5 newsworthy items happening in the INDYCAR world between Portland and Laguna Seca

SALINAS, Calif — The final NTT INDYCAR Series race is upon us. Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) will crown a champion. Here are the 5 newsworthy items that occurred this week.

Silly Season

Scott McLaughlin was locked in long-term with Team Penske as they reached a new agreement to keep the New Zealand native in the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet for years to come. That’s none to shocking though with Penske handing contract extensions out like candy in recent weeks. Both Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney received “long term” deals on the NASCAR side as well. With how quickly McLaughlin has gotten up to speed in just his 2nd season in the series, it’s a no brainer to lock in him.

That’s not the only silly season news to occur this week. Juncos Hollinger Racing confirmed that they will indeed bring out their 2nd car on a full-time basis in 2023 as well. No driver was named yet but we know the car number will be No. 78.

There was also some Indy Lights news too.

Indy 2000 champion Louis Foster will join Andretti Autosport in the top step of the Road to Indy ladder next season. That comes a few days after Cape Motorsports announced their 1st of 2 drivers for their 2023 Indy Lights program. Jagger Jones will pilot 1 of their cars. Also, HMD signed Nolan Siegel to run a car at Monterey too.

Will Power and Tim Cindric – GMR Grand Prix – By: Aaron Skillman

Dixon Still Questioning Penske’s Lack Of Team Orders

In the hours following last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, Scott Dixon was questioning on why Team Penske didn’t swap out Scott McLaughlin and Will Power in the running order at the end of the race that had just finished. Dixon sat in 3rd where McLaughlin led both he and Power. With Power needing the win more than McLaughlin, Dixon was all but certain that Penske would force the 2 drivers in front of him to change positions.

A win would have put Power 31 points up on Dixon and Josef Newgarden entering the season finale which as Dixon notes, would be a big enough buffer that could be tough to overcome this weekend. Instead, it sits at 20.

In the days after the race, Dixon was still puzzled that team orders didn’t take place. Team Penske President, Tim Cindric, said that they had never even considered team orders in Portland and that with Dixon still talking about it, he feels like he’s trying to get in their heads.

“I think there’s probably a little mental game going on between those two guys,” said the President of Team Penske. “I think if you focus on last week, you’re not focused on this week.”

Cindric said on Wednesday that there never was any thought of doing so. While the points would have been nice, what happens if Dixon passes them both he noted.

“I think from our standpoint focusing on this week is really it,” he said. “Yeah, it’s always a tough decision from a team standpoint when you’re leading points, not the one leading the race, whatever else. I think we’ve been pretty consistent on that front.

“I think there’s more of a mental game happening there between those two trying to figure out how to worry about last week instead of worrying about this week.”

Scott McLaughlin at the Portland International Raceway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

TV Ratings

Last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 1.011 million viewers on NBC and Peacock. That’s up 49% vs. last year’s race on NBC and up 6% vs. NBC’s 2021 race average, excluding the Indianapolis 500.

That’s a strong number and one that further proves that ending the season when they do is the right one. There’s no real reason to go deep into the Fall when you know your numbers are going to take a drastic hit.

The NFL is the juggernaut and going to pull the ratings. Going against them isn’t wise, especially when NASCAR does. Between those two, having an INDYCAR race on USA in the Fall isn’t going to move the needle.

So ending in early September is the right call, especially with these numbers. Most races aren’t gaining as much year over year like Portland did. That’s because Portland’s date last year was going head-to-head against the NFL. Hence the 49% increase.

Next year’s race if landing on the same weekend as this year’s, will likely return a similar number. Which further shows that there’s no need to fight it.

I almost now wonder if we should almost end the season on Labor Day weekend. I’m worried the number may drop a bit this weekend with it being Week 1 of NFL season and NASCAR being a direct head-to-head rival on Sunday.

You get the 1 p.m. ET and 4 p.m. ET NFL window on CBS and Fox. You get NASCAR’s 2nd playoff race on USA. How many are casual fans are tuning into the season finale?

I know it may not be a popular statement but I’d actually not be opposed to ending the season before all of this kicks off (Labor Day weekend) and going out on a high note.

