By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
After 16 grueling and intense months of competition, the championship trail ends in Monterey. Out of the 25 full-time drivers that accepted the season-long challenge at St. Petersburg in March, only five remain that have a shot of hoisting the Astor Cup this Sunday.
Of those five racers, they come from two race teams in Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Between championship leader Will Power to fifth-place Scott McLaughlin, the gap is 41 points.
It rivals the 2003 championship battle where it also had five drivers in the mix at Texas Motor Speedway. One of those five that battled for the title was Scott Dixon, who won his first of six INDYCAR titles. While overshadowed by the horrific crash involving Kenny Brack, Dixon’s legacy have increased.
Although trailing Power by 20 points, Dixon hopes to join AJ Foyt as the only men to win seven titles in America’s premiere open wheel series. More so after going over a year without a win, the second half has been kind to Dixon as he’ll look to capture yet another championship for Ganassi.
Dixon’s teammate Marcus Ericsson is the only other Ganassi racer in the mix as a win in the 106th Indianapolis 500 propelled him to the title hunt. While his last few races haven’t set the world on fire, consistency has been the name of the game. Like Brack before, Ericsson hopes to bring an Indy car title back to Sweden.
Also trailing Power by 20 points is Josef Newgarden, who’ll be looking for his third title in six years. He leads the series with five wins as the Tennessee racer consistently have made tremendous noise. Ranging from the PeopleReady Challenge he won for winning at all three types of racing circuits to winning thrillers at Gateway and Texas, Newgarden carries the torch of the present day.
But the future is at the hands of McLaughlin, who has been on a superb roll and will be staying with Penske for years to come. Although a longshot and ready for an even stronger 2023 campaign, the Kiwi is still in this trail. He’ll need a lot of help to come out of Monterey as the improbable champion due to the 41-point deficit.
To do it, he’ll have to go through Power. What’s been the greatest setback in his career is momentum and luck. Both have favored the 2014 champion despite only winning once at Belle Isle. No stranger to glory and heartbreak, Power controls his own destiny with the 20-point lead over Newgarden and Dixon.
If this season has been an indicator, a trouble-free afternoon will get Power a step closer to the long-awaited second series title.
The championship trail is far from the only headlines going into Laguna Seca. Those being the future of Colton Herta and Felix Rosenqvist, and of course, the Rookie of the Year battle.
Both Herta and Rosenqvist’s futures remain unknown for various reasons. Once again, Herta is in the silly season madness after news circulated that he may end up going to Formula One with AlphaTauri.
Only way it’ll likely be halted is the FIA’s approval to grant a Super License waiver for the. two-time Laguna Seca winner. Time will tell if this Sunday may be the last we’ll see “Hertamania” in INDYCAR for an unknown period of time.
Rosenqvist’s fate boils down to McLaren Racing on where they want him to race. The hot mess that’s been McLaren in both INDYCAR and Formula One have left a lot of holes that’ll carry onto the off-season before the latest chapter in the sport’s trail commences in 2023.
Same can be said about Alex Palou, who may or may not race for Ganassi one last time. He has one more race to avoid becoming winless as the reigning champion.
Finally, the ROTY battle comes down to Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas. Following a late-race blunder at Portland, Lundgaard’s lead over Malukas decreased from 11 to five points. A lot of bragging rights is on the line this Sunday between the two ex-junior formula racers with different backgrounds.
No matter what goes down in the season’s final 95 laps, it’s safe to say this season’s campaign was indeed dramatic all across the board. The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey should be no different as one man will be crowned champion.
By the Numbers
What: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 17 of 17
Where: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – Monterey, CA (Opened: 1957; First INDYCAR Race: 1983)
When: Sunday, September 11, 2022
TV/Radio: NBC / INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 211) 2:40 p.m. ET
Track Size: 2.238-mile road course
Race Length: 95 laps, 212.61 miles
2021 Race Winner: Colton Herta – No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda (Started first, 91 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Helio Castroneves – No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Honda (67.722 seconds, 118.969 mph – September 8, 2000)
From the Team Personnel’s Perspective
Mike Hull – Managing Director of Chip Ganassi Racing
“The simple answer is that we just never give up, number one. You can’t just take that attitude without having resource in great race drivers. We had three race drivers, frankly, that have had a chance for the championship here. Now it’s down to two of ours.
