SALINAS, Calif — The time has come to crown a season champion in the NTT INDYCAR Series. Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will mark the 17th and final race of the 2022 season. 26 drivers will race, 5 of which will battle for the title with the 41 point gap between 1st to 5th being the smallest margin since 2003.
We have many storylines for Sunday’s race so here are the top 5.
This is the obvious one. Who takes home the title? Will Power leads Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon by 20 points while Marcus Ericsson (-39) and Scott McLaughlin (-41) still within striking distance. Who comes out on top?
Will Power starts on the pole while the 2 closest in Dixon and Newgarden were bounced in the first round of qualifying. They’ll start 13th (Dixon) and 25th (Newgarden) respectively. Ericsson starts 10th while McLaughlin rolls off form 18th.
We know that for at least the 10th straight season the title goes through Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. In that span however, the score reads Ganassi 5, Penske 4. Ganassi has won 3 of the last 4 titles but Penske has 3 of the 5 drivers left fighting for it.
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…
Another battle worth watching is the rookie of the year race between Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas. 5 points separate the 2.
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. Malukas rolls off 7th and Lundgarrd in 16th.
With both being Honda drivers, we know the ROY will belong back to the Honda camp after a 2 year run by Chevrolet.
Does Andretti Autosport Play Spoiler?
We knew that the Andretti Autosport cars would be strong, so to see 3 of the top 4 laps on Friday and 2 of the top 5 on Saturday belonging to them and them sweeping Row 2, you have to take notice.
How much of a role will they play in things on Sunday?
Colton Herta has won each of the last 2 races and led all but 11 laps in those events at that. He was 2nd in Friday’s practice and 5th on Saturday. Alexander Rossi qualified 2nd here last year and was 4th and 2nd respectively in practice this weekend and starts 3rd. Romain Grosjean finished 3rd last year and was 3rd and 11th in practice this weekend too as well as qualifying 4th.
With 50 points being awarded for the win and 40 points for 2nd, that’s a 10 point gap between the two. However, you get 35 points for 3rd, 32 for 4th and 30 for 5th. The same gap from 1st to 2nd is from 2nd to 5th.
So if an Andretti car or multiple of them take those spots and a championship contender can join them, and maybe even win, that could be the difference in a championship won or not.
See how this can play a huge role?
It should come as no surprise that the Laguna Seca race track is the way that it is. With talks of a repave soon, it goes to show how aged the 2.238-mile racing surface really is. This track to the NTT INDYCAR Series is to what something like Darlington, Homestead or Richmond is to NASCAR.
Tire fall off is the name of the game so how you can minimize the fall off and keep your lap times as close to the initial pace is going to separate yourself from the field.
Scott Dixon mentioned that his car fell off 4-seconds from the early laps to the end laps on a stint. That gap was just over 15 laps too. With a 95 lap race ahead on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) you can see why the drivers will be screaming for new tires early and often.
“Yeah, not necessarily such a handful, it’s just you’ve got to lower the speed to make the corner,” said points leader Will Power. “It’s not necessarily like terrible, but yeah, just the actual overall grip just drops significantly.”
Could we see a 4 stop strategy race?
“Yeah, that’s definitely possible,” Power quipped. “There’s enough degradation for that. We’ll have to see in warmup when you actually do a full run what it is, but yes.”
The difference between NASCAR and INDYCAR in terms of tire fall off though is the fact that NASCAR’s tracks like that are ovals. INDYCAR is a road course that is difficult to pass on. Here, it’s difficult to pass.
The last 4 race winners on this track came from the front row with 3 of which from the pole. 21 of the 23 races were won via a top 3 starts (15 from the pole, 4 from 2nd) and 22 of the 23 from the Fast 6 in general.
Does this fall off may open up more passing on Sunday?
“I’m hoping it’s going to be a high-deg race, and it seems to be that way,” Marcus Ericsson said. “Usually our team and myself from my experience, we’re usually pretty good at that. Yeah, the tires seemed to degrade quite quickly here. It was the same in the test and the same today in practice.
“I think in the race as a driver, I think you have to think about it and sort of figure out a way to get the stint length that you are planning. It’s going to be quite tricky, I think. Depending a bit on the weather, as well. It seems to be coming in some colder weather, and that might change things, make the tires last a bit better.
“But at least from what I saw today, I think it’s going to be quite a tricky race for all of us, and also people are going off left, right, center, and there’s sand on the track, and it’s quite tricky to run lap to lap, to stay on track, because it’s so challenging out there.”
