While Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden spent two days fighting over the NTT IndyCar Series championship in Indianapolis, three drivers well adrift from the lead pack were locked in a million-dollar battle for their team owners.
Leaving the most recent doubleheader at Mid-Ohio, the race to qualify for one of the 22 Leaders Circle contracts available to the 23 full-time entries in the field had Marco Andretti’s No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda holding 21st; the multi-driver No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevy on the bubble in 22nd; and the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy shared by Carpenter and Conor Daly (photo above) on the outside of the $1 million payday in 23rd.
Daly’s solid run to 12th in Friday’s Round 1 race at the Harvest Grand Prix hauled the No. 20 Chevy out of last place to claim 21st in the Entrants standings. Struggling through a problem-filled race debut for Foyt, Sebastien Bourdais was less than pleased to finish 21st, but he managed to keep the No. 14 Chevy in 22nd place in Entrants points. Switching places with Daly, Andretti’s fiery and premature end to Round 1 left his No. 98 Honda 25th on the day, which demoted his entry to 23rd and on the wrong side of the Leaders Circle quest.
Although there was no change after Saturday’s Round 2, the points race has both tightened and widened to earn a Leaders Circle contract.
After Round 1 on the IMS road course, ECR jumped to 21st with an eight-point lead over Foyt, while Andretti fell to three points behind the cutoff. If Bourdais and Andretti were going to move forward in the Entrants race, Round 2 was the place to do it, and, while the Foyt driver came home with the best finish among the trio (18th), it only cut into ECR’s lead by two points with Daly’s 20th-place performance.
For Andretti, who finished 22nd on Saturday, the distance to a Leaders Circle contract grew from three points to seven.
The hunt to avoid losing out on $1 million now moves to the St. Petersburg finale. Two drivers care only about finishing first, while the same three behind them will be doing everything in their power to keep from being last.
In both instances, the reward is a seven-figure payout from IndyCar. For the winners and loser in the Leaders Circle race-within-a-race, approximately 15-20 percent of their 2021 budget is at stake.
Three weeks from now, Dixon, Newgarden, Daly, Bourdais, and Andretti will all be on a mission in Florida as we say farewell to the season.