Thursday, September 9, 2021

Track Walk: Portland 2021

Portland plays a critical role in 2021 IndyCar championship

The 14th round of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season has the series returning to Portland International Raceway. The 1.978-mile road course was one of a handful of tracks lost last year due to the global pandemic. This year's race will be longer than IndyCar's last two visits to the circuit. The race has increased to 110 laps, five more than the last two Portland races. The last Portland race saw Will Power win from second on the grid after lead 52 of 105 laps. Four drivers were taken out in an opening corner accident. A turn one accident also took out three cars at the start of the 2018 race. 

Time: Coverage begins at 3:00 pm ET on Sunday September 12 with green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee and Kelli Stavast will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule 
First Practice: 12:00 p.m ET (75 minutes)*
Qualifying: 3:15 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have tape-delayed coverage at 11:30 p.m. ET)*
Final Practice: 6:15 p.m. ET (30 minutes)*
Race: 3:30 p.m. ET (110 laps)

* - All practice and qualifying sessions are available live on Peacock.

The Final Stretch
Three races remain, IndyCar has a new championship leader and only 11 drivers are left standing heading into this last stretch of races with 162 points left on the table. 

Patricio O'Ward recaptured the championship lead with a runner-up finish at Gateway, his fourth podium finish of the season and his eighth top five finish. On 435 points, O'Ward leads the championship for only the second time this season. He previously led after his Belle Isle victory in June. However, O'Ward's lead is ten times larger this time around. The Mexican has a ten-point lead over Álex Palou entering Portland after O'Ward only led Palou by one point after Belle Isle. 

Palou drops to second after his second consecutive retirement and finish of 20th or worse. The Spaniard has been ranked in the top two of the championship after 12 of 13 races with his worst championship position being third. 

Third is the closest it has been to the championship since the second race of the year when two points covered the top three and five points covered the top four. Josef Newgarden has himself 22 points off the championship lead, the closest Newgarden has been to the championship lead all season. Newgarden has won two of the last four races and he has led a lap in at least five of the last six races, on four of those occasions he has led the most laps. 

Scott Dixon sits in fourth, 43 points off O'Ward. Dixon has lost a spot in the championship after each of the last two races, but Dixon is only one point further off the championship than he was when he exited Nashville in second in the championship after a runner-up finish. 

Marcus Ericsson makes it three Chip Ganassi Racing drivers in the top five and Ericsson is 60 points off the top spot. Ericsson has seven consecutive top ten finishes, three of which have been ninth-place results, including the last two races. Ericsson has scored the most points since the Indianapolis 500. With 237 points, the Swede has scored eight points more than Newgarden and 13 points more than O'Ward, the only other drivers to score more than 200 points in the last seven races.

There is a big gulf between fifth and sixth in the championship After retirements in two of the last three races, both of which were races Colton Herta led the most laps, the American driver sits sixth in the championship, 111 points behind his former Indy Lights teammate O'Ward. Herta has not been ranked in the top five of the championship since his St. Petersburg victory, which lifted him to fourth. 

Simon Pagenaud is 115 points back, but he has only two top ten finishes in the last seven races with his best result being eighth. He has not finished in the top five since he was third at Indianapolis and his only top five on a road/street course this year was third at St. Petersburg. 

Graham Rahal's second retirement of the season at Gateway knocked him down to eighth in the championship, 116 points off O'Ward. Rahal has six top five finishes, tied for the fourth-most this season with Newgarden. Despite Rahal's finishing results, he has yet to start in the top five this season and he has only qualified in the top ten for four races, with his best qualifying result being eighth.

Will Power has consecutive podium finishes for the first time this season and it has him up to ninth in the championship. Power trails O'Ward by 120 points. Power is coming off his first pole position of the season, making 2021 his 13th consecutive season with a pole position. He started on pole position at Portland in 2018.

Rounding out the top ten is 2018 Portland winner Takuma Sato, 156 points back. Sato has only one top five finish this season, but he has been ranked between tenth and 13th in the championship after every race this season. While Sato's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Graham Rahal has yet to start in the top five this year, Sato hasn't started in the top ten once this season.

