By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
LONG BEACH, Calif. – After 15 rounds of hard fought racing, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship trail will end this Sunday.
Destination? Long Beach – the site of the finale and the sports’ most prestigious street race.
A tremendous amount of storylines will be settled. One of the major headlines is indeed who’ll be hoisting the Astor Cup after Sunday’s finale. One man who controls his destiny is championship leader Alex Palou.
The Chip Ganassi Racing competitor who entered the sport last year as a virtual unknown at Dale Coyne Racing w/ Team Goh. He’ll now have a chance of ending his sophomore campaign as the sport’s top driver.
Palou leads the championship by 35 points over Pato O’Ward and an additional 13 on Josef Newgarden. Should O’Ward score max points, including winning from the pole, all Palou has to do is finish 11th or better to become champion.
For Newgarden to win his third Astor Cup in the last five years, he’ll need a miracle and then some. Otherwise, it’s a two-man battle that’ll be settled in the upcoming 85-lap duel.
However, championships has had its twists and turns that didn’t favor the championship leader.
Look no further than the showdown at Sonoma in 2015. Juan Pablo Montoya had led the entire trail, but an incident with teammate Will Power hurt the Colombian’s bid of a second Indy car title. Add insult to injury, double points were being rewarded.
Scott Dixon made most of the opportunity as not only he won the finale, but tied Montoya in the points tally. Dixon won his fourth title via tiebreaker for having three wins over Montoya’s two.
While double points won’t be on the line this weekend, anything can happen.
If the trio are gunning for victory, they’ll have to deal with one driver who’ve owned Southern California. That man being Alexander Rossi, the 2018 and 2019 Long Beach winner.
Still looking for his first win since Road America in 2019, Rossi is hungrier than ever to end a dreadful year by snapping the winless streak. More so after tangling with Colton Herta on the second lap last Sunday at Laguna Seca. The contact ended Rossi’s chances of winning that Herta was able to accomplish.
In addition of the championship battle, we’ll also crown Rookie of the Year. It’ll come down to Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean as the gap between them is 20 points.
Despite not running the Texas doubleheader and Indianapolis 500, Grosjean continues to thrive in the Coyne w/ Rick Ware Racing entry. It was further proven after finishing third last Sunday after starting 13th and did so with style. “The Phoenix” will need a similar drive and another underwhelming result from McLaughlin to take top honors.
The finale will also highlight several drivers’ swan songs with their teams such as Jack Harvey with Meyer Shank Racing, ending a five-year tenure, and Ryan Hunter-Reay with Andretti Autosport, a tenure that’s lasted 12 seasons.
Looking down the 28-car grid, some drivers are looking to keep their name available on the market. Among those being Charlie Kimball, driving a third AJ Foyt Racing entry. It’ll be his first race back after failing to qualify for the 105th Indianapolis 500.
Another driver that fits the bill is Oliver Askew, who’s fresh off a ninth-place result in Monterey. The former Indy Lights champion will make his first trip to Long Beach, hoping to carry the momentum for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Others are looking to stay with their teams they’re currently in, ranging from Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) to Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske). Both are rumored of going elsewhere, but yet to be confirmed. Sebastien Bourdais also doesn’t have deal signed with AJ Foyt Racing at this time, but expressed he’d like to stay with the squad for 2022.
Needless to say, a lot is at stake in the 16th and final round. When the checkered flag waves, several hardware will be given out. Whoever wins the Astor Cup, they’ll have bragging rights for the next five months until the 2022 opener at St. Petersburg which seems far, far away at this time.
For now, one more chapter to be written in a sport that continues to thrive.
By the Numbers
What: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 16 of 16
Where: Streets of Long Beach – Long Beach, CA (Opened: 1975, first INDYCAR event was 1984)
When: Sunday, September 26
TV/Radio: NBC 3:00 p.m. EST / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 205)
Track Size: 1.968-mile street course
Race Length: 85 laps, 167.28 miles
2019 Race Winner: Alexander Rossi – No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda (Started first, 80 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Helio Castroneves – No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet (1:06.2254, 106.980 mph – April 8, 2017)
From the Driver’s Seat – INDYCAR Title Contenders
Alex Palou – No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Points Leader)
“It’s been a good season so far. Enjoyed a lot since the first time I met all the guys at Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s been a great ride, like eight podiums. Barber feels like a long time ago, but it feels like yesterday.
