5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Turn 1, Lap 1 Chaos

Death. Taxes. Crash in Turn 1, Lap 1 of the Grand Prix of Portland. It happened again last year and this time, ironically enough helped those that were involved. Still, when we come back here this weekend, we have to know that a crash could occur and could do so at any spot in the field. I mean this one happened with the guys up front. Since we’ve came back here in 2018, we’ve had an opening lap crash in the first corner every time.

I mean the situation isn’t a good design. From a wide front stretch with a lot of real estate to work with on a straightaway that span 2,450 feet to then dive into a tight right hand corner and a quick left after.

With 26 cars fighting for the same spots, nothing good can come out of it.

The thing is, how many championship eligible drivers are impacted by Turn 1. In Gateway, the entire top 7 of points qualified 1-7 for the race. I don’t see that happening again and for a track that’s difficult to pass on and track position being everything, it makes you wonder how those not in the championship push will race those that are through that opening corner.

“With the experience I got last year. I would not race, to be honest, if I was not fighting for the championship, I would not race the championship contenders just because they are risking something and you’re not if you’re not a championship contender,” Alex Palou notes.

However, he also says that he doesn’t expect to be raced any differently either and says that with the amount of cars still eligible, that everyone will likely race everyone else the same way.

“Yeah, I don’t expect people to treat us differently,” Palou continued. “The good thing is there’s so many cars that are still in the fight for this championship that everybody’s going to race the same way.”

Will Power agreed in a sense but feels like the respect will still be given.

“Yeah, I mean, I feel like when it gets down to the last couple of races, even more so the last two races, the people that aren’t in the championship are aware that you are, and there’s a bit of respect there,” he says.

“But, yeah, you can’t race conservatively. You just can’t. At this point, as tight as this championship is, you got to race how you race. You got to race to get position. You got to race to try and win. That’s the game now.

“I feel like there’s a bit of respect there. I mean, for me, when I’ve been out of the championship, even if it was last year with Palou, at the beginning of Laguna, first lap, I was really careful not to touch him because I don’t want to ruin someone’s championship. It’s just so difficult to get into that position to be a contender.

“I think people understand that in the field. Yeah, race to try not to wreck you, put it that way.”

What makes this also challenging is the fact they’re all teammates within this. 3 Penskes vs 3 Ganassis. At some point, you’re going to be racing a teammate. How do you approach that?

“I think we’re just going to race like we always do,” Newgarden said of his championship battle now with Power. “It’s kind of as simple as that. We race all year, we race hard. It’s not going to be the first time Will and I have raced together. We’ve had many, many races that have been in lockstep, 1-2, pit strategy, the whole thing. We’ll just fight it out as normal.

“Clearly we don’t want to do something that jeopardizes the whole group because it is bigger than us. At the end of the day we’ve got three cars in the fight still. There’s nothing that matters more than putting a Team Penske car in Victory Lane.

“As much as I want that to be, believe me I do, I will work to be that person, we also have to just make sure we remember that it’s about all of us and it’s about all the effort we put in. We have to make sure one car secures the championship.

“It’s just a balance. We’re just going to race like we always do. Hopefully it doesn’t turn ugly at some point.”

Newgarden says that he doesn’t think that you can change your overall approach too much anyways because there’s a reason to why you’re in this position to potentially win the championship. Why change it up now?

“You’ve got to be on it, you’ve got to run hard. If you’re not on the limit, you’re typically getting left behind,” he says.

Pato O’Ward notes that if you stay up front, you’re more than likely racing among other championship contenders anyhow. However, he’s also in a position that he has to win though too. So how do you balance each respectfully?

“I think I’ve had a little bit of a different experience whenever I’ve fought for the championship,” he says. “But I think now, I mean, if you’re in the area of where you want to be, which is top five every single race, you’re most likely racing the guys that you’re racing in the championship. At that point you know who you’re racing. You’re racing high-caliber guys, people that have been doing it for many years. You just got to race hard.

“At least where I am in the championship, I need to win. I need to win races in order to be able to have a chance getting to Laguna and actually having a shot.

“I guess in that situation it’s a little bit different to what maybe Will and Josef are in. But in reality, I think a lot of the times you’re going to find yourself racing people that you’re actually fighting the championship with.

“I don’t think the approach is going to change much, I guess.”

However, Alexander Rossi notes that he’s going to actually race these drivers harder because he knows that they have to back out of it with more to lose. As a result, he could get a position easier.

“Yeah, 100%. I think you can take advantage of that,” said the Andretti Autosport driver. “That’s one benefit, I guess, of not really — you don’t have to think about points. For us, it’s about the individual racers, and they have to be a little bit more cognizant of that.

“We definitely know that in the back of our heads and we’ll try to use that to our advantage.

