Josef Newgarden needed to win to keep his title hopes alive, and he did. Alex Palou needed to avoid drama and finish ahead of Pato O’Ward, and he did not.
With one mindless move by Rinus VeeKay at World Wide Technology Raceway, the wildest NTT IndyCar Series season in many years actually managed to get wilder. O’Ward took control of the championship, Palou suffered his worst back-to-back finishes of his young IndyCar career, Newgarden came alive in his quest for a third IndyCar crown, and Scott Dixon fell far enough in the standings to need big help if he’s going to earn title No. 7.
Depending on how the championship results play out, VeeKay’s blunder on lap 64 at WWTR could end up being the pivotal moment where everything changed for the title contenders. And that, like so many other moments this year, perfectly fits the narrative of a season that gets crazier with every wave of the green flag.
Over the next five weeks or so, and provided the state of California or counties that govern Laguna Seca and Long Beach do not add new COVID-related restrictions that jeopardize the calendar being completed as scheduled, we’ll learn a lot about the composure of O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP.
We’ll also see if Palou can pull off a few O’Ward-like drives and go toe-to-toe with the points leader. We’ll find out if Newgarden can keep his streak alive and, just maybe, avoid the come-from-behind drives that have slowed his title march. And can Dixon mount one of his patented late-season charges and spoil their championship plans?
Just as I can’t wait to see how it all gets settled, I hate the fact that we only have three races left to run. Think of all the various needs the title contenders have, plus all of the hopes for wins and strong finishes elsewhere on the grid, and then think of the next race at Portland with that high-speed and six-car-wide braking zone that funnels down into nothing at Turn 1, and one can only imagine the kinds of mayhem that can be made.
If this year of IndyCar racing has taught us anything, it’s that Turn 1, on September 12 in the Pacific Northwest, could flip the championship standings yet again. Using Barber, and St. Pete, and Texas, and Detroit, and Road America, and Nashville, and WWTR as our guides, The “Duck and Pray 200 at Portland International Raceway” should be insane.
A quick nod to O’Ward and AMSP for their latest noteworthy performance. The 2018 Indy Lights champion didn’t attack every driver on every lap, but he certainly went forward with smarts and authority. If WWTR was held in the early stages of the season, O’Ward would have been expected to drive on that razor-thin line of danger/safety he loves to visit, but with a championship within his grasp, the high-risk flourishes were mostly absent from his oval repertoire.
Team president Taylor Kiel has built a powerful relationship with his charge, and in that regard, he deserves credit for becoming the ‘Pato Whisperer.’ O’Ward’s natural tendencies are to obliterate every driver in his way, and that won’t change, but he’s learned to cage that inner animal when needed. So, along with the low-energy coaching in his ear from Kiel to ensure they get the most out of their races, the growth on display from these two feels like it deserves more recognition.
Just as we praise the race-day tandem of Scott Dixon and Mike Hull, or Josef Newgarden and Tim Cindric, there’s something brewing here between O’Ward and Kiel that’s just as special.
Low standards, high drama
Take the cars that failed to finish or were at least one lap down at Nashville, add them to the same group of sidelined or troubled cars at WWTR, and the number is 18! The Indy road course race prior to WWTR was a relative haven for quality driving and reliability as 24 of the 28 entries came home on the lead lap.
At Nashville and WWTR, nine cars apiece were wrecked, repaired, or having miserable days. Both instances, where the number nearly reached double digits, are rarities outside the Indy 500.
I’m convinced Romain Grosjean and his growing army of fans are having more fun than any others during this rookie campaign.
The Frenchman’s fans are legitimately hailed as being the loudest and most supportive at every track he’s visited, and if you weren’t following him in Formula 1, this amazing change could not have been predicted in the latter stages of his F1 career. Whether it was constant complaining about his brakes or unfairly blaming Marcus Ericsson for a crash that involved no one other than himself, the pre-Bahrain 2020 version of Grosjean wasn’t held in as high regard as he is today.
And that’s the beauty of the path he’s taken after the fire and near-death experience last November. His comeback story, in a new land, in a new type of car, with a small team, on unfamiliar tracks, is everything we love in America. The cheers from each pass on his oval debut at WWTR cemented his standing as one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers, and it just feels good to witness.