INDIANAPOLIS — Team Penske is 1-2 in the NTT INDYCAR Series points standings right now. Will Power leads teammate Josef Newgarden by just 3 points entering this weekend’s race at in the Pacific Northwest at Portland. That’s the slimmest margin between the top two this late in a season since 2008. That gap is also that small only because while Newgarden has won 5 times now this season, those are also his only podiums too. Power has 7 podiums and 10 top 5’s. Newgarden has 7 top 5’s.
That’s the difference. Also is the fact that Newgarden has 5 finishes of 13th or worse this year as well. That’s right, he has as many finishes of 13th or worse as he does wins. Just think if he doesn’t crash while leading in the 2nd race at Iowa back in July.
Power is grateful to be leading still with 2 races remaining beginning with Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
“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.”
The thing is, they can’t take their eyes of the Chip Ganassi Racing trio either. Scott Dixon is lurking in 3rd (-14) while Marcus Ericsson (-17) is 4th. Alex Palou won here last year and was runner-up at Laguna Seca. He’s 43 points back.
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.
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.
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 too. 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.
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?
It’s why this weekend is going to be very interesting. Scott McLaughlin (-54) and Pato O’Ward (-58) have to really just go for broke and win. McLaughlin has 4 straight top 4 finishes on the season.
It’s also to why last weeks test was so crucial. Ganassi tested here last year and it paid off. That’s why they punted on the test here last week in favor of Laguna Seca instead. Penske however came here. Who has the leg up and does Ganassi now utilize their Laguna Seca test to jump forward above the Penske’s next week?
Did Ganassi learn enough last year to remain ahead of the Penske’s this week too or did the Penske trio learn more last week to negate Ganassi’s 2021 test here?