Thursday, September 30, 2021

Best of the Month: September 2021

Autumn is here in the Northern Hemisphere. Championships are winding down. Many series, if not all series, have single-digit events remaining or are complete, as is the case with IndyCar. I guess Supercars is the exception, but they are working out their 2021 schedule and it now spring in Australia. It has been an odd three months for Supercars. Anyway, Australia aside, we are looking at the end of the year, shorter days, colder nights, and silverware being awarded. 

IndyCar Tidbits
We just put a bow on the IndyCar season but there was a lot that happened this season. There was some history made. There were things we had never seen before! We also had some changes in this season that we need to discuss. Let's get to it! 

Championship Comparison
Álex Palou won the championships in his sophomore season and Palou became the first driver to win his first race and his first championship in the same season since Sam Hornish, Jr. in the 2001 Indy Racing League season. 

Palou scored 549 points of a possible 922 points, 59.544%. That is the lowest percentage since Scott Dixon's fourth championship in 2015. Dixon had 57.736% that season and won the championship on tiebreaker over Juan Pablo Montoya. The advantage was Dixon had three victories to Montoya's two victories. Palou this year also had only three victories, but Palou had eight podium finishes, double Dixon's 2015 total, but Colton Herta also won three races this season. 

Palou became the fifth champion in the last six season with at least ten top five finishes, but his 12 top ten finishes were the fewest since Simon Pagenaud had the same amount in 2016. Palou is the eighth consecutive champion to finish in the top ten in at least 75% of the races. Dixon's 2013 championship season is the last time a driver was not in the top ten for at least 75% at 63.157%, but Dixon also had 12 top ten finishes in a 19-race season. The last champion with fewer than 12 top ten finishes is Ryan Hunter-Reay's ten in 2012, a 15-race season.

One thing of note is how long Palou spent at the top of the championship. He led the championship after 11 of 16 races, he was second after four races, including with three races remaining, and he was third after the fourth race of the season, the second Texas race. Recent champions have been on top from the start.

2020: Dixon led wire-to-wire.

2019: Josef Newgarden led after 16 of 17 races and he was second after the Indianapolis 500, one point behind Simon Pagenaud. 

2018: Dixon was sixth, seventh, sixth, seventh after the first four races, fourth after the next two races, second after the next two races and then won Texas and led the championship for the final nine races. 

2017: Newgarden was a little more all over the place, but he was never worse than eighth. He was in the top five after 13 of 17 races. He did not take the championship lead until his victory in the 13th race at Mid-Ohio and he led after the final five events. 

2016: Pagenaud was second after the first race, eight points behind Juan Pablo Montoya and then led after the final 15 races. 

2015: We forget that Montoya never trailed in the 2015 championship. He led from start to finish and only lost on tiebreaker. Dixon however is the last champion to be outside the top ten at some point in the season. He was 15th after St. Petersburg and 14th after NOLA Motorsports Park. He jumped up to fourth after winning Long Beach, was third and fourth after the next two races and was never worse than third for after the final 11 races. The only time he was second in the championship was after the 12th race at Milwaukee and then he won the championship in the final race. 

2014: Will Power was never worse than second in the championship. He led the championship after 13 of 18 races and he was second with four races to go. 

2013: Dixon did not get the championship lead until after the penultimate race. He did bounce around more. He was never worse than eighth and he was in the top five of the championship after 15 of 19 races.

2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay was seventh in the championship with eight races to go in a 15-race season. He was in the top five of the championship after 11 races, led after the two Canadian races before dropping to second, where he remained after the next three races entering the finale, and he then won the championship in the final race.

2011: Dario Franchitti was never worse than second in the championship. He led after 11 of 17 races, but he was second entering the finale, albeit we didn't know Kentucky was going to be the finale at the time. He took the lead after Kentucky and then won the championship. He did lead the championship after eight consecutive races before he was second after the penultimate race at Motegi. 

2010: Franchitti was sixth after the first race but in the top five in the final 16 races. He was fifth after the fifth race and then in the top three for the final 12 races. He led after Texas, dropped to third after a mechanical issue cost him a victory at Iowa and was then back to second after Watkins Glen. He was second after the next eight races and won the championship in the final race at Homestead. 

2009: The underrated 2009 season saw Franchitti in fourth after the first race and he was never worse than fourth. His championship position was different after the first 12 races. He was then third after Kentucky and Mid-Ohio and then second after Sonoma, Chicago and Motegi before he won the championship in the final race at Homestead with his fifth victory of the season. 

2008: Dixon won the first race, was second in the championship after the next three races, and then led the championship for the final 13 races. 

For those keeping score at home, after the 232 races held since reunification, the series champion has been leading after 121 of them, in the top two after 172 races, top three after 195 races, top five after 215 races and in the top ten after 232 of 234 races!

Let's keep those numbers in mind for 2022, especially for those who finish outside the top ten in the opening race.

Bad News For Next Year
Palou became the third consecutive driver to win the season opener and go onto win the championship. Newgarden won at St. Petersburg in 2019. Dixon won at Texas in 2020 and Dixon also won the next two races. 

Why is this bad news for next year? Since 1946, there has never been a period where the season opener winner has gone onto win the championship in four consecutive seasons. 

The only other period with three consecutive season opener winners going on to win the championship was the 2001 through 2003 IRL seasons. Sam Hornish, Jr. won the first two years and Dixon won in 2003.

Drivers might be trying to not win at St. Petersburg next year. Either that or someone will be trying to make history. 

Palou's Little Place in History
We know by now that Palou is the first Spaniard to win the IndyCar championship. He was already only one of four Spaniards to start an IndyCar race and only one of two Spaniards to win an IndyCar race. But what else has Palou done that no one or few drivers had ever done before? 

With Palou's victory in the Barber season opener, he became just the second driver to win in the GP3 Series/FIA Formula Three Championship and IndyCar. The first was Alexander Rossi. Palou is now the first driver to compete in GP3/FIA Formula Three and go on to win an IndyCar championship. 

Palou's Barber victory also made him the first driver to win a race in both Super Formula and IndyCar. He won at Fuji in Super Formula in 2019. With Palou the only driver to win in both series, he is the only Super Formula race winner to win an IndyCar championship. However, Palou is not the only IndyCar champion to race in Super Formula. Tony Kanaan made one start in the series when it was still called Formula Nippon in the 2007 season finale and finished sixth at Suzuka. 

Palou already belongs to an eclectic list of drivers to win a Super Formula race and start an IndyCar race. The other drivers in that club are Mike Thackwell, Jan Lammers, Ross Cheever, Naoki Hattori, Tora Takagi, Noberto Fontana, André Lotterer, Kosuke Matsuura and João Paulo de Oliveira. I would say Lotterer and Palou are the top two in that club with Lammers, Thackwell and de Oliveira in a second tier and then the bottom five.

Let's look at our local lads for the 2021 season and things ended on a good note for the home team. American drivers won three of the final four races. Overall, American drivers combined to win five races. All those victories came from two drivers, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden. 

It was the same number of victories for Americans, the same number of Americans winning the races and the same two Americans winning races as last year. This was the fifth consecutive season where American drivers combined for at least five victories. In the nine seasons prior, American drivers combined to win at least five races only twice (2012 and 2015). 

This was the 11th consecutive season with at least two American drivers winning a race, and there has still not been four or more Americans to win an IndyCar race in one season since five American drivers won in the 2003 Indy Racing League season. 

Four American drivers were in the top ten of the championship, the fifth consecutive season at least four Americans were in the top ten and the sixth time in the last seven years. This was also the fourth consecutive season there were multiple American drivers in the top five of the championship. Prior to 2018, the only other season since reunification to have multiple Americans in the top five of the championship was 2016. 

There were only seven regular Americans in 2021 (drivers who started at least 70% of the races), down from 11 last year, but last year was an aberration of sorts. The 2020 season was the first season with double-figure American regulars since ten in the 2003 IRL season and it was the most since 11 American regulars in the 2002 IRL season. 

Overall, 17 American drivers started an IndyCar race this season.

International Flavor
While based in North American, and exclusively running races in the United States since July 2019, IndyCar is an international series. 

The top four in the championship represented four different nationalities. That is the first time that has happened since 2017 when each of the top five drivers represented a different country. There were seven different nationalities from four different continents in the top ten of the championship. The only country with multiple representatives was the United States. 

Sixteen different countries were represented in an IndyCar race this season, including a record 15 different nationalities represented in the Indianapolis 500. Eight of the 16 nationalities had multiple participants this season, including Denmark, which had two drivers start a race this year after only have two drivers participate in IndyCar prior to the 2021 season. Coincidentally, Denmark was the only country to have an IndyCar participant this season but was not represented in the Indianapolis 500! 

Things I Did Not Expect to be Writing at the Start of 2021
Speaking of Denmark, Kevin Magnussen led more laps this IndyCar season than 2021 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Scott McLaughlin, 2012 champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, 1999 CART champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, 2004 IRL champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan and two Canadians who both started all 16 races, James Hinchcliffe and Dalton Kellett. 

Who Was Top Qualifier?
Every year we have somewhere around a dozen-and-a-half races on a multitude of different courses. Big ovals, little ovals, street courses, road courses, rough surfaces and smooth. Races are more unpredictable. A driver can have a great day, be miles in the lead and then have an untimely caution catch that driver out before a pit stop and that will shuffle a driver back to 12th. That is not really a true barometer of performance. 

Qualifying is a better measuring stick of true pace. It is pretty pure. Go out and set the fastest lap. That's it. No more. No less. 

There were 16 races this season. Both Texas races had their grids set via entrants' point because of rain. Throw those two races out and look at the 14 races where there was qualifying. Who had the best qualifying average this season? 

It wasn't four-time pole-sitter Josef Newgarden. While Newgarden had the most pole positions, his qualifying average was 7.3571, as a few poor outings, such as 21st in the Indianapolis 500, 20th in the August IMS road course race, 18th at Portland and 17th at Laguna Seca dragged his average down. 

It wasn't three-time pole-sitter Patricio O'Ward. O'Ward's average was 8.3571. He didn't have as many poor results as Newgarden, but he was 18th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, 16th in the second Belle Isle race (which he won), and 20th at Mid-Ohio. 

It wasn't champion Álex Palou, as he was 25th in the first Belle Isle race after a six-spot grid penalty and 21st at Gateway after a nine-spot grid penalty, knocking his average down to 8.2143. 

It was nearly Colton Herta. Herta started in the top ten of every race until the final race when he ended up 14th at Long Beach, 14th after topping both practice sessions. That one qualifying result knocked Herta's average to 4.3571. 

So, who was top? This is a trick question because it is a driver who made one start. 

It is Denmark's Christian Lundgaard, who qualified fourth in the August IMS road course race. 

Now, Lundgaard wouldn't really qualify. Baseball says you need a minimum of 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. In IndyCar, I think you need to run at least 70% of the race to qualify for any statistical category. But on absolute numbers, Lundgaard will have a little footnote in the IndyCar history book.

On the Flip Side...
What about average finish? Who led that? 

Well, based on absolutes, it is Sage Karam! Karam was seventh in the Indianapolis 500, his only start this season.