Rinus VeeKay is the last man standing in the championship fight, 157 points back. VeeKay's average finish in his last five starts is 20.6 after he opened the season with an average finish of 7.857 through the first seven races. He was ranked fourth in the championship after the Belle Isle weekend, 32 points off the championship lead. 

Gateway saw Alexander Rossi, Scott McLaughlin, Jack Harvey and Romain Grosjean eliminated after the final oval race of the 2021 season. 

We have already seen the championship leader score single point totals in the last two races and if the trend continues we could see a handful of driver remain above the waterline heading into the penultimate round at Laguna Seca. 

If O'Ward were to leave with the minimum five points, he would have 440 points, and a driver would need to leave Portland with at least 332 points to stay alive for another race. Currently, the top five are all above that mark and in all likelihood the top five in the championship will remain alive heading into Laguna Seca. A maximum points day for O'Ward would give him 489 points and a driver would need at least 381 points after Portland to remain alive. Four of the top five are above that mark and Ericsson would need just six points to clear it. 

Taking the minimum point scenario for a second, and remembering tiebreakers will become clearer as the races dwindle, Herta would need at least nine points to stay alive, or finish 21st or better. Pagenaud would need to score 13 points, or finish 17th or better with Rahal needing one more point and one more position to stay alive. Power would need to finish at least 12th. 

The only way Sato can stay alive is a victory with at least three bonus points and VeeKay can only stay alive with a maximum points race, 54 points for a victory. Even if VeeKay were to score maximum points combined with O'Ward scoring the minimum points, VeeKay could only tie O'Ward's point total if O'Ward missed the final two races. 

As we saw at Gateway, the championship leader is not guaranteed to leave with the championship lead with a low points race. If O'Ward has a bad day, it is very likely Palou could retake the championship lead, or Newgarden could leap to the top spot for the first time this season. 

Let's look at averages to take into consideration a change in the championship lead. Combining the top three drivers' points and dividing it by 39 starts between the three, they average 32.64 points per race. Let's call it 33 points. Let's just say each driver scores 33 points and in all three scenarios ended up the championship leader, the three point totals for those drivers if they scored 33 points would be 457 points. 

If 457 points is the championship lead after Portland, a driver will need at least 349 points to remain eligible. The top five in the championship would be safe. Herta would need at least 25 points, or a finish of seventh or better. Pagenaud and Rahal would both need to finish fifth or better. Power would need to finish on the podium. If the championship lead is above 442 points after Portland, both Sato and VeeKay will be eliminated. 
Palou's Uncertain Path
It has been a terrific sophomore season for Palou, as the Ganassi driver has not wavered this season and his worst two results came after two things out of his control, a blown engine while running in the top ten on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and he was spun at Gateway. 

Ever positive, Palou does not show any concern when faced with adversity. After qualifying seventh at Road America, Palou emerged confident at his chances despite Chip Ganassi Racing advisor Dario Franchitti upset the driver was not more upset. Palou went onto win that race. 

Ten points is a minor deficit with three races remaining, and a victory this weekend will likely give Palou the championship lead no matter where O'Ward finishes. At worst, the most Palou could trail O'Ward by in the championship after a Portland victory is three points. That sounds great on paper, but these final three races are complete unknowns to Palou, as none of these three tracks were on the schedule last year. 

O'Ward does not have much more experience at these tracks, but he swept the Indy Lights races at Portland in 2018. He was 12th in his first Long Beach start in 2019 driving for Carlin. O'Ward made four Pro Mazda starts at Laguna Seca, although those races were in 2015 and 2016. Palou has zilch when it comes to O'Ward's record outside a few test sessions. 

Every place was new to Palou last year, and while he was quick at many races, he had only three top ten finishes. His average finish was 14.7 as a rookie. So far in 2021, Palou has made first starts at three tracks, one of which was Nashville, which was new to everybody. Palou won his maiden Barber start to open the season, and while he was 15th in the first Belle Isle race after having to serve a grid penalty for an engine change, he bounced back to finish third in the second race. 

