Thursday, September 14, 2023

Let's Look at the League - September 2023

Our never-ending postseason coverage of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season steps out of reality for a second, and we look at a complete hypothetical running concurrently with the actual championship.

In the mythical league format, these final few race weekends comprised a playoff, one for the championship and another to decide the final relegation spot. It is only the final weekends to earn promotion. 

What happened? Let's find out. 

Quarterfinals (Gateway):
#10 Ganassi vs. #5 McLaren
#26 Andretti vs. #3 Pensek
#12 Penske vs. #2 Penske
#9 Ganassi vs. #27 Andretti

#5 McLaren def. #10 Ganassi (2nd to 7th)
What is the reward for having the best regular season record and being the best all season? Patricio O'Ward in the #5 McLaren. It might just go to show how deep IndyCar is where Álex Palou as a one-seed would get O'Ward as a four-seed. The truth is O'Ward had the better car all race, and the reality of the actual championship likely kept Palou settling for seventh or something in the backhalf of the top ten, allowing O'Ward to easily taking this with a runner-up result.

#3 Penske def. #26 Andretti (5th to 6th)
This was the closest battle of the quarterfinal round. Scott McLaughlin ran better than Colton Herta for most of the race, but Herta was there and a slight difference in how the pit cycles and cautions played out could have seen this result go the other way.

#12 Penske def. #2 Penske (9th to 25th)
Josef Newgarden's brush with the turn two barrier not only ended his actually championship hopes, but his league championship hopes were gone in that moment as well. This was shaping up to be an easy quarterfinals victory for Newgarden. Will Power was not close, but one moment allowed Power to sweep through and advance.

#9 Ganassi def. #27 Andretti (1st to 15th)
Scott Dixon's masterful strategy allowed him to easily defend Kyle Kirkwood and move onto the semifinals. However, even without the incredible fuel conservation, Dixon was likely going to beat Kirkwood in this one, who was off-strategy in his own right, but was going the wrong direction.

Semifinals (Portland):
#5 McLaren vs. #3 Penske 
#12 Penske vs. #9 Ganassi

#5 McLaren def. #3 Penske (4th to 9th)
Tire strategy likely decided this one. McLaughlin's choice of using the alternate tire compound for how long he did in the opening stint saw him lose ground for the entire race. O'Ward on the other hand maintained solid position in the middle of the top ten as McLaughlin slid behind him and was unable to comeback. O'Ward to the final.

#9 Ganassi def. #12 Penske (3rd to 25th)
This was decided in the opening laps when Power over cooked the corner after the hairpin and spun off, stalling in the grass and stalling. Dixon kept his nose clean and won with plenty of insurance.

Final (Laguna Seca):
#5 McLaren vs. #9 Ganassi

#9 Ganassi def. #5 McLaren (1st to 9th)
For the third time in four races, and second time in the playoffs, Scott Dixon and the #9 Ganassi team played strategy beautifully from a precarious situation to not only win a head-to-head matchup, but to win a race outright. This all started with Dixon making contact at the start with Rinus VeeKay. Dixon was penalized for it when it really looked to be a racing incident or at least not his fault, and then cautions played into his favor, but Dixon avoided the carnage around him as he spent a good segment of the race in the middle of the field. 

O'Ward looked to be in the right spot for his first race victory of the season, but the cautions then did not fall his way, and the team's decision to hold off putting on the alternate tire compound may have forced O'Ward to make an extra pit stop instead of trying to stretch fuel.

This handed the victory and the league championship to Scott Dixon for the first time.

Relegation Playoff:
Semifinals (Gateway):
#28 Andretti vs. #60 Meyer Shank
#15 RLLR vs. #11 Ganassi

#28 Andretti def. #60 MSR (12th to 18th)
In a toss-up between the underwhelming Romain Grosjean and the fresh rookie Linus Lundqivst, Grosjean came out on top and maintained safety in League One for the #28 Andretti with his 12th-place finish. 

