5 horse race for INDYCAR championship brewing? Why you have 2 different philosophies going now

INDIANAPOLIS — Scott Dixon has 11 top 10 finishes in 12 races run during this NTT INDYCAR Series season. No one has more. Josef Newgarden has 4 wins in the same 12 races. No one has more than him in this category either. Despite that, both are tied for 3rd in the points with 5 races left (-34).

Will Power has 9 top 5 finishes. Dixon has 7. Newgarden has led a series best 432 laps. Power is 2nd best at 181. Pato O’Ward is 3rd best at 155.

Power is 8 points back with O’Ward 36.

How?

Marcus Ericsson is how. He’s had 1 win, 5 top 5 finishes and just 36 laps led (0 in the last 4 races) but has held onto the points lead after 5 straight races now. He’s been in the top 2 in points ever since his Indianapolis 500 triumph on May 29.

Since 2008, the championship leader with five races to go has gone on to win the championship eight times. Those drivers were: Scott Dixon (2008, 2018 and 2020), Dario Franchitti (2011), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012), Simon Pagenaud (2016), Josef Newgarden (2019) and Alex Palou (2021).

Stats are on his side.

So is consistency. Ericsson has 10 top 10 finishes this year. If you go back to last season, he has 19 top 10’s in his last 22 starts in the series including 8 consecutive in the top 8 in his No. 8 Dallara-Honda.

His peers are taking notice.

 “He’s not the best qualifier, but he’s probably the best racer in the series, in my opinion. Just over the years watching him race, he’s one of the toughest guys. Like he’s very, very good at starting back there and making his way all the way to the front.

“Yeah, try to get some points on him. He’s no joke. He’s tough to beat.”

Ericsson was thankful of those comments but knows the job isn’t quite done yet. The eight points that separate Ericsson and Power is tied — with the 2009 season – for the second-closest point margin with five races remaining since INDYCAR SERIES racing was unified in 2008. Before this season, the average lead with five races to go since 2008 was 43.7 points.

He’s qualified outside the top 10 6 times already this season. 5 of those 6 though he had a top 10 finish on Sunday a day later.

“I think I probably need to win at least one more race,” he said. “That’s sort of my mindset. But at the same time, I think we have the best consistency in the field so we just need to keep doing that. If we keep being consistent, inside the top 10, even since the month of May I think we’ve been in the top eight every race.

“We need to be there all the time, then we have some strong tracks coming up, try and grab a win or two would be nice to try and close up the championship.

“But it’s going to be tough. We just need to maximize every weekend, yeah. That’s the name of the game, right?”

Josef Newgarden leads Will Power during the NTT INDYCAR Series race at the Iowa Speedway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Power agrees that he too has to find a win again this season as well. In saying that, he also feels that if he can keep showing up and finishing to where he has, a win will eventually come.

“Yeah, just doing what I’ve been doing. Simple as that,” he says. “We’ve been executing, not really doing anything special. Get on top of the qualifying thing because we cannot have what we had in Toronto. Definitely got the pace.

“Yeah, putting it together for the next – how many left – five. It’s getting down to the wire, man. Better bring your A game or I’m going to take it from you young blokes.”

CHAMPIONSHIP WITH 5 TO GO

YearLeaderSecond-PlaceLeadEventual Champion (Deficit- if any)
2008Scott DixonHelio Castroneves58Scott Dixon
2009Ryan BriscoeScott Dixon8Dario Franchitti (-11)
2010Will PowerDario Franchitti41Dario Franchitti
2011Dario FranchittiWill Power62Dario Franchitti
2012Ryan Hunter-ReayWill Power34Ryan Hunter-Reay
2013Helio CastronevesScott Dixon31Scott Dixon
2014Helio CastronevesWill Power28Will Power
2015Juan Pablo MontoyaWill Power46Scott Dixon (-49)
2016Simon PagenaudJosef Newgarden73Simon Pagenaud
2017Scott DixonHelio Castroneves3Josef Newgarden (-23)
2018Scott DixonJosef Newgarden62Scott Dixon
2019Josef NewgardenAlexander Rossi29Josef Newgarden
2020Scott DixonJosef Newgarden96Scott Dixon
2021Alex PalouScott Dixon42Alex Palou
2022Marcus EricssonWill Power8???

See, this is a season to where no one can really pull away. It’s going to be a heavyweight fight to the finish. Heading to Iowa last weekend, 75 points separated 1st to 6th.

Leaving the .894-mile track?

