Indy launches sprint to the checkers in IndyCar title race

INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MAY 13: #45: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, #10: Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda lead at the start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday May 13, 2023 in Indianapolis, United States of America. (Photo by Phillip Abbott / LAT Images)
INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MAY 13: #45: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, #10: Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda lead at the start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday May 13, 2023 in Indianapolis, United States of America. (Photo by Phillip Abbott / LAT Images)

The IndyCar season is in its final sprint to the checkered flag as 13 races are in the books and the last four will be settled in a rapid-fire manner, starting this Saturday during the series’ second road course visit to Indianapolis.

Championship leader Alex Palou was unable to win his fifth race of the year at Nashville’s Music City Grand Prix, but it didn’t matter. His immense luck produced the next-best outcome when Kyle Kirkwood earned 53 of the maximum 54 points that Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon — Palou’s closest challengers — so desperately needed. If Palou can’t win, having a non-title contender come out on top is a cause for joy for the Spaniard.

Palou also managed to finish ahead of Newgarden and Dixon in Nashville, extending his lead at a moment in the championship where they could ill afford to lose ground. The losses, though, were minimal. Where Newgarden entered his home race with 80 points to draw down, he limited the damage by placing fifth to Palou’s third on Sunday, but the gap has slightly widened to 84.

It’s a similar story for Dixon who went from a deficit of 120 points before Nashville to 126, and if you consider how only 216 points are left to capture this season, the light is fading from his hope to reel in Palou.

The fact that Palou won the Indy GP in May and the two road courses that followed is another foreboding item to consider. He and the No. 10 Ganassi crew have been IndyCar’s best road racing team of 2023, and from the four closing races, three are on road courses…

Palou can’t depart Indy with the championship in hand, but he can certainly move it to a place where only crashes or blown engines with the No. 10 car would bring it back into reach for others over the next month.

For Dixon, Saturday is all about finishing ahead of Palou, and if that doesn’t happen, we’re in game-over territory for the six-time champion.

For Newgarden, staying close is his objective; if he can shadow or finish ahead Palou, the one big salvo he’s waiting to fire is on August 27 at the 1.25-mile oval in Madison, Illinois. With three wins at World Wide Technology Raceway, the Team Penske driver owns the place and the odds are entirely in his favor to sweep all four ovals this year. Getting to WWTR with 84 points or fewer to carve into is his make-or-break mission in Indy.

Newgarden has one more oval race opportunity up his sleeve to close the gap, but he’ll need to stay ahead of Palou at Indy first. Brett Farmer/Motorsport Images

For those who prefer to have their racing championships go down to the wire, misfortune will need to introduce itself to Palou on Saturday afternoon and steer clear of Penske’s lone contender.

Elsewhere in the field, Romain Grosjean’s gotten his season back on track with a couple of clean and solid runs at Iowa and a quality sixth-place result at Nashville. It appears the close-to-winning version of the Swiss-born Frenchman is making a welcome return. He’s still chasing that first victory, and if he can hold onto the good momentum he’s built, there’s no reason to count him, or teammates Kirkwood and Colton Herta out from standing in victory lane at the Brickyard.

David Malukas has been just as impressive, if not more, since Mid-Ohio where he finished sixth, then added a 12th and an eighth at Iowa, and started fifth last weekend. The fire and resulting rear wing failure weren’t of his making, so if we take his overall output into account, the sophomore IndyCar driver is doing all the right things to attract interest from the teams he wants to join.

It’s also getting down to desperation time for some of the teams and drivers who’ve been everything from mildly dissatisfied to stunned by how their seasons have gone.

After 13 races, Arrow McLaren remains winless, and the last time that happened, it was 2020 — the first year of McLaren’s involvement — where Pato O’Ward took four podiums and earned fourth in the championship, all without tasting victory. In 2021, Arrow McLaren was a winner by Round 4 with O’Ward, and did it again at Round 4 in 2022 with the Mexican.

He’s taken five podiums in 2023, but wins for O’Ward — along with teammates Felix Rosenqvist and Alexander Rossi — have proven elusive. They’d love to have some of the bullet-proof luck that Palou has enjoyed, but we’ve also seen a strange trend where stellar qualifying performances and impressive output in the early stages of a few recent events have been undermined by crashes, misfortune, or fades in the second half of the races.

The same strange dynamic remains where Dixon, Will Power and Herta are winless as well. For Dixon, Saturday will mark 391 days since his last victory. For Power, the defending IndyCar champion, the number is 433, and for Herta, an unfathomable 455 sleeps will have been had since he was celebrated as an IndyCar race winner.

Together, they accounted for nearly 25 percent of all wins in 2022. To reach the twilight of the current season with that percentage at zero is yet another shocking development that defies every prediction.


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