SALINAS, Calif — Will Power did enough on Saturday to gain him a likely 2 bonus points on Sunday. He knows he at least has 1. That happened when he won the pole for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). He’s also hoping to lead at least 1 lap too.
I mean he has the pole and second place starter Callum Ilott said he could be bribed to play nicely at the start of the 95 lap season finale at Laguna Seca. If Power can lead at least 1 lap, he’d get an additional bonus point.
That means if he finishes 4th, he’d get 32 points plus 2 bonus points to get him to 34. It wouldn’t matter what anyone else does, the title is his.
That’s because the best Scott Dixon or Josef Newgarden can do is 556 points. 34 points get Power to 557.
Dixon starts 13th and Newgarden in 25th. On a track that’s seen 22 of the 23 race winners coming from a top 6 starting spot and and 21 of the 23 from the top 3, it’s not likely they win.
90% of the last 10 natural road course races at that were won by a front row starter. With a rookie in Ilott sharing the front row with Power, odds are good he wins this one out.
However, he doesn’t have to either. None of the last 6 season champions won the season finale. On top of that, while this is Power’s 5th pole of the year, he’s 0-for-4 in victories in them. Only 2 pole winners have won this season.
That’s okay for him because he knows that he doesn’t have to win. What worries him the most though is this race flipping strategy plays.
Dixon and Newgarden have nothing to lose now and an extra set of tires by not advancing past the first round.
“Actually it hasn’t historically been a very yellow race,” said Power on Friday. “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.”
If that happens, he says Dixon is in a great spot.
“Strategy I think will be key tomorrow,” Dixon continued. “I think we’ve seen a lot of people go off track. Cautions could be coming maybe. Starts are always interesting here, and then also I think with tire deg, especially with the red tire, I think it’s definitely going to be a different race than what we saw last year.
“I think having started where we have a few times this year, you generally have more options. The leaders can kind of get locked in, and I know having been in that position before, you kind of — sometimes you’re a bit of a sitting duck.
“We’ll see how that plays. I think the tire thing is kind of a bit of an unknown, even though we’ve all run them and think we have a pretty good understanding. It may change a little bit.
“Yeah, I feel like the guys mid-pack and back kind of always have more options than the front rows.
“As Josef said, it’s never over until it’s over. We’ve seen that many a times this year, and we’ll do what we can, and if we can have a bit of luck go our way, it’ll be pretty helpful.”
Newgarden agrees. He notes that he’s been on the wrong end of that this year when he was starting up front. He’s seen it firsthand.
“I mean, I’ve had it happen more times than not this year where starting up front didn’t work out, at least not perfectly as you’d plan it. I would welcome it working from the back, for whatever reason. If something mysteriously happens and it’s like, wow, you actually wanted to start in the back? I would be very appreciative to have the other end of this argument.”
We know the aged 2.238-mile Laguna Seca surface is going to create a ton of tire fall off over the course of the 95 lap race on Sunday. As a result, one under the radar things to watch is how you plan to use your tires.
We have 3 practice sessions. 2 are already in the books. You also have 3 rounds of qualifying as well which too are in the books. With 6 sets of Firestone Primaries at your disposal and 4 Firestone alternate sets, how do you make use of them?
There’s speculation mounting that you could see Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR Series season finale be a 4 stop race. If so, which sets do you save and how many of those stints are going to be on scuffs?
See the dilemma?
“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.”
So in a race that could feature an ill timed caution, you know most of the title contenders will be on an opposite strategy as Power. Does it help them?
“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.”
Does this fall off may open up more passing on Sunday though?
“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.
Andretti Autosport has had fast cars again here this weekend and have a pair of drivers sharing Row 2 with nothing to lose. With Power having everything to lose, they can get by and set sail.