It’s time for title contenders in the final oval race of the year

It's time for title contenders in the final oval race of the year

An oval and two road courses are all that stands between the contenders for the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES Championship and lifting the Astor Challenge Cup. With the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Saturday, presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway, the final stretch of the season begins.

Of the seven drivers realistically still in contention for the title, three have won NTT INDYCAR SERIES races on the 1.25-mile oval. Josef Newgarden leads the way with three wins in the past six events – 2017, Race 2 in 2020 and 2021 – while Will Power (2018) and Scott Dixon (Race 1 in 2020) have won once each.

Looking ahead to next month, Power and reigning series champion Alex Palou are former race winners at Portland International Raceway, the site of the Portland Grand Prix on September 4. The season finale, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, looks set to be a frenzy on September 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca as none of the current title contenders have made it to the victory lane there, and it may be necessary to take the season crown .

So, buckle up. Three rounds to go into the 2022 season, with a lot at stake.

TO SEE: Race details

Consider these five things to keep an eye out for in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline:

The reset with three more to go

Given that it’s been 11 days since an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race was held, it’s worth taking a look at where things stand towards this pivotal leg of an ultra-competitive season.

Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) has a six-point lead in the series over Dixon, the six-time champion in the series who drives the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Bryant Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) is 12 points behind with Newgarden fifth in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, 22 points behind Power. Palou is fifth in Chip Ganassi Racing’s #10 American Legion Honda, 33 points behind Power.

Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Odyssey Battery Team Penske Chevrolet) and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, World Wide Technology Raceway’s runner-up) last year are holding on to championship hopes, with a deficit of 58 and 59 points, respectively. But they have to make a profit this week. O’Ward was particularly strong at WWTR, with three top three finishes in as many starts plus a third place finish in an Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race in 2018.

A driver can score up to 49 points over another driver competing in a single event, making it vital that all title contenders are within a reasonable distance on their way to the two West Coast events. The more positions a driver has to take, the greater the challenge.

The hunt for the Rookie of the Year Award is less dramatic. Christian Lundgaard, who was confirmed on Tuesday to a restructured multi-year contract to join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s No. 30 Mi-Jack Honda has a commanding lead of 41 points over its closest challenger, David Malukas.

Another rookie to watch

All eyes were rightly on Lundgaard as he has finished in the top 11 of five of the past six races, but don’t sleep on fellow rookie Malukas (No.18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD).

The 20-year-old Chicago driver not only won both Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires at World Wide Technology Raceway last year, he had the fastest car last week in the six-car test with freshman NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers. Kyle Kirkwood, who finished second in both Indy Lights races at WWTR last year, had the second fastest test lap in the No. 14 Bombarito/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet. Lundgaard was fifth.

Like Lundgaard, Malukas has shown flashes this season, especially on the oval tracks. He lapped both Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway, was the top rookie in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and has an average oval finish of 12.25 (top among rookies) this season.

Malukas is also driving for a team that is optimistic about its chances at this track. Takuma Sato (No.51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) won the 2019 race for RLL, while Romain Grosjean, who drove for Dale Coyne’s team last year, had his 2021 breakthrough moment at WWTR, driving cars passed left and right in his debut oval start before being caught late in the race by an early warning – he had just made a pit stop. Rather than maybe finish in the top six or seven, Grosjean settled for 14th as the first lap car.

Hungry for a win

After a weekend off, NTT INDYCAR SERIES entrants are eager to get back into action, and for many, the absence was a reminder that the season is nearing its end. Which means it’s getting late to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.

Every driver goes into a season hoping to win a race, and many expect it to. In this field of 26 cars, there are eight drivers who have won series races in the past but have not yet won in 2022. Among them is reigning series champion Palou, who enters the event 33 points ahead with three races to go. Palou won three races last season.

Other drivers looking to return to the win track include Helio Castroneves, Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist, Graham Rahal, Rinus VeeKay and Ed Carpenter.

There are also several drivers still looking for their first win in the series this weekend worth watching, led by Conor Daly, who has driven some of his best series at this track. He finished in the top 11 of all five of his races at this track, finishing fifth in 2017 with AJ Foyt Racing. Interestingly, this will be Daly’s first WWTR start with Ed Carpenter Racing, who are his No. 20 BitNile Chevrolet prepares.

As mentioned above, Grosjean had an exciting oval debut at WWTR last year and he was on the cusp of breaking through as the race winner. He had a couple of top nine finishes at Iowa Speedway last month.

Jimmie Johnson is another driver who could hit a career-best finish this weekend. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion finished sixth at Texas Motor Speedway in March and finished eleventh and fifth in the two races at Iowa Speedway. His reliance on ovals in this series grows with the race.

Teammates fight

An interesting dynamic in this championship battle is that of the top seven drivers, three of them driving for Team Penske and three of them driving for Chip Ganassi Racing (the other is from Arrow McLaren SP). So there must be a lot of cooperation between teammates.

However, teammates have a history of doing things together at World Wide Technology Raceway, and the results aren’t always collaborative. Take last year’s race for example.

Pagenaud and Newgarden were chasing the same piece of real estate in Turn 2 when Newgarden clipped his then Penske teammate’s right front wing, causing the endplate and other pieces of the wing to fly off the backstretch. It was not the first tense moment between the two drivers on that track.

In 2017, Pagenaud led the race with 31 laps to go when Newgarden dove into him as he approached Turn 1. When their cars didn’t touch, they all did, and the situation forced Pagenaud to drive wide on the track. Not only did the Frenchman lose the lead, he lost second place to Dixon, and that’s how they ended up in what was one of the last races of the season.

Last year’s race had a different scenario involving teammates, although it was through no fault of their own. Dixon and Palou – both championship contenders – gathered in contact with VeeKay, sent all three cars to the wall of Turn 1 and ended their nights.

Moral of the story: Teammates should work together, but avoid each other when the green flag falls on Saturday.

The weekend schedule

Like the cars themselves, World Wide Technology Raceway will feature a fast-paced two-day event.

Friday heats up the action with the first practice of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at 1 p.m. ET. The series will be back on track for qualifiers for the NTT P1 Award at 4:15 PM ET, with a few later practice sessions (7:30 PM and 7:45 PM-8:45 PM ET). The aim of the two later sessions is for cars to drive through the high lane to add rubber to the 1.25-mile track. Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network will provide live coverage of all sessions.

Saturday’s live coverage of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500, presented by Axalta and Valvoline, will begin at 6 p.m. ET with the green flag for the 260-lap race scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (USA Network, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio network).

Indy Lights, presented by Cooper Tires, is also part of the event, with Friday practice at 3:10pm ET and qualifying at 6:15pm INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network will cover live. Saturday’s 75-lap Indy Lights at World Wide Technology Raceway is scheduled to begin at 4:15 PM with coverage on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR radio network.

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