But the real answer among qualified drivers is Josef Newgarden. Newgarden's average finish was 7.25, just ahead of Palou's 7.3125 and Dixon's 7.4375.

Starting on Top, Finishing in the Middle
Setting a minimum standard, Herta had the best average qualifying position this season at 4.3571. He had to qualify ninth to at least finish level with Lundgaard and eighth to win it outright. It just goes to show how close he was. Averaging under a fifth place starting position is incredible. Herta was nearly three spots clear of the next best driver. Only seven regular drivers averaged better than a tenth place starting position. Only two other drivers averaged better than an eighth place starting position. 

The next best driver was Alexander Rossi, whose average qualifying position was 7.1429. 

Going into the Long Beach finally, especially with Herta starting 14th, it appeared neither of the top two average starters were going to finish in the top five of the championship. Then Herta won the race and Marcus Ericsson was the first retirement, meaning Herta got fifth over the Swede by 20 points. 

However, I had already done the research before Long Beach, so I have left the question in here: When was the last time the top two drivers in average starting position did not finish in the top five of the championship? 

Let's set it straight that is not a trick. It is looking at driver who qualify with a minimum of 70% of the races started. There aren't going to be some Indianapolis 500 one-off that counts. Fernando Alonso in 2017 does not count, and he had the second-best average starting position in 2017 with his fifth-place start at the Indianapolis 500. 

The last time any of top two in average starting position was not in the top five of the championship was 2014 when James Hinchcliffe had the second best average starting position but finished 12th in the championship. Hélio Castroneves topped that season, but he was runner-up in the championship. The year before that, Ryan Hunter-Reay was second in qualifying average but seventh in the championship. Will Power had the top average starting, but Power finished fourth in the championship. 

The last time the best average starting position was not in the top five of the championship was 2012 when Dario Franchitti averaged a 5.8 starting position, but he was seventh in the championship. Power was behind Franchitti in average starting position, but Power finished second in the championship behind Hunter-Reay.

But when was the last time you had both the top two outside the top five in the championship? 

The 2000 Indy Racing League season. Among qualified drivers, Greg Ray had the best average starting position at 3.1. Ray won pole position five times in nine races. He was 13th in the championship. Jeff Ward was next best at a 6.1 average start. Ward did not win a pole position, but he started in the top ten in eight of nine races, four of which were top five starts, and his worst starting position was 13th. Ward was 11th in the championship. 

Both Ray and Ward started all nine races. There were a few Indianapolis 500 interlopers in there. On absolute numbers, Juan Pablo Montoya had the best average starting position as Montoya started second in the Indianapolis 500. Between Ray and Ward was Robby Gordon, who started fourth in the Indianapolis 500. Behind Ward was Jimmy Vasser, who started seventh at Indianapolis. 

Coincidentally, Montoya also had the top average starting position in CART's 2000 season, but Montoya was ninth in that championship. Gil de Ferran was second to Montoya in average starting position, and de Ferran won the championship, but four of the top five average starting positions that season in CART were outside the top five in the championship. Montoya was ninth, Hélio Castroneves was seventh in the championship despite his third-best average starting position, Franchitti was fourth in that category but 13th in the championship and Christian Fittipaldi's average starting position was only three-tenths worse than Franchitti, but Fittipaldi was 12th in the championship. 

Dixon's Drubbing
Scott Dixon was third at Long Beach and it is a good thing he was third because Dixon ended one of the worst beatings in his IndyCar career. 

While Dixon did finish fourth in the championship, his third-place result at Long Beach was the first time he was the top Chip Ganassi Racing finisher since the second Texas race on May 2. Dixon had not been the top Ganassi finisher in 11 consecutive races before Long Beach. How often had Dixon not been the top finisher in his team for 11 consecutive races? 

Before this season, the answer was never! Eleven consecutive intra-team loses is his longest in a season in his IndyCar career. Surprisingly, he was beat in ten consecutive races in 2014. From the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May 2014 through the first Toronto race in July, Dixon was not the top Ganassi finisher. In that ten-race span, Tony Kanaan led the way with four top finishes while Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe were each top in three races. 

The only other season where Dixon lost the intra-team battle in at least five consecutive races was the 2002 season when he joined Ganassi in the fourth round of the CART season at Milwaukee after PacWest Racing closed its door. Dixon was the top finisher in his first race with the team, but Bruno Junqueira and Kenny Bräck would split the next eight races, Junqueira on top in five races and Bräck on top in three.

There have been four seasons where Dixon has never lost consecutive races within team, including his rookie year where Dixon was the top PacWest Racing finisher in 16 of 19 races against Maurício Gugelmin. There were 20 races that CART season, but Gugelmin missed Nazareth, Dixon's first career victory, after the passing of his son. 

The other three seasons were 2008, Dixon's second championship season and against Dan Wheldon. Dixon went 13-4 that season. In 2017, Dixon was on top of 12 of 16 races with Max Chilton and Kanaan each top finisher twice. The following seasons, Dixon's fifth championship season, he was 15-2 against Ed Jones. 

Ganassi Back On Top
Chip Ganassi Racing might have just won its second consecutive championship and fourth in the last seven seasons, but 2021 was the first time Chip Ganassi Racing had the outright most victories in an IndyCar season since 2013. Ganassi had six victories this season, double that of Team Penske, which had at least a share of the most team victories in a season since 2014. Penske and Ganassi shared the top spot in 2015 with three apiece. 

Six victories are the most for Ganassi in a season since it won six times in 2011. 

About Street Courses
Four of five street course races in 2021 were won from outside a top ten starting position. Four of five!

Colton Herta won the first street course race from pole position at St. Petersburg. That was followed with Marcus Ericsson winning from 15th in the first Belle Isle race, Patricio O'Ward winning from 16th in the second Belle Isle race, Ericsson winning at Nashville from 18th and finished with Herta going from 14th to first at Long Beach. 

How many seasons had at least four street course winners start outside the top ten? 

Since the first modern street course race in IndyCar history, 1983 Caesars Palace parking lot, this was the fifth season where multiple street course races were won from outside the top ten. 

The 2000 CART season, 2002 CART season and 2015 season all had two winners. The 2014 IndyCar season had four street course winners start outside the top ten, but that 2014 season had eight street course races. The only season to have more than eight street course races was 2013, as 2013 and 2014 were the two seasons that each had three doubleheader weekends at Belle Isle, Toronto and Houston respectively. Ironically, none of the ten street course races in 2013 were won from outside the top ten. 

Based on percentages, 80% of the street courses in 2021 were won from outside the top ten compared to half in 2014. 

The average starting position for a street course winner in 2021 was 12.8, the first season where the average was worse than tenth! The 2015 season was the previously worst at 9.4 while 2014 was only 9.25 despite half the races being won from outside the top ten. This was just the 14th season out of 42 seasons where the average starting position for a street course winner was worse than fifth.

There have been 199 modern street course races in IndyCar. Twenty-two of those 199 have been won from outside the top ten! Thirteen of those 22 have occurred since 2014! To add more surprise to this, in 2019, the most recent season with multiple street courses, the average starting position for street course winners was 2.4, tied for the eighth lowest starting position and four of those five races were won from the front row with the other race won from sixth. 

In case you are wondering what the average starting position is for the winners of the 199 modern IndyCar street course races, it is 4.7236. The lowest average starting position for street course winners is 1.8, which occurred in the 2004 Champ Car season. Three races were won from pole position and the other two were won from third.

Definition of Average
The definition of average for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is... Takuma Sato!

Here is Sato's championship position after every race this season: 13th, 11th, 11th, 11th, 12th, 11th, tenth, tenth, tenth, tenth, tenth, 11th, tenth, 11th, 12th, 11th. 

He never started in the top ten this season and he had a career worse average qualifying position of 18.571. Sato did not advance from the first round of qualifying once on a road or street circuit. And yet, he had eight top ten finishes! However, only one of those was a top five finish, a fourth in the first Belle Isle race. 

Sato did lead 21 laps this season, his fewest since zero in 2016 and the only other time he led fewer than 21 laps was when he led zero in his rookie season back in 2010. 

However, Sato was running at the finish of 14 races, his most in a single season and his 13 lead lap finishes were also another personal best. 

Oh Canada! (Original, I Know)
There were eight countries that had multiple competitors this season. Only Denmark and Brazil did not have a regular competitor. The other six countries had multiple regular competitors. Here is how those countries ranked based on average championship finish among regular drivers:

New Zealand: 9.0
United States: 12.142
France: 13
Sweden: 13.5
United Kingdom: 18.5
Canada: 21.5

James Hinchcliffe was 20th and Dalton Kellett was 23rd. Kellett scored 148 points in 16 starts. Hélio Castroneves scored 158 points in six starts. Hinchcliffe and Kellett combined to lead zero laps. They were the top two drivers in the championship not to lead a lap. Hell, even Christian Lundgaard led two laps this season! Danish drivers combined to start two races and led a combined eight laps. Canadian combined to start 32 races and led zero laps. 

Mr. 18th
In eight IndyCar seasons, Conor Daly has finished 18th in the championship three times. Daly's best championship finish was 17th in 2020. 

Bottom of the Table
I think it is fun to look at the bottom of the standings because it tells a lot about what happened this season. 

Dead last was R.C. Enerson, who only completed 12 laps in the August Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race and retired in 28th. Enerson got five points. Five points is the fewest since Jorge Goeters scored three points in the 2005 Champ Car season with an 18th-place finish in the Monterrey race. 

However, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League used two different point systems. In the series formerly known as the IRL, Enerson's points total is the lowest since Billy Boat in 2003, but Boat raced with a different points system. From 1996-2003, the point system paid descending points all the way to 29th and then 29th on down to score only one point. In 2004, the IRL changed it so 18th-24th all scored 12 points and 25th onward scored at least ten points. 

IndyCar didn't change it points system to pay descending points down to five until 25th and beyond until 2013! Not to mention, since 2014 there has been at least one double-points race. 

Since 2013, Enerson has scored the fewest points in a season. Since 2013, six of nine drivers to finish in last place only ran the Indianapolis 500. One of the three exceptions is Enerson this year. Another is Scott McLaughlin last year, who ran the St. Petersburg season finale. 

The third? 

Franck Montagny! Remember him? He ran the #26 Andretti Honda in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished 22nd. This was the entry that Kurt Busch would drive in the Indianapolis 500 two weeks later.

Forty-three drivers started an IndyCar race this season, the most since 46 started a race in 2011, the final season before the DW12-era. Nineteen drivers started every race. Another five started at least 70% of the races. 

Of the remaining 19 drivers who started a race this season there were two past champions, three past Indianapolis 500 winners, two drivers who started a Formula One race last season, four past 24 Hours of Daytona winners and six past IndyCar race winners. 

There was one driver who started a NASCAR Cup race this season, plus another two who have run in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. 

One driver had a 24 Hours of Daytona class victory this year. Another driver won in the Superstars Racing Experience on a quarter-mile oval in Wisconsin. One driver is a Scuderia Ferrari test driver and Alfa Romeo F1's reserve driver. One driver is an active Formula Two competitor. 

Five of the part-time drivers made their IndyCar debuts this season. A total seven drivers made their debuts in 2021. 

