Penske the favorites, but can Ganassi hang around this weekend in St. Louis? My Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (6 p.m. ET, USA, INDYCAR Radio Network) race preview

MADISON, Ill — 26 brave souls enter the NTT INDYCAR Series race at the World Wide Technology Raceway looking for hardware. Only 1 will come out on top. However, 7 of those 26 are realistically aiming for a championship next month too, so they have to have one eye on the prize and one eye on the distance.

Pato O’Ward in all honestly has to win. He fell to 59 points out in the championship standings after a rough go of it in Nashville to where he finished 24th. 5 of his last 7 finishes now have been 11th or worse. He’s back sliding. But if he wants any shot at a title, Gateway is the spot to pounce which is likely going to take a trip to victory lane.

His only 2 top 10’s in this last 7 races stretch both occurred at Iowa, a track similar in nature to Gateway. No they’re not shaped alike but the short oval package is the short oval package and the ones that are good in one are typically good at the other.

O’Ward was 2nd and 1st in the 2 Iowa races and also has 3 straight podiums at Gateway too including 2 straight runner-ups. He has to win.

The others can afford to points race a bit. Josef Newgarden is the clear favorite and for good measure. He should have swept both Iowa races after leading 208 laps on the Saturday race and 148 more a day later before crashing from the lead. He however has won the last 2 here in Gateway.

This is his race to lose but O’Ward could be there for the taking if he slips up again.

So could Newgarden’s teammate of Will Power. He was 3nd and 2nd in the 2 Iowa races. Power also has 2 straight 3rd place finishes the last 2 times out in Gateway.

That’s why I also wonder if Power is looking at points since he’s leading the title. If he finds himself in the podium in the latter stages, how aggressive is he truly going to be?

Pato O’Ward had a perfect weekend with a pair of top 2 finishes at Iowa. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Newgarden and Power combined to lead 221 of the 250 laps (88%) on the Saturday race at Iowa and Newgarden, Power and O’Ward lead 293 of 300 laps on Sunday giving the bowties their 7th win in the last 8 Iowa tries including 5 straight. At World Wide Technology Raceway, the site of this weekend’s race, they’ve won 4 of the 6 races since the return including 2 straight. Which is why Newgarden, Power and O’Ward are the favorites on Saturday night. They went 1-2-3 here last year.

“I think Chevy’s done a great job this year giving us drivability and horsepower,” said Power at Iowa. “It definitely showed this weekend, all the Chevy cars were really strong.

“Yeah, just lucky to be involved with these guys. They’re very, very good at their job.”

O’Ward agrees.

“We’ve obviously dominated this weekend,” O’Ward said of Chevy’s power. “It’s been an all-Chevy podium both days. Qualifying was also all Chevy. The power was there. The drivability was there. The reliability was there. Just very crucial part of the season to have that. Yeah, great to have them power us.”

Penske has been the top dog on short ovals in general since 2018 with 8 wins in 12 tries. Josef Newgarden is tops among drivers with winning 6 of those 11 races for Penske himself. No one else has more than 1 in that span.

Penske is 6-for-8 here.

Which is also why the Ganassi camp is using this weekend and a get by race and a stop gap to where they feel they can be stronger at out west.

Short ovals aren’t Ganassi’s top tracks. They don’t hide from that fact. A day after Chip Ganassi Racing put all 4 of their cars in the top 10 P4-P6-P9-P10 in practice on Friday at Iowa, they struggled in qualifying on Saturday morning. Their top qualifier for Race 1 was Marcus Ericsson in 12th. Scott Dixon and Alex Palou would share Row 7 in starting 13th and 14th respectively for that opening race. Jimmie Johnson started 15th. For Sunday’s race, they’d roll off P12 (Palou), P13 (Johnson), P15 (Ericsson) and P18 (Dixon).

Ganassi won 2 of the 1st 3 years at Iowa but has been 0-for-14 since.

However, they had a great points weekend under the circumstances at Iowa though. They put all 4 cars in the top 11 on Saturday including 3 in the top 8 (P5, P6, P8, P11). On Sunday, all 4 cars were in the top 13 with 3 in the top 6 (P4, P5, P6, P13).

Two weeks ago in Nashville, they put 2 cars on the podium and have 3 drivers in the top 5 of points currently.

Now, can they carry that over to this weekend with a similar approach?

Palou doesn’t expect to win as he struggled in Iowa and was only 15th, 12th and 20th in his 3 Gateway tries. He also enters off of just his 2nd podium in the last 10 races last time out in Nashville so damage control is his plan this weekend.

Same for Marcus Ericsson who was 16th, fifth, 23rd and 9th in four tries here. He had a pair of top 10’s in Iowa and is aiming for that again on Saturday.

Scott Dixon may have the best success though. He won Race 1 in 2020 at Gateway and has four top fives in his last 7 starts here including three podiums at that. He also enters this weekend as hot as anyone with 5 top 5 finishes over the last 6 races run too.

Jimmie Johnson is a Gateway rookie but led laps at Iowa and scored a top 5 in the 2nd race. He also had a top 10 at Texas too.

They’re all just after a points for this weekend just as they did at Iowa. Will they win? Not likely. Can they get in the top 5? Absolutely. They need to remain in striking distance when the pendulum swings back their way out west.

The Ganassi drivers have been solid on natural road courses this season with Dixon having a top 10 in all but no finishes either being better than 5th. At Portland, he was 5th, 16th and 3rd in his 3 stats and at Laguna he was 3rd and 13th. Ericsson has 3 top 6’s in his last 4 natural road course tries but no top 5’s in 3 combined Portland (7th) and Laguna Seca (11th, 6th) starts. Palou has 2 top 5’s on natural road courses this season (pair of runner-ups) but won Portland last year and was 2nd in Laguna. He feels like if he positions himself well leaving St. Louis, then he could win the final 2 races and still take home this year’s championship.

That’s why Gateway is so crucial for them too in order to stay in the hunt because outside of Power, Dixon, Ericsson and Palou have a real chance to out point the other drivers in the championship race.

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