The NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ season-long race to the finish line is down to a three-week sprint.
Beginning with this weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland, the drivers still with hopes of earning the season championship will go head-to-head in this September shootout.
Five drivers, including two former series champions, remain in legitimate contention for a claim to the Astor Challenge Cup, the trophy commissioned more than a century ago and presented to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion each year since 2011. The names of all INDYCAR SERIES champions since 1909 are laser-etched into the three black granite bases of the sterling silver trophy. The championship-winning driver and team owner each will receive a replica of the trophy.
The pursuit of such acclaim runs through Sunday’s 110 laps at Portland International Raceway followed by the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 19 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, Sept. 26 on the streets of the Southern California city. All three races will air live at 3 p.m. ET with the Portland and Laguna Seca races on NBC and the season finale in Long Beach on NBCSN.
The five contending drivers – Pato O’Ward, Alex Palou, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson – are separated by just 60 points. O’Ward, Palou and Dixon have led the standings throughout the season’s first 13 races, with Dixon seeking a record-tying seventh series championship and Newgarden his third. O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson are in pursuit of their first such crown.
There are many interesting dynamics in play for the homestretch:
Two Veterans, Three Newbies
Dixon has won six season championships for Chip Ganassi Racing (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2020) while Newgarden has won two series titles for Team Penske (2017 and 2019). O’Ward finished fourth in last year’s standings; neither Palou nor Ericsson has finished in the top 10 of an INDYCAR season.
This year’s youth-vs.-experience battle is intriguing. The Portland race will be the 349th start of Dixon’s 21-year INDYCAR career, with 286 of those races in succession. Dixon’s total number of starts ranks fifth in the sport’s history; his consecutive streak is second to Tony Kanaan’s 318.
The other four top contenders are newbies by comparison. Newgarden has made 161 series starts, Ericsson 43, O’Ward 35 and Palou 27. Do the math: Dixon has made more INDYCAR starts than the other four drivers combined, and his 51 race wins are twice the number achieved by these opponents (26).
O’Ward and Palou are 1-2 in the standings, separated by 10 points. Newgarden is third, 22 points out of the lead, with Dixon trailing O’Ward by 43 points. With 27 cars expected at each of the remaining three races, the most a driver can gain over rivals in a weekend is 49 points. That means there are 147 points to gain, essentially eliminating all other drivers as the sixth-place driver – Colton Herta -- is 111 points out of the lead.
New to Title Contention
While Dixon and Newgarden have been central figures in the past four series points races, only O’Ward has experienced INDYCAR’s title chase this deep into a season, finishing fourth last year. O’Ward was third with three races to go before dropping to fifth and finishing fourth.
Experience is generally worth something in these instances, and Dixon and Newgarden have plenty of it at the highest level of U.S. open-wheel racing. O’Ward held off Colton Herta for the Indy Lights championship in 2018. In 2017, O’Ward co-drove to an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship title in the Prototype Challenge class, winning seven of the eight races. So, he has some idea of what’s ahead.
It has been awhile since Ericsson and Palou competed for a season championship. None of Ericsson’s three Formula One teams were capable of contending in his five F1 seasons. His last season title came in 2009 in Japan’s Formula 3 class.
Palou’s last season crown came in karting, although he finished a close third in the competitive Japanese Super Formula Series in 2019.
A Portland Renewal
In different configurations, this 12-turn, 1.964-mile permanent road course north of downtown Portland has hosted INDYCAR races since 1984. Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. each won three events.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES has raced there twice but didn’t last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Takuma Sato won in 2018, with Will Power capturing the 2019 race.
Because of last year’s cancellation, Palou and Ericsson have never raced at PIR, although Chip Ganassi Racing participated in a test in July. O’Ward has only raced there in Indy Lights, sweeping the season-ending doubleheader in 2018. Ericsson missed the 2019 race – his first season in INDYCAR – due to an F1 commitment.
Dixon has raced on the Portland circuit in both Champ Car and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, totaling four starts, although none ended with a win or even a podium. Dixon finished fifth in 2018, seventh in 2001 and 2002. Newgarden qualified second in his maiden Portland race in 2018 but finished 10th. He finished fifth in 2019.
The Remaining Challengers
Will Power certainly will be one to watch, not only because he won the most recent INDYCAR race held in Portland, in 2019, and won the pole in 2018 but also because he is famous for getting hot late in the summer. Since joining Team Penske full time in 2010, Power has won 15 of the 48 races held after the middle of August, with 25 podium finishes and 18 poles.
Sebastien Bourdais is another driver with significant success at Portland. He won the Champ Car races in 2004 and 2007, and he finished second in 2005 and was third in 2006. He also finished third in the inaugural NTT INDYCAR SERIES race in 2018.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Felix Rosenqvist and Alexander Rossi also have podium finishes in the past two Portland races.
This race features the INDYCAR debut of 22-year-old English driver Callum Ilott, who will drive the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet. Ilott was a highly regarded karter and finished second to Palou in a 2012 WSK Euro Series junior class. Ilott also finished second in 2020 in Formula 2, the last rung before Formula One.
The team owned by Ricardo Juncos and Brad Hollinger intends to compete in all three races to finish the season, although it has not named a driver for the final two.
Oliver Askew, the 2019 Indy Lights champion with 14 INDYCAR starts, will make his debut in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He is scheduled to drive the car in each of the season’s final three races.
Among the championship contenders, Newgarden has won two of the past four races this season, but it is Ericsson who has been the most consistent over the past five races. He has an average finish of 5.4, with O’Ward next at 7.4. Newgarden is at 8.2, Dixon 9.2 and Palou 11.6.
This is a two-day event for INDYCAR, with the first practice, a 75-minute session, scheduled for noon (ET) Saturday. NTT P1 Award qualifying is set for 3:15 p.m. (ET), with the final practice at 6:15 p.m. All of Saturday’s action can be viewed live on Peacock Premium, the streaming service of NBC Sports.
NBC begins coverage of Sunday’s action at 3 p.m. (ET), with the green flag estimated at 3:42 p.m. (ET). The INDYCAR Radio Network and live timing and scoring will be available on INDYCAR.com.
Indy Lights will have a pair of races during the weekend: Saturday at 4:55 p.m. (ET) and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. (ET). David Malukas of HMD Motorsports leads Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood by three points heading to the season’s final three weekends (six combined races at Portland, Laguna Seca and a return to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as a replacement to the Toronto event canceled in July).