The nineteen part-time drivers combined for one victory, which just happened to be the Indianapolis 500, two top five finishes and 11 top ten finishes in their combined 46 starts this season.  

Season Length
Last year's 14-race race, pandemic shifted IndyCar schedule was the fourth shortest in IndyCar history, lasting only 141 days. It did not begin until the first Saturday in June and ended on the final Sunday in October. 

This season's 16-race, slightly pandemic delayed schedule but one that saw only one race cancelled completely due to the pandemic and the season finale was a week later than originally scheduled to accommodate the rescheduling of Long Beach, lasted 161 days. 

Two more races with fewer hiccups and schedule revisions, and the IndyCar season is only 20 days longer than when in the heat of a global pandemic. 

However, this slightly pandemic delayed season was longer than the 2014 and 2015 seasons, which only last 153 days and 154 days respectively, neither of which occurred in the middle of the pandemic. Hooray? 

It was also longer than the 1947 (156 days) and 1955 (160 days) championships, so take that IndyCar's roadster-era! 

This year was the ninth-shortest IndyCar season. 

In case you are wondering, with the 2022 season due to open on February 27 at St. Petersburg and close on September 11 at Laguna Seca, next season is tentatively set to last 196 days, the same length as the 2019 season. The last season to last 200 days or more was the 2013 season, which took 209 days to complete. 

Lap Count Management
There is something we need to talk about IndyCar this season and that is the floating lap distances of races. A few races this year had fewer laps than usual. A few races had more laps! In some cases, less is more, and a five-lap reduction on a road course might not be a bad thing. In some cases, more is more. 

What is another five laps at Portland or ten laps at Gateway? 

In 2020, there were a few scenarios where it made sense for race distances to change. There were doubleheaders at Iowa, Gateway and Mid-Ohio. Races were shortened just because of weekend workload. Texas was shortened because it was a single day show in the early stages of the pandemic when IndyCar was just trying to get a season started. St. Petersburg was also shortened by ten laps.  

There were a few changes in 2021 compared to 2019 that raised a few eyebrows. St. Petersburg remained 100 laps this season. It had been 100 laps for many years, but the problem with 100 laps is it is a basic two-stop race at that distance. It was increased to 110 laps in 2013 to encourage three-stop strategies, and it has worked out. 

Mid-Ohio was 80 laps in 2021, ten laps shorter than 2019. The 2021 race was a two-stop race for everyone. The 2019 race, and most 90-lap races at Mid-Ohio since adopting that distance in 2013, have been strategy-fluid affairs with three-stoppers and two-stoppers and teams juggling when to take which tire compound. The 2021 race had a good finish, but I fear more times than not an 80-lap race at Mid-Ohio will be underwhelming. 

Now, on the reverse side of St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio, Gateway was extended by 10 laps, Portland by five laps and Laguna Seca by five laps. 

Part of the reason for St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio lap totals were television. St. Petersburg was ahead of golf and Mid-Ohio was ahead of the NASCAR Cup race at Road America. Next year, 14 of 17 races will be on network NBC. Can IndyCar find middle ground where it can run a race within a dedicated television window and not spill over but also have sufficient race distances that allow for compelling strategy and provide some spice and not a color-by-number approach from the pit stands? 

We can only hope. The extension of Portland and Laguna Seca, two races that were on NBC, are an encouraging sign. 

Qualifying Re-think
In three road/street course races this season, IndyCar used an alternate knockout qualifying. Round one was still split into two groups with the top six advancing, but round two was the final round with 12 drivers fighting for pole position instead of a third round for the fastest six from round two to decide the first three rows. 

This format was used at the Belle Isle doubleheader and the August IMS road course race. I think it has legs to become the permanent new format. 

One, it would condense qualifying a little bit. It is round one and then the main event. 

Two, we would see the fastest times determine pole positions. More often than not, by the team we finish round two, every team has used their new sets of tires and the final round is left to see who is the best on used tires. It can be anti-climactic. Some drivers know they don't have it and cannot put up a serious pole position run. Other drivers clearly have a little more in the tires and can take the top spot with ease. 

Three, it would be one fewer opportunity for teams to complain about laps being impeded and race control deciding which times are disallowed and which drivers move on. 

A two-round qualifying format would ensure everyone could go for pole position. We would get to see a little more drama in those closing laps. We would see drivers changing tires mid-session and making multiple runs for the top spot. It would be a change from what we have seen in IndyCar since road/street courses were first introduced in the Indy Racing League in 2005. IndyCar's format precedes Formula One's format by a season. However, I think a two-round format would be just as exciting as what we get with three rounds now. 

Not all change is bad. This could be one modification everyone would support. 

Double Points
Prior to the Long Beach finale, many lamented double points in the Indianapolis 500 because, without the double points, Palou would have led Newgarden by 26 points and O'Ward by 27 points entering the finale. Just a simple 51-point victory by either driver would require Palou to finish seventh or better if Newgarden won or eighth or better if O'Ward won. If either driver finished second, Palou would need to finish 16th or better with Newgarden or 17th or better with O'Ward. 

Palou's margin of error would have shrunk significantly. 

But why not argue for the season finale to return to double point? The finale has more recently been double points than the Indianapolis 500 has been regular points. Not to mention, it would have added more levels to the finale. 

If Long Beach had been double points this year, the top five in the championship would have been alive for the championship. With 104 points on the table, a maximum points victory for O'Ward would have forced Palou to finish third. For Newgarden, maximum points make Palou finish fifth or sixth with at least one bonus point. For Scott Dixon, his title defense would remain alive to the finale and, though his hopes would be slim, a maximum points victory would mean Palou needed finish 14th. For Marcus Ericsson, he was 87 points back entering the finale and he would need Palou to finish 22nd or worse, so not great odds but Ericsson would have been alive nonetheless. 

How would have the championship looked based on the results of Long Beach? 

Newgarden would have scored 82 points with bonus points for pole position and leading a lap. Dixon was third and led one lap, so that means he would score 71 points. Palou would have taken 64 points for fourth. O'Ward and Ericsson were the bottom two finishers, so they would have each scored ten points on the day. 

Palou would have still been champion with 581 points. Newgarden would have lost by 30 points instead of 38 points. Dixon would jump up to third with 516 points, 65 points back, three points closer than he actually finished behind Palou. Colton Herta would have been the big winner and jumped up to fourth on 505 points thanks to his 103-point victory. O'Ward would drop to fifth based on that one result and finish 91 points behind Palou. Ericsson would still be sixth, but 141 points back. 

I am not for double points, but I have opened to the concept, especially if the Indianapolis 500 is going to be double points. A driver can still clinch a championship early with double points, it is just a win-by-two scenario like tennis or volleyball. 

With a double points finale, all the drivers eligible would have had a victory this season, and four of the five had multiple victories. The only driver with only one victory was Dixon! 

A street course is not ideal for a double points race, especially if it is going to remain its normal race distance. I prefer all the races pay the same points, but if the Indianapolis 500 remains double points, then make the finale a 500-mile race at an oval for symmetry or, if it is on a road or street course, make it the longest road/street course race of the season, a true challenge to end the season. 

October Preview
The IndyCar season might be complete, but the Road to Indy Series have one more weekend left and all three will decide champions this weekend at Mid-Ohio. 

Kyle Kirkwood has 488 points and a 15-point lead over David Malukas entering the final weekend. Kirkwood has won the last three races, which followed a three-race winning streak for Malukas. The two drivers have combined to win 16 of 18 races this season with Kirkwood holding the edge nine to seven. 

There are 64 points left on the table with two races to play. If Malukas were to sweep the weekend and score the maximum 64 points, Kirkwood would have to finish second in both races to win the championship by one point. Kirkwood has finished second to Malukas four times this season. The other thing against Malukas is Kyle Kirkwood has won all seven of his Road to Indy starts at Mid-Ohio. Kirkwood has also won five of 12 Mid-Ohio starts between United States Formula 4 and F3 Americas with ten podium finishes in those 12 starts. 

Indy Lights will race at 1:00 p.m. ET on Saturday October 2 and at noon on Sunday October 3.

Indy Pro 2000 has two races left and mathematically there are five drivers alive for the championship, but it is really a two-horse race. 

Christian Rasmussen looks to follow up his U.S. F2000 championship with an Indy Pro 2000 title, and the Dane has 392 points, 18 points ahead of Ohio-native Braden Eves. Rasmussen leads Indy Pro 2000 with six victories this season, but he has not won since the first Mid-Ohio race on July 3rd. Eves has three victories, two of which came in the first three races of the season and then he won at Gateway. 

Hunter McElrea is 45 points back and he won the most recent race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. McElrea has finished on the podium in five consecutive races. He won the second Mid-Ohio race back in July. Fifty-five points back is Reece Gold, who picked up his first Indy Pro 2000 victory in the first race of the New Jersey triple-header. Artem Petrov won the second New Jersey race, and he is 63 points back with 66 points on the table. Petrov will be eliminated should Rasmussen start one of the races this weekend.

Indy Pro 2000 races at 2:05 p.m. ET on Saturday October 2 and at 1:10 p.m. ET on Sunday October 3.

It is a two-horse race in U.S. F2000, and this championship is close to decided entering the final weekend. 

Kiko Porto has 368 points, 49 points ahead of Michael d'Orlando. Porto can clinch the U.S. F2000 championship with a fourth-place finish in race one Back in July, d'Orlando won two of three Mid-Ohio races with Porto winning the middle race that weekend. 

Porto has four victories this season to d'Orlando's three. Yuven Sundaramoorthy is third in the championship, and he won three races this season, but he has not won since the second race of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend back in May. 

U.S. F2000 will race at 3:50 p.m. ET on Saturday October 2 and at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday October 3.

Other events of note in October:
MotoGP will run the Grand Prix of the Americas and then returns to Misano.
Formula One returns to Istanbul and closed the month in Austin. 
FIA World Endurance Championship will have its penultimate race, 6 Hours of Bahrain. 
NASCAR will complete round two at Talladega and Charlotte before having its semifinal round at Texas, Kansas and Martinsville. 
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters completes its first GT3-spec season with rounds at the Hockenheimring and a return of the Norisring.
Super Formula completes is season at Motegi and Suzuka. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: 2021 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited

Álex Palou is IndyCar champion. Lewis Hamilton scored his 100th grand prix victory with a brilliant drive on between the two dry tire compounds and then a brilliant strategy call to switch to the intermediates in the closing laps. Drivers are shuffling seats in IndyCar already. We had an American winner in Formula Three, but both Formula Three and Formula Two lost a race due to weather. There was Cadillac on Cadillac violence at Long Beach. 

Sadly, we start with sad news. Dean Berta Viñales was fatally injured in the Supersport 300 race held at Jerez during of the World Superbike round. Viñales was 15 years old. His cousins Maverick and Isaac Viñales compete in MotoGP and World Superbike respectively. Our thoughts and prayers go to the Viñales family. 

2021 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited
It is our annual tradition! The day after the IndyCar season we look back at the predictions made on New Year's Eve to close out the year before. How did this year shape up and how did it compare to previous years?