“I think we had some success, some bad moments. But looking forward to this weekend. New track, new championship fight, but I think it’s going to be a good one.”
Pato O’Ward – No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet (-35 points behind Palou)
“I think we broke through one of the biggest walls that you go through whenever you’re not a race winner yet, I guess you could say. I feel like the team and I have grown a lot.
“We haven’t had the most perfect season. No season will be perfect, but I think we’ve maximized the package that we have in very multiple occasions. Long Beach is cool. We’ll see what we can pull off this weekend.”
Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet (-48 behind Palou)
“There was definitely a lot of hullabaloo about our performance in the beginning of the season. Just Team Penske in general, what were we doing, what were we. I felt like we had good performance throughout, but when you look at the last couple week, we definitely got ourselves in a kerfuffle with the qualifying sessions.
“We’ve got to figure out how to be stronger this weekend; I think in qualifying it’s going to start. But happy to be here. It’s been a real pleasure driving with these guys. They’re incredibly talented, and I love to see that coming into the INDYCAR Series.
“There’s a great deal of pride amongst all of us that we have such amazing talent in this championship. It makes it more meaningful I think when you do a good job, so these guys should be really proud of what they’ve done, and to be here at the finale and still have somehow an opportunity, I think it’s almost an impossible opportunity, but to be in the fight is really cool.”
Last Time at Long Beach
The past two editions of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach had one common theme. That being Alexander Rossi ruling the streets with back-to-back triumphs.
Not only Rossi went on to win the latest race two years ago, he did it in dominant fashion where he led 80 of 85 laps and beat Josef Newgarden by a whopping 20.236 seconds. The triumph marked Andretti Autosport’s 200th race win and at the time, put him second in the championship trail.
“The crew gave me such a great race car,” said Rossi. “This is the 200th win for Andretti Autosport, so what better way to do it than in that type of fashion here at Long Beach (and) here in California. It’s an amazing day.
“I have a great car and a great crew behind me. I couldn’t do it without them, so hats off to them. This is a special one. I just found out my grandfather died yesterday, so I wanted to dedicate this (win) to him and obviously Michael (Andretti) for 200th win.”
The race had its drama behind Rossi as an opening lap crash and a late-race penalty came to define the rest of the race.
Jack Harvey and Marcus Ericsson collided in Turn 2, leaving the former stuck in the fountain garden. Both were able to continue his afternoon. Also involved were Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach, who ran into each other in the calamity.
Out of the 23-car field, only Colton Herta retired from the race after making wall contact, but it didn’t warrant a full-course caution.
As the laps wind down, the battle for the final step of the podium brought excitement. Graham Rahal tried effortlessly to fend off Scott Dixon which drew ire from INDYCAR Race Control. They’ve deemed Rahal blocked Dixon and paid the price for it by being relegated to fourth, much to the chagrin of Rahal.
“Did I block? Yeah, I take full (credit). Yeah, I blocked, but you’re allowed to in this series,” Rahal admitted after the race.
“If they don’t want blocks, they should say you can’t make a move at all and just change the rule. The problem is, we see such large discrepancies in what is a block (and) what is not a block. It’s fine; we just need to go further and understand (the rule) a little better.
“At the end of the day, P4. Do we deserve P3? Probably, but you know what, it was a good day and good points for us. We haven’t had a lot of luck this season, so I’ll just take it as it is and move on.”
Rahal didn’t forget when he eventually got his podium at Texas less than two months later. In his eyes, it should’ve been his second podium.
“We’ll just leave that there,” said Rahal at Texas. “It feels great. I think at this point we feel like all year we’ve worked hard, we’ve been close, but we just haven’t been able to knock the door down. Obviously I’m referring to Long Beach. That one still irks me. You have to move on at some point.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, September 24
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (6:00 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. – Peacock)
Saturday, September 25
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. – NBCSN/Peacock (Live))
Sunday, September 26
- NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3:00 p.m. – 85 laps, 167.28 miles – NBC)