44 points now separate 1st from 6th.

“I think the biggest thing is because everybody that’s fighting for the championship is having good weekends,” O’Ward said. “No one is having bad weekends.”

O’Ward does feel like he could be leading this championship right now if not for throwing a lot of points away already. From the friction between he and his team to start the year (12th, 15th), the bad luck in the GMR Grand Prix (19th) and the engine troubles in Road America and Mid-Ohio (26th, 24th) have him at a depict that could be less.

“For us, we’ve thrown away and we’ve given away an easy hundred points just either whether it was a strategy or if it was I won’t mention the other ones,” he said. “We’ve just thrown away a lot of points that would have put us in a way better position of where we are right now.”

He notes now that he has to swing for the fences to make up his deficit.

“I have no other choice but to try and claw back,” O’Ward continued. “We can just be more risky than others. I really don’t care. Four, five and six for me doesn’t really change anything. I don’t care for sixth or fourth. We need to go for one and two because we’ve already got a four and a three.

“The only way to do that is to win because you’re not going to get those points by being consistently in the top five. I think if you’re in the lead, it would be a different story, but we’re not.”

He says that top 5’s do nothing for him anymore because the guys he’s fighting for this championship are all battling for podiums. A fifth place from here on out does nothing for his championship hopes. You have to win. That’s the only goal each race weekend from here on out which leads to taking more risks. The guys he’s chasing can’t which he feels could be a subtle advantage.

“Conservative isn’t going to cut it,” he says. He’s been 4th in points. He’s been 3rd. He wants to win.

Scott McLaughlin whos nearly 90 points himself out agrees. He’s hit his goals. He won two races. The top goal is to still earn a championship but the realistic one is a top 5 in points at seasons end.

“Yeah, I don’t think we need to be silly,” he told me on if he can swing for the fences now to make up that deficit. “Our ultimate goal, we’d like to be in the top five of the championship. To win the championship would be an absolute bonus, absolutely. We’ll literally do the best thing we can, at the same time doing what we need to do for the team as well.

“We’re focused on just getting the most out of it. If we need to take a risk here or there, we’re in a position that we’re able to do that. So it’s a little bit less I guess consequence if something does happen for us.

“Yeah, you got to control that risk versus reward. But we definitely look at it now where maybe we can have a risk here or there.

“We can risk a little more if we need. We’re in a position 86 points off, we have nothing to lose. One bad race, we’re sort of out of it. We have to go after it, see what we’ve got.

“Yeah, I’d love to be in the top five, love to win the championship. But a top five would be a big tick in the box.

“It’s going to be hard to beat the front five. They’re very strong and they’re racing up the front every week, not making mistakes. That’s ultimately what we need to make sure we do on car 3.

“You’re past the point of relying on luck right now. Wins are going to do it. Wins are going to separate you from all of us. Either the wins are going to get back into contention, and we saw at that Mid-Ohio when I won, 10th to sixth, I was right there. Things can change pretty quickly.

“I fully believe if we got on a roll, potentially got top threes for the rest of the year, you never know where that puts you. That’s a lot of points. That’s just our goal.”

One driver who’s fading is defending champion Alex Palou. He has 1 top 5 in his last 8 starts and with the drama surrounding his immediate future in 2023, I question on if he can turn things around quick enough.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” he says but he also says that it doesn’t affect him or the team on track. He truly feels like he can close the gap and win a 2nd straight championship for the team currently suing him.

“And I think it’s gonna be awesome when I win,” he says.

I don’t know if I buy that. It’s going to be hard to win a title with a lawsuit from the team signing your paychecks on going.

That’s why I feel this is a 5 horse race for the title. Newgarden has more finishes outside the top 10 (5) than wins (4). O’Ward can’t keep throwing away weekend’s (Road America, Mid-Ohio, Toronto) and Dixon needs to be more consistent on the podium (2 all year).

Still, you have Palou’s problems and O’Ward and McLaughlin swinging for the fences with Ericsson, Power and Dixon just trying to be consistent.

“I guess what intensifies is when you’re racing one of the guys that you’re fighting for the championship with,” O’Ward said. “I think that’s what ramps up and sometimes ramps up is also the risk that you’re willing to take in order to get that win or to get that podium if you’re starting from the back or from the front and then something went wrong. I mean it for sure sting a lot more when you have a bad week now because it’s very costly.”

How far is he willing to go?

“They all know I race them very fair and square and they know all race and how they race me. So if they want to play little games and they’re going to get that.”

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