1. Will Power will at least match Mario Andretti's record of 67 pole positions

Five pole positions might have sound ambitious for a driver at the start of a season, but Power is not any driver when it comes to qualifying. He had won at least five pole positions in seven of his 14 full-time IndyCar seasons. It might have been a stretch to expect him to do it again, especially after he did it in 2020, but you can never count Power out in qualifying. 

Except this year was Power's second worst year in qualifying. The only year worst was 2008, the reunification season when he drove for KV Racing, also transitioning over from Champ Car, 14 of the tracks were new to him and ten of the tracks were ovals and he had one oval start to his name, the 2006 Champ Car race at Milwaukee. 

This year was surprisingly off for Power. He didn't qualify on a front row until the August IMS road course race, the 12th race of the season. His first pole position was the 13th race at Gateway, the latest his first pole position has come in a season. He failed to make it out of the first round of qualifying three times this year. He qualified 32nd for the Indianapolis 500. 

It was not his year in terms of qualifying. He is within four of Andretti's record. Maybe 2022 will be the year.
2. Andretti Autosport drivers will combine for at least four victories

Andretti Autosport won three races, both at the hands of Colton Herta at St. Petersburg, Laguna Seca and Long Beach respectively. I have to give Herta credit for nearly doing it all on his own. 

Were four victories realistic for Andretti Autosport this year considering Herta carried much of the weight? 

Yes. Herta could have won six races! He was fourth in the second Belle Isle race, but he was chasing down Josef Newgarden and he looked set to pass Newgarden for the lead at some point in the closing laps. Then Jimmie Johnson brought out a caution and Herta did not have the pace on restarts and in the short run, causing him to drop back. 

If Johnson doesn't bring out a caution, Herta wins that race. 

Nashville saw Herta lead the most laps and 41% of the race was behind the pace car. If Nashville was a normal race, I think Herta runs away with that one. Heck, if Herta was a little more patient, he might have caught Marcus Ericsson in the final laps and made a pass for the victory. 

Then there is Gateway where Herta led 101 of the first 183 laps before a broken driveshaft ended his race. Josef Newgarden was going to push Herta, and there was still one pit stop to go, but if Herta's car had not failed him, I think that is another victory. 

Besides Herta, I think Alexander Rossi's best two chances at victory this season were races where early caution shook it up too much, so we can't say with certainty he would have won, but I think the first Belle Isle race and Portland were the two races. If Belle Isle didn't have the cautions or the red flags, Rossi might pull it out. If Portland start goes differently and he makes the corner, it could have been his day. We will never know. And then there is Laguna Seca, where Rossi spun on lap two after a little nudge from Herta. That would not have added to Andretti's total as Laguna Seca was an Andretti victory with Herta, but it could have been Rossi instead.

The only other race I think Andretti Autosport could have won was the Indianapolis 500. Rossi aside for a second and his early electrical issue after running out of fuel before his first stop, Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the top five coming to his final pit stop. Hunter-Reay was in the running with Hélio Castroneves, Álex Palou and Patricio O'Ward. If Hunter-Reay does not speed entering pit lane for his final pit stop, maybe he pulls out a second victory in the famed race and it isn't the dream outcome for Castroneves. 

We will never know, but we know Andretti only won three times and this prediction was wrong.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing's four cars average an entrants' championship position of 11th or higher
Wrong! Damn... 0-for-3, what a terrible start. 

I didn't see Chip Ganassi Racing being this good. Álex Palou was champion, Scott Dixon was fourth and Marcus Ericsson was fifth. I thought Ganassi could get three cars in the top ten, but two would just make it in. I didn't see three in the top six. 

Add those three up and their sum is ten. To average greater than 11th, the sum of the four cars had to be 44 or higher. Guess what? The #48 Honda was not even close to finishing 34th in the entrants' championship. It was 22nd. The average was 8.25. 

Kudos to Chip Ganassi Racing.

4. A.J. Foyt Racing gets its best championship finish since at least 2010
Wrong! O-fer! Oof! 

It looked great at the start fo the season. Sébastien Bourdais was fifth and tenth. Bourdais was sixth in the championship. Then it all went to pieces. 

Bourdais was spun in race one and caught in the start accident in race two. He left 14th in the championship. Ok, not all hopes were lost as he just had to finish 13th. Unfortunately, Bourdais would not get another top ten finish until he was fifth at Gateway. He bounced between 15th and 18th in the championship for the rest of the season. 

He ended up 16th in the championship and once again A.J. Foyt Racing is ending a season looking to shake things up again. Once again folks, the drivers are not the problem.

5. Patricio O'Ward wins at least one race, but his championship position falls
Wrong! (Pushes laptop across the table and walkaway for 25 minutes). 

It was not crazy to think Patricio O'Ward would win a race and finish fifth in the championship. At the start of 2021, fifth in the championship would have been a respectable year for O'Ward. Who would have thought in his second full season he would get better? No one could guarantee that. Have you seen IndyCar? Anyone can win a race and no would have been surprised if Team Penske took the top three in the championship with Scott Dixon in fourth. In that case, O'Ward finishing fifth with at least one race victory would have been a stellar year. 

Instead, O'Ward was better than last year. He rarely made a mistake. There were a few times he was off pace, and he had two penalties at Nashville, but O'Ward was fantastic this season. He won twice. He had five podium finishes and he had nine top five finishes. 

A top five championship season was never going to be a surprise, but O'Ward stood out while others were not as great. 

6. Rinus VeeKay will not be the top ECR finisher in at least five races
Correct! Finally! 

VeeKay was rolling in the first half fo the season. He was the top finisher in five of the first seven races. He was trending where it would be close. Then VeeKay broke his collarbone in a cycling accident, and he was not the same this year. 

Prior to the injury, he had already not been the top ECR finisher in three races. Road America was a gift as VeeKay didn't run so that was four. Conor Daly would be the top ECR finisher in the next three races after VeeKay's return. VeeKay topped Gateway, but Daly got the final three races. 

VeeKay was not the top ECR driver in ten of 15 races

7. Jack Harvey will set a career-high in top five finishes
Correct! Hey! Two in a row! 

Although, this wasn't that impressive as all Harvey needed was two top five finishes. This one was making me sweat after Gateway and then Harvey went out and finished fourth at Portland to confirm this as a correct prediction. His other top five finish was fourth at St. Petersburg. 

The problem is I thought Harvey would get four or five top five finishes this year and he would compete for the top ten in the championship. He wasn't terribly far off the top ten, but he wasn't threatening for it. Too many races were lost due to driver error, mechanical issue, or poor strategy from the team. 

He lost a wheel bearing in the second Texas race and could have gotten a top five finish there. The team had a botched pit stop and suffered a tire puncture on the out lap after that pit stop in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Harvey was battling for a podium finish in that IMS road course race. The team made a baffling strategy choice at Road America and Harvey was in sixth at the team. That could have been a top five finish. The team went off-strategy again at Nashville after starting sixth and it did not work out. 

Harvey has something positive to draw from this year, but it was not a spectacular year.

8. At least two winless droughts over 30 starts will come to an end
Wrong! And the correct streak ends at two. 

We had Marcus Ericsson, whose first career victory came in his 37th start, but we didn't get another long-awaited winner.

Graham Rahal fell short of victory. Ryan Hunter-Reay was never a major threat. James Hinchcliffe was further from victory than Hunter-Reay. Tony Kanaan didn't get a magical day like fellow countryman Hélio Castroneves. Harvey, Conor Daly, and Max Chilton didn't get first career victories. It just didn't happen.

The number of first-time winners and this swing of young winners prevented it from happening.

9. There will be no repeat winners on the ovals

Scott Dixon and Patricio O'Ward split the Texas races, Hélio Castroneves took a surprise Indianapolis 500 victory, and Josef Newgarden got his annual short oval race victory at Gateway. 

Four drivers, two from each manufacture, and each oval winner came from a different team. That is good distribution for IndyCar.

10. More than 36 drivers compete in a race
Correct! And this one was blown out of the water!

Forty-three drivers started an IndyCar race this year. We had ten drivers compete in an IndyCar race other than the Indianapolis 500. Two of those were Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson, both of which only committed to the road and street course races at the start of the year and then Grosjean sampled Gateway. 

Both drivers who failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 started another race. Charlie Kimball had already run the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then added Long Beach. RC Enerson made his IndyCar return in the August IMS road course race and it was Top Gun Racing's debut race. 

Oliver Askew was a substitute on two occasions with two different teams and then ran the final three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. 

Then we had plenty of surprise debutants. Kevin Magnussen made his debut filling in for the injured Felix Rosenqvist at Road America and Magnussen led on debut, albeit during a pit cycle, but Magnussen did well. Ryan Norman ran his home race of Mid-Ohio. Cody Ware got to play IndyCar driver for three races. 

And then you had Alpine F1 Academy driver Christian Lundgaard run the August IMS road course race with RLLR, as the Formula Two schedule had a two-month gap in its schedule and Lundgaard could do it with no conflicts. On top of all that, Ferrari test driver and Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott started the final three races with Juncos Hollinger Racing, returning to IndyCar for the first time since 2019. Now Ilott will be full-time with JHR in 2022!

You cannot say 2021 was boring. We had at least two-dozen cars start every race and there were six races outside the Indianapolis 500 that had 26 starters or more! 

11. There will be one minor issue that leads to a circuit alteration in Nashville

The Nashville track might not have been perfect, but I don't recall any circuit alteration. There were a few worrisome areas, but nothing happened that caused a scramble for a track change. I think IndyCar was one incident in turn five away from a logjam that would have caused a circuit re-think. 

Even though the race went off with a hitch that doesn't mean there should not be any adjustments for 2022.

12. Marco Andretti improves his average finish by at least 5.5 positions

I made this prediction before we knew Andretti was not going to be full-time. He only race the Indianapolis 500 and he finished 19th. He could have still made this prediction correct if he had finished 13th or better. He never had it and seeing at how Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe drove this year, I doubt Andretti would have lowered his average finish enough in a fifth full-time Andretti car to make this prediction correct. 

This is my worst year by far... four for 12. 

This was a step backward

2020: 8/11 (one prediction was about Richmond, which never happened)
2019: 5.5/12
2018: 6/12
2017: 8/12
2016: 6/12
2015: 8/12
2014: 10/14

That is bad. You have to hit on at least half of these. I don't feel as bad for the Andretti one because he didn't run full-time, and how was I supposed to know Ganassi would put three cars in the top six of the championship, something the team had never done before and it would have to do it with a new driver to the organization in his sophomore IndyCar season? 

I must be better next year. This is plenty of motivation to get back on track. 

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Álex Palou, but did you know...

Dennis Hauger clinched the FIA Formula Three championship with a runner-up finish in the first race from Sochi.

The #32 Team WRT Audi of Charlie Weerts and Dries Vanthoor won the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup championship. The #32 Audi won four of ten races with seven podium finishes.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Colton Herta and Lewis Hamilton, but did you know...

Dan Ticktum and Oscar Piastri split the Formula Two races from Sochi. Logan Sargeant and Jack Doohan split the Formula Three races.

The #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac of Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy won in GTLM. The #1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow won in GTD.