Portland does not have a great comparison on the IndyCar schedule. Many street courses are flat, but Portland does not have the roughness of a street course. The IMS road course is flat, and both tracks are comparable in speeds, albeit the IMS road course is about a half-mile longer than Portland. Palou's IMS road course record is streak. He was third there in May, but he has finished outside the top fifteen in three of his five starts on that circuit. 

Laguna Seca chewed up tires in IndyCar's return two years ago. Colton Herta dominated that race ahead of Will Power. What road course eats up tires? Road America. Herta has run well at Road America. Palou has run well at Road America with finishes of third, seventh and first in his three starts at 4.048-mile road course. 

Street courses have been spotty for Palou. His two St. Petersburg starts are nothing to write home about. His Belle Isle starts cancel each other out and then there is Nashville, which was new to everyone, and the chaotic nature of that race makes it hard to draw anything from. Meanwhile, O'Ward has three podium finishes in his five street course starts with Arrow McLaren SP. However, those other two races were 19th at St. Petersburg, a race he struggled with the tire balance, and then he was 13th at Nashville.

Palou's rough patch might have come at the worst possible time. Instead of rolling into the final three events with a cushion, Palou will be fighting from behind on unknown terrain, an unfavorable situation for a championship hopeful.

The Kiwi vs. The Phoenix
When Romain Grosjean decided to enter the Gateway race it heightened the rookie of the year battle, something we thought at the start of the season would easily slide into Scott McLaughlin's favor, as McLaughlin was running the full season, including the Indianapolis 500, which awarded double points. 

Entering Gateway, McLaughlin's lead in the rookie race had shrunk to seven points, making Grosjean a legitimate threat for the honor. Though McLaughlin entered on a slump while Grosjean was learning something new, the New Zealander got out of his funk with a fourth-place finish, his second top five result of the season. The other was second at Texas. While McLaughlin was fourth, Grosjean's first oval race ended in 14th, the only car one lap down, as the Frenchman was trapped in the middle of the pit cycle when Alexander Rossi hit the barrier in turn two. Grosjean had run much of the race in the top ten and in the same zip code as McLaughlin. 

With the ten-position difference between the two, McLaughlin's rookie lead expanded back to 23 points, but Grosjean should be the favorite in the final three races. 

In the last six road/street course events, McLaughlin has averaged 11.667 points per race. Over those six events, Grosjean has averaged 20.833 points. Rounding up to 12 points and 21 points respectively, if each driver matches that average over the final three races, Grosjean will end up on top with 285 points to McLaughlin's 281 points. 

Grosjean has two top five finishes and three top ten finishes in the last six road/street course races while McLaughlin's best finish in that span is 12th and he has finished 20th or worse in three of those six races. McLaughlin has started outside the top ten in all those races and outside the top 20 in four of them. Grosjean has started four of the six races in the top five and his only start outside the top ten was 18th at Mid-Ohio.  

Head-to-head, Grosjean only holds the advantage 6-4, but his average finish is over three spots better at 11.6 to 14.7. 

McLaughlin might need a miracle to fend off Grosjean for the rookie of the year honor, but the finale could be in McLaughlin's favor. Four of Grosjean's five worst finishes this season are on street courses and Long Beach closes out the 2021 season. Grosjean has started in the top five in three of the four street course events, but his average finish is 19th. McLaughlin is not smashing on street courses either, as his average finish is only a position better.

Three Cracks at a Victory
The final month of the season again brings the pressure on the winless, especially those already eliminated from the championship. Three cracks remain at the top step of the podium before the final will have to wait until March for their next shot at triumph. For some, it could be their final shots at IndyCar victories with insecure futures ahead. 

