato was their top qualifier in 16th but he’s only qualified better than 15th just twice all season and in that race, they didn’t even qualify. Texas was determined by entrant points. Despite that, he still has had seven top 10 finishes.
Graham Rahal starts 19th. That’s 10 of 16 starts he’s came outside the top 10. He’s finished in the top 10 in seven of the previous nine and has seven top fives this season alone too. Imagine where he’d be if he started closer to the front.
Oliver Askew was penalized in Round 1 and saw his top two times disallowed. He’ll roll off last. That’s been the best car among the trio though with three straight top 10 starts coming into this weekend including two of which in the top five.
That’s one team. Ed Carpenter Racing is another. They’ve dropped hard and I can’t put my finger on why. Rinus VeeKay’s can be attributed to his injury but that’s just half of the story I feel.
Prior to his injury after Belle Isle, he had five top 10’s in qualifying and six in the race in the first eight starts to the season. In the seven races since, he’s qualified in the top 10 just once, five of which have seen him start 20th or worse and hasn’t finished better than 16th.
For Conor Daly, he’s not been much better. He’s had four top 10 starting spots all season with six of the last nine being 16th or worse.
Since Mid-Ohio, ECR has started 11th, 24th (Mid-Ohio), 22nd, 24th (Nashville), 8th, 9th (Indy road course), 21st, 23rd (Gateway), 16th, 26th (Portland), 18th, 24th (Laguna Seca) and 23rd, 24th (Long Beach. Daly, has outqualified VeeKay in six of those seven including all consecutively.
For the races?
15th, 16th (Mid-Ohio), 12th, 24th (Nashville), 11th, 24th (Indy road course), 11th, 21st (Gateway), 16th, 17th (Portland), 16th, 18th (Laguna Seca). Daly has topped him in all six races.
As you can see, Daly is outpacing VeeKay but neither are getting top 10’s.
Race Control Comes Under Scrutiny Again
Coming into the weekend, Pato O’Ward knew the feat to win this year’s championship was still long but not impossible. He needed to at the very least finish second. If he could do so and score 41 points by leading at least one lap, he’d need Alex Palou to finish 24th or worse. That would get him the championship by one point.
The most realistic approach was to win. By doing so, you get one bonus point for a lap led which gets him 51 points. That gets him 533 points for the season. Palou then would need to finish 15th or worse without leading a lap and 13th or worse if he led a lap.
That opened the door up a little bit. You get 20 points for 10th, 19h points for 11th, 18 points for 12th, 17 points for 13th and 16 points for 14th. With Palou having 517 points scored now, that +16 gets him 533. So, 15th gets him 15 points and he’d lose to Palou by one point.
Where this is realistic is, O’Ward has podiums in three of his last five street course starts including a win in Belle Isle. Palou has been outside the top 11 in two of his four street course starts this season.
Palou, qualified 10th.
O’Ward though was eighth. He was pissed Friday and now pissed again on Saturday.
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.”
It created a stir for race control as they’ve come under question a lot lately. From the Portland officiating blunder where the top cars were forced to give up their position while avoiding a crash to this, there’s been some controversy.
Luckily in Portland, it all worked itself back out. But this one didn’t.
“Then race control, it was just the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in racing a little while,” Scott Dixon said then. “I don’t know what they were thinking or how that came about, but put all of us at the back the field. Be interesting to go talk to them later and see how they came up with that scenario.”
Alexander Rossi agreed that day.
“I mean, I’m glad it all came back to us because we all would have looked pretty silly, I guess,” he said. “I thought it was pretty low grip in Turn 1 when Felix, I guess — when Scott and Alex and them kind of slid through, I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and I thought if we got back to the styrofoam chicane, that was acceptable. But it was self-penalizing because we all went from like first, second, third to sixth, seventh, eighth, and then they’re like, oh, you’re going to 24th. It was like, okay, cool.”
Palou was also left scratching his head after the first lap penalty for them.
“I don’t really know what happened there,” he said. “I know Scott was on the inside. I got hit at some point. (Audio disruption) on the inside, so I couldn’t really go there, so I knew I had to go through the chicane. I made it through the chicane, and I said, okay, I only lost like five positions, which is a lot, but I said, at least I’m not out.
“And then INDYCAR decided that that was not penalizing enough, and they put me in the back, which I don’t know what they want me to do at that point. Do they prefer me to like completely stop the car and make that corner, making the race unsafe? So I’ll ask Kyle; I think it was not right. It’s true that they gave us the option of doing that strategy that gave us the win today, but still, I think it didn’t really make sense.”
Hopefully the stewards can not be a story on Sunday. 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.