Denny Hamlin won the NASCAR Cup race from Las Vegas, his second victory of the season. Josh Berry won the Grand National Series race, his second victory of the season. Christian Eckes won the Truck race, his first career victory.

Toprak Razgatlioglu swept the World Superbike races from Jerez and extended his championship lead over Jonathan Rea. Dominique Aegerter won the World Supersport race, his tenth victory of the season. World Superbike's SuperPole race and the Saturday World Supersport race were cancelled after Dean Berta Viñales' accident. 

The #6 Mercedes-AMG Team Toksport WRT Mercedes of Luca Stolz and Maro Engel swept the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup races from Valencia.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP will be in the United States and returns to the Circuit of the Americas. 
NASCAR hits the halfway point of the playoffs at Talladega.
World Superbike concludes its three consecutive weeks of races at Portimão. 
World Rally Championship returns to Finland about two months later than usual. 
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters has its penultimate round at Hockenheim. 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

First Impressions: Long Beach 2021

1. It is always difficult to end a season, but we will start with another race winner and Colton Herta put together champion-esque speed and just cracked the top five of the championship. Today was Herta at his best. After getting strategy wrong in qualifying and not advancing from round one, Herta was a man on a mission and he put together one of the best drives we have ever seen at Long Beach, moving up from 14th to first.

He ended the season with two consecutive victories and he led the most laps in each race. While Herta finished with three victories, tied for the most of the season, there were too many errors and too many races that got away. He knows that. But this could have been a year where he won five races, possibly even six. The good news is he looked confident after today and we all expect Herta to be a consistent challenger in 2022.

2. Josef Newgarden started the race the way he had to, leading laps and staying at the front, but the early cautions kept the field together and Newgarden had nothing for Herta. Second in the race and second in the championship, there are many places Newgarden left points on the table.

The biggest in my mind is Road America. He was leading at the restart with two laps to go, directly ahead of Álex Palou, set for a +14 day on the Spaniard. Then the gearbox glitched. Palou took the lead and the victory. Newgarden fell to 21st. It went from +14 Newgarden to +38 Palou in that one moment, a 52-point swing. Newgarden lost the title 38 points.

Every race counts toward the championship, and many love to point at the double points in the Indianapolis 500 as the reason Newgarden finished so far behind Palou, but Road America played a bigger role than the Indianapolis 500 in this case.

3. Scott Dixon at least gets to end the season as the top Chip Ganassi Racing finisher in the season finale. It is a consolation prize for what was a good season, but no greater than that. It was a good season for Dixon. He can't win the championship every year. Ninety-five percent of the grid would take Dixon's season.

It was an odd year. Dixon did not look dominant as we are used to this season. And yet he led the most laps and was fourth in the championship. Over the last few races, I wondered if we have seen the last of the dominant Dixon, especially with the youthful surge we saw in 2021. I don't think Dixon is done quite yet, but Father Time is undefeated. That day is coming.

4. And now our champion. Álex Palou deserved this championship. He showed it today with a drive that did not look like someone playing it conservative while ahead. Palou had all the room in the world to feel he could live with a 13th-place finish and win the championship. Instead, Palou went forward and got himself into the top five. 

It is an impressive story. Palou was in the Formula One ladder system, won in the GP3 Series while driving for one of the worst teams on the grid, and then struggled in his second GP3 season. I remember the surprise when he won that race in Abu Dhabi, and I watched as his career headed to Japan. Palou was never high up any Formula One team's wish list. Japan is a place where a driver can catch the eye of a manufacturer and be set for the next 15 years. 

Then Palou nearly won the Super Formula championship. He jumped on the IndyCar radar and through former IndyCar driver Roger Yasukawa he ended up testing for Dale Coyne. Coyne takes chances on drivers. Some are nothing but a paycheck. But every so often he finds a gem. Coyne doesn't make a fortune on these drivers. They move on to larger operations and the success comes there for the driver. Palou is no different. 

But Coyne's loss is IndyCar's gain and it is a gain for Coyne as well. IndyCar has a young champion, someone who does not appear to have his eyes on Formula One. After decades of being seen as a last resort, IndyCar is gaining traction. Drivers are seeing they cannot only make a living but find happiness in IndyCar. Some are finding that out at an older age and may regret not making the move sooner. Palou has done it in his mid-20s.

It feels like 2021 is a watershed moment for IndyCar. The age and experience is clashing with the newer, young talent. The grid is growing at a breathtaking pace. IndyCar is becoming more international. It will be another ten years before we really know where 2021 stands in shaping the IndyCar landscape, but it feels like Palou's championship will be a point we all consider crucial to guiding IndyCar for the remainder of this decade.

5. Simon Pagenaud likely made his final start with Team Penske and he drove hard to finish fifth. The last two years were not Pagenaud's strongest seasons. Something felt off. He had speed, but not quite at the same level as before. He was still getting top ten results, but this year in particular the top five results were not occurring. He got one today, and now he begins this next chapter of his career, shifting from IndyCar's most storied teams to likely one of IndyCar's newest teams.

6. Alexander Rossi was sixth. He wasn't quite as good as Herta and for the second consecutive season Rossi did not have a victory. Something has to change. He only led two laps. He did make the top ten in the championship, but Rossi went from top Andretti driver and championship hopeful to second in the team and a second-tier IndyCar driver in two seasons.

I believe Rossi still has the ability to be champion, but at some point it is no longer bad luck or bad strategy as the reasons why he is not winning races. There comes a point where he and Andretti Autosport just have to figure it out.

7. Jack Harvey ran a slightly alternate strategy and it got him from 25th to seventh. It is odd that we have seen Harvey run so well from deep starting positions and yet not get results when starting at the front.

I am sad to see Harvey leave Meyer Shank Racing. I think Harvey can win races. The speed is there. MSR did make a few questionable strategic gambles this season. They cost Harvey some results. Harvey had a few errors as well. At least they part on a good note.

8. Sébastien Bourdais went from stopped at the end of lap one to eighth finishing position. Bourdais is one of the few drivers to pull this result off. This season was not as good as we hoped for Bourdais and A.J. Foyt Racing. They may stay together for most of next year, though it sounds like sports cars will be Bourdais' first priority and he will miss conflicting IndyCar races. It sounds like 2022 will be it for Bourdais in IndyCar. Let's hope Bourdais ends on a high note.

9. The story of Takuma Sato's season is an unspectacular ninth-place result. It feels like every other race Sato was eighth, ninth or tenth and we have no clue what he did in the race. Today was another example of that. Sato was ninth. What did he do? They are good results. Sato still has it in IndyCar, but he was not running much higher than the backend of the top ten this year.

10. Will Power ends the season with a tenth-place result. Each year gets a little more odd for Power since 2016. He can win races, but more often he will run ninth and not be a factor or he will qualify 14th and be stranded in the middle of the field. It does feel like a second championship will not be in the cards. It could happen but we need to see Power be more consistent. A lot of top IndyCar drivers only have one title. Power should not feel too bad.

11. Scott McLaughlin pulled out rookie of the year with an 11th place finish after Romain Grosjean slapped the barrier in the middle of the race. McLaughlin had his growing pains this year. He still has a few things to work out, but he acquitted himself well to a full season of open-wheel racing. There is room to improve but this was a wonderful start.

As for Grosjean, he struggled on street courses. The speed wasn't missing, but too often he got into the barrier or another car or something went wrong. He was tremendous this season, but street courses will be an area for improvement.

12. Ed Jones finished 12th, but this is where we will cover Patricio O'Ward because Jones spun O'Ward in the hairpin at the end of lap one. Jones got the corner wrong at the worst possible time. He could have hit Palou as well. It just happened to be O'Ward that was his victim.

That was the beginning of the end for O'Ward. He already had to claw his way from the front while hoping Palou would not gain ground. Then O'Ward ground to a halt in the middle of the first pit cycle. The championship was over there. O'Ward's impressive run of always having consecutive top five finishes is over. O'Ward has not had many bad days in his IndyCar career and he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Today was worse than that even though his championship hopes were slim. O'Ward had things go wrong today, all of which were out of his control. McLaren had a day from hell on two different sides of the world.

13. Let's quickly go through some of these: Felix Rosenqivst was caught out when O'Ward stopped on circuit and he couldn't really fight back into the top ten. James Hinchcliffe was strong for the first half of the race and was running up in fourth. After Hinchcliffe's second pit stop, he fell off the edge of the Earth and finished 14th. I think Hinchcliffe still has a place in IndyCar. IndyCar might disagree. I actually wouldn't mind if Hinchcliffe tried NASCAR. What does he have to lose?

14. Max Chilton was 15th. That's as good as we can ask for. Graham Rahal appeared to have the O'Ward caution fall at the right time and he ended up leading all the cars that made a pit stop prior to the caution, but Rahal stopped on lap three. Then the cautions didn't fall for Rahal and he was shuffled back. It probably should have been a top ten result today for Rahal. Jimmie Johnson matched his career best finish in 17th. At least Johnson isn't spinning in every race. Charlie Kimball had a good run and then dropped back to 18th. Dalton Kellett somehow finished on the lead lap in 19th. Hélio Castroneves was caught out when O'Ward stopped on track. Then Castroneves kept going, didn't pit under the Marcus Erisson caution and then had to stop under green at lap 34. That ruined his day and destined him for 20th.

15. Damn these 28-car fields are huge!

16. What has happened Ed Carpenter Racing? Both cars were out of the top twenty. Conor Daly ended up 21st and had zero top ten finishes this season. How the hell is the United States Air Force going to justify continuing to sponsor him? Did we not learn anything from the last decade of military sponsorship? Rinus VeeKay broke down and finished 25th, his eighth consecutive finish outside the top 15. This was a strange collapse for this team.

17. Oliver Askew didn't have a great audition in the #45 Honda. Askew had slight contact with Daly put him in the barrier late. It wasn't a bad three-race stretch, but of the three drivers to run that car, Askew was third. Once again, he wasn't bad, but he wasn't the best to drive that car. That says more about Santino Ferrucci and Christian Lundgaard.

18. Of all the endings for Ryan Hunter-Reay, having contact with Colton Herta cut his tire at the start is the worst way for Hunter-Reay to end his time with Andretti Autosport. Couldn't Hunter-Reay at least get a fond farewell? It was incidental, but couldn't Hunter-Reay one final race to showcase his talent without it being tarnished from the drop? Damn! And yet, why would Hunter-Reay's time with Andretti end any differently?

19. Callum Ilott broke down after 47 laps. Ilott described these three races as a test period for him as he got used to the IndyCar. It better be a test and Juncos Hollinger Racing better work out its kinks.

20. Oh yeah, Marcus Ericsson was in this race and ended up in the turn one tire barrier not long after the restart after the O'Ward caution. Unfortunately, Ericsson's worst day came at the worst time. It cost him fifth in the championship by 20 points to Herta, he lost his nine-race top ten finish streak and he hurt his wrist in the process. Hell of a way to end a season.

21. And that will do it for 2021. It was odd ending at Long Beach. Kind of like IMSA ending with the 12 Hours of Sebring last year, this should be a one-time thing. Just because we made it work this year doesn't mean it should become the norm.

