Championship Push Getting Tighter And Tighter But Gateway Could Greatly Favor Penske’s/O’Ward Though Too
The gap keeps dwindling between the main contenders in the NTT INDYCAR Series. With 3 races remaining, the gap from 1st to 7th is down to 59 points. The gap from 2nd through 6th was -8, -34, -34, -36, -44 heading to Indy last month and then -9, -32, -38, -46, -52 entering Nashville the last time out. Now it’s even tighter.
However, this weekend could help the Penske and Arrow McLaren SP teams though. They have 4 of the top 7 drivers in points right now and Chevy has been downright dominant on short ovals lately too. I don’t see that changing at this point of the season either.
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 on the St. Louis area track.
Chevy swept the podium on both days at Iowa and took 4 of the 5 spots on the lead lap on Saturday and a 1-2-3 sweep on Sunday.
Newgarden and Will Power combined to lead 221 of the 250 laps (88%) on the Saturday race and Newgarden, Power and Pato 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 has 3 straight podiums at Gateway too including 2 straight runner-ups. He has 2 straight top 2’s now at Iowa as well.
“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.”
Honda drivers have led a ton of laps here but they’ve scored just 2 wins since the series started coming back in 2017.
In 2018, Scott Dixon, a Honda driver, led 145 laps but finished third. In 2019, Santino Ferrucci, another Honda driver, led 97 laps but finished fourth. In 2020, Pato O’Ward (94 laps in Race 1) and Takuma Sato (66 laps led in Race 2), a Honda driver finished third and ninth respectively.
Chevrolet has just won all but 2 of those races.
Must Wins For Newgarden/O’Ward, Ganassi Drivers Thinking Points?
This is arguably a must win for Pato O’Ward. Same could likely be said for Josef Newgarden too despite him being only 22 points behind right now. It’s also a must top 5 or 6 for the Ganassi camp.
O’Ward, who enters 59 points down, needs to capitalize this weekend then. For the next 2 races at Portland and Laguna, he has struggled at each. He was 15th last year at Portland and 5th in Laguna Seca. On natural road courses this season, he has just 1 top 10 (his win in Barber).
Newgarden is in a similar boat. He should have swept both Iowa races and has won the last 2 at Gateway. He has 1 podium and 2 top 5’s in 5 natural road course starts this season but for Portland (10th, 5th, 5th) and Laguna (8th, 7th) he’s never finished better than 5th at each. Power has 4 top 3 finishes in 5 natural road course starts, won Portland in 2019 but was 21st and 13th in his other 2 starts there and 2nd and 26th in Laguna. He was on the podium in each of his last 2 Iowa starts as well as here too.
That’s why the Ganassi trio that’s still in the fight for this year’s championship just have to hope to have a solid points outing on Saturday night and then get to the west coast on tracks that favor them a little better instead.
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.
Penske/Ganassi Fight For Title, But How Andretti Could Play A Role In Who Wins It Though Too
Each of the last 9 years we’ve seen a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing driver win the championships. They’ve done so in 13 of the last 14 years at that. Currently, they boast the entire top 6 in points and a very real shot at extending this streak another year.
However, Penske may dominate this weekend but once we get out west, the Andretti’s may play a role into this chaos as well.
They’re all too far out to win this year’s title, but can take some finishing spots towards the front to make the gaps remain smaller among the championship front runners. I mean if Palou or McLaughlin get hot and win these next 3 races and you have Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and Romain Grosjean battling for top 5’s, then it bumps the others like Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Will Power and Josef Newgarden lower in the finishing order. That disparity in points could be enough to allow someone fighting from behind to rally and take home the championship hardware.
It’s not like any of the Andretti guys are going to just let a Penske or Ganassi car go by them. They’re still racing for pride here.
These final 2 tracks are good ones for them as well.
At Portland, Rossi finished 3rd and 2nd in each of his last 2 starts. Herta was 4th and 8th. Then in Laguna Seca, Herta has dominated each of the last 2 Monterey races in leading 83 laps in 2019 and 91 last year. Rossi qualified up front last year but was pushed off track early. He was 6th in 2019. Grosjean finished 3rd with his ride a year ago.
One could make a case that the Andretti trio could sweep the podium that day.
Palou was 1st in Portland last year and 2nd in Monterey to give him a realistic shot as well.
Will The 2nd Lane Work
Like they did back in March at Texas, the NTT INDYCAR Series will conduct a special 30 minute session just prior to final practice on Friday evening at the World Wide Technology Raceway to practice only in the 2nd lane.
That’s something that had always been discussed as of late at Texas in order to improve the show. With NASCAR and Texas pouring PJ1 in the corners, it ruined the track. Even as a stain, that area above the first lane was just too slick to try out. So it created a single groove track which produced a high speed parade.
This spring, a few drivers decided to do something about it. They had a special session to where they only drove in that “no go zones” in order to try to grip them up. It was a special practice to where speed didn’t matter as they were all trying to accomplish a like goal.
Now they’ll do the same on Friday in Gateway in hopes to add an option of a 2nd lane there too. If they can make it work, then watch out. This will be a wild show.
For some reason, Pato O’Ward and Scott McLaughlin have gotten up to speed on ovals very quickly in their brief INDYCAR careers thus far. McLaughlin has 7 top 5 finishes so far and among his 7 top 5 finishes in the sport, 4 of which came on ovals. That’s shocking in a sense that he had no prior oval experience before coming to the NTT INDYCAR Series in October 2020 including a top 5 here last August.
O’Ward has 8 podiums in his last 10 oval starts himself.
He made 6 oval starts in 2020 finishing 12th at Texas, 4th and 12th at Iowa, 6th in the Indy 500 and 3rd and 2nd respectively at World Wide Technology Raceway In 2021, he made 4 oval starts that saw him finish 3rd and 1st in Texas, 4th in the Indy 500 and 2nd at Gateway. This year he was 15th at Texas, 2nd in the Indy 500 and 2nd and 1st in Iowa.
That’s 14 oval starts with two wins, 4 runner-ups and 10 top 5 finishes. That’s nearly half of his career top 5’s coming on these types of tracks.
Same can be said for Jimmie Johnson. He finished 6th back in March at Texas, was fast at Indy and now finished 11th and 5th respectively in Iowa.
These three will definitely be in the hunt for a top 5 again on Saturday evening.