“I mean, yeah. I think it’s interesting. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. I think you’re more aggressive with them because you know they probably have to back out. At the same time certainly you don’t want to be the guy that hits them.

“You’re almost more aggressive and more cautious. It’s hard to explain. But, yeah, I think you’re very aware of who they are and what they’re doing around you.”

Colton Herta actually agrees with that assessment too.

“I guess, yeah, similar,” he noted. “I don’t really change the way that I race them. I like to think I’m not, like, smashing people off all the time so it shouldn’t really matter. I shouldn’t have to change anything.

“But it is always a balance. You definitely don’t want to be the guy that takes out the championship leader with three races to go. You kind of maybe keep that in the back of your mind.

“At the end of the day if you have to go for something, you have to do it.”

Marcus Ericsson isn’t surprised. He says you have to be calculated on who you’re racing against at the time.

“I think as a driver, you know who you’re racing, you sort of take into account who you’re racing, something you have to keep in mind,” he notes.

“At the end of the day you need to race your race, you have to be as far up as possible. I think that’s the mindset you have to have. I don’t expect anyone to give me advantages out there. You need to be hard and tough out on track.”

6-time series champion Scott Dixon says that you have to put all that aside and focus on your own race and not get too wrapped up in the moment. You have to treat Portland and Laguna Seca like you would any other race on the schedule he says.

“Yeah, I think you’ve just got to race your own race, treat it like another race. Don’t think about the championship too much. Anything can happen.

“It’s very tight at the moment, which is great for the series, great for the championship fight. But, yeah, I don’t think you can overanalyze stuff too much.”

Once we get through the first turn, the next thing to watch is strategy. This race, like last year, is nine miles longer than the last two prior, which means we could get a pretty straight forward three stop strategy race. But, depending on how cautions fall, you may be able to have varying strategies due to being able to save some fuel as well.

“Yeah, I mean, this race can obviously be a race strategy that can be quite interesting,” Bourdais said last year. “Fuel can often at times come into play. The nature of the track being a very short track, there are a lot of laps, and to save a lap, two laps, three laps is not out of the question.

“Yeah, it’s definitely one of those races that’s been played out in fuel saving mode sometimes pretty aggressively. Surely ’18 was. ’19 there was some drama, as well. Yeah, I think it’s never really a boring race, and with the number of cars you increase the chances of these things happening, and I think we’ll be, what, 27 cars or 28 cars. So yeah, it’s definitely going to be one to watch.”

The other factor is that Portland is a track that’s an equalizer. There’s long straights that give Chevrolet an advantage. There’s slower corners which help the Honda’s. That should have this more of an even playing field for the teams this weekend too.

“Yeah, I think it’s probably one of those tracks that really doesn’t really put a big gap between the two,” said Bourdais. “Not that there is a big one anyways, but I think it kind of levels things out between the torquey side of the competition and our more crisp top end. Yeah, I would say it’s probably a bit of an equalizer.”

Buckle up. You have all this combined with a championship race to watch with 7 drivers separated by 58 points with this being one of two races remaining in the 2022 season.


Scott McLaughlin – Grand Prix of Portland. Penske Entertainment: Joe Skibinski

Did The Test Work For Penske?

Team Penske, AJ Foyt Racing and Andretti Autosport each took part in an open test here last Friday. A notable one missing is Chip Ganassi Racing.

See, most teams had just 1 test date left. A few have 2. Penske and Ganassi, the main players for this year’s NTT INDYCAR Series championship have 1 test date each. They chose opposite tracks to be at.

Penske was among the teams in Portland last week. Ganassi elected to skip Portland’s test in favor of Laguna Seca. How does this play out this weekend?

Penske and Ganassi have won all but 1 INDYCAR championship since 2008 including 9 straight. Right now, they have the top 6 drivers in points with 2 races remaining. Odds are, a Penske or Ganassi driver is hoisting the Astor Cup in 2 weeks.

That’s why these tests are so interesting.

With testing dates so limited now, a common trend occurring is that which ever teams test on a track that is upcoming, they typically fare well.

Just look at recent history. Team Penske was among those testing at Iowa. They dominated that race weekend. Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren SP were among the teams that tested in late June on the IMS road course. When we came back in August, AMSP won the pole and took 2 of the top 3 starting spots while Andretti won the race.

Just look at how Portland and Laguna Seca went last year. Ganassi tested at Portland. They won the pole and the race. In fact, they took 2 of the top 3 in the starting lineup and on the podium.

For Laguna Seca, Andretti tested there. They swept the front row and won the race via Colton Herta leading 91 of the 95 laps.

That’s likely why Ganassi is skipping Portland since they tested there last year. They have those notes but knows they could then turn that Portland performance into Laguna Seca.

Palou finished 2nd there last year but Dixon was 13th and Marcus Ericsson in 6th. If they can gain from this test, then watch out.

