Sunday, September 26, 2021

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.