Anyway, there will be plenty of reviews coming over the next few days and weeks. Stay tuned.

Morning Warm-Up: Long Beach 2021

Josef Newgarden is off to a great start at Long Beach

Josef Newgarden remains alive for the championship after he won his fourth pole position of the IndyCar season with a lap of 68.2241 seconds in qualifying at Long Beach. Newgarden trails Álex Palou by 47 points and Newgarden must win with at least three bonus points and have Palou finish 25th or worse with no bonus points or Newgarden must win with the maximum four bonus points and have Palou finish 24th or worse with no bonus points or 25th or worse with only one bonus point to have a shot at winning the championship. Newgarden has won the championship in two of his four seasons with Team Penske. Newgarden enters Long Beach on 99 top ten finishes in his career. His first top ten result was a ninth at Barber in 2013, the 16th start of his IndyCar career.

Scott Dixon will look to aid his teammate Palou from the second starting position. This is only the third time Dixon has qualified on the front row this season. Dixon has only one victory this season, which would be his fewest in a season since 2017 when he only won at Road America. He currently has four podium finishes, and regardless of the result, this will be his fewest podium finishes in a season since four in 2016. The only time Dixon has won the season finale was 2015 at Sonoma, which won him his fourth championship on tiebreaker. 

Hélio Castroneves ended up a stunning third, by far Castroneves' best starting position of his partial season, and his best starting position since he started third at Gateway in 2017. Castroneves is the last South American driver to win at Long Beach, which was back in 2001. He has finished outside the top twenty in his last three starts, his worst stretch since Laguna Seca, Houston, and Surfers Paradise in 1999. He has never finished outside the top twenty in four consecutive starts.

Simon Pagenaud qualified next to his former Team Penske teammate in fourth. This matches Pagenaud's best starting position of the season. He has finished in the top six of the last five season finales. He has not had a top five result in his last nine starts, his longest drought since a nine-race stretch spanning the final eight races of 2020 and the first race of 2021. He has never had a ten-race top five finish drought in his IndyCar career. 

Felix Rosenqvist will start fifth. This is the fourth time in the last seven races Rosenqvist has been the top qualifying Arrow McLaren SP driver. He has finished worse than his starting position in eight of the last nine races after opening the season with finishes better than his grid spot in the first four races. He has not started and finished in the top five since Portland 2019 when he went from fifth to second. 

Romain Grosjean will finish his Dale Coyne Racing stint starting sixth at Long Beach. Grosjean announced he will move to Andretti Autosport's #28 DHL Honda full-time in 2022. Grosjean could become the third consecutive European driver to win IndyCar rookie of the year. European drivers have never won rookie of the year in three consecutive seasons. A Long Beach winner has never started sixth before.

James Hinchcliffe picked up his best starting position of the season in seventh and it is the first time Hinchcliffe has been the top Andretti Autosport qualifier. It is the first time Colton Herta or Alexander Rossi is not the top Andretti starter in 2021. Hinchcliffe has four consecutive top ten finishes at Long Beach, but he has only led in one Long Beach start, his victory in 2017. 

Patricio O'Ward qualified eighth and O'Ward will have some work to do to win the championship. He cannot finish worse than second and that would still require Palou to finish 25th or worse with no bonus points for O'Ward to take the title. If O'Ward were to win with the minimum 51 points for a victory, he would need Palou to finish 15th or worse. O'Ward was fifth place at Laguna Seca last week. He has always followed a top five result with another top five result. 

Ed Jones starts in the top ten for the second time in the last three races in ninth. This is his fourth top ten start of the season. This is his most top ten starts in an IndyCar season. Jones was third at Long Beach in 2018, the second podium finish of his IndyCar career. 

Álex Palou sits pretty in tenth on the grid. If Palou finishes 23rd or better, Newgarden cannot win the championship no matter and if Palou finishes 11th or better, O'Ward cannot win the championship no matter. Palou could become the first driver to bookend the season with victories since 2006 when it happened in both Champ Car and the Indy Racing League. Chip Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon did it in the IRL with victories at Homestead and Chicagoland respectively, but Wheldon lost the championship on tiebreaker to Sam Hornish, Jr. In Champ Car, Sébastien Bourdais won at Long Beach and Mexico City and took his third consecutive title.

Ryan Hunter-Reay starts 11th. Hunter-Reay will be making his 282nd IndyCar start this weekend, which will move him into tenth all-time in starts. He made his debut at St. Petersburg in 2003, where he started 12th and finished 16th after an accident ended his race. This will be his 197th start this weekend with Andretti Autosport. He has only led four laps this season. He only led four laps last season as well. This is the ninth time Hunter-Reay has start 11th in his career and he has never finished better than seventh when starting 11th. That was at Edmonton in 2012, when he won pole position, but he had a ten-spot grid penalty for an engine change. 

Will Power brought out a local yellow in the second round of qualifying and lost his fastest lap. This relegated Power to 12th on the grid. He won from 12th at Long Beach in 2012 after being handed a ten-spot grid penalty in that race for an engine change. Power has led 99 laps this season. The last time he did not lead 100 laps in a season was 2008, when he led 84 laps, 81 of those laps led were in the final Champ Car race at Long Beach, which Power won. 

Scott McLaughlin will start 13th after missing out by 0.0035 seconds. Regardless of who wins rookie of the year, this will be the seventh different nationality to win rookie of the year in seven consecutive seasons. If Josef Newgarden were to win the championship and McLaughlin win rookie of the year, it would be the first time a team has won the championship and rookie of the year with two different drivers since 1996 when Chip Ganassi Racing had Jimmy Vasser win the championship and Alex Zanardi take rookie of the year. 

Colton Herta was the fastest driver in both practice sessions, but he could not get out of group two in round one, and he was over two-tenths off advancing. Herta had started in the top ten of every race this season prior to Long Beach. Herta could become the first driver to end a season with consecutive victories since Will Power did it in 2013. Power followed that up with a championship the following season. 

Alexander Rossi did not advance from round one as well and Rossi will start 15th. Rossi has won the last two Grand Prix of Long Beach. He could join Al Unser, Jr. and Sébastien Bourdais as the only drivers to win three consecutive Long Beach races. Rossi's car owner Michael Andretti won the 2002 race from 15th on the grid. It was Andretti's final victory as a driver. The good news is the last three street course winners in IndyCar started 15th, 16th and 18th respectively. 

Takuma Sato ended up 16th in qualifying and Sato will end this season without starting in the top ten. Sato has won a race in each of the last four seasons. The only drivers with longer active streaks are Scott Dixon (17 seasons), Will Power (15 seasons) and Josef Newgarden (six seasons).

Marcus Ericsson has nine consecutive top ten finishes and Ericsson rolls off from 17th. Another top ten result would make this the ninth time a Ganassi driver had ten consecutive top ten finishes. Scott Dixon ended last season with ten consecutive top ten finishes and Dixon had five top ten finishes to open the season. The 15-race top ten finish streak is the longest in Chip Ganassi Racing history.

Callum Ilott will be making his first IndyCar street course start this weekend and he will do it from 18th on the grid, Ilott's best starting position in his young career. Ilott never scored a point on a street course in his Formula Two career with his best finish being 14th in the 2019 features races at Baku and Monaco. He has made five starts in the Macau Grand Prix with his best finish being fifth and he was in the top ten in three of four years. He started on pole position in Macau in 2017, but contact early in the race caused damaged and he finished two laps down. Ilott will drive the #77 Chevrolet full-time next year for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Graham Rahal will start 19th. Rahal has won from 19th starting position once before in his career. He did it at Fontana in 2015. That ended a 124-race winless drought. Rahal is currently on a 72-race winless drought. He has finished in the top five the last two years at Long Beach. He has never led a lap at Long Beach.

Charlie Kimball is back for his second start of the season, and he rounds out the top twenty next to his former Chip Ganassi Racing teammate. Kimball had his best Long Beach finish in his last start on Shoreline Drive. He was tenth in the 2018 race driving for Carlin. 

Conor Daly is looking to avoid the dubious distinction of going a full season without a top ten finish, and he will have some work to do from 21st on the grid. Daly has been the top Ed Carpenter Racing finisher in his last five starts with the team. His average finish on street courses this season is 13.75, over 2.5 positions better than his average finish over the entirety of this season.  

Sébastien Bourdais qualified 22nd and it is only the second time Bourdais has not been the top qualifier for A.J. Foyt Racing this season. The other time was when J.R. Hildebrand started ahead of the Frenchman in the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais has finished in the top ten of the last five season finales. He won the season finale three times in Champ Car. The worst starting position for a Grand Prix of Long Beach winner overall was 22nd when John Watson won the 1983 Formula One race for McLaren. It was Formula One's final Long Beach appearance.

Max Chilton had made it out of the first round of qualifying in the last two races. Unfortunately, that streak ended with Chilton picking up his worst qualifying result at Long Beach in 23rd. He had never started worse than 20th in this race. Chilton has made four Long Beach starts and he has finished 14th in three of them. 

Rinus VeeKay's second half skid continued in Long Beach qualifying. VeeKay wound up 24th. Ed Carpenter Racing has not had a top ten finish at Long Beach since Spencer Pigot was eighth in 2017. ECR's only top five finish at Long Beach was Mike Conway's victory in 2014, the team's first road/street course victory. 

Jack Harvey lost his fastest two laps in qualifying for bringing out a red flag and he will start 25th. This is Harvey's worst starting position on a road/street course in his IndyCar career. The only race he had started 25th or worse in prior to this weekend was the Indianapolis 500 on three occasions. Harvey will be making his 49th career start. No driver has ever had their first IndyCar victory come in their 49th career start.

Dalton Kellett joins Harvey on row 13. Kellett has never finished on the lead lap in a road/street course race in his IndyCar career. His two lead lap finishes came this season in the first Texas race and at Gateway last month. 

Jimmie Johnson was the bottom of group one in round one of qualifying and he will start 27th. Johnson's average finish in four street course starts this season is 22.5. He does enter Long Beach with three consecutive top twenty finishes. 

Oliver Askew will start 28th after bringing out a red flag in his qualifying group. Askew made 12 street course starts in his Road to Indy career. He won twice, stood on the podium seven times, and had nine top five finishes. 

NBCSN's coverage of the 46th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach begins at 3:00 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 85 laps.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Track Walk: Long Beach 2021

Long Beach is back and it decides the IndyCar championship

The 16th and final round of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is the grand return of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. After taking place for 45 consecutive years, Long Beach was unable to take place in 2020 due to the global pandemic. However, Long Beach is back and for the first time it is the season finale for an IndyCar season after traditionally taken place in April at the start of the season. It is the second consecutive season the IndyCar championship will be decided on a street course. Long Beach becomes the 48th different track to host the season finale. 

Time: Coverage begins at 3:00 pm ET on Sunday September 26 with green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee and Marty Snider will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule 
First Practice: 6:00 p.m. ET (45 minutes)*
Second Practice: 12:00 p.m ET (45 minutes)*
Qualifying: 3:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage)*
Warm-Up: 12:00 p.m. ET (30 minutes)
Race: 3:30 p.m. ET (85 laps)

Championship Picture
And then there were three. For the 16th consecutive season, the NTT IndyCar Series has the championship going to the finale, and three drivers remain in the fight the Astor Cup. Two drivers are going for their first championship. The other is looking for his third championship. 