Josef Newgarden is hoping for his 3rd championship since 2017. He trials by 3 now. Photo Credit: IndyCar Media Site

However, Penske is hoping to gain from the Portland test. They’ve struggled there. They finished P5-P9-P13 last year. Josef Newgarden has 3 top 10’s and 2 top 5’s but neither finish was better than 5th. Will Power has 1 win but his other two results were 21st and 13th respectively. Scott McLaughlin was 9th in his lone Portland start a year ago.

On natural road courses this year, McLaughlin has scored the most points in the 5 races. Power is 2nd. Newgarden is 5th. They have the leg up on the Ganassi’s so if they can gain in Portland, can they open a big enough lead over the Ganassi’s to just get by in Laguna?

Power leads Newgarden by 3 points. That’s the closest margin between the top 2 since 2008. Dixon is 14 points behind Power and 11 behind Newgarden. Ericsson is 17 points behind Power and 14 behind Newgarden. Palou trails Power by 43 and Newgarden by 40.

The 43 points separating the top five drivers in the championship is the tightest title chase since 2003, when 41 points separated the top five. The average deficit with two races to go since 2008 is 24.3 points.

If Penske can be ahead of the Ganassi’s there’s a strong chance that Power and Newgarden could open up a 20+ lead on all 3 of them heading to the season finale in Laguna Seca.

However, that’s a big IF. Ganassi has been better at Portland in the past than the Penske’s and did their test last year win them this year’s championship because they can stay ahead of the Penske’s and in turn maybe close the gap instead.

“I think we’re just going to race like we always do,” Newgarden said of his championship battle now with Power. “It’s kind of as simple as that. We race all year, we race hard. It’s not going to be the first time Will and I have raced together. We’ve had many, many races that have been in lockstep, 1-2, pit strategy, the whole thing. We’ll just fight it out as normal.

“Clearly we don’t want to do something that jeopardizes the whole group because it is bigger than us. At the end of the day we’ve got three cars in the fight still. There’s nothing that matters more than putting a Team Penske car in Victory Lane.

“As much as I want that to be, believe me I do, I will work to be that person, we also have to just make sure we remember that it’s about all of us and it’s about all the effort we put in. We have to make sure one car secures the championship.

“It’s just a balance. We’re just going to race like we always do. Hopefully it doesn’t turn ugly at some point.”

No point lead is ever safe in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Since 2008, a driver has made up a deficit with two races to go and won the series championship five times. Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon have done it twice. Franchitti trailed Ryan Briscoe by 25 points in 2009 and Will Power by 17 points in 2010; Ryan Hunter-Reay tracked down Power in 2012 after trailing by 36 points with two races remaining, Dixon overcame an eight-point deficit to Helio Castroneves in 2013 and was in third place, 34 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya, in 2015.

The other factor is Andretti. They’re at Portland too. Alexander Rossi is coming off of an Indy win the last time out on a natural road course, has the 3rd most points accumulated on them this season and was 3rd and 2nd respectively the last 2 times out at Portland. Colton Herta was 4th and 8th in his 2 Portland starts. What happens if they improve?

They could in theory play a role into things. Then at Laguna Seca, Herta has won the last 2 years there in dominating fashion, Rossi was quick last year and Romain Grosjean was 3rd as a rookie with Coyne. What if their pace is still strong. They could finish ahead of the Penske’s with the Ganassi’s and if the Andretti’s take spots away in Portland maybe Ganassi has the advantage too.

It’s why these test dates and who’s testing where is so crucial.


Andretti Autosport Playing Spoiler

The Andretti Autosport organization was the story of the paddock when the calendar shifted to summer. Between their F1 endeavors, Colton Herta’s F1 test for McLaren and the dust up between all 4 drivers in an embarrassing Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio back on July 3, Andretti was looking like amateur hour. Then McLaren, Chip Ganassi and Alex Palou threw them a life line and took away all that content surrounding the Andretti group.

They’ve since responded well.

Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco has finished 18th, 17th, 15th, 18th, 22nd and 12th in the 6 races since that breaking point. While that doesn’t seem great, where this is positive is, the Canadian driver had just 3 finishes of 17th or 18th in the 9 races prior. He’s done it 3 times in the last 5 races.

Romain Grosjean had qualified 11th, 10th, 10th, 22nd, 2nd and 9th with a pair of top 10 finishes at Iowa and a top 5 going at Nashville before being crashed by Josef Newgarden with 5 laps-to-go.

Colton Herta has 3 top 4 starting spots in that 6 race span including a runner-up finish at Toronto and a bounceback 5th place finish in Nashville. If not for a mechanical failure while leading the week prior at Indy, Herta would have 3 top 5 finishes in this stretch too.

