Josef Newgarden’s season might have come down to missing the entrance to the most dramatic corner in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
The driver of the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet was motoring through the first round of qualifying Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca when he clipped a left-side deterrent curb approaching the famed “Corkscrew” and spun down the hill. With his car wedged against the track, he was literally stuck.
Newgarden’s mistake forced him to accept the 25th starting position for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (2:40 p.m. ET, NBC; 3 p.m. ET, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and INDYCAR Radio Network), clearly not the preferred place to erase his 20-point deficit to Team Penske’s Will Power, the series points leader who will start on the pole.
By winning the NTT P1 Award, Power effectively increased his series lead to 21 points over Newgarden and Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon. Power can secure the title by finishing third or better, regardless of what the other contenders do.
“I just made a mistake; it’s a real shame,” Newgarden said. “Yeah, it’s a bummer. It’s a bummer for everybody.”
This track offers trouble at nearly every corner, which is something Newgarden must hope for as it relates to many of the drivers ahead of him. Passing 24 cars to get to the lead will otherwise be a challenge in a routine, heads-up fight. However, he said he thinks he has “the fastest car in the field.”
“It’s not over, but it’s not ideal what just happened here,” Newgarden said. “So, it is what it is.”
Dixon is in much the same situation, although he will start higher in the field (13th). He and fellow title contenders Scott McLaughlin and Marcus Ericsson were in the same qualifying group as Newgarden, and they lost valuable track time as the AMR Safety Team went to the Corkscrew to help the stranded car.
Dixon said he couldn’t get enough of a gap behind rookie Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 Sexton Properties Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing) to make a difference. He finished the session .0866 of a second behind Ericsson for the final transfer spot.
“Maybe I should have held back a little further, (but) I thought he was going to go,” the driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda said of Kirkwood. “There was such a big gap to the 15 (Graham Rahal) in front of him, but ultimately you’re talking less than a tenth (of a second) that we missed it by, which is frustrating.”
McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet) and Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) advanced to the second round, but that’s as far as they could get. They will start eighth and 10th, respectively, in the 26-car field. Both need to win the race to have a chance at the championship. Ericsson is effectively 40 points out of the lead, McLaughlin 42.
Now, the foursome chasing Power must hope tire degradation plays a big role in the 95-lap race and the field gets flipped. Barring a mistake, that’s likely their best chance.
“Everything’s to play for as we’ve seen in many races,” Dixon said. “I think this year is going to be different for Monterey.”
Chasing Title Marks
A lot of attention has been placed on Dixon trying to take the final step up the ladder with a record-tying seventh series championship, but Newgarden can take an important step, too.
Another championship would give Newgarden three for his career. Only seven drivers in history have as many, and only five drivers have more.
The three-time series champions include Louis Meyer (1928, 1929, 1933), Ted Horn (1946, 1947, 1948), Jimmy Bryan (1954, 1956, 1957), Rick Mears (1979, 1981, 1982), Al Unser (1970, 1983, 1985), Bobby Rahal (1986, 1987, 1992) and Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, 2002, 2006).
The four-time winners are Mario Andretti (1965, 1966, 1969, 1984), Sebastien Bourdais (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007) and Dario Franchitti (2007, 2009, 2010, 2011).
A.J. Foyt has the record with seven season titles (1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1975, 1979). Dixon won his championships in 2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2020.
Newgarden is one of 14 drivers with two season titles, which means Power could become No. 15.
Malukas, Lundgaard to Settle Rookie Title
If series officials tallied points Saturday night, which they don’t, David Malukas would overhaul Christian Lundgaard for the Rookie of the Year Award.
Malukas qualified seventh, just missing what would have been his third Firestone Fast Six berth of the season. Lundgaard qualified 16th. In the race, the difference between those finishing positions is 12 points in Malukas’ favor. Lundgaard leads by a mere five points.
Malukas’ qualifying effort in Round 2 was slowed by Ericsson’s spin in the Corkscrew, leaving him only one lap to deliver a quality lap. The driver of the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD said he wanted to get as much of an advantage on Lundgaard as he could, but he didn’t want to risk a mistake that would leave him 12th.
