By David Morgan, Associate Editor
And then there were three.
After the checkered flag waved on Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, it became official that the battle for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship will come down to three drivers – Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, and Josef Newgarden.
Palou retook the points lead last weekend with his victory in Portland and Sunday at Laguna Seca did exactly what he had to do in order to maintain his position atop the standings, finishing second on the 2.258-mile road course behind back-to-back winner Colton Herta.
With his runner-up finish, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who is in his second season on the circuit, was able to increase his advantage over O’Ward to 35 points as the series heads to Southern California next Sunday for the season finale on the Streets of Long Beach.
“[It] was good,” Palou said. “Was really exciting race. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the pace that Colton had. I think in reds and blacks he had a bit more. As soon as I tried to catch him, which we tried, I would just cook my tires. Yeah, I couldn’t go as fast as him without losing my tires.
“Yeah, it was exciting. We had to save some fuel, overtake some cars. Yeah, I think was a good race. Another podium feels good. We carry some momentum for Long Beach now.”
Regardless of what the other title contenders are able to do, if Palou is able to finish 11th or better, he will be able to hoist the Astor Cup as the 2021 IndyCar champion.
“Obviously that helps knowing that we have a good margin instead of needing to win to get the championship,” Palou added. “That means we did a really good job so far. So happy with that.
“INDYCAR you cannot relax at any moment. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing, race hard, race smart, and hopefully we can get that championship without needing to finish 11 or anything. We will try and get the best result as possible.”
Finishing the race in fifth-place, O’Ward was able to do enough to keep Palo from wrapping up the title in the penultimate race of the season, giving it his all to put up the best result his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet was capable of on Sunday.
“I’m, like, disappointed, happy,” O’Ward said. “Happy because I think we pulled off a miracle with what package we had this weekend. We didn’t have anything at all. I don’t know how I pulled off a Fast 6 in the qualifying, to be fairly honest. I think that put us in a great position to start.
“We took a risk. We started on blacks, because that’s our worst tire, has been all year. But the preferred tire was new. We only had one set of new reds, so we were forced to use three blacks, one new red. That was our race.
“We did everything we could. I fought like hell. So, I mean, we’re sort of still alive in the championship. I know a lot of things can fall either our way or against us in Long Beach. What we can try and do is just go there and try and win it and we’ll see where everything else falls, I guess.”
Despite the points advantage that Palou will carry into Long Beach, O’Ward maintained that the title fight is anything but over.
“We still have a shot. I know things can go south real quick in racing. All I can do is just send it in Long Beach, yeah, take the fight to the guys. I think that’s the only thing we can do now.”
Newgarden wraps up the trio of championship contenders heading to Long Beach as he sits 48 points in arears of Palou. The two-time series champion finished seventh at Laguna Seca to keep a mathematical chance at adding a third title, but it will be a long shot for the Team Penske driver to be able to come out on top.
“It was hard to do much more than we did, starting 17th,” Newgarden said. “We can’t start back there. We know that. It’s just a punch to the gut, yesterday, with the way that went. Two weekends in a row. Still a little bit hard to digest. Not sure what’s caused that.
“I think we had a fast day; I really do. On a four-stop strategy, I think we executed pretty well. Just not going to make up much more ground than we did without some yellow help. Unfortunately, we needed that on a day like today.
“Just need to start up higher. We know that, but Team Chevy Hitachi did a good job for us. I think we got what we could out of it. Now we’ll go to Long Beach and at least try to get second out of it.”