By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, Calif. – A lot has changed in the world since 2019. The three NTT IndyCar Series title contenders are no exception as their racing careers have also undergone change over the course of the past two years.
When the checkered flag dropped at Laguna Seca that year, Josef Newgarden was celebrating his second INDYCAR title, which lifted a tremendous amount of stress off him. Current championship leader Alex Palou was racing in Japan’s Super Formula, along with Pato O’Ward, who was also racing in Japan, but in a rut regarding career stability.
Each had their own tales prior to Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Newgarden is a long shot for this year’s Astor Cup, trailing Palou by 47 points after winning pole position. He’ll need a lot of help to win his third title in the last five years.
Should he win it all, it won’t necessarily be the most fulfilling but the most shocking. From there, it’ll take time for a feat of that magnitude to sink in.
“It’s hard to say. I don’t know how I’d feel about it. I think I’d be in shock if we won it. Like I say, that would be the most shocking without a doubt,” said Newgarden.
“After that, I don’t know. I’d probably have to sit on it a little bit and see how it feels, but yeah, they’re all difficult. They’re all difficult to win. Something as improbable as this one would be very shocking. That’s the only way I can put it.
“I don’t think we’re in the best position,” Newgarden continued. “Just to even be in the conversation still is still a task in itself. It’s very hard to get to this point in the year and still be in the fight. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re in the fight nonetheless.
“(2019) was very, very fulfilling. Very, very fulfilling. I don’t know that that would be the same answer for this one. This would be just shocking.”
The duo of Palou and O’Ward never thought they’d be in this position based on their careers two years ago. Each are about to wrap-up their second full-season in IndyCar and proved that young guys can fight for wins and championships.
Palou ended up third in the Super Formula Championship behind Naoki Yamamoto and series champion Nick Cassidy. Even then, the Spaniard’s interest in IndyCar was already there. Thanks in large part of the man he’s leading by 35 points.
“I saw Pato in Japan and I was like, ‘Okay I’ll talk to Pato,’ Palou recalled.
“I asked him, ‘Hey, how was INDYCAR?’
“He’s ‘yeah, it’s cool, man, but it hurts. Man, it hurts a lot.’
That in mind, Palou would’ve been surprised to be in the ideal position he’s in this weekend at Long Beach.
“If in that moment somebody told me — I don’t know (Pato), but if they told me I would be in INDYCAR, I would be surprised,” said Palou. “If somebody told me that we would be both fighting for the championship, I would be pretty impressed or shocked as well.”
O’Ward’s career hit a rocky road after initially starting 2019 with Carlin, which came with the low point of being a DNQ in the 103rd Indianapolis 500. From there, he signed onto the Red Bull Racing Academy and went to Japan, hoping it’ll lead into a career in Formula One.
Things didn’t work out that way. Therefore, O’Ward felt a shot at IndyCar glory in 2021 was out of the picture.
“If you told me in 2019 I’d be fighting for the INDYCAR championship. I’d probably tell you, wow. Yeah, probably not,” O’Ward commented.
The mindset for the 85-lap race is not necessarily anger because he’s down 35 points. Instead, he’s happy what he’s accomplished up to this point. But a championship would be even nicer.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team this year,” said O’Ward. “We’re just treating it as another weekend and trying to maximize and end the year in a strong note.”
It’ll all come down to just one more race to cap off this year’s 16-round odyssey with only one who can claim bragging rights for the next year. Coverage of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.