You get 50 points for a win, one point for pole, one point for leading a lap, and two points for leading the most laps in an NTT IndyCar Series race. That makes for 54 points-worth of perfection for any driver who can ace one of the three races left to run before the championship is settled.
Altogether, this weekend’s Portland Grand Prix, next week’s visit to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the closer the following week at Long Beach will put a combined 162 points on the table for the title contenders to grab. And they’ll need to be greedy bastards at each venue.
It’s the time of year where the few remaining title contenders have differing missions to accomplish, with one leading, others chasing, and a few facing long odds to take the championship home. The mindsets of Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou, who lost the lead and sits 10 points back from the AMSP ace, aren’t the same.
And the approach of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who’s spent the year rallying back from a rough start and has vaulted to third in the standings — just 22 points behind O’Ward — is unique as well. Behind them, six-time champion Scott Dixon has a bigger deficit to overcome with 43 points to capture if he wants to stay in contention, and for CGR teammate Marcus Ericsson in fifth, there’s 60 points of separation to O’Ward.
There are more with mathematical chances of earning the title, but it’s the top three where the closest competition is found. So how will the trio approach the three West Coast challenges that lie ahead?
“I’m telling you, you’re not going to win the championship by being conservative,” O’Ward told RACER. “Maybe that worked before, but it’s just not happening like that now. Fourths and fifths won’t get you this championship. Consistency with wins, or consistency with podiums is all that’s going to work, really. And this is a stacked season; it has to be the deepest I’ve ever seen.
“And that’s the thing. You can’t have a mentality that you’re going to just try and be all mellow and take what comes to you in these last races. The field is too good and they’re not going to just let you go by them. I think you’re going to have to go for it every session, every time you’re in the car, and if you don’t, and you don’t go and fight for the win every time, there’s no way you’re going to be the champion.”
O’Ward’s aggression has propelled the Mexican to title contention in only his second full season of IndyCar competition. For Palou, also an IndyCar sophomore, the approach has been more measured while leading the standings for the majority of the year. Where O’Ward has charged forward and performed a number of thrilling passes on the way to two wins and five podiums, the Spaniard has kept the risks to a minimum and been rewarded with two wins and six podiums.
By the numbers, it might appear that they’ve been on the same path to becoming championship protagonists, but if O’Ward’s win-or-bust expectations prove to be accurate, Palou will need to dial up the intensity to match or exceed the AMSP driver.
“First, it’s really exciting to be going for the championship with my team,” Palou said. “I don’t feel, however, that we need to start changing who we are and doing thing differently than what has gotten us here. I can see where Pato is coming from, and I wouldn’t disagree that we all will need some wins to become champion.
“But the way Chip Ganassi Racing does this, with every championship they have won, it’s not by mistake. The way that brought us here, with Scott and Marcus also going for the championship with the three of us in the top 5, it’s not something to throw out because we aren’t the leader right now.”
Newgarden’s title run has been one long Hail Mary since opening the season with a big crash. Amid other misfortunes, the two-time champion has rallied with a pair of wins — including at the most recent race at World Wide Technology Raceway — and five podiums to salvage his aspirations of earning a third title.
Although the American has fought every step of the way to get to third in the standings, his mindset entering Portland is one of managing an uncomfortable situation.
“I’d much prefer to be leading, and I don’t know how you wouldn’t want that, to be controlling your own destiny,” he said. “It’s never as fun having to chase. I see the opinions about how chasing is easier, how you can go for broke with no pressure, and I don’t see things that way. The good thing is the gap to Pato is much shorter, but I think there’s more pressure when you’re behind.
“It’s not a significant pressure increase in magnitude, but there’s more of it; it isn’t a freeing position to be in. What brings me comfort is our ability to perform and execute, and I always have the highest confidence in our No. 2 team. That’s what this championship demands: To show up week in and week out and deliver. I believe we can do that for three weeks in a row.”
Palou looks to Saturday’s time trials, and those ahead in California, as being game changers for the championship group.
“It’s not just how you race that will make a big impact on how you do; I think qualifying will be the most important it’s been all year and having the speed to get a good qualifying position is the critical thing,” he said. “If you can qualify well, you should be able to go for the win, but if not, then you might see more aggressive driving to get out of the place you don’t want to be.”
O’Ward shares the same opinion.
“Oh man, it’s going to be all about the first or second row,” he said. “Because if you’re any farther back than that, or if you’re the chicken stuck in the middle of the pack, it’s not going to be pretty. Qualifying is going to be everything.”
If there’s one area of high anxiety among the top 3, it’s Lap 1, Turn 1 at Portland, and any restarts that might happen. Palou offered the best take on what they’ll be thinking when the green flag waves on Sunday as the field of 27 cars blast down the front straight and file into the tight and slow right-hand chicane where crashes are common.
Will they make it cleanly through lap 1 this time?
Check out who got bumped at the green flag back in 2019. pic.twitter.com/paNjic5DQv
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 8, 2021
“Honestly, it’s not something you want to let your mind concentrate on because the risks around you will be very high, but like we had at the last race, there’s nothing you can do if someone makes a big mistake and take you out,” he said, referring to the crash from behind triggered by Rinus VeeKay that left Palou and Dixon in the wall.
“Like, seriously, there’s nothing you can do to control how the people drive their cars behind you or on your sides. Maybe you can be a little more cautious and leave a little more room, but that creates a different problem. They all know you’re exposed because you’re going for the championship and you can’t afford to make contact, so they’ll try to push you and make you give up the corner or whatever.
“But you can’t let them do that. It’s a really important thing. If you let them push you around and think you won’t push back, it’s going to cost you one or two positions every time. And if you let them do that to you, there’s no way you’ll have good finishes. It’s going to be tough, really tough.”
If the Racing Gods are kind, O’Ward, Palou, Newgarden and the rest of the leaders will get through the 110 laps without drama and outside interference. But if you’ve followed the sport long enough, those gods have a cruel sense of humor, and there’s no guarantee Portland will be a clean race for all.
And how might a win by someone outside the top 3 shuffle the standings? Turn 1, Lap 1, at approximately 3:42 p.m. ET on Sunday, is where the answers will start to emerge.