By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Five title contenders remain in the penultimate round at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with two being the main fighters. Both championship leader Alex Palou and second-place Pato O’Ward made Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six with Palou besting him.
After nearly missing Round 2, Palou will roll off fourth for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. He was 0.5323 seconds off pole sitter Colton Herta’s time. But the bigger picture is that he’ll be ahead of his title rivals, beating O’Ward by two spots.
“We improved the car and got the feeling back that we had this morning. It’s good to start in the second row,” said Palou after qualifying. “I’m happy with the car. I think we’re going to be a bit stronger in the race and that’s a good thing.”
O’Ward, who trails Palou by 25 points, initially ended up being a spot behind. However, a spin in the Corkscrew brought out a local yellow. Therefore, his fastest time was disallowed and relegated to sixth.
Despite having to trail Palou to kickoff the 95-lap race, O’Ward knew his qualifying session was a tremendous improvement from practice.
“This was our maximization. The best we did in practice was 20th just because we were all over the place. We didn’t have the balance correctly. I’m happy with sixth,” said O’Ward.
“Fifth obviously would’ve been better but I was pushing to get every ounce out of the car. We made it to the Fast Six which seem kind of a long haul for us going into qualifying. But we accomplished it. I’m happy with the changes that we made. Now we need to make the car go faster and see what we can do in the race.”
If there’s some pressure for O’Ward, he’ll have a pair of Chip Ganassi Racing teammates behind him. Both Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon, longshots in the championship trail, just missed out on the Fast Six.
Josef Newgarden, who ruled Friday’s practice, had the toughest session among the five title contenders. Not only he didn’t make the Fast Six, he failed to even make it into Round 2. Consequently, Newgarden will start 17th as his bid for a third title in five years took another steep hit.
To win the Astor Cup, Palou knows aggression and competition awareness must remain in tact. It’s been the entire No. 10 team’s mantra all season which put them in the spot they’re in.
“We need to win (tomorrow). We know we have a good car,” said Palou. “Maybe in Q3 we didn’t have the pace enough to win pole, but we know we can fight. It’s going to be exciting with the tire deg. Lots of strategies going on, so we’ll go for the win.
“Some drivers you can trust. Others you cannot. It depends on who we we’re racing,” Palou continued. “The only chance that we have to win the race is being aggressive. That’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we’ve been doing all year and it’s been working. We’re not going to change that.”
Live coverage of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC. Colton Herta is the defending race winner.