Then there’s Rossi. He won the Gallagher Grand Prix. He too fought back from a lap down like Herta in Nashville to score a top 5 (4th). He’s trending up again and looks to finish the season strong.

Now, can they end the season strong?

They did the last few years in fact. They’ve ran well recently at Portland and Laguna Seca to where Herta was 4th and 8th respectively in Portland and Rossi 8th, 3rd and 2nd himself. For the season finale in Monterey, Herta has won the pole and both races the last 2 years with leading 83 laps in 2019 and 91 in 2021. Rossi was strong there last year prior to his run off and Grosjean finished 3th with a different team.

This could affect who wins this year’s title by stealing top finishing positions. They also tested here last week as well.


Rookies

Rookies have been speeding up. It seems like we were singing Christian Lundgaard’s praises a lot lately at that. The rookie driver was 10th in Road America, 11th in Mid-Ohio, 8th in Toronto, 10th in Iowa 1, 2nd in Indy, qualified 3rd and finished 8th in Nashville. Then David Malukas steals the limelight in WWTR with a runner-up. That’s 2 runner-up finishes in the last 3 races for these star rookies. Will we see another strong showing out of this group on Sunday again?


How Many Drivers Will Be Championship Eligible Leaving Here

Alex Palou admitted after Nashville that he expected World Wide Technology Raceway to be a struggle but he felt like he could win not only Portland this weekend but Laguna Seca next. That’s the best way to control his own destiny right? Just win out and hope for the best.

Palou is the defending series champion and has been surrounding by a dark cloud of uneasiness since May. Still, it’s not like he’s not performing at a high enough level to take home a 2nd straight Astor Cup championship trophy and as we sit here now, he’s only 43 points out of doing so.

He hasn’t won in a year but his last win came in this very race last September. Then he was runner-up in Monterey, the site of next weekend’s finale. So he’s very much still in play. However, he has to gain ground this weekend.

Pato O’Ward also feels like he needs to win out but natural road courses have been a struggle for them the last few seasons. He’s made the Fast 6 in all 5 of the natural road courses this year but also hasn’t had 4 of his 5 finishes on these tracks being 12th or worse too. That’s not going to get it done.

Scott McLaughlin is also in a swing for the fence mode. He enters this weekend having scored 4 top 4 finishes in his last 4 starts on the year and 7 top 10’s over the last 8 tries in general. However, the 2nd year driver also finds himself 54 points out. He finished 9th here last year but did win on a natural road course at Mid-Ohio on July 3. No one has scored as many points in the 5 natural road courses run this season than McLaughlin. He’s got to go for the win and the win only this weekend to set him up for a shot at the championship still next Sunday.

That leaves his teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden as well as Chip Ganassi Racing teammates of Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson still points racing. They’re separated by 17 points at the moment.

Which is why this could all come down to qualifying though.

Dixon has 2 top 5’s in 3 Portland tries on here but he’s not finished better than 3rd here either and has struggled in qualifying this season. That’s a direct reason as to why his best finish in 5 natural road courses in 2022 is 5th too.

Similar for Ericsson. He finished 7th here last year and 3 top 6 results in his last 4 races on natural road courses this season. However, while he started 4th in Road America, the Swede was also just 12th, 18th and 13th in Barber, Indy, Mid-Ohio and 25th Indy 2 respectively during in the year too. Also, he was 10th here last year in his only Portland try.

Can Dixon and Ericsson find the pace on Saturday to make the Penske duo uneasy?

Newgarden qualified 7th, 3rd, 2nd, 14th and 5th on like tracks this year. He was on the front row here in 2018 (2nd) but also qualified 13th and 18th respectively since. Newgarden is a perfect 3-for-3 in top 10’s at Portland including two straight 5th place runs but also 0-for-3 in podiums scored and has just 1 podium on a natural road course all year.

For Power, he won here in 2019 but didn’t have a top 10 in any of his other 2 starts. For Portland, he has a pole (2018) and second place (2019) and also a 14th place (2021) start too.

That’s why this is still wide open. You have the 3 that have to be aggressive and 2 of the 3 can realistically win. You have the other 4 points racing and all should be solidly in the top 10 but maybe not finding any separation.

Factor in 3 of the Andretti cars in the mix and you could easily see McLaughlin and Palou close more ground on the ones in front.

Which is why I wonder how many of the 7 still eligible will drop off of being eligible leaving here on Sunday.

A max points day is 54 for a race weekend. 50 for the win, 1 point for a lap led, 1 point for a pole and 2 points for most laps led. You get 5 points for finishing 25th on back. That’s means anyone 49 points or further back will get eliminated.

McLaughlin needs to make up 5 points on Power which can be done this weekend. With Palou being 43 points out, I think he can stay within that margin and stay alive meaning that it boils down to McLaughlin and O’Ward to stay afloat

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