#15 RLLR def. #11 Ganassi (20th to 26th)
Considering Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's oval issues this season, facing Takuma Sato in a Ganassi entry at Gateway was likely not what Graham Rahal was looking forward to. However, Sato had a vintage Sato performance, with two glances of the turn two wall and then one solid hit to end his race. At that point, Rahal could breath easy and sail into League One security. 

Final (Portland):
#60 MSR vs. #11 Ganassi

#11 Ganassi def. #60 MSR (19th to 24th)
The two drivers that lost at Gateway were out and set up Marcus Armstrong vs. Tom Blomqvist for the final returning spot to League One and the final relegation spot down to League Two in 2024. This race was overwhelmingly in Armstrong's favor. He had more speed and was clear of Blomqvist. But one unsecured tire on a pit stop nearly unraveled the entire race for Armstrong. The crew got the tire fastened and Armstrong returned to the track with no damage. He had enough breathing room to finish five spots ahead of Blomqvist, but it was closer than it should have been. 

With this result, the #60 Meyer Shank Racing entry was relegated.

League Two (Through 18 Weeks)
1. #45 RLLR 13-3
2. #77 JHR 12-5
3. #6 McLaren 11-5
4. #20 Carpenter 10-7
5. #06 Meyer Shank 9-7
6. #14 Foyt 8-8
7. #78 JHR 7-9
8. #30 RLLR 7-10
9. #55 Foyt 5-11
10. #29 Andretti 5-12 
11. #51 Coyne 4-12

At this point, every entry had competed in either 16 or 17 matchups of their scheduled 20 depending on if they had already had both bye weeks or had one bye week remaining. 

Final League Two Standings
1. #45 RLLR 17-3
2. #6 McLaren 15-5
3. #77 JHR 14-6
4. #20 Carpenter 12-8
5. #06 Meyer Shank 11-9
6. #14 Foyt 9-11
7. #30 RLLR 8-12
8. #78 JHR 7-13
9. #55 Foyt 6-14
10. #51 Coyne 6-14
11. #29 Andretti 6-14

Not to bore you with the details, because the top three teams remained the same, the #45 RLLR entry secured promotion when Christina Lundgaard was faster than Agustín Canapino in Gateway qualifying. Callum Ilott secured promotion for the #77 JHR entry when he was faster than Benjamin Pedersen in Gateway qualifying and then beating Devlin DeFrancesco in the #29 Andretti entry at Portland while Felix Rosenqvist defeated Ryan Hunter-Reay in the #20 ECR entry at Portland. 

As for Rosenqvist, his victory over Hunter-Reay clinched promotion for the #6 McLaren at Portland. 

We know who the 2024 League One teams are. What is the tentative league structure?

2024 League One - Conference One
#10 Ganassi
#5 McLaren
#2 Penske
#45 RLLR
#7 McLaren
#6 McLaren
#28 Andretti
#77 JHR

2024 League One - Conference Two
#9 Ganassi
#3 Penske
#8 Ganassi
#12 Penske
#26 Andretti
#27 Andretti
#15 RLLR
#11 Ganassi

2024 League Two
#21 ECR
#18 DCR
#14 Foyt
#06 MSR
#20 ECR
#30 RLLR
#29 Andretti
#60 MSR
#78 JHR
#51 DCR
#55 Foyt

This is all subject to change as we aren't sure what entries will return and what entries will go away. Andretti Autosport is talking about going down to three cars. McLaren may expand to four. Who knows? 

Looking at how the entrants' championship broke down, there are currently all three McLaren in conference one and three of four Ganassi entries in conference two. For balance, one of each could be moved to the other conference. The #11 Ganassi could flip with the #77 JHR, each those were the 15th and 16th entries. The #26 Andretti and #7 McLaren could also flip as each were fifth in their respective conference and Andretti Autosport's three entries would still be split two-to-one while breaking up the three-to-zero McLaren split.

Expect the League Two format to change because it was a headache doing an 11-team double round robin, but we have over five months until we have to tackle that. A 12th entry to League Two would be greatly appreciated.

We will see how the offseason plays out, and come February we will settle on the make up for the 2024 league format.