7 drivers entered this weekend’s NTT INDYCAR Series race at the Portland International Raceway with championship hopes still alive. 5 of the 7 advanced all the way to the Firestone Fast 6 on a cloudy afternoon in the Pacific Northwest. The thing is, Team Penske appears to be the ones to beat and in a class all to themselves.
They took 2 of the top 3 spots in practice on Friday, then upped it in going 1-2-3 on Saturday morning. They’d qualifying 1-2-3 a few hours later.
Scott McLaughlin scored his 3rd career pole by going 58.2349-seconds in his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet. He finished 1st and 2nd respectively in his other 2 poles.
McLaughlin was 3rd in both practice sessions prior but found a way to top his other 2 Penske teammates when it mattered the most.
Josef Newgarden was upset that he felt like he gave a pole away as he’ll instead qualify 2nd in his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet (58.3129-seconds). However, due to his 6 spot grid penalty, Newgarden will slide down to 8th on Sunday in the starting lineup.
That promotes Will Power up to the front row as he initially qualified third in his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet. The current points leader circled the 1.964-mile track with a time of 58.4254-seconds. Power now has 5 starting spots in the top 2 Rows in the last 6 races including 4 of which on the front row. He started 2nd and won here in 2019.
Newgarden has made the top 6 in 7 straight races now but dropping back to Row 4 will mark his worst start since July 3 at Mid-Ohio (14th). He finished 7th that day. He finished 5th from 18th here last year.
Rookie Christian Lundgaard (58.4482-seconds) was 4th while Alex Palou (58.5075-seconds) and Pato O’Ward (58.6090-seconds) rounded out the Fast 6.
McLaughlin In Perfect Position To Help Teammates
Scott McLaughlin knows the situation. He’s happy he enters the penultimate race of the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season with a shot to win the championship next week. The 2nd year driver also is well aware that his shots of doing so are long.
McLaughlin trails his teammate Will Power by 54 points entering Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). The odds of making up a full races’ worth of points in just 2 races left is slim. To look at it this way, you get 5 points for finishing last. Josef Newgarden trails Power by only 3 points.
McLaughlin would have to leave at the very worst case 49 points out on Sunday. Even in doing so, that would mean Power or Newgarden would have to finish last next week and McLaughlin starting on the pole, leading the most laps and taking home the win.
That certainly can happen, but the odds are low of him getting any help from his teammates. It’s why he’s okay with helping them.
Some in the paddock questioned how hard he fought Newgarden on the final restart 2 weeks ago at World Wide Technology Raceway. McLaughlin said it was the slip stream effect that Newgarden had on him and the fact that his car struggled under the lights and was obviously set up for daytime conditions.
Still, Newgarden looked like he had rocket fuel compared to what McLaughlin had.
Now, McLaughlin starts on the pole in Portland. Will Power starts next to him. The only Ganassi car up front is Alex Palou but he’s 43 points out. In a treacherous first corner, McLaughlin could play nicely and let Power go early on. Why fight him? Why risk taking each other out?
Would the two discuss the first corner together overnight? Does McLaughlin use Power’s points position against him and be out aggression him as a result?
That’s not very Penske like to do so against your teammate. However, there’s no doubt about it that McLaughlin would absolutely be willing to help Power and Newgarden and by starting and even finishing up front, he can take points away from Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Palou too which further helps them as well.
Group 2 In Round 1 Was Brutal
5 of the 7 championship contenders all resided in the second group of the first round in qualifying. Them plus rookies in Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas made for a tough group to come out of.
It’s partially when 2 of the 5 failed to. advance…
In Group 1, you had just 2 championship contenders and each were the top 2 speeds in that group.
Did Not Testing Here Cost Ganassi, Why I Say That’s Not The Whole Story
Last year, Chip Ganassi Racing qualified 1st, 3rd, 10th and 22nd respectively. They’d finish 1-3-7-20. That’s partially due to them testing here a year ago prior to the race weekend. It paid off. This year, they had 1 test date left. Instead of coming back, they elected to go to Laguna Seca, the site of next week’s season finale.
I mean, how can you blame them? What more could you learn after being so good here just 12 months ago? Go to the place that will decide this championship.
However, Team Penske also had 1 test day left and they used it at Portland last Friday. That move and Ganassi’s to skip it has shaped how this weekend has looked.
Ganassi had 3 of their 4 cars eliminated in the first round of qualifying. Only Alex Palou snuck through to the Fast 6 and qualified 5th but will start 4th due to Josef Newgarden’s grid penalty.
Scott Dixon starts 16th. Marcus Ericsson will roll off 18th. Jimmie Johnson starts 23rd.
Meanwhile, all 3 Penske cars made the Fast 6 and qualified 1-2-3. They were 1-2-3 in practice on Saturday morning too and had 2 of the 3 in the top 3 of the speed charts on Friday.
This is a place to where the Penske’s could open up a large enough gap to just get by next week over Dixon and Ericsson and also negate anything Palou could gain in the sense that he’s 43 points back. How much can he truly gain when he’s surrounded by Penske’s up front?
In saying that though, I don’t know if the test is the true story on why Ganassi struggled. They’ve struggled in qualifying all year.
This is the 5th time in the last 6 races Ericsson has started 12th or worse. It’s also the 9th time in 16 races this season. Only 3 times has he started in Row 3 or better. He finished in the top 2 in 2 of those 3.
Dixon now has started 13th or worse in 5 of the last 6 races too including 8 times all year. That’s not ideal to get the job done.
Meanwhile, Palou has 10 top 7 starting spots in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda so that’s why I feel like this isn’t all dictated by the lack of testing.
AMSP’s Natural Road Course Qualifying Strength
Pato O’Ward never got to run a lap on the Firestone Reds on Friday. He had mechanical problems on his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet. It’s why he was 22nd on the speed chart. He was 10th in Saturday morning’s practice on blacks. Now that he got the reds and laps on them, his car came alive.
O’Ward qualified 6th and will start 5th after Newgarden’s grid penalty. He’s made the Fast 6 in all 6 natural road courses this season (2nd, 5th, 6th, 1st, 3rd, 6th) and will be in the hunt again this weekend. O’Ward was 7th here last year.
His teammate Felix Rosenqvist qualified 7th and was elevated up to 6th with Newgarden’s penalty too. On natural road courses this year, he’s been 6th, 6th, 8th, 4th, 1st and 7th respectively. At Portland, Rosenqvist has finished 2nd and 6th respectively.
Rookies Shine, Lundgaard To Start 3rd
Rookies have been stealing the show in the NTT INDYCAR Series as of late. 2 of the last 3 races have seen one finish runner-up. They’re carrying this over to Portland this weekend.
David Malukas was 2nd quickest on Friday. He qualified 10th. Callum Ilott was 14th and 9th in practice while Kyle Kirkwood was 7th and 14th. They’ll share Row 7 on Sunday.
The most impressive was Christian Lundgaard who was 5th in Saturday’s practice and put his No. 30 Dallara-Honda in 4th (58.4482-seconds) in qualifying afterwards.
With 5 of the 6 spots in the Fast 6 being occupied by drivers going for the championship still, it was Lundgaard as the only one not. That’s how good he was.
Lundgaard has 6 top 11 finishes over the last 8 races on the year. He had just 3 in the first 7. He was runner-up in the July 30 Gallagher Grand Prix and 8th in Nashville.
This is also his 3rd Fast 6 in the last 4 races at that. He leads Malukas by 11 points in the Rookie of the Year race.