That works two-fold. If you can pass, it will keep things close among those who get the setup and tire fall off landed right. If you can’t pass though, there’s going to be a huge separation among the front runners because lets say the top 4 are good and 5th and maybe 6th are struggling but 7th isn’t. If 7th place can’t pass 6th place or even 5th, then the top 4 will further add separation which means they can have less fall off by not pushing as hard.
The thing is, while Power has the pole and the advantage, the other 4 can go off strategy and hope for the best. If that does happen, they would in turn have the track and tire advantage.
The strategy game to where this race could tend to have a few more cautions than other natural road courses.
“Actually it hasn’t historically been a very yellow race,” said Power. “It’s hard to say. Nothing has really changed. You would think it would be a normal race, but you never know in this game. It can be a lot of yellows, so we’ll just have to see.”
Power is wary of that fact too saying that the championship is far from over.
“Yeah, in this series, a problem like that can win you the race tomorrow because you have more tires,” Power said. “But you cannot — it kind of sucks because Firestone or the series doesn’t give us enough tires. But yeah, that can totally be the winning strategy. What happened? Yeah, I screwed up in qualifying. That’s how you won the race? Yeah, that’s how this thing rolls sometimes.
“It’s a great spot because he didn’t use his tires up, and he’s not that far back. So yeah. Tough. Tough, man. Tough race. It’s far, far, far from won, and I’m really aware of that.”
Power also notes that while we do see a lot of fall off, it’s not necessarily much different than years past though either. The only difference this year is that there wasn’t a sports car race last weekend like there was a year ago.
“I think the track isn’t quite as good because you didn’t have IMSA here the week before, but the deg is very similar,” he said. “I think it’s similar. I think it’s similar to how it’s been. Nothing much has changed. Yeah, it’s similar.”
So did that help suit the Penske’s pace?
Team Penske chose to use their final test day at Portland. They did so on Aug. 26. Chip Ganassi Racing elected to use their final test day at Laguna Seca on Aug. 29. Would this sway who won the championship or not?
We’ve seen the last few years that with limited test days, the ones who end up getting a clean test without all the teams at a particular venue usually come back and win later on.
Penske tested at Iowa and dominated in July. Andretti tested at the Indianapolis road course in June and came back to win in July. Ganassi tested at Portland last year and dominated that weekend in taking 2 of the top 3 starting spots, putting 2 cars on the podium and 3 of their 4 in the top 10.
So why test there again?
Penske struggled at Portland last year so figured why not extend a points lead heading to the season finale so long as the testing trend held.
Penske had 2 of the top 3 laps in Friday’s practice, went 1-2-3 in Saturday practice and took the top 3 times in qualifying. They finished 1-2.
So would Ganassi face a similar fortune here?
A Penske leading charge on Friday could be demoralizing for Ganassi. Especially the fact that Penske went 1-7-11. Ganassi went just 10-14-17-25. On Saturday, Penske had 2-8-25, Ganassi went 5-10-13-23.
“Well, it would have been an advantage to test here,” Power said. “Clearly if we had the day we would have, but we just didn’t, so we took it at Portland because we struggled there last year.”
This is an area that could make or break this year’s championship. You get 50 points for a race win but 1 point for a pole, 1 point for a lap led and 2 bonus points for most laps led. That means that all Will Power has to do is finish 3rd without any bonus points and he’d wrap up this year’s championship. That’s because you get 35 points for a 3rd place finish. He’s 21 points up now on Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, 40 points up on Marcus Ericsson and 42 up on Scott McLaughlin.
Then you know he’ll likely lead at least 1 lap which pushes that advantage to 1 point higher.
If any of those 4 get max points on Sunday (53) and Power finishes 4th (33) or better, the title is his.
However, this is where bonus points come in. You get 1 point for a lap led and 2 points for leading the most laps in Sunday’s race.
Ericsson has 37 total laps led this year. He’s led a lap in 5 races but has just 1 lap led in the last 8 (Gateway). Dixon has failed to lead a lap in 5 of the last 6 races. The only race he’s led is 15 laps in Nashville. In fact, his 2 wins (Toronto, Nashville) are the only 2 races to where he’s been out front since July 3. He’s led the most laps once all season (Indy 500).
McLaughlin meanwhile has led at least 10 laps in each of the last 4 races and led the most laps on 4 occurrences this season. 3 of those 4 he won in.