Three 2020 winners are without a victory this season. Takuma Sato was the best of those three in the championship and he won the biggest race in 2020, the Indianapolis 500. Sato has won a race in four consecutive seasons after having only one victory in his first seven IndyCar seasons. The only track he has won at multiple times is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, meaning Portland could join a special club for Sato.

Simon Pagenaud was only one spot behind Sato in the championship and his lone victory in 2020 was the first Iowa race from 23rd on the grid, partially aided with a lengthy yellow during the middle of a pit cycle. The latest Pagenaud's first victory of a season has come was the seventh race in 2013, his first career victory at Belle Isle. The only times he has won one of the final three races were when he won the Sonoma season finales in 2016 and 2017. Pagenaud is currently the top driver in the 2021 championship without a victory.

Felix Rosenqvist's Road America victory feels like a different lifetime ago now. Not only is Rosenqvist at a different team, but the Swede has only one top five finish in the 21 stats since that victory. His only top ten finish this season was eighth at Nashville. Portland is still an unfamiliar track for Rosenqvist, but he was runner-up there in 2019. 

Graham Rahal's winless drought is up to 70 races and this drought could not be heading to a worse track for the Ohioan. Rahal was ninth in his first Portland start way back in 2007. In the two IndyCar starts since Portland returned in 2018, Rahal has completed a combined four laps out of a possible 210 laps. 

Alexander Rossi is developing a pattern with top five finishes and 17th. After finishing fifth at Mid-Ohio, he was 17th at Nashville. Then came a fourth on the IMS road course and a 17th at Gateway. Patterns aside, the more concerning trend is his 34-race winless streak. He still does not have a podium in 2021 and he ended 2020 with four podium finishes in the final five races. He was third at Portland in 2019 and led 32 of 105 laps in 2018 before a caution caught him out while leading and shuffled him back to eighth in the final results. 

Sébastien Bourdais is coming off his second top five finish of the season. HIs last victory was the 2018 St. Petersburg season opener. Bourdais has not won a race after the month of July since he won the 2007 Champ Car season finale at Mexico City in November.

For some drivers, Portland is not only one of their final chances for victory in 2021, but a final chance to win for their currently employer. 

Jack Harvey has finished in the top ten in the last two races, but he will be leaving Meyer Shank Racing at the end of the season and the team's most experienced driver has shown race-contending pace only for the results to slide away. Forty-four of Harvey's 46 starts have come with MSR.

Ryan Hunter-Reay's time at Andretti Autosport appears to be ending. This is Hunter-Reay's 12th season with the organization, but the two sides are likely to part after 2021. The 2012 champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner has not won since the 2018 Sonoma season finale. It was Hunter-Reay's 14th victory with the team. 

James Hinchcliffe is in the same boat as Hunter-Reay. Hinchcliffe's return season to Andretti Autosport has been far from memorable. He has only two podium finishes in his last 36 starts. Hinchcliffe's only victory on a natural-terrain road course remains the infamous 2015 NOLA Motorsports Park round, a race that saw 26 of 47 laps under caution, a race that was time-shortened from its 75-lap scheduled distance.

Ed Jones' second stint with Dale Coyne Racing has not gone nearly as well as his rookie season with the team back in 2017. Jones has two top ten finishes, but he finds himself 20th in the championship. He has finished outside the top twenty in three of the last five races. He was 24th and 14th in his first two Portland starts.

This Week's Guests Are...
It wouldn't be an IndyCar weekend in 2021 without a few new driver and team combinations and the antepenultimate round of the season brings a few more surprises to us. 

We knew Juncos Hollinger Racing would be returning to IndyCar for the final three races of the 2021 season during the summer break, but we did not know the team's driver. Now we do, and the little team, whose last IndyCar appearance was bumping McLaren and Fernando Alonso out of the 2019 Indianapolis 500, will have Ferrari test driver Callum Ilott pilot the #77 Chevrolet. 

Ilott spent the last two years competing in the FIA Formula Two Championship. In 2020, he won three races, stood on the podium six times, and finished in the points in 18 of 24 races on his way to a runner-up championship finish behind fellow Ferrari Driver Academy driver Mick Schumacher by 14 points. Prior to Formula Two, Ilott was third in the GP3 Series championship in 2018 and won eight races over three seasons in Formula Three. 

