By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
After yet another wild development to the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series campaign, the series head to its final state — California.
These next two weeks is all there’s left in the championship trail, beginning with the popular Laguna Seca in Monterey.
Originally, the circuit was supposed to be the final stop of the entire trail. However, that honor will go to Long Beach. Before heading to vibrant SoCal, 27 drivers will indeed navigate around the mellow environment, including the famous Corkscrew.
Several of the field will compete there for the first time, including points leader Alex Palou. In fact, the entire West Coast Swing is a first for the Spaniard.
So far, he’s one-for-one after scoring a pivotal victory at Portland. It put him back on top of the standings, but he’ll have a hungry pack of wolves looking to either steal the spotlight or stay in the hunt for the Astor Cup.
Four other drivers are mathematically in the championship fight as the gap between first through fifth is 75 points. Those four being Pato O’Ward, the man Palou took the points lead, Josef Newgarden and Palou’s teammates Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson.
Palou said last Sunday he’s confident about his chances at Laguna Seca after a successful test.
“It’s going to be good for us. We tested there. I feel strong there. It’s a road course,” said Palou. “I think we’ve been fighting for all the road course races this year, so feeling pretty strong about that.
“I know we can be strong there,” Palou continued. “So we’ll try and take it a session at a time and try and score really big points at Laguna. Hopefully we get another win, and then we’ll see what happens at Long Beach.”
When the checkered flag falls, either Palou will be a step closer to winning his first Astor Cup in his sophomore campaign or the title battle has another chaotic chapter.
By the Numbers
What: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 15 of 16
Where: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – Monterey, CA (Opened: 1957, first INDYCAR event was 1983)
When: Sunday, September 19
TV/Radio: NBC 3:00 p.m. EST / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 205)
Track Size: 2.258-mile road course
Race Length: 95 laps, 214.51 miles
2019 Race Winner: Colton Herta – No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda (Started first, 83 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Helio Castroneves – No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Honda (67.722 seconds, 118.969 mph – September 8, 2000)
From the Driver’s Seat
Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet
“Going into Laguna Seca 34 points out of the lead is definitely doable. We are in the fight for the championship and that’s all we can ask. We have to hit on all cylinders these next two weeks and I’m confident in this team to be at a championship level.”
Alexander Rossi – No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda
“Most INDYCAR races these days do come down to qualifying. Qualifying has a very big influence on it. Laguna is certainly no exception. It’s tricky to pass around there. It’s a lap, a race I should say, where there’s a lot of tire deg throughout a stint. There are a lot of things that certainly can happen.
“In the past, certainly ’19, the polesitter (Colton Herta), was able to kind of control the race. I do think qualifying is going to be very critical there. We’re very aware of that going into the event.”
Last Time at Laguna Seca
The site of the 2019 finale saw two men take center stage. Those being Colton Herta, who started the race from pole and Josef Newgarden, determined to lock up his second INDYCAR title.
Both noble men with different stakes delivered big in Monterey. Herta owned the competition and scored his second career win. The first since his triumphant upset at Circuit of the Americas earlier that year.
If there was a word for Herta to describe his performance, it was “perfect” as he led all but seven laps.
“Whenever you win an INDYCAR race, it has to be a perfect race,” said Herta. “You can’t really make mistakes and get away with it, just because there’s always two or three other guys on that day that can win. For sure there was a few guys that could win today, and we just outdid them. We had the pace on them, and we were definitely the best today, so we definitely deserved to win.”
For Newgarden, it was a relatively quiet afternoon as he crossed the line in eighth. That’s exactly what the Penske driver needed to joyfully hoist his second Astor Cup in three years.
After 17 grueling rounds of highs and lows, an emotional Newgarden was simply relieved the madness was over. Stress levels were paramount during the final few weeks that it became dreadful to ponder. He no longer had to worry about after the finale.
“I know we didn’t build up enough of a gap to make it super easy on ourselves, and I was just kind of dreading it, to be honest with you,” said Newgarden. “Just didn’t know what was going to happen today, and I just wanted to make sure we secured the championship because I felt like our guys deserved it. Everyone works really hard in this paddock.
“It doesn’t matter which team or what driver you are. I think everyone works really hard. I’m pretty intimate with my guys and know how hard they work personally, and I just wanted them to be rewarded with the championship.”
Time will tell if Newgarden will hoist a third championship as he’s among the five still eligible for the Astor Cup. But two Septembers ago, it was his moment in the sun.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, September 17
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (5:30 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. – Peacock)
Saturday, September 18
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (1:45 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. – Peacock)
- Indy Lights Race No. 1 (3:40 p.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (5:05 p.m. to 6:20 p.m. – Peacock (Live)/11:30 p.m. to 1: a.m. – NBCSN)
Sunday, September 19
- NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (12:00 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. – Peacock)
- Indy Lights Race No. 2 (1:05 p.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3:00 p.m. – 95 laps, 214.51 miles – NBC)