Will anyone step up and take control of the NTT IndyCar Series’ drivers’ championship? It’s been the defining question of the title quest so far in 2022.
As we sprint from Sunday’s Nashville Grand Prix through World Wide Technology Raceway on August 20 to Portland on September 4 and the grand finale in Monterey on September 11, we’re waiting to see if any among the incredibly tight grouping of title contenders will distance themselves from the rest.
It looks unlikely at this stage, and if this season’s main trend continues, we won’t know who will emerge victorious until the final laps are turned at Laguna Seca.
The year got under way with Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin leading the championship in the early going and he was quickly usurped by teammate Josef Newgarden. Penske’s Will Power was next, and after his big Indianapolis 500 win, it was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson’s turn to vault into the lead.
That was short-lived as a win by Power at the next round in Detroit demoted Ericsson to second with a three-point deficit. A terrible day for Power at Road America restored Ericsson to the lead with a 27-point advantage over the Penske driver and he held it through Mid-Ohio, although the margin was cut to 20. Another bad weekend for Power widened the gap to 35 points behind Ericsson, and with his win at the first Iowa race, Newgarden took second from Power and closed to within 15 points of the Ganassi driver.
Iowa’s second race was a brutal one for Newgarden whose car broke while leading and in his drop to third in the standings, Power was promoted back to second, just eight points shy of Ericsson whose results of late haven’t been bad, but also haven’t been spectacular.
Last weekend’s Indianapolis road course race was another prime example of waiting to see if a breakaway performer will rise: The championship lead changed hands once more with Power moving ahead of Ericsson, but it’s only a nine-point buffer after 13 of 17 rounds.
Looking back to 2021 and where the championship battle stood after 13 rounds, the fight was pared down to five drivers — others were mathematically eligible, but had no real hope — as Pato O’Ward, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Marcus Ericsson were all within 62 points of leader Alex Palou.
Entering the Nashville race, more have come to play as seven drivers are left with a realistic chance of being crowned. Power’s trailed by Ericsson (-9), Newgarden (-32), Dixon (-38), O’Ward (-46), Palou (-53) and McLaughlin (-80), and in that mix, some strong takeaways can be found.
Starting with the obvious, Team Penske’s been the dominant force in the win column with seven captured by its trio so far. Penske’s 54 percent win output this year is remarkable; Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren SP, and Ganassi are all tied at a distant 15 percent apiece.
When it comes to pole positions, Penske is in the lead again with six — including McLaughlin’s run to P1 on Saturday — to have captured 43 percent of the poles this year. Next on the list is a tie between Andretti and AMSP with three each and 23 percent for both.
Does all this add up to a Penske driver being in line to win the championship in just over a month? If these trends continue, yes, without a doubt.
It’s been a two-team race this year between Penske and Ganassi, but to be fair, the Ganassi team has been playing from behind for all but one event.
With the exception of the Indianapolis 500 where the five-car Chip Ganassi Racing effort was absolutely dominant, the team lost the edge it used to such great effect in 2020 when Dixon led the championship from start to finish, and out-ran the field again in 2021 when Palou was in the title hunt — which he’d eventually win — from the opening race of the season.
By the halfway point of 2021’s championship run, Ganassi owned four wins and had eight combined podiums. It was the juggernaut team of the season and was only seriously challenged for the lead in the standings on a few occasions. It’s been the polar opposite this year.
By the 75-percent point of the 2022 season, Ganassi has two wins and only one additional podium over that halfway point standard from last season; less achieved over more races. On the surface, the Ganassi outfit doesn’t appear to have gone backward so much as the Penske team have gone forward as it’s motored past in the speed department since St. Petersburg in February. With Chevy’s renewed vigor—winner of nine races and counting—the Penske team is always ready to strike. Since the Indy 500, Ganassi’s leading trio has one win and four total podiums; Power has them beat with one win and five podiums of his own during that span.
The confusing part is found in the widely different qualifying outputs from both teams.
If Ericsson, Dixon, or Palou fail to win the championship, the post-mortem will lead back to a bizarre mid-season slump where poor starting positions tanked their collective chances of regularly landing on the podium and grabbing handfuls of points. It’s here where Ericsson, in particular, has been powerless to stop the Penske drivers from carving into his championship lead.
Five of Ericsson’s last six starts, including a painful run to P18 in qualifying at Nashville, have been outside the top 10. Working miracles to overcome bad grid positions is possible on one or two occasions per season, but when it becomes the norm — especially down the championship homestretch — it becomes the reason why titles are lost. Ganassi teammate Dixon will start Nashville from P14 while Palou helped his title chances by making a run to start P6.
As it stands today, the championship is very much of a fight between three Penske drivers and Ericsson. That could change after Nashville if Palou is able to do big things and draw down the 53-point gap to Power. With four races and 215 points left to allocate, Palou’s got a fighting chance to improve from sixth in the standings. The same is true for Dixon in fourth; he needs 38 points to draw even with Power, who starts P8.
AMSP’s O’Ward is a delightful wild card in fifth. He starts in P5 and needs 46 points to bother Power. When it comes to qualifying and being in the mix for wins and podiums, he’ll be a threat at WWTR, for sure, and can only hope the late-season dip in road and street course pace that soured his championship bid in 2021 has been resolved.
Finally, there’s no reason to discount McLaughlin from turning his Nashville pole into a result that cuts dozens of points from his 81-point deficit to his teammate.
In a straight Nashville race with limited drama, Penske’s championship contenders run away from Ganassi’s title hopefuls. McLaughlin starts P1, Newgarden is P6 and Power is P8 while Palou is P6, Dixon is P14 and Ericsson is buried in P18.
Then we remind ourselves that Ericsson took flight last year off the back of Sebastien Bourdais’ car at the inaugural Nashville event, nearly parked his car after being unable to steer with the broken front wings stuck beneath the tires, got lucky at the last second when the wings were dislodged, pitted, gained positions by using pit lane, and went on to win from…a P18 start.
Will Newgarden take back control of the championship here at the end of Round 14? Is Power going to stretch his advantage over Ericsson? Can Dixon do Dixon-like things and jump a few spots forward? And what are the odds of a new points leader being installed after the checkered flag waves?
Sure, put most of your money on Penske coming out on top, but prepare yourselves for 80 wild laps in Tennessee where crazy outcomes and big swings in the championship standings can be expected.