Álex Palou leads the championship with 517 points. Palou also leads IndyCar with three victories, and he picked up his IndyCar leading eighth podium finish at Laguna Seca when he finished second. No other driver has more than five podium finishes. One of those drivers with five podium finishes is Patricio O'Ward and O'Ward is 35 points behind Palou entering the finale. Josef Newgarden is the last man standing for the championship, trailing Palou by 48 points. 

An 11th-place finish or better will guarantee Palou his first championship. Palou has finished 11th or better in 11 of the first 15 races. 

O'Ward cannot win the championship unless he finishes second or better. If O'Ward wins the race with only 51 points, Palou must finish 14th or better. With each possible additional bonus point, Palou's finish must improve by one position until he hits 11th with a maximum 54-point victory for O'Ward. Palou owns the tiebreaker if the two drivers finish level on points. Both drivers could have three victories, but Palou has two runner-up finishes to O'Ward's one runner-up finish at Gateway.

O'Ward can still win the championship with a runner-up finish, but that means Palou's margin of error increases to Palou needing to finish 25th or better, and O'Ward would need to score at least one bonus point if he finishes second, as Palou owns the tiebreaker. Like with an O'Ward victory, Palou's finish must improve by one position to clinch the championship with each additional bonus point until O'Ward scores 44 points, meaning Palou would need to finish 21st. 

Newgarden cannot win the championship unless he wins the race. If Palou starts the race, he will be guaranteed a minimum 522 championship points. Newgarden can only tie or surpass that margin with either 53 points or a maximum 54-point victory. Unlike O'Ward, if Newgarden were to finish level with Palou, Newgarden would own the tiebreaker. Both drivers would be tied on three victories, but Newgarden would have three runner-up finishes to Palou's two runner-up results. 

There are two possible outcomes for a three-way tiebreaker. 

The first is if Newgarden wins the race with 53 points, O'Ward finishes second with no bonus points and Palou finishes 25th or worse. All three drivers would be tied on 522 points and Newgarden would be champion. 

The second is if Newgarden wins with 54 points, O'Ward finishes second with one bonus point and Palou finishes 24th or Palou finishes 25th or worse with one bonus point. All three drivers would be tied on 523 points and Newgarden would be champion.

Street Course Results
Four street courses have taken place this season and the past could tell us something about what we could see in the finale. 

St. Petersburg was the first street course of the season at the end of April. All three of the championship contenders started in the top ten, but only Newgarden remained at the front. Newgarden started third and was in second for most of the race. He had a few restarts to challenge pole-sitter Colton Herta. Newgarden couldn't make it through, but he kept Herta honest taking second. 

While Newgarden was on the podium, both O'Ward and Palou went backward. O'Ward started sixth but could not manage his tires properly and ended up falling back to 19th. Palou had a similar problem, but the Spaniard finished ahead of O'Ward, only dropping from tenth to 17th. 

Belle Isle was the next street course round, and the doubleheader began with the disjointed first race that saw two red flags, one for Felix Rosenqvist's heavy accident during a pit cycle in the turn seven.

Palou was the first driver this season to take a grid penalty for an engine change this and that came in this race. With an already poor qualifying effort of 21st, Palou had to start dead last in 25th and all he could manage was 15th. O'Ward started on pole position but only led the first two laps before making his first pit stop on lap three. Despite all the events of this race, O'Ward would get back in the top five and finished third. Newgarden brushed the barrier at one point and lost a lap, but the number of cautions got him a wave around and he ended up finishing tenth. 

In the second Belle Isle race, Newgarden started on pole position and led 67 of 70 laps, but his race was thrown for a loop when Dalton Kellett stopped at pit exit and was thought to be in position to draw a caution. Newgarden proactively made his pit stop, but the caution never came out. Newgarden stopped a few laps earlier than intended, meaning he would need to stop a few laps earlier for his final stop and run extra laps on the less-desired alternate tire. 

Newgarden saw Colton Herta closing on him in the final stint before a Jimmie Johnson spin brought out a caution. Newgarden held on in the first restart, but soon the caution came out for Romain Grosjean stopping on track. The final restart came with eight laps to go and O'Ward was masterful on the two restarts, working his way from fifth to second. With three laps to go, O'Ward took the lead and won ahead of Newgarden. Palou moved up to third ahead of Herta. 

The inaugural Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville will be remembered for its incidents and incredible turn of events that saw Marcus Ericsson go from airborne to victor over the 80-lap race. Even before the race there was plenty of drama. Palou had to take another grid penalty and was dropped from third to ninth. Newgarden had an accident in round two of qualifying, preventing him from advancing to the Fast Six and slotting him 12th on the grid. O'Ward started eighth. 

In the race, Palou had a poor start and made contact with Johnson in the turn 11 when Simon Pagenaud had his accident. Newgarden went off strategy and gained some ground, but the cautions were not going to fall his way to turn Nashville into a podium result. O'Ward caused headaches for race control, first being penalized for unsafe driving around a safety vehicle under a caution. Then O'Ward ran into Alexander Rossi in turn four battling for a top ten position with less than 30 laps to go. The contact earned O'Ward his second penalty, and he could only recover to 13th.

Palou left Nashville with a respectable seventh-place finish. Newgarden was tenth in his home race. 

Newgarden has been the most consistent of the championship contenders on the streets with finishes of second, tenth, second and tenth, giving him a sixth-place finish. O'Ward has a victory and averaged a finish of ninth with Palou third of the three averaging a finish of 10.5. 

On points, Newgarden is on top again with 124 points from the four street races, ahead of O'Ward's 116 points and Palou's 90 points.

Long Beach is a new track for Palou, the sixth new track he has raced at this season. O'Ward's only Long Beach start was in 2019 with Carlin, where he qualified eighth, but finished 12th, one lap down. Newgarden has nine Long Beach starts and he has finished in the top five in the last five Long Beach races after not finishing in the top ten in his first three Long Beach starts. Newgarden has started in the top ten in eight Long Beach races. He has finished on the podium in two of his three Long Beach races with Team Penske. 

Meanwhile, In the Middle of the Field
There will be 25 other cars on the streets of Long Beach this weekend, bringing the total entries to 28, the largest Long Beach field since 2001. It will be the 11th time the Grand Prix of Long Beach has featured 28 cars or more.

Scott Dixon will not successfully defend his championship this year and he will not be the top Chip Ganassi Racing driver in the championship for the first time since 2011 when Dario Franchitti won the championship. The one issue Dixon faces is he could be the third best Ganassi driver as Marcus Ericsson sits on 430 points, only 15 points behind Dixon. 

Head-to-head this season, Dixon is up eight to seven on Ericsson. Dixon was ahead of Ericsson in the first five races of the season, but Ericsson has been on top ten seven of the last ten races, including in five of the last six races. 

Colton Herta is just outside the top five in the championship after his Laguna Seca victory. Herta trails Ericsson by 28 points. Herta was third in the championship last year. While Herta has six top five finishes this year, he has only had consecutive top five finishes once when he was fourth in the second Belle Isle race and second at Road America.

Graham Rahal is the top driver in the championship without a victory in seventh. Rahal is comfortably in seventh, 28 points behind Herta and 21 points ahead of Simon Pagenaud. The worst Rahal could finish in the championship in ninth, meaning he is guaranteed a top ten championship finish for a seventh consecutive season. He has seven top five finishes this season, one behind his most in a season. 

Simon Pagenaud has 353 points and Team Penske teammate Will Power is 16 points behind the Frenchman. This looks like it will be Pagenaud's final race with the Team Penske organization. Pagenaud enters Long Beach with 112 starts at Team Penske. He has won 11 races and stood on the podium 26 times since joining the organization in 2015. Power's streak of 11 consecutive seasons finishing in the top five of the championship will end. He is currently only 34 points inside the top ten. The best Power can finish in the championship is seventh. 

Alexander Rossi leads a tight fight for tenth in the championship sitting on 304 points, one ahead of Rinus VeeKay and one ahead of Takuma Sato. Rossi was 25th after his second lap spin in Laguna Seca. He has finished outside the top twenty in three races this season. Since Mid-Ohio, he has been alternating top five finishes with results outside the top ten. His last six results are fifth, 17th, fourth, 17th, second and 25th. 

VeeKay has finished outside the top fifteen in his last seven starts. In the last eight races, has scored 47 points, the 24th most in IndyCar. The only driver VeeKay is ahead of who has also started at least seven races is Jimmie Johnson, who has scored 41 points. Sato has one victories, two top five finishes, four top ten finishes and six finishes of 18th or worse at Long Beach.

Jack Harvey will be making his final start with Meyer Shank Racing this weekend. Forty-six of Harvey's 48 IndyCar starts have come with the organization. Harvey finds himself 14th in the championship, which would be a personal best for him, but he is also in a rookie sandwich, five points behind Scott McLaughlin and 15 points ahead of Romain Grosjean.

Another driver saying goodbye to a team this weekend is Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will be making his final start with Andretti Autosport. Hunter-Reay's first of 15 victories with the team came at Long Beach in 2010. He ranks first all-time in Andretti Autosport victories.

Sébastien Bourdais could be a third driver saying goodbye this weekend. Bourdais has made 223 starts since his debut at St. Petersburg in 2003. He ranks 21st all-time in starts. Bourdais' 37 victories are seventh most all-time. He is one of five drivers with at least four championships. He is also a three-time Long Beach winner. The only drivers with more Long Beach IndyCar victories are Al Unser, Jr. and Paul Tracy. Mario Andretti won Long Beach three times in IndyCar, and he also won the 1977 race, which was a part of the Formula One season. 

Rookie of the Year Battle
With Romain Grosjean's third-place finish at Laguna Seca, the Rookie of the Year honor will go to the final race as Scott McLaughlin has a 20-point advantage over the Frenchman entering the finale.

McLaughlin can clinch the honor with a finish of third or better. He could clinch it with a fourth-place finish if Grosjean were to win the race and score the minimum 51 points for victory. If Grosjean were to score two bonus points while winning, then McLaughlin would need at least one bonus point while finishing fourth. If Grosjean were to score three bonus points while winning then McLaughlin would need to score at least two bonus points while finishing fourth. If Grosjean were to have a maximum 54-point victory, McLaughlin would have to finish third. 

Grosjean cannot finish seventh or worse to earn Rookie of the Year unless he were to score at least finish eighth with at least one bonus point or ninth with at least three bonus points with McLaughlin finishing 25th or worse with no bonus points.

With two runner-up finishes this season, Grosjean owns the tiebreaker over McLaughlin. 

In their 12 shared starts this season, Grosjean holds the edge head-to-head seven races to five. In the 12 shared starts, Grosjean has outscored McLaughlin in points with 266 points to McLaughlin's 202 points. 

However, Grosjean has scored 20 points more than McLaughlin in only two races this season, both were Grosjean's runner-up finishes on the IMS road course. He scored 44 points to McLaughlin's 24 in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and in the August race Grosjean scored 40 points while McLaughlin had only seven points. 

