INSIGHT: Why WWTR is make or break for some of IndyCar's title hopefuls

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INSIGHT: Why WWTR is make or break for some of IndyCar's title hopefuls

IndyCar

INSIGHT: Why WWTR is make or break for some of IndyCar's title hopefuls

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Who will lead the NTT IndyCar Series championship after Round 15 of 17 is complete, and will there be any surprises afterwards in the Drivers’ standings? Come on, this IndyCar in 2022 where crazy is the new normal and nothing makes sense.

Every IndyCar race, barring the double-points Indianapolis 500, pays 50 points to the winner, one point to the polesitter, a point to every driver who leads a lap, and two to whoever leads the most.

That’s 54 points up for grabs Saturday night at World Wide Technology Raceway, at Portland on September 4, and finally, at Laguna Seca on September 11, leaving seven drivers with realistic chances of winning the championship with a maximum of 162 points to chase in the coming weeks.

Up front, Will Power leads with 450 points and he’s trailed by Scott Dixon (444, -6 points), Marcus Ericsson (438, -12), Josef Newgarden (428, -22), and in fifth, it’s Alex Palou (417, -33).

At the opposite end of victory, those who have the worst days are spared from leaving a race empty-handed; finish 20th and you earn 10 points. Finish 25th or lower, and five points are given. No matter what happens on Saturday at the 1.25-mile oval, every driver will add at least five points to their tally, and in the case of the seven contenders, the last two are in need of something big to stay in the hunt.

Scott McLaughlin (392, -58) in sixth and Pato O’Ward in seventh (391, -59) are on an island where they can’t afford to have their gaps stay the same or grow after WWTR because of the diminishing number of races left to run.

Team Penske’s McLaughlin has earned two podiums from the four oval races held so far this season and placed fourth on his WWTR debut last year. Arrow McLaren SP’s O’Ward, one point behind McLaughlin, has three oval podiums including a win this year, and owns three podiums at WWTR.

As a whole, the remaining contenders land at WWTR with an impossibly tight 59-point margin separating first from seventh. But even with a perfect weekend for McLaughlin with 54 points, he’d go no higher than third in the standings with 446. The same is true for O’Ward, who’d reach 445 by dominating all phases of the event. If Penske’s Power and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon finish at the bottom of the results, they’d still be clear of McLaughlin and O’Ward with 455 and 449 points respectively, and how likely would it be for the drivers holding first and second in the championship to fall that far in a single race?

That’s the harshest reality for McLaughlin and O’Ward to face. Consistency is what has narrowed the field down to seven drivers with reasonable shots at earning the title with three races left, and while we could see a repeat of last year’s race where the points leader and third-place driver were taken out by a non-title contender, such occurrences are rare.

Power can afford the luxury of a merely ‘decent’ race at WWTR and still come out of the weekend in decent shape for the championship. Travis Hinkle/Penske Entertainment

Since hoping for the misfortune of one’s rivals isn’t a strategy, McLaughlin and have clear missions ahead during the 260-lapper: They can’t afford to have ‘decent’ races. Excellence is what they absolutely need.

Here’s an example that also applies to McLaughlin: Forgetting bonus points, if O’Ward finishes fifth (421), Power only needs to finish sixth (478) to effectively negate O’Ward’s efforts. The gap would go from -59 to -57, but with only two races left on the slate, they’d be in desperation mode during the western swing. To keep the odds in their favor, it’s podiums for both on Saturday, or they risk losing touch with the main group. And together, these two have the longest haul to make, but they’re also two of the strongest performers on ovals. They’re more than capable of changing their fortunes a few days from now and leaping into the thick of the title race.

It’s the 33 points that separate the top five where all manner of possibilities exist for WWTR. Working backwards in the pre-WWTR standings, and without bonus point scenarios, Ganassi’s Palou can vault from fifth to first with a win (467) if Power trails home in 14th (466) or worse. Penske’s Newgarden can take the championship lead with a win (478) if Power places seventh (476) or lower.

A victory for Ganassi’s Ericsson (488) moves the Indy 500 winner back to the lead if Power is no higher than third (485), and Dixon can capture his first championship lead of the season with a win (494). Even with a stout run to second, Power (490) would also fall to second in the standings.

Ask some of the championship contenders what they deem as the maximum gap they could aim to overcome after WWTR, and the answer tends to be in the range of 25 to 30, which applies a fine filter to the oval race that’s about to take place.

Like McLaughlin and O’Ward – but to a somewhat lesser degree – Palou cannot afford to have an unremarkable race. He’s only 33 points shy of Power, but if Power happens to win (500) and Palou ambles home in fifth (447), the margin widens to 53 points and he’ll find himself in Hail Mary mode. Run Newgarden through that outcome with a Power win and fifth for him (458), and his 22-point gap swells to 42 with a maximum of 108 left to earn.

Take Ericsson, just a scant 12 points out of first, through that Power victory and fifth-place outcome and he rocks up in Oregon with 32 points to find in a span of seven days. On the surface, 32 points is within range, but we still have the fact that earning the 32, or the 42 for Newgarden, or the 53 for Palou in this good-but-not-great-finish scenario comes with the need for a few of the best IndyCar drivers of 2022 to encounter major levels of adversity.

There are plenty of other permutations we could wander through, but the scenarios outlined here paint a simple picture: If you’re at the far end in the standings, the sun could start to fade unless you do something spectacular at WWTR. And if you’re in the tightest cluster inside the top three, avoid disasters, finish on or around the podium, and the championship fight will move to September looking similar to what it is today.

But again, it’s IndyCar. The unexpected is what we expect.

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