Ilott has spent 2021 as Ferrari's test driver and Alfa Romeo's reserve driver, but he has also dabbled in sports car racing, contesting GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup races for Iron Lynx Ferrari and he was third for the team in the GTE-Am class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Matteo Cressoni and Rino Mastronardi. 

As of now, Portland is the only confirmed race for Ilott.

A familiar guest to IndyCar is Oliver Askew and the Floridan will be back for the final three races of 2021 in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's #45 Honda. Askew made one start this season substituting for the injured Rinus VeeKay at Road America. Askew qualified one position behind his Ed Carpenter Racing teammate Conor Daly in that race but finished eight spots higher, with Askew finishing 12th in his first race since the 2020 St. Petersburg season finale. 

Askew will be the third driver to run the #45 Honda this season. Santino Ferrucci ran five races and finished no worse than 11th. Alpine F1 development driver Christian Lundgaard ran the IMS road course race last month and started fourth before finishing 12th and leading laps on debut. 

Portland also marks the return of Hélio Castroneves for the final three races of 2021 in the #06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda. Castroneves is 23rd in the championship after his first three starts of the season. The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner will be making his first Portland start in over 20 years. He last raced at the circuit on June 24, 2001. Castroneves qualified third that race but finished a lap down in 17th. 

Road to Indy
Only the Indy Lights series joins IndyCar in the Rose City and IndyCar's second division has a tight title battle with three rounds, six races remaining. 

With a sweep at Gateway, David Malukas has retaken the championship lead. Malukas sits on 371 points off the back of six victories and 11 podium finishes from 14 races. Kyle Kirkwood dropped to second, three points behind Malukas, after Kirkwood was runner-up in both Gateway races. Kirkwood has won five races and has nine podium finishes this season with seven podium finishes in the last eight races. 

Linus Lundqvist has fallen off the top two in the championship, dropping to 59 points back. Lundqvist has not finished on the podium in the last races. He opened the season with two victories and six podium finishes in the first eight races. 

Benjamin Pedersen and Devlin DeFrancesco are tied on 245 points. Pedersen was third in both Gateway races. He had only two top five finishes in the first 12 races of the season. Both those finishes were runner-up results. DeFrancesco had only four top five finishes in the first ten races of the season, and he enters Portland on the back of four consecutive top five finishes. 

Danial Frost is a point off the Pedersen/DeFrancesco tie. Frost was on the podium in three consecutive races before he finished sixth and tenth at Gateway. 

Like IndyCar, Indy Lights sees a few driver changes this weekend. Rasmus Lindh replaces Toby Sowery at Juncos Racing. Lindh was runner-up in the 2018 U.S. F2000 championship and 2019 Indy Pro 2000 championship. He was supposed to move up to Indy Lights' last year before the season was cancelled. The Swede has spent the last two years driving an LMP3 car in IMSA. Lindh had runner-up finishes in class at Mid-Ohio and Road America.  

Sowery had not finished in the top five in the last five races after opening the season with three podium finishes and seven top five finishes in the first nine races. Sowery is sixth in the championship on 236 points. 

Alex Peroni will not be back for the final rounds either, as the Australian leaves Carlin. Peroni has 228 points with one podium finish and seven top five finishes this season. Robert Megennis is ninth in the championship on 225 points, averaging a finish of 6.785 and he has finished seventh or worse in nine of the last 11 races. 

Sting Ray Robb rounds out the top ten on 169 points, six points ahead of Christian Bogle. Antonio Serravalle has 157 points. None of those three drivers have a top five finish this year. 

Manuel Sulaimán will make his Indy Lights debut this weekend with HMD Motorsports. Sulaimán has spent the last three years in the Road to Indy system. In 43 starts between Indy Pro 2000 and U.S. F2000, he has three Indy Pro 2000 victories, including at Road America earlier this year. In 28 Indy Pro 2000 starts, he has three victories, seven podium finishes and 12 top five finishes. He is currently eighth in the Indy Pro 2000 championship after withdrawing from the most recent round at New Jersey Motorsports Park.

