Rallying for the title in the final is tough, but not mission impossible
At its core, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES Championship hinges on Pato O’Ward or Josef Newgarden’s ability to win Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix at Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network). Otherwise, Alex Palou will probably hang on to his big points lead and win his first series title.
But here’s some hopeful news for the challengers: Over the past 15 years, when the INDYCAR title fight raged through to the last race of the season, a driver trying to erase the deficit has grown. made it five times to victory, most recently Newgarden last year in St. Petersburg, Fla. . And it would be fair to say six times since Dario Franchitti, who entered the 2007 final with a three-point lead over Scott Dixon, was behind Dixon on the last lap of Chicagoland Speedway. Franchitti took the lead in Turn 3 when Dixon ran out of fuel.
The challengers who took the final victories were Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, Helio Castroneves in 2008, Franchitti in 2009, Dixon in 2015, Simon Pagenaud in 2017 and Newgarden in 2020. Hornish, Franchitti and Dixon did it to win the title.
Palou can take comfort in the fact that he has the biggest lead in this 16-year streak for a driver entering a single points race. The Spaniard is 35 points more than O’Ward and 48 more than Newgarden. Based on the points structure, Palou can secure the title by finishing 11th or more in the 28-car field. He will always be the champion in most scenarios that don’t include O’Ward or Newgarden winning the race.
The maximum number of points available this weekend is 54, including 50 points for the win, one point for winning the NTT P1, another point for leading a lap and two more for leading the most laps. Each participating driver is guaranteed five points, which means that the most to win on Palou is 49 points.
Since 2006, the series leader entering the final race has held nine times, meaning six times he has not. However, the biggest deficit lost in a one-point race was 17, which makes Palou’s 32-point lead appear solid. Such an advantage is even considerable in a double point structure. In the six years that INDYCAR awarded the points of the last race in this way, the average lead was 42.3 points, and it was not until 2015 that the leader failed to make it. to hang up.
Dixon won the 2015 title scoring the biggest comeback in the last race in the past 15 years. He moved from third to first place in the standings by winning the final at Sonoma Raceway, closing Juan Pablo Montoya’s 47-point deficit as Montoya finished sixth. Graham Rahal had finished second before the final, but he finished 18th.
Palou, who drives the # 10 Honda NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing, should be happy that Franchitti is a team consultant and not challenging him for this championship. Franchitti is one of four drivers since 2006 to erase the deficits of the last race, and he did four times.
Palou’s driving style is considered patient and calculated, although he has shown a willingness to attack when the opportunity arises, as he did on September 12 when he won at Portland International Raceway. Anyone can guess how Sunday’s 85-lap Long Beach Acura Grand Prix turns out, but Palou would do well to follow the plan of the former champions and follow the strategy of his closest challenger. In the race, this is called “covering” the opponent to avoid getting caught up in a bad strategy.
Based on recent history, Palou will end up near O’Ward and / or Newgarden. Eight of the nine drivers who won titles in the final race finished a few positions behind their closest challenger, and six times they finished ahead of them. In those three other cases, Dixon was second behind Castroneves in 2008, Newgarden was eighth and Alexander Rossi sixth in 2019, and last year Dixon was third when Newgarden won the race.