“Let’s take it easy, let’s get the lap in,” Malukas said of the final lap of the second round. “I think from our end we’re going to try to have the best race that we can. He’s definitely (close). I definitely was pushing extra hard. We have that bit of a gap, but tire (degradation) is a massive, massive deal here. Strategy is going to be big in play here.”
Lundgaard acknowledged he left last week’s test “a little bit confused,” and he is still getting used to the different Firestone Firehawk compounds.
“We put the (alternate) tires on (here), and we went slower,” he said. “We just don’t seem to use the maximum with (them).”
Last Races Together for Some
The end of any racing season always brings an end to team relationships. One of the big ones in this series is Alexander Rossi competing in his final race with Andretti Autosport.
After seven seasons, eight race wins, an Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge victory in 2016, seven poles and a pair of top-three finishes in the standings, Rossi will suit up for Michael Andretti’s organization for the final time Sunday. He will join Arrow McLaren SP for the 2023 season and beyond.
“Obviously, we knew it’s been coming, but yeah, it will be a sad day on Sunday for a lot of reasons,” Rossi said. “I’ve been with this team since the start of my INDYCAR career, and I know a lot of these (crew members) on a personal level, I know their families, and we hang out away from the racetrack.
“It will be a little weird to have that dynamic of ‘Thanks, see ya, maybe’ type thing, but it’s all a part of life, and I’ll leave with more good memories than bad, and I’m very appreciative of the whole Andretti Autosport organization for the past seven years.”
Rossi said living in Indianapolis, as he and most of the crew members do, will allow many of their friendships to continue.
“Any time change happens it’s weird, but on the other side of it there’s the excitement of new horizons and new opportunities, and I’m also looking forward to that at the same time,” he said.
Rossi will start third in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda. He will seek his second race win of the season.
More on the Move
Sunday also will be the final race for Kyle Kirkwood at AJ Foyt Racing as he will fill the seat vacated by Rossi in 2023. Kirkwood has spent one season with the team and will start 17th in the season finale.
It remains to be seen if Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Felix Rosenqvist (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) will return to their current rides depending on how Palou’s future is resolved. And then there’s Colton Herta, the Andretti Autosport driver who is being sought by Scuderia AlphaTauri in Formula One.
Herta has won the past two series races at this track from the pole but will start 18th in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda after going off course in Turn 4 of qualifying.
“We’ve just been struggling this whole weekend,” Herta said. “I definitely made a mistake there, and it kind of cut into our progress. We’ll have to try to figure out something for the race to try to tame this car because it seems like everybody is really struggling out there. If we could find just a little bit, I think it will propel us a whole bunch.”
Jimmie Johnson told reporters his sponsor, Carvana, will again back him in 2023, but he hasn’t said what his schedule will be. Johnson will start 23rd in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Odds and Ends
- As NBC’s broadcast team noted, this might be the happiest front row in series history. Alongside Power, who earned his record-setting 68th career pole, rookie Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet) earned his best-ever starting spot. It was the first time Ilott had reached the Firestone Fast Six. Ilott said it was humbling as a driver on a small, one-car team to be “fighting with the big boys.”
- Chevrolet celebrated its manufacturer championship Saturday. It has won 11 of the 16 races this season – 10 with Team Penske, the other with Arrow McLaren SP. Chevrolet has won seven such titles since 2012. Three of its drivers are in contention for the championship Sunday.
- This is Simona De Silvestro’s fourth NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of the season. Driving the No. 16 Paretta Autosport Chevrolet, she will start 26th. She and the team hosted Olympic gold medalist Kaillie Humphries, a Canadian-American who won the monobob in Beijing’s Winter Olympics earlier in the year, at the track Saturday.
- Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES action begins with a 30-minute practice at noon ET. NBC’s broadcast of the 95-lap race begins at 2:40 p.m. with the green flag expected at 3:30 p.m. Coverage starts at 3 p.m. on Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
- Sting Ray Robb earned his first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory Saturday in dominating fashion, crossing the finish line 11.0674 seconds ahead of Andretti Autosport teammate Christian Rasmussen. Linus Lundqvist took the green flag to officially clinch the series title and earn an incentive package to compete in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES next season. He finished sixth in Saturday’s race. The season’s final race is Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.