“We’re excited to be in this position, particularly racing on the same racetrack and in the same race as Penske Racing. When I went to work for Chip in 1990, ’92, a long time ago, we just wanted to be in a position like we’re in today. That’s what we work toward.
“I would just say personally that Roger Penske for me was very instrumental in my career when I was a young guy working in INDYCAR racing. He helped me a lot. He went out of his way to give me advice, give me direction, really create stabilization for me, was a bit of an outlaw. He really helped me a lot.
“I’m really happy that I have a chance to race at Laguna Seca personally as well as professionally with our team. We’re looking forward to Sunday. We never count ourselves out. We just work on today. That’s what this is all about.”
Tim Cindric – President of Team Penske
“When you look at it, obviously we’ve all been fortunate enough during the year to put ourselves in this position.
“There’s an obvious one out in front, 20 points ahead. I think the most realistic chance we have depending on how things go for the day, when you look at Scott, that’s a mathematical situation. I think you have to go into the weekend knowing that that exists but preparing for the weekend as if you would that race in any other way.
“I think there’s races that we would all like to have back again. That’s the way it works at the end of the year. When you think about it, the double points at Indianapolis, if you look at Mike’s team and our team, aside from Marcus Ericsson, I think all four of the other drivers would love to have Indianapolis to do over again.
“With double points, that type of thing, you look at it, the ones that are truly contending for the championship, the favorites relative to the points, I think all of them would like to have the Indy 500 over again. There’s races we would say we’d like to do that again.
“That’s part of the championship. There’s only going to be one champion. For us, Sunday will decide.”
Last Time in Laguna Seca
On paper, Colton Herta dominated the field at Laguna Seca for the second time in his career. While he led all but four laps, it was anything but easy for Herta as he had two hungry drivers eager to dethrone him at Laguna Seca.
Alex Palou, who was trying to exit Monterey as the championship leader heading into the finale at Long Beach, put tremendous pressure on Herta but wasn’t able to catch him.
The final margin of victory was under two seconds with Herta explaining the grand challenge he dealt with was tire wear and lapped traffic. Those factored into the difficulty Herta had compared to his first Laguna Seca win in 2019.
“Alex, really the whole race, was right there,” said Herta after the race. “Then Grosjean at the end pressured Alex, therefore pressured me. It was very interesting to see the cars that struggled with tire deg that we were much faster than. Once we got to them, were stuck behind them, struggling to overtake.
“The balance for most of the race, when I was stuck behind lap traffic, defending from Alex but trying to get by the other drivers, was very difficult and different to the race I had in 2019.
“They were both refreshing and fun. Glad it was over because it got hectic at some points. I really didn’t want it to be.”
As Herta alluded to, Romain Grosjean also put the pressure on the top-two finishers. Arguably, he stole the show due to his daring moves around the legendary road course.
In what looked like the second coming to “The Pass” involving Colton’s father Bryan Herta and Alex Zanardi, Grosjean won the California crowd over with wheel-to-wheel contact with the lapped car of Jimmie Johnson.
Neither driver faced ramifications as Johnson finished 17th whereas Grosjean ended up third in what was his last podium in his tenure at Dale Coyne with Rick Ware Racing.
Grosjean apologized to Johnson’s teammate Palou in the post-race press conference when describing his late-race battle.
“I’m sorry we made contact with Jimmie. I was definitely going in,” Grosjean told Palou and the press. “I think Jimmie probably didn’t see me. He was pushing hard to protect Alex from me, which is the game. So we made a bit of contact.
“Had a lot of passes on the corkscrew, which was good. Felt a bit like Zanardi, which is not a bad thing. I must say I’m very impressed with Honda today because the podium is fully Honda. I think we had a great drivability to look after the tires probably better than others.”
A week later, Palou ended up winning the championship at Long Beach while Herta ended 2021 by winning the finale.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, September 9
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. – Peacock)
Saturday, September 10
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (1:15 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. – Peacock)
- Indy Lights Race No. 1 (3:20 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (5:05 p.m. to 6:20 p.m. – Peacock)
Sunday, September 11
- NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. – Peacock)
- Indy Lights Race No. 2 (12:55 p.m. to 1:55 p.m. – Peacock)
- Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (2:40 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. – NBC)