The good news is that Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou made it through to the final round of qualifying at Portland for Sunday’s 110-lap race.
The bad news is that barring a major shakeup among the fifteen drivers that qualified ahead of Scott Dixon — CGR’s leading driver in the championship — and the 17 who start in front of CGR’s Marcus Ericsson, the team’s quest to earn its third consecutive NTT IndyCar Series title is in jeopardy after its main rivals at Team Penske went 1-2-3 in qualifying.
With Penske’s Josef Newgarden set to start eighth after receiving a six-spot grid penalty for an unapproved engine change, the start of the race (12 p.m. PT, NBC) will feature Penske’s Scott McLaughlin on pole and championship leader Will Power alongside; Palou will move forward to start fourth, but at 43 points behind, he’s CGR’s longest shot to capture the championship.
“We improved a lot between practice sessions yesterday and today,” Palou said. “We’re super happy to put that No. 10 car in the Fast Six. We’re starting P4 tomorrow and we’ll try to make a few tweaks so the car will be ready to win on Sunday.”
The team’s best shots in Dixon (-14 points) and Ericsson (-17) will roll off the grid in 16th and 18th places, respectively, and after electing to skip last week’s private test at Portland in favor of testing on Monday in Monterey, Penske’s decision to spend their final test day at Portland has given them the upper hand.
“The balance was a bit different from this morning because we made a couple changes,” Dixon said. “But we were just low on grip out there on the reds. Frustrating day, but we’ll get to work and be ready for tomorrow.”
What Dixon was lacking in qualifying, he found most of it in the final practice session late in the afternoon where his No. 9 Honda ended the session in fifth. Ericsson wasn’t as fortunate, wrapping the 30-minute warmup in 19th. Provided both drivers make it through Turn 1 on lap one unscathed, CGR could shift them to an alternate pit stop strategy as soon as it presents itself to try and move the pair towards the front of the field.
And if Palou can take on the Penske drivers and come out ahead in the end, his title chances would drastically improve. Altogether, the team with half of the drivers who are deep in the championship fight will need to have fortune swing in their favor at the penultimate race of the season to avoid arriving in Monterey with an imposing deficit in the standings.
“The [No. 8] Honda felt pretty good, to be honest,” Ericsson said. “We’ve struggled a bit in practice, so we’ve been chasing things with the car. I thought the team helped get a good car out there for qualifying. It was a huge improvement, and we were closer to the fastest cars. It just wasn’t enough today, but we will regroup and look for a great result tomorrow.”