INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Will Andretti Be Playing Spoiler Over Final 2 Races Again?

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 (before engine penalty at WWTR) 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 tested here last week so I expect another bump in performance out of them this weekend as well.

Can Alex Palou go back-to-back Sunday in Portland then next week in Laguna Seca? Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Palou Sweep The West Coast Swing?

Alex Palou admitted after his podium finish in Nashville that his best shot of defending his NTT INDYCAR Series championship was going to be to likely sweep both races to close out the season out west. He enters Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) 43 points down after a respectable weekend at the World Wide Technology Raceway to where he was just trying to get by on a type of track that he had just 1 top 10 in 7 tries on.

Now it’s time to do his damage. He won Portland last year. He didn’t know it then, but that was the place of his last trip to victory lane. He finished 2nd in Monterey. He also has a pair of runner-ups on natural road courses this season too.

So can he doing the improbable and go from winless in 17 races to winning 2 straight?

This would almost be ironically enough, unprecedented for Palou to go this long without a win. In this same time frame, only Dixon in 2004 went winless in the season following a championship winning one. He was the 2nd longest in 2015 with Sam Hornish Jr. taking 12 races in the 2003 season to get his 1st win.

Champions And How Long It Took To Win The Next Season

2022 – Alex Palou 15 races and counting

2021 – Scott Dixon – won the 3rd race at Texas

2020 – Josef Newgarden – won the 6th race at Iowa

2019 – Scott Dixon – won the 8th race in Belle Isle

2018 – Josef Newgarden won the 4th race at Barber

2017 – Simon Pagenaud – won the 4th race at Phoenix

2016 – Scott Dixon – won the 2nd race at Phoenix

2015 – Will Power – won the 5th race in the Indy Grand Prix

2014 – Scott Dixon – won the 15th race at Mid-Ohio

2013- Ryan Hunter-Reay – won the 2nd race at Barber

2012 – Dario Franchitti – won the 5th race in the Indy 500

2011 – Dario Franchitti – won the season opener at St. Pete

2010 – Dario Franchitti – won the 6th race in the Indy 500

2009 – Scott Dixon – won the 3rd race at Kansas

2008 – Dario Franchitti – went to NASCAR

2007 – Sam Hornish Jr. – won the 7th race at Texas

2006 – Dan Wheldon – won the season opener at Homestead

2005 – Tony Kanaan – won the 8th race at Kansas

2004 – Scott Dixon – winless

2003 – Sam Hornish Jr. – won the 12th race at Kentucky

2002 – Sam Hornish Jr. – won the season opener at Homestead

2001 – Buddy Lazier – won the 6th race at Pikes Peak

2000 – Greg Ray – won the 7th race at Phoenix

1999 – Kenny Brack – won the 4th race in the Indy 500

1998 – Tony Stewart – won the season opener in Disney

1997 – Scott Sharp – won the season opener in Loudon

Will Power and Josef Newgarden chat on Saturday after the race at Iowa. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Power Pass 1, Both Or Neither Andretti’s On West Coast Swing?

Will Power tied Mario Andretti for most poles the last time out in Gateway. They each have 67 of them.

“Yeah, something I’ve had my eye on for a while,” an elated Power said after netting not only his 4th pole award this season but 4th here at WWTR as well. “I think when I got to 60, I was like, This could be possible.

“When I got the double pole at Iowa, that’s when it became really realistic. The year before I had one pole. I think the year before that I had three. It was getting increasingly harder to get pole position. I was kind of thinking, This is going to be pretty hard to beat.

“But the double pole at Iowa was real key. Yep, great team, great engine, great crew. That’s what I’ve had. I’ve been lucky.

“Yep, it’s definitely a big box to tick.”

However, his sights are now set on Andretti’s son Michael in a different category – wins.

Michael Andretti has 42 career wins which rank 4th ever. Power has 41.

“I need to tie Michael in wins. That’s one win away,” he said.

So, can he get past both as we head out west, end up in a tie with each, pass 1 or pass neither?

Both tracks are similar in nature. Each are natural road courses. These are places to where Power has been up and down this year on these types of tracks. He qualified 19th at Barber, 15th at Road America and 21st in Mid-Ohio but also 1st and 4th in Indy. For Portland, he has a pole (2018) and second place (2019) and also a 14th place (2021) start too. In the race at Portland, Power won here in 2019 but was 21st and 13th in his other 2 starts.

What about Laguna Seca?

He qualified 7th and 3rd respectively in his 2 tries. He finished 2nd and 26th in those same 2 races.

Is Qualifying The End All Be All This Stretch?

The race for the championship could come down to qualifying. For the final two races, track position is everything and cautions don’t typically flip the fields here as often as one would think.

For Portland,10 of the last 12 races there were won by a top 4 starter. A week later in Monterey, 22 of the 24 races there were won by a top 4 starter.

9 of the 15 races run this season were won by a top 4 starter including 6 of the last 8.

So who qualifies well to get there?

If Dixon and Ericsson want a shot at a title, they need to find a way to qualify in the top 4. Dixon has done that just twice all year (Indy, Toronto). Ericsson has done it once (Road America). The Swede has qualified 12th or worse in 5 of his last 7 including starts of 12th, 15th, 25th, 18th and 2nd in the last 5.

Alex Palou has done it 7 times but he’s the further one out in points among the 3 vying for the title right now.

Josef Newgarden has been the best with 8 top four starting spots this year including 4 of the last 6 at that. He also has 12 starts in the top 7.

Scott McLaughlin has qualified in the top four 6 times including 9 of his starts in the top 3 rows at that. Will Power has done it 6 times but has also qualified 15th or worse 5 times as well.

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.

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.

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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