The prelims were a lot of fun this IndyCar season.
Scott McLaughlin showed just how talented he is by winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, then had a moment of where it came from when Josef Newgarden sped by with just yards to go to take the win at Texas.
Graham Rahal got real mad at Romain Grosjean after he was French kissed off the beat at Barber and as the season went on so did others who didn’t appreciate how Grosjean redecorated his sidepods.
Will Power revealed a laid-back demeanor that made him “Chill Will,” putting aside the occasional mishaps that would have left him furious in the past and posting a record for consistency, along with a win at Detroit, that has him leading the standings. in the penultimate race of this season this Sunday at Portland.
Meanwhile, Newgarden is showing its inner fire on the outside, and it’s intense. He’s reveled in his five series-leading wins and agonized over the ones he didn’t win, and that, coupled with his immense talent and the great effort from Team Penske, put him just three points behind Power with two races remaining.
Scott Dixon has done the things of the six-time series champion that he is, winning twice and making the most of what could have been tough days on the track. He finished in the top five eight times and in the top 10 an impressive 14 times in 15 races.
The outlier was a 21St.-Final place in the Indianapolis 500 when he seemed headed for victory before a late-race penalty for speeding while entering the pits (one mph over the limit) ruined his race. But he opened the door for Marcus Ericsson, who showed his strength over the final 10 laps, including a brilliant drive after a red flag with three laps remaining to win the 500.
And that’s not to mention the soap opera involving Alex Palou, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver who is still in the seat despite being sued by the team amid a contract dispute that leaves it in doubt whether he will race in 2023 with Ganassi. Arrow McLaren SP or (gasp!) maybe nowhere.
Yes, it’s been a season of brilliance, intrigue, heartbreak and anger on and off the track.
But those are all sideshows to what follows, because the final two races will determine the 2022 champion of an ultra-close points race.
Seven drivers remain mathematically alive ahead of the Portland Grand Prix on Sunday, and then the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on September 11 at Laguna Seca.
But for all intents and purposes, it basically boils down to just four drivers: Power, Newgarden, Dixon and Ericsson, with just 17 points separating Power atop Ericsson in fourth.
It’s a fitting battle of heavyweights, with all but Ericsson having won the IndyCar title in their careers, and the two powerhouse teams in the series, Penske vs. Ganassi, they add a great level of intrigue.
We are already looking at alternative strategies.
Team Penske has chosen to hold its final test of the season this week in Portland, where Newgarden finished fifth, McLaughlin ninth and Power 13.the in 2021, all admiring their Chip Ganassi Racing rivals (Palou won, on his way to the season title, Dixon finished third and Ericsson seventh).
Ganassi’s team will hold its final test at WeatherTech Raceway in Laguna Seca, figuring there is more to learn on the low-grip surface there than in Portland.
If you look at one corner of the rest of this season’s races, make sure it’s Turn 1 at Portland. The narrow Festival Chicane is the relentless right-left-right funnel that follows a main straight so long and wide that drivers think they can fit in five wide.
Until they can’t, that is.
Dreams break like front wings and toe links, and the look of the championship can change in the time it takes to say, “Turn 1 cleanup!”
If the Chicane Festival doesn’t do it, then the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca just might. The left-right combination is a 60-foot elevation drop that will leave the driver on his stomach at Turn 8 as he attempts to finish the corkscrew on 8A.
Alex Zanardi pulled off one of the most dramatic moments of IndyCar racing there in 1996 with “The Pass”: he braked audaciously late entering Turn 8 while trailing Bryan Herta on the final lap. He brushed past Herta on the left, then sped around the right hander, missing the rumble strips entirely with the right-side tires in the dirt, before coming out in the lead.
Is it too much to ask for a late restart of the race with Power, Newgarden, Dixon and Ericsson racing against each other, side-by-side, with nothing but the championship in mind?
Whoever wins will have conquered the diversity of a road/street/oval schedule against teams and drivers that are as strong as the series has seen.
Yes, this is going to be fun.