If you’re a fan of Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward, who holds second in the NTT IndyCar Series championship standings, start a prayer vigil and don’t stop praying until late Sunday afternoon if you want him to win the title. And if you’re a fan of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden in third, well, bless your heart.
If the battle is tight entering the final round, the time spent working through all the scenarios to figure out how drivers in title contention might win the championship can be an exhausting exercise. This would not be one of those years.
With a maximum of 54 points on offer at Long Beach this weekend, O’Ward needs to score a knockout punch to beat Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou. O’Ward also might need to ask Palou to punch himself a few times to finish the job.
O’Ward must earn the point for pole position on Saturday (1), then lead a lap to earn another point (1), then lead the most laps and take the two points that achievement offers (2) and close the event with a win (50) to deal with some daunting odds.
In that dream victory scenario, O’Ward, who enters Long Beach at a 35-point deficit to Palou, would have 536 points. And then Palou, who’s finished inside the top seven an impressive 11 times this season, would need to place 12th (535) or worse to gift the race-winning and 54-point-capturing O’Ward the championship.
Perfection for Pato, near the midfield for Palou, and AMSP pulls off a major upset.
Let’s say O’Ward doesn’t take pole, doesn’t lead the most laps, but wins and get an extra point for leading, which is a rather automatic thing when you cross the finish line in first place. In that situation, O’Ward would have 533 points and Palou would need to finish 15th (532) or worse to lose the title.
But consider this: If O’Ward does anything other than win – finishes second and does so without any bonus points (522) – it’s over.
If Randall ‘Memphis’ Raines from the movie “Gone in 60 Seconds” comes to life, flies over the Long Beach circuit with a helicopter, drops a giant hook at the end of a steel cable to grab the rollhoop of the No. 10 CGR Honda as it sails down Shoreline Avenue, pulls off an epic heist on the first lap of the race with the driver in the car to depart over the Pacific Ocean and Palou’s credited with last place (522)… it still won’t be enough to stop him from winning his first championship.
With a 3-2 advantage on wins, the 522-point tie would go to Palou. If O’Ward wins, evens the tally at 3-3, and the two end up with a tie in championship points, it would also go to Palou on the countback, who leads O’Ward 2-0 on second-place finishes.
And if O’Ward gets pole, leads a lap and the most laps, but finishes second (525), Palou would need to finish 23rd (524) or worse to lose the title.
If it isn’t a win and one or more bonus points for O’Ward while Palou faces some form of adversity and trots home well outside the top 10, there’s not much the AMSP driver can do to prevent CGR from celebrating its second consecutive IndyCar championship.
And then there’s Newgarden at 48 points back from Palou. The two-time title winner’s chances are so remote, there’s no reason to explore more than one scenario. If Newgarden has a weekend of perfection and wins with maximum bonus points in hand (523), and O’Ward drops out of contention, he’d earn a third title if Palou finishes 25th (522) or worse.
What are we facing at Long Beach and how the championship might be settled?
A below-average event for Palou can deliver his first title. A second-place finish for O’Ward all but guarantees that Palou is our new champion. And unless we have alien abductions take place with Palou and O’Ward before the race, Newgarden will spend the day hoping to overtake O’Ward for second in the standings while waiting to return in 2022 and start the process over again.
A few more ‘ifs’ to consider:
* If Palou wins the championship, it will be the first for CGR with a driver other than Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti since 1999, when Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya captured the CART IndyCar Series crown.
* If Palou or O’Ward win the title, we’d also have our first native Spanish speaking champion since Montoya.
* If Palou wins, it will give CGR its 14th IndyCar title since Jimmy Vasser opened the team’s championship account in 1996.
* If O’Ward wins, it will be the first for the team founded in 2001 as Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
* At 22 (O’Ward) and 24 (Palou), IndyCar will have one of its youngest champions in decades.
* And with Palou or O’Ward, we’ll have a driver earning the title in only their second full-time season in IndyCar.