Sixteen of the 17 NTT IndyCar Series races for the season are in the books, leaving the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday, Sept. 22 left to determine the championship.
Realistically, three drivers remain in contention with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet) holding a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) and a 42-point advantage on Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Chevrolet). Scott Dixon’s bid for a sixth series championship effectively was lost last weekend at Portland International Raceway when a failed battery mid-race knocked the Chip Ganassi Racing driver (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda) out of the lead of the Grand Prix of Portland.
Newgarden (shown above) is in the enviable position, but he is no sure thing to win his second title in three years given the double number of points offered for the finishing positions at this event. Regardless of how others fare, Newgarden becomes the champion if he finishes fourth or better in Monterey. Newgarden has many other paths to the championship if Rossi or Pagenaud don’t win the race.
All three drivers have been in contention in previous seasons. Pagenaud won the title in 2016 and Newgarden in 2017. Rossi finished second to Dixon last year. The difference: None of them have raced at Laguna Seca at these stakes.
For the record, Dixon still has a chance at a sixth title, although it's a slim one. He needs to win the race, have Newgarden finish 21st or lower (among 25) and have Rossi and Pagenaud finish outside the top four or five. Newgarden owns all tiebreakers.
An Indy car race was last held on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course in 2004, and it wasn’t the finale. The last time an Indy car season ended at this circuit was in 1996 when Jimmy Vasser clinched the title with a fourth-place finish.
All teams will have the opportunity to test there on Thursday, Sept. 19, which makes it a four-day event weekend. With nearly 10 hours of pre-race track time available, all contenders should be on level footing, although Rossi considers that his home track since he has raced there many times in junior categories.
“It’s essentially a new circuit,” Newgarden said. “We don’t really know what it’s going to bring and that’s just more of a variable. I think it’s a wild card if anything.”
Team Penske is seeking its third title in four years, fourth in six years and 16th overall. Andretti Autosport, which has four season titles, is aiming for its first since 2012.
Another title on the line
The presence of double points at Laguna Seca also makes for an interesting battle for top season rookie honors.
Felix Rosenqvist (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda) of Chip Ganassi Racing has a 26-point lead over Dale Coyne Racing’s Santino Ferrucci (No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda), but Colton Herta (No. 99 Capstone Turbine Honda) of Harding Steinbrenner Racing is only 49 points in arrears and can possibly jump to the top if he runs as strong as he did in Portland.
Much of Herta’s success has come at permanent road courses – a win at Circuit of The Americas, poles at Road America and Portland – but Rosenqvist can say much of the same. He finished second at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and at Portland while qualifying in the Firestone Fast Six at COTA and finishing sixth at Road America.
Ferrucci has repeatedly stated his goal of winning the rookie title. Rosenqvist described it as a “bonus” in a solid first INDYCAR season.
“Normally we would care more about the real championship, but we’re not fighting for (that) so the Rookie of the Year is definitely a fun bonus championship,” Rosenqvist said. “There have been a lot of good drivers -- Santino and Marcus (Ericsson) and Colton – every one of them has been quick, so it’s going to be hard (to win the crown), but I think we took a good leap (at Portland).”
INDYCAR concludes its 17-race season with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 22. Television coverage will begin on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. PT local) with the green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m. local). Live radio broadcasts will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).