A week from INDYCAR’s return to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) is convinced that NTT P1 Award qualifying on Sept. 21 will play a key role in determining which driver wins the NTT IndyCar Series championship the next day in the season-closing Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.
The reason: With the field of 24 competitors as close in performance as any group in Indy car history and all four title contenders capable of winning the 90-lap race, scoring the pole’s bonus point and getting early track position on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course figures to be critical.
Then there’s the fact that 14 times in the 22 Indy car races at Laguna Seca the pole winner went on to win the race. Twelve drivers contributed to that distinction.
The Firestone Fast Six qualifying session, a 75-minute, three-round knock-out format, will be televised live on NBCSN beginning at 4:35 p.m. ET (1:35 p.m. PT local).
“I’ve been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna,” Rossi said. “It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of (the track’s) history.
“So, yeah, it’s 100 percent going to be a critical qualifying session that you’re going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds,” Rossi said. “The guy that’s on pole, if he’s one of the guys that are in the championship fight, it’s going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”
Series leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske (No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet) leads Rossi by 41 points and teammate Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 DXC Technology Chevrolet) by 42 points. Newgarden clinches his second career title by finishing in the top four. Rossi and Pagenaud likely need to win the race to win the title, and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda) is in a must-win situation if he hopes to claim his sixth series championship.
In terms of one of the contenders taking the pole position, Team Penske has dominated the season with Newgarden, Pagenaud and Will Power sitting on the pole in nine of the 16 races. Newgarden earned poles in Detroit (second race), Pocono Raceway and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway while Pagenaud collected his at the Indianapolis 500, Toronto and Iowa Speedway.
Rossi has been one of the few to break through the Penske dominance with a pair of poles, the first at Long Beach and most recently in Detroit (first race). Dixon has yet to win a pole this season but has started on the front row three times (Long Beach, Indianapolis Grand Prix and Texas Motor Speedway).
All that contributes to what could a winner-take-all situation.
Dixon is the only one of the four title contenders with Indy car experience at this track, but those two starts came in 2001 and 2002. This will be the first Indy car race at the track since 2004, which means this generation of competitors and equipment face a variety of unknowns heading into the four days of track activity. The first action is Thursday, Sept. 19 with six hours of testing beginning at 9:15 a.m. PT local.
“It’s a blank slate for everyone, (and) that’s exciting,” Rossi said. “It will definitely reward the team and the drivers that come to grips with everything the quickest. It will probably reward them in a championship.”
The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be Sunday, Sept. 22, with television coverage on NBC beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET (11:30 p.m. PT local) with radio coverage on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).
Next week’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be the first Indy car race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca since 2004, but several of the NTT IndyCar Series drivers have open wheel experience there.
Tony Kanaan (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) made five Indy car starts at the track, finishing as high as third as a rookie in 1998. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda) made two starts, with a best of fourth in 2001. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan (No. 18 SealMaster Honda) each made two starts. Bourdais won the pole in that last visit, in 2004, which was a Champ Car event.
Kanaan (1997) and Dixon (2000) also won Indy Lights races at the track.
The current Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires era has raced at Laguna Seca since 2015 and the top three finishers that seasion – Spencer Pigot (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet), Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) and Ed Jones (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Scuderia Corsa Chevrolet) – are on the entry list for this NTT IndyCar Series race.
Pigot won both Indy Lights races that year to capture the championship for Juncos Racing. Zach Veach (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) of Andretti Autosport won the 2016 Indy Lights race for Belardi Auto Racing. Jones finished second and fourth in ’16 to secure the season title.
Max Chilton (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet) finished fifth in Indy Lights in 2015 for Trevor Carlin’s team, and he still holds both the qualifying and race records for the series at Laguna Seca.
Even the NBC broadcasters who will call the Sept. 22 race have experienced driving success at Laguna Seca. Paul Tracy won the CART race in 1993 and '94. Townsend Bell led all 34 laps of the Indy Lights race in 2001, and Jon Beekhuis finished second in the 1988 Indy Lights race.
MORE FINALE NEWS …
Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda will have a special paint scheme for next week’s race as the sponsor honors the 50th year of the company being founded by three entrepreneurs in San Francisco in 1969. The special livery leads with the historic red and white DHL branding of 50 years ago, then transitions into the modern-day, iconic yellow branding at the back half of the car.
Scott Dixon is scheduled to make his 321st career Indy car start in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, giving him sole possession of sixth place on sport’s all-time list. Dixon had previously been tied with Al Unser, and he can tie Al Unser Jr. for fifth place at the eighth race of next season. Mario Andretti has the record at 407.
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).