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.