Newgarden has led 78 or more laps in 3 of the last 6 races and has led at least one lap in 9 races. McLaughlin has led at least one lap in 8 races. Power has led at least one lap in 9 races himself including 5 of the last 6.
Trends state that it’s going to be tough for the Ganassi duo to get bonus points too which heavily favors the Penske trio for this year’s title. That plus the Andretti cars could affect the outcome of this championship.
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 sat at 20 entering and is up to 21 coming to Sunday. It goes to 22 if Power leads a lap.
Imagine if he did have those 31 point advantage from last week. Now he’d be up by 33 points. It would take a top 10 and the title would be his.
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.”
Does this decision come back however to cost Penske a championship? That’s going to be worth watching because if Dixon or Ericsson ends up taking home this title, then those 10 points could have been very beneficial to Power.
What’s Ganassi’s approach then?
“Honestly, try to help if you can,” Scott Dixon said on helping Marcus Ericsson. “I’ve been involved in quite a few of these, and it never really comes into play, or at least it hasn’t as much as you would think it would.
“Situations like today with the 3 and the 12, I thought that would have been a no-brainer, but obviously, go to the last one. We’ll have to see where it lies. We always work as a team to achieve the best, and if we can help all of our teammates, we definitely will.”
Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing says that there’s no easy way to help one another on Sunday that it’s best to just let the race and the track come to you.
“I think we just have to race the racetrack and see what happens here,” Hull says. “It still comes down to that.
“It’s a very simple thing: we just race cars. That’s what we do. We race to the best of our ability. We do that as a team.
“For Marcus to help Scott, I think Marcus first needs to help Marcus. If that helps Scott, it helps Scott. And vice versa, if Scott needs to help Marcus on Sunday, he’ll do that. That goes for the other two people on our team, which are Alex and Jimmie.
“We race the racetrack and we try to help each other as much as we can. I thought Tim’s answer was spot on to you earlier about how you can’t manipulate the outcome, how you let the outcome manipulate it for you.”
Tim Cindric agreed.
“When you look at it, each one of those drivers is trying to race for a championship of their own name” he said. “At the same time they realize the way in which they race each other. Whether it’s for the Indy 500 or championship, what have you, they’re going to go out and race. The one that executes the best I think will be the one that wins the championship.
“I think they’ve been successful enough to understand that the shoe’s going to be on the other foot at some point in time. Roger stresses not only in a racing team but within his other companies that if the team is successful, you’re successful.
“That’s going to play out for different individuals in different ways, especially when you’re the driver. That also has to do with the inner competition between teams. Like I said, there’s a different euphoria if you work on the 2 car team and they win versus if you work on the 12 car team and they win, what have you.
“There’s a little bit of that competition in between. Then you have the sponsors obviously that you have responsibilities to.
“When it comes to team orders, that type of thing, people forget that you have other obligations to other people aside from yourself. You have obligations to the driver, to your sponsors, to their families and all the rest on down the line. Those aren’t very obvious things, especially when you’re talking about whether someone wins a race or doesn’t win a race.
“There’s all kinds of different considerations on that front. But we make a choice to have three cars in which we feel like, to start the season or start each race, should have the tools to compete for the win and should have the talent to compete for the win.
“We’ve never really had a program where we’ve looked at any of our series. I’m very fortunate to sit in that position because I understand from a business perspective it’s not always possible to have three top-level drivers, not having to buy a ride, what have you, within your fleet supporting the business model.
“It’s something that I take a huge amount of I guess appreciation for not being in that position, but at the same time it’s almost easier if you have an A and a B driver to balance those things because it’s understood in the beginning what their different roles are.
“It’s a difficult balance, but I think that they work together, the three of them do, as well as any other three drivers. At the same time we call it the red mist, kind of gets in the way on the racetrack sometimes. I can’t say that anybody’s perfect on that front. Everybody is competitive to a certain degree.
“Yeah, I think with a successful team, these guys are going to drive together for a while, so they have to kind of figure it out themselves some days, too. No different than at Iowa, those guys had to race each other really hard, but they had to race each other fair. Both of them put each other in the fence in Iowa toward the end. Nobody’s happy.
“There’s a certain amount of responsibility the drivers have to the team, as well.”
Will Power said the dynamic of he and Josef Newgarden won’t change but Scott McLaughlin is more in a position of help.
“Yeah. I think that he is definitely in a position that he will just have to help simply. I don’t think there will be any question about it.”