Per NBC Sports, the 2022 INDYCAR season is the most-watched through 15 races since 2008 with a TAD of 1.357 million viewers (1.738 million viewers; ABC/ESPN/ESPN2). That’s a good thing. By going too deep into September and October, that average will drop. By keeping the average higher, it means more TV money on the next contract and more TV money is a very good thing…

Will Power came from 16th to win the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in Belle Isle. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Championship Race

This is the one that is obviously getting the most attention. 5 drivers enter Sunday’s season finale with a shot at taking home this year’s Astor Cup championship trophy. This is the 17th straight season that the championship came down to the final race before being decided.

The 41 points separating 1st to 5th is the tightest in the series since 2003 (30 points between 1-5 then). The 20 points though between the top 3 drivers is the sixth closest margin with 1 race remaining since 2008.

That makes it anyone’s game still to who will be the one celebrating the most on Sunday. Will Power holds the top spot for the 5th time entering the season finale. He’s only 1-for-4 though in keeping hold of it when the checkered flag dropped on the final race of the season.

Granted, this is the 2nd largest margin that he’s held onto the top spot however with him being 51 points up on Helio Castroneves in 2014. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, he led Dario Franchitti by 12 points in ’10, 17 points in ’11 and Ryan Hunter-Reay by 17 points in ’13.

In 2010, Power finished 25th in Homestead to allow Franchitti to steal the title after the Scotsman finished 8th. For 2011, Power was 19th in Kentucky. Franchitti was 2nd. In 2012, Power finished 24th in Fontana with Hunter-Reay being 4th.

What do all have in common?

All high speed ovals. He struggled really on those types of tracks until 2013 and 2014 before he turned his results around.

This year, we end on a road course. Power has finished 4th, 3rd, 19th, 3rd, 3rd and 2nd on like tracks this season. That would likely get it done on Sunday if he replicates that.

In saying that though, Power also finished a disappointing 26th here a year ago. Penske didn’t test here like Ganassi did last Monday so does that end up being the differential?

Trends are on Power’s side with each of the last 6 drivers leading the championship entering the season finale all have held onto that top spot leaving. 2015 took double points in Sonoma for Dixon to pass Juan Pablo Montoya. The last time someone came from behind to steal a championship in the final race?

A decade ago in 2012. Hunter-Reay was 17 down on Power.

Since 2008, anyone with a 20+ point lead entering the season finale has won the championship every year minus the one in 2015 which paid double points…

Colton Herta is on the F1 radar again – Photo Credit; INDYCAR Media Site

Colton Herta

He’s the two-time defending race winner at Laguna Seca. This track just suits the Herta family though with he and his dad Bryan combining to have won 4 of the last 9 INDYCAR races here including 2 straight. Herta has won each of the last 2 poles and led 83 of the 90 laps in his 2019 win and 91 of 95 laps from his win last year. Everyone is taking note that he could take home a victory on Sunday too.

Both Cindric and Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing are wary of Herta’s ability at Laguna Seca too knowing that he could easily steal the win in the season finale.

Cindric said he’s actually rooting for a Herta victory in fact. By doing so, he’d take a sizeable gap away by taking those 51 points. 2nd place gets 40 points. 3rd gets 35. 4th gets 32 and 5th 30. The gap between 2nd to 5th is the same from 1st to 2nd.

“Herta has been pretty dominant here,” Cindric noted. “In some ways I hope he’s dominant again because the difference between winning and second, obviously 10 points different. From where we sit you kind of want other teams in the mix.”

That’s not the only reason Herta’s name is being talked about this weekend. Some are wondering if this is his final INDYCAR start. Alpha Tauri is interested in Herta’s services for an F1 seat. The aspirations are in the works for his Super License. Herta is shy of the 40 point minimum and won’t reach it this year. However, they’re looking for an exemption.

The points are a joke as the INDYCAR scale is far too low. I get it in a sense that the FIA would rather put more emphasis on their feeder programs. In saying that, some are questioning these standards and hoping Herta can get an exemption to allow him to be eligible for 2023.

If he gets granted one, then Alpha Tauri would let Pierre Gasly out of his contract and allow him to go to Alpine. Herta would replace him.

That’s why Herta is being closely watched this weekend because this could be it for him over here.

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