The first Indy Lights race will be at 4:55 p.m. ET on Saturday September 11 with race two at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday September 12. 

Fast Facts
This will be the 12th IndyCar race to occur on September 12 and first since Will Power won at Mid-Ohio last year. 

The last five IndyCar winners on September 12 have represented five different countries: Brazil (Emerson Fittipaldi, 1993 at Mid-Ohio), American (Bryan Herta, 1999 at Laguna Seca), Canadian (Patrick Carpentier, 2004 at Laguna Seca), Mexican (Adrián Fernández, 2004 at Chicago), Australian (Will Power, 2020 at Mid-Ohio).

This year's race occurs one day after Rinus VeeKay's 21st birthday.

Twenty-seven cars will be the largest Portland race since 28 cars started the 1999 race. That race was only 98 laps, won by Gil de Ferran driving for Walker Racing in the #5 Valvoline/Cummins Reynard-Honda. The other podium finishers were Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti. Hélio Castroneves led the first 30 laps from second on the grid before retiring with an electrical issue in his #9 Hogan Racing Lola-Mercedes. Castroneves was classified in 26th. It was Castroneves' 27th career start.

There have been five different winners in the last five Portland races (Cristiano da Matta in 2005, A.J. Allmendinger in 2006, Sébastien Bourdais in 2007, Takuma Sato in 2018 and Will Power in 2019) 

The last five Portland winners have all come from different continents (South America, North America, Europe, Asia and Australia).  

There have been two other instances of five consecutive different Portland winners. The first period was from 1986 to 1990 when Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti all won races. Michael Andretti ended that stretch as he won in 1991 and 1992 as well. 

The other stretch started with de Ferran in 2000 and continued through 2004 with Max Papis, da Matta, Adrián Fernández and Bourdais winning the next four races. 

There have been four drivers to win consecutive Portland race (Mario Andretti 1985-86, Michael Andretti 1990-92, Al Unser, Jr. 1994-95 and de Ferran 1999-2000).

Three drivers have scored their first IndyCar victory at Portland (Al Unser 1984, Mark Blundell 1997 and A.J. Allmendinger 2006). 

The average starting position for a Portland winner is 4.0769 with a median of 2.5. 

Only two of 26 Portland races have been won from outside the top ten (Mark Blundell from 11th in 1997 and Takuma Sato from 20th in 2018).

Thirteen Portland races have been one from the front row with the pole-sitter having six victories to second on the grid's seven victories. 

Twenty-one Portland races have been won from inside the top five. 

The average number of lead changes in a Portland race is 5.7307 with a median of 5.5. 

The last five Portland races have had seven lead changes or more. 

Every Portland race has had at least two lead changes. 

The average number of cautions in a Portland race is 2.08 with a median of one. The average number of caution laps is 7.48 with a median of five. 

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.

Takuma Sato needs to lead 98 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone. Sato would become the 42nd driver to eclipse that milestone.

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

Graham Rahal needs to lead 46 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone.

Third time is the charm and Colton Herta gets out of his funk with a Portland victory. Patricio O'Ward maintains his championship lead, but Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon will both gain ground on O'Ward. Álex Palou is one of the top two Ganassi finishers. Rinus VeeKay is back as the top Ed Carpenter Racing finisher. Romain Grosjean will surpass Scott McLaughlin in points. Callum Ilott will not replicate Christian Lundgaard's debut weekend, and Ilott will finish somewhere 17th to 22nd with at least 108 laps completed. Graham Rahal will complete all 110 laps and he will be the top Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing finisher. Oliver Askew will score the #45 Honda's worst finish of the season. There will be the fewest cautions in a Portland race since the IndyCar return in 2018. No caution will occur in the first 20 laps of the race. Sleeper: Ryan Hunter-Reay.