McLaughlin is attempting to become the first Team Penske driver to win IndyCar Rookie of the Year. Grosjean would become the third Dale Coyne Racing driver to earn Rookie of the Year after Alex Lloyd in 2010 and Ed Jones in 2017. 

McLaughlin would be the second New Zealander to win rookie of the year after Scott Dixon was top rookie in the 2001 CART season. Grosjean would be the sixth Frenchman to win rookie of the year, the first since Tristan Vautier in 2013. Grosjean would be the first rookie of the year with Formula One experience since Alexander Rossi in 2016, and the 11th since the inaugural CART season in 1979. 

Honda Tops Manufactures' Championship
The manufactures' championship has already been claimed. For the fourth consecutive season, Honda has come out on top. This is Honda's tenth manufactures' championship. Chevrolet opened the DW12-era with six consecutive championships. 

Entering Long Beach, Honda has won nine races, including the last two. Honda has swept the podium in three races this season, including the last two events. Its best outing was a top seven sweep at Nashville. Honda has taken 26 of 45 podium finishes and 46 of 75 top five finishes this season. The only race Honda was not on the podium for was Gateway, where Chevrolet swept the top five. 

Chip Ganassi Racing carried the weight for the Japanese manufacture with six victories. Herta's Laguna Seca triumph for Andretti Autosport was the team's second victory this season. Meyer Shank Racing took the biggest race of them all, winning the Indianapolis 500 with Hélio Castroneves, and it was MSR's first IndyCar victory to boot. It was also Honda's 14th Indianapolis 500 victory, and fourth in the last six years. 

Chevrolet put up a respectable season with six victories and it saw three teams win a race after Team Penske had been the only Chevrolet team to win since 2016. Chevrolet's first victory of 2021 came with Patricio O'Ward and Arrow McLaren SP in the second Texas race. It was the first victory for the driver, the first victory for McLaren since it returned to IndyCar and the first victory for the entire Arrow McLaren SP organization since 2018. 

Ed Carpenter Racing took Chevrolet's second victory in the next race at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It was Rinus VeeKay making it the second consecutive first-time winner and the third first-time winner of the season. O'Ward would add another victory for the Bowtie Brigade in the second Belle Isle. 

Team Penske would not get on the scoreboard until Mid-Ohio in July, the tenth race of the season. Josef Newgarden's victory was the latest first victory in a season for Team Penske since it had consecutive winless seasons in 1998 and 1999. Will Power would win the August IMS road course race and Newgarden picked up his second victory at Gateway. 

Currently, Honda has the edge in the top five of the drivers' championship three to two, but the two manufactures are evenly splitting the top ten with five drivers apiece. 

Long Beach is not only the season finale for the NTT IndyCar series. It is also the penultimate/antepenultimate round for IMSA's WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. For the Daytona Prototype international class, it is the penultimate round before the Petit Le Mans season finale on November 13. For the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes, it is the antepenultimate round as both classes will race at Virginia International Raceway on October 9 before finishing at Petit Le Mans. 

Twenty-six cars are entered for Long Beach, six in DPi, three in GTLM and 17 in GTD. 

In the top class, the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura of Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque are coming off its third victory of the season and the lead the championship with 2,765 points, 100 points ahead of the #31 Whelen Racing Cadillac of Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr. Derarni and Nasr have won two of the last three races. 

The #55 Mazda of Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell are 168 points back in third. Kevin Magnussen and Renger van der Zande won the only other street race on the schedule at Belle Isle in June and the Danish-Dutch duo has Chip Ganassi Racing's #01 Cadillac 238 points off the championship. 

Meyer Shank Racing led its fair share of laps in the most recent race at Laguna Seca, but pit strategy dropped the #60 Acura of Dane Cameron and Olivier Pla to fourth. MSR has two podium finishes and trails its cousin Acura by 375 points. Since winning the 12 Hours of Sebring, Loïc Duval and Tristan Vautier have not finished on the podium in the #5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac. The French pair is 433 points behind Wayne Taylor Racing. 

The #3 Corvette of Antonio García and Jordan Taylor has finished first or second in every race expect for Sebring this season. This has the 2020 GTLM champions leading the 2021 championship with 2,562 points. The sister #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy won at Laguna Seca, its first championship victory of the season. The #4 Corvette has four consecutive podium finishes and it is 187 points behind the #3 Corvette. 

Cooper MacNeil has 2,314 points in third with victories at Sebring and Road America in the #79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche. Both those victories have come with Matt Campbell as co-driver, and Mathieu Jaminet was a part of the Sebring team. Jaminet is back in the car for Long Beach. 

GTD has the #96 Turner Motorsport BMW of Bill Auberlen and Robey Foley on top with 2,242 points. Turner Motorsport has two victories this season. Zacharie Robichon and Laurens Vanthoor have won the last two races and three total victories this season and that has the #9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche second in the championship, 27 points behind the #96 BMW. The #23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin of Ross Gunn and Roman de Angelis dropped to third in the championship, 52 points off the top spot. 

Paul Miller Racing has the #1 Lamborghini of Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers fourth in the championship, but the familiar duo has not won this season. Snow and Sellers are 86 points back of Auberlen and Foley. Patrick Long is fifth in the championship on 2,038 points and he will share the #16 Wright Motorsports Porsche with Trent Hindman. Jack Hawksworth and Aaron Telitz are sixth in the championship, and won the Watkins Glen sprint race, but they are 404 points back. 

Cadillac is unbeaten at Long Beach since the start of DPi-era and General Motors has won five consecutive IMSA races at Long Beach. GM cars have also won 11 of 13 street races in IMSA since the merger in 2014. Acura has four overall Long Beach victories dating back to the American Le Mans Series races. The #4 Corvette has won two of the last three Long Beach races in GTLM. This will be the first time GTD is competing at Long Beach since 2017 when Cooper MacNeil won in a Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Gunnar Jeannette.

The IMSA race will take place at 5:06 p.m. ET on Saturday September 25. The race is scheduled for 100 minutes.

Fast Facts
This will be the eighth IndyCar race held on September 26 and first since 1999 when Paul Tracy won the CART race on the streets of Houston and Sam Schmidt won the Indy Racing League race at Las Vegas. It was Schmidt's one and only IndyCar victory. 

Long Beach will become 13th different track in IndyCar history to host the season opener and season finale. Long Beach has hosted the season opener six times (1984-86 and 2004-06). 

At the 16th race of the season, this is the latest the Grand Prix of Long Beach has been held in an IndyCar season. Prior to this year, Long Beach had never been later than the fourth race of the season. It was also never later than the fourth race of the Formula One season during its eight years on the world championship's schedule.

Álex Palou would become the sixth driver to win an IndyCar championship for Chip Ganassi Racing. It would also be the 14th championship for Chip Ganassi Racing. It would be the third time Chip Ganassi Racing has won consecutive championships. On the previous two occurrences, Chip Ganassi Racing won four consecutive championship (1996-1999 and 2008-2011). 

Palou would become the first Spaniard to win the IndyCar championship. He would be the ninth European champion joining Gaston Chevrolet, Nigel Mansell, Alex Zanardi, Kenny Bräck, Sébastien Bourdais, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Simon Pagenaud. 

Palou could become the third consecutive champion to have won the season opener.

Patricio O'Ward would become the second youngest champion at 22 years, fourth months and 20 days old. Sam Hornish, Jr. won the 2001 IRL championship at 22 years, three months, and four days old. 

O'Ward would be the first non-Penske/Ganassi/Andretti Autosport champion in this series dating back to Sam Hornish, Jr.'s second championship in 2002 with Panther Racing. 

It would be McLaren's first IndyCar championship. It was runner-up in the championship in three consecutive seasons with Johnny Rutherford from 1974 to 1976. 

Spain or Mexico would become the 11th different country to produce an IndyCar champion. 

Josef Newgarden would become the 13th driver with three IndyCar championships. 

Newgarden would tie Rick Mears for most IndyCar championships with Team Penske. 

A Newgarden championship would be the 83rd IndyCar championship for an American driver. 

Four drivers have had their first career victory at Long Beach (Michael Andretti 1986, Paul Tracy 1993, Mike Conway 2011, and Takuma Sato 2013). 

The last driver to score a first career victory in a season finale was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2003 at Surfers Paradise, though that was not the scheduled finale. Surfers Paradise became the finale after Fontana was cancelled due to wildfires. 

This year's race occurs 45 days and 363 days after the inaugural Grand Prix of Long Beach, a Formula 5000 race, which Brian Redman won ahead of Vern Schuppan, Eppie Wietzes, Chris Amon and David Hobbs.

McLaren won the final two Grand Prix of Long Beach when it was a Formula One event with Niki Lauda and John Watson in 1982 and 1983 respectively.

The average starting position for a Long Beach winner is 4.1388 with a median of 2.5. 

The last two Long Beach races have been won from pole position. Prior to 2018, the pole-sitter had not won at Long Beach since 2007.

The pole-sitter has never won at Long Beach in three consecutive races in the IndyCar-era. The only time the pole-sitter has won three consecutive Long Beach races was during the Formula One-era from 1978 to 1980. Carlos Reutemann, Gilles Villeneuve, and Nelson Piquet were the winners. 

If Colton Herta does not win at Long Beach, it will be the first IndyCar season with at least one driver winning consecutive races since 2015. 

The average number of lead changes in a Long Beach race is five with a median of 5.5. 

The five of the last six Long Beach races have had exactly six lead changes.

The most recent Long Beach race with no lead changes was in 2001 when Hélio Castroneves won. 

The average number of cautions in a Long Beach race is 2.8055 with a median of three. The average number of caution laps is 11.3888 with a median of 12. 

The 2016 Long Beach race was the most recent caution-free race at Long Beach. The 2016 race was also the fastest Long Beach race ever, averaging 100.592 mph, the only Long Beach race to break the 100-mph average and only one of five races to average greater than 95 mph.

Possible Milestones:
Scott Dixon is one victory away from tying Mario Andretti for second all-time with 52 victories.

Alexander Rossi is one podium finish away from his 25th podium finish. 

Will Power needs to lead 80 laps to surpass Dario Franchitti for eighth all-time in laps led.

Josef Newgarden needs to lead 21 laps to surpass Tony Bettenhausen for 19th all-time in laps led. Newgarden could also surpass Dan Wheldon with 30 laps led.

Sébastien Bourdais needs to lead 20 laps to reach the 2,700 laps led milestone.

Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead 47 laps to reach the 1,600 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead 19 laps to reach the 800 laps led milestone.

Graham Rahal needs to lead 10 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone. 

Josef Newgarden wins the race, Patricio O'Ward finishes third, but Álex Palou finishes ninth and wins the championship. Alexander Rossi will not make contact with a teammate. Scott McLaughlin will hold on and win rookie of the year, but Romain Grosjean will finish within single-digit points of the New Zealander. Hélio Castroneves will finish inside the top twenty, but not inside the top fifteen. There will not be a caution in the first five laps. Ed Carpenter Racing's top ten slump will continue into 2022. At least one driver will get his best finish of the season. No cars will park in the flowerbed at the fountain. Sleeper: Jack Harvey.