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Analysis: IndyCar's 2021 title race too close, crowded to predict headed into Laguna Seca

USA TODAY
USA TODAY
 2021-09-18

MONTEREY, Calif. – If IndyCar championship leader Alex Palou feels he needs to be gunning for wins instead of simply scheming for solid finishes, imagine what his competitors 25, 34 and 49 points back must feel. As the series rolls into WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, you can feel the temperature rising, the frustration churning and even hints of resignation from one of IndyCar’s most decorated champions.

“Ultimately, if it comes down to that we need to help Alex, that’s fine,” fellow Gannsi driver Scott Dixon said after taking 3rd-place in last weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland, losing six points to the top spot in the title race in the process. “I think for us, it’s about keeping the championship at home and at the team.”

Remember, this is the driver who, with one double-points race remaining in 2015 , trailed leader Juan Pablo Montoya by 47 points and went on to win the title on a tiebreaker. Dixon’s a six-time champion. He’s nicknamed “The Ice Man” for a reason, and yet, he’s willing to say just how dire the stakes have gotten, sitting in fourth behind his teammate Palou, Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden with two races left.

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Scott Dixon sits fourth in the IndyCar standings, 49 points behind leader Alex Palou, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate. Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

But you would think that resignation from Dixon would come after the rest of us had reached that notion. You’d expect Dixon to be the last one to propose the possibility. Certainly, there’s a chance Dixon could mount a comeback Sunday at Laguna Seca that, combined with poor finishes from the three drivers in front of him, could put him in the mix for a winner-take-all affair Sept. 26 on the streets of Long Beach.

But relying on chaos to be your best friend at this time of the year isn’t what you want to put your faith in.

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Because, as Dixon later pointed out Sunday, the racing gods haven’t pulled their punches in 2021. No one’s been safe. He experienced it at the start of the Indy 500, followed not long afterwards by Newgarden's last-lap mechanical failure as he took the white flag while leading at Road America. Palou, who has looked every bit the part of a Dixon-esque champion for so much of 2021, saw his engine sputter in smoke and drop from 4th to 27th with 20 laps to go last month on the IMS road course. Seven days later, he was caught up in an early wreck. What could have been a 50-point lead leaving IMS turned into a 10-point deficit coming to Portland.

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Pato O'Ward came to Portland with a 10-point lead in the points race, but left with a car that lacked straight-line speed. Headed to Laguna Seca, he trails Alex Palou by 25. Provided by IndyCar

And how could we forget last weekend’s Lap 1 chaos , where Palou went from leading, to 5th or so, and then buried in the bottom half of the field because of some wild combination of contact, running off-course and IndyCar stewards’ strict definition of the rules. It, of course, put him on the path to victory, perhaps the only way he would have gotten there, given the other circumstances. All the while, O’Ward took an unexpected early race lead, and then not long after was snarling over the radio about a power unit that lacked, well, power. With a mediocre day, he found himself on the wrong end of a 35-point swing.

All that together is why it’s so hard to feel as if there’s any true favorite in all this. Over the past 10 races, Palou has dealt either with a grid penalty or crash not of his own doing in four of them. When he hasn’t, he’s been 6-for-6 at landing on the podium. And yet, who’s to say a gremlin or a crash isn’t waiting for him in Monterey. From his season-opening win at Barber, to his runner-up at the Indy 500 and beyond, this season has felt so much like destiny for the young Spaniard. Unless, of course, the future decides it isn’t.

And that’s precisely why, until maybe the final pitstop in Long Beach, he’s going to do his best not to think about it all – that is, when we’re not all asking him about it. Not only are his points gaps to those hunting him down plenty achievable over two races, but there are three legitimate foes in reach of him. Like Dixon, Palou could finish 3rd or 4th Sunday at Laguna Seca, a relatively good, safe place, and beat out both Dixon and Newgarden, or Dixon and O’Ward, and find himself with no lead at all.

Even at this point, winning is all he can do to keep himself safe.

“You always and you never think about the championship,” he said after his Portland win. “I had to be in front of Pato, Dixon and Newgarden to be happy tonight (about the title race), but then I also needed to win. I wasn’t thinking at all about the championship, and I think that gave us the win today.”

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Alex Palou won the Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 12, 2021 Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

In reality, it’ll be the only thing his competitors are focused on over these final two weekends too. What Dixon essentially achieved six years ago to eke out a title over Montoya would require him to win both races and hope Palou finishes 7th or worse in both, give or take the bonus points involved. And even with all that that, two runner-up finishes from O'Ward could block Dixon’s historic 7th championship.

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Newgarden wouldn’t quite wrap up his third championship with two victories either, needing Palou to finish off the podium in both instances to ensure he’s hoisting the Astor Cup in just over a week. O’Ward is the only one of the three chasers whose championship hopes are still completely under his control – and that’s with two wins, two poles and two races where he leads the most laps. And after Sunday, when he complained about a lack of straight-line speed, his hopes looked perhaps the worst of all the three in the most recent race.

All that together, perhaps, points to a simple truth: even with two races to go -- as we’ve become accustomed to over each title fight since 2005, the last time a season champion (in this case, Dan Wheldon) had wrapped things up before the start of the season-finale -- this title battle is far from easy (or even possible) to forecast.

“To me, 2nd- or 3rd-place makes no difference," O’Ward told IndyStar post-race at Portland. "I either win, or I’m 2nd or 3rd. (Between the latter two), it doesn’t matter to me.”

Added Newgarden: “We just need to bring this thing down to the wire at Long Beach. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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Josef Newgarden finished 10th Sunday in what was dubbed as his hometown race on the streets of Nashville. Chris Owens/IndyCar

Keep an eye on qualifying Saturday

Before this year’s title contenders get to Sunday’s race at Laguna Seca, their focus needs to be on Saturday, where perhaps a more influential on-track challenge takes place: qualifying. Through IndyCar/CART’s 23 races at Laguna Seca, the victor has come from outside the top-3 starters just twice.

The pole-sitter of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey has won this race an astounding 15 times, and that driver has finished off the podium just five times. Of the 69 total podium positions won during the race’s history, only 14 of them have been won by a driver who started outside the top-6 – or when it comes to this weekend, a driver who didn’t make the Fast Six qualifying round.

Keep an eye those results Saturday. Should any one of these title hopefuls sputter in qualifying, and their last name isn’t Palou, they may have a dreadfully uphill battle just to hope to be in the title race once the checkered flag falls Sunday.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Analysis: IndyCar's 2021 title race too close, crowded to predict headed into Laguna Seca

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