INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 non championship things I’m watching for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Will Andretti Autosport Play Spoiler This Weekend?

Colton Herta has led all but 10 laps here in Monterey over the last 2 years the NTT INDYCAR Series has been coming here. He started on both poles and won both races. Can he play spoiler again? He may have some company from his teammates. Alexander Rossi won the Indy road course at the end of July and qualified 2nd here last year. Romain Grosjean finished 3rd with a different team last season. Now he’s with Andretti.

There’s reason to believe these three could take 3 of the top 5 spots in the final finishing order on Sunday which in turn could take some much needed points away from the championship contenders too.

David Malukas passes Alexander Rossi at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Toronto. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Rookie Of The Year Battle

In 2020, Rinus Veekay took home rookie of the year honors. The year prior, it was Felix Rosenqvist. Felix now drives for Chevy, but VeeKay in 2020 was the first driver piloting a bow tie to win ROY honors since Stefan Johansson in 1992. The only other time was Eddie Cheever in 1990. Scott McLaughlin became the 2nd since 1991 by topping Romain Grosjean last season. He was also the first Penske driver to capture these honors as well.

This year’s class consists of Christian Lundgaard, David Malukas, Callum Ilott, Devlin DeFrancesco and Kyle Kirkwood.

Ilott missed Belle Isle which cost him dearly. DeFrancesco has been mid pack for much of the year while Kirkwood has shown flashes of speed in his maiden campaign.

However, this year’s battle has largely been between Lundgaard and Malukas. Each started slow but gained momentum as the year drew on.

Malukas was the top finishing rookie for the Indy 500, was 11th in Belle Isle, 9th in Mid-Ohio, 8th in Iowa 2 and 2nd in Gateway. His team struggled on their pit stops as to why his Saturday pace dropped off a bit on Sunday’s.

Lundgaard meanwhile had just 2 top 11 finishes in the first 7 races. But over the last 9, he’s had 6 of them which is why he leads Malukas by just 5 points heading into Sunday’s finale.

With both being Honda drivers, we know the ROY will belong back to the Honda camp after a 2 year run by Chevrolet.

Scott Dixon at World Wide Technology Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

How Do You Race Championship Contenders

There’s two goals in any given NTT IndyCar Series season. First, you want to win the Indianapolis 500. Second, you want to win a championship. Once both are behind you, how do you race the year out?

See, 5 drivers still enter Sunday’s season finale with championship aspirations largely in tact. The remaining 21 drivers on the grid this weekend are just racing for fun. In saying that, a key aspect comes into play and that’s how do you race the other drivers in the field?

That’s still a large enough contingent that you have to be careful around them. It’s not like it’s 1 or 2, this is 5.

With Sunday’s race being one that will likely feature championship drivers up front as well as drivers trying to fight for wins and podiums as well that aren’t in the hunt for a title, how do those not thinking points race those that are?

We saw a prime example of this last year when Ed Jones got into Pato O’Ward early on in the season finale at Long Beach effectively handing the title over to Alex Palou.

See, with the series being as difficult as ever to win in, you have to be aggressive in order to make gains. If you play it too conservative, they’ll eat you alive. If you play it too aggressive, you’ll likely find trouble. So, what’s the balance and now that a championship isn’t in sights anymore, how do you balance being aggressive, even in a tempered way, against someone who’s going for a title still?

So, with a rookie of the year fight and drivers trying to finish as high up as they can in points, how do all these drivers race one another without ruining someone’s championship hopes?

Do you bank favors throughout the year in hopes you could use them later? This isn’t NASCAR to where under the Championship 4 format it’s always those 4 at the head of the field seconds ahead of the rest.

So how do you race those drivers if you’re not competing for a championship and how do you expect to be raced if you are?

Points Positioning

The championship is one thing, but there’s some other factors in play here as well. For two straight years now, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon finished in the top four in points. Dixon sits in a tie for 2nd with Newgarden and O’Ward in 7th entering this weekend.

For Newgarden, he’s finished in the top five of the final standings for six straight years, 4 of which in the top 2 including 2 straight being in 2nd. He’s 20 points out of the lead.

Dixon meanwhile, has a top four finish in 15 of the last 16 years at that.

Last season was Will Power’s first season he didn’t have a top five points finish in the last 13 years. He won the 2014 championship. Was runner-up in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. He was third twice (2015 and 2018) and fourth once in 2013. He’s been fifth in 3 of the last 4 seasons (2017, 2019, 2020). He’s currently leading right now.

Graham Rahal has seven straight top 10 points finishes. He’s currently 11th (-27) from 10th. Marcus Ericsson went from 17th to 12th to 6th in his three seasons and now sits 4th. Scott McLaughlin went from 14th to 4th now.

I’m watching where all these drivers end up.

Graham Rahal at the Portland International Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Winless Droughts

8 different drivers won at least 1 race this season. With a year of parity, some drivers that have previously won an NTT INDYCAR Series race before also went winless. Alexander Rossi ended his 49 race drought a little over a month ago but Graham Rahal is still riding an 89 race winless streak that dates back to Belle Isle in 2017. Simon Pagenaud’s is up to 41 races (Iowa 2020). Helio Castroneves’ last win came at Indy last year. Alex Palou is winless in his championship defense (18 race skid). Rinus VeeKay (27 races) and Takuma Sato (39 races) each haven’t won since Indy, VeeKay the road course in 2021 and Sato the 2020 Indy 500.

Do any of these carry over into the 2023 season?

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