An oval and two road courses are all that stand between the contenders for the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship and hoisting the Astor Challenge Cup. Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway gets the season’s final stretch started.
Of the seven drivers realistically still in contention for the title, three have won NTT INDYCAR SERIES races at 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) each have won once.
Looking ahead to next month, Power and reigning series champion Alex Palou are former race winners at Portland International Raceway, site of the Portland Grand Prix on Sept. 4. The season finale, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, figures to be a mad scramble Sept. 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca as none of the current title hopefuls have been to victory lane there, and it might take doing so to emerge with the season crown.
So, buckle up. Three rounds to go in the 2022 season, with much on the line.
SEE: Race Details
Consider these Five Things to Watch in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline:
The Reset with Three to Go
Give that it has been 11 days since an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race was held, it’s worth a look at where things stand heading into this crucial stretch of an ultra-competitive season.
Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) has the series lead by six points over Dixon, the six-time series champion driving 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 out of the lead with Newgarden fifth in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, 22 points down to Power. Palou is fifth in the No. 10 American Legion Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing, 33 points behind Power.
Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Odyssey Battery Team Penske Chevrolet) and last year’s World Wide Technology Raceway runner-up, Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet), are clinging to championship hopes, trailing by 58 and 59 points, respectively. But they need to make gains this week. O’Ward has been 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 only gain a maximum of 49 points on another driver competing in a single event, which makes it vital for all title hopefuls to be within striking distance heading to the two West Coast events. The more positions a driver must make up adds to the challenge.
The Rookie of the Year Award chase is less dramatic. Christian Lundgaard, who was confirmed Tuesday to a restructured multiyear contract to remain with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s No. 30 Mi-Jack Honda, holds a commanding 41-point lead over his nearest challenger, David Malukas.
Another Rookie to Watch
Appropriately, all eyes have been 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 staged last year at World Wide Technology Raceway, he had the fastest car at last week’s six-car test featuring first-year NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers. Kyle Kirkwood, who finished second in both Indy Lights races at WWTR last year, had the second-quickest lap in testing in the No. 14 Bommarito/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet. Lundgaard was fifth.
Like Lundgaard, Malukas has shown flashes this season, particularly on the oval tracks. He led laps both at Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway, was the top-finishing rookie in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and has an average oval finish this season of 12.25 (tops among rookies).
Malukas also drives for a team optimistic about its chances at this track. Takuma Sato (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) won the 2019 race driving for RLL while Romain Grosjean, who drove for Dale Coyne’s team last year, had his breakout moment of 2021 at WWTR, passing cars left and right in his debut oval start before getting caught by an untimely caution late in the race – he had just pitted. Rather than finishing perhaps in the top six or seven, Grosjean settled for being the first lapped car in 14th place.
Hungry for a Win
Following a weekend off, NTT INDYCAR SERIES competitors are eager to return to action, and for many the time away has been a reminder that the season is drawing near its conclusion. Which means, it’s getting late to reach the goals they’ve set for themselves.
Every driver enters a season hoping to win a race, and many expect to. In this 26-car field, there are eight drivers who have won series races in the past but have not yet done so in 2022. Among those is reigning series champion Palou, who enters the event 33 points out of the lead with three races to go. Palou won three races last season.
Other drivers looking to return to victory lane are Helio Castroneves, Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud, Felix Rosenqvist, Graham Rahal, Rinus VeeKay and Ed Carpenter.
There are also several drivers still seeking their first career series victory worth watching this weekend, led by Conor Daly, who has had some of his best series runs at this track. He has finished in the top 11 of all five of his races at this track, with a fifth-place finish in 2017 with AJ Foyt Racing. Interestingly, this will be Daly’s first WWTR start with Ed Carpenter Racing, which preps his No. 20 BitNile Chevrolet.
As noted above, Grosjean had a stirring oval debut at WWTR last year, and he has been on the cusp of breaking through as a race winner. He had a pair of top-nine finishes last month at Iowa Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson is another driver who could score a career-best finish this weekend. Driving the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion finished sixth at Texas Motor Speedway in March and was 11th and fifth in the two races at Iowa Speedway. His confidence on ovals in this series is growing by the race.
An interesting dynamic to this championship battle is that of the top seven drivers, three of them drive for Team Penske and three of them drive for Chip Ganassi Racing (the other is from Arrow McLaren SP). So, there should be a lot of cooperation between teammates.
However, teammates have a history of doing things together at World Wide Technology Raceway, and the outcomes are not always collaborative. Take last year’s race, for example.
Pagenaud and Newgarden chased the same piece of Turn 2 real estate when Newgarden clipped the right front wing of his then-Penske teammate, causing damage that saw the end plate and other pieces of the wing to come flying off down the backstretch. It wasn’t the first such tense moment between the two drivers at that track.
In 2017, Pagenaud led the race with 31 laps to go when Newgarden dove inside him approaching Turn 1. If their cars didn’t touch, they all but did, and the situation forced Pagenaud to go wide up the track. The Frenchman not only lost the lead, he lost second place to Dixon, and that’s how they finished in what was one of the last races of the season.
Last year’s race had another scenario where teammates were involved, although it was through no fault of their own. Dixon and Palou – both championship contenders – were collected in contact with VeeKay, sending all three cars to the Turn 1 wall and ending their nights.
Moral of the story: Teammates should work together but avoid each other when the green flag drops Saturday.
The Weekend Schedule
Like the cars themselves, World Wide Technology Raceway will feature a fast-paced, two-day event.
Action heats up Friday with the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice at 1 p.m. ET. The series will be on track again at 4:15 p.m. ET for qualifying for the NTT P1 Award, with a pair of later practice sessions (7-7:30 p.m. and 7:45-8:45 p.m. ET). The purpose 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’s practice at 3:10 p.m. ET and qualifying at 6:15 p.m. INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network will cover live. Saturday’s 75-lap Indy Lights at World Wide Technology Raceway is set for 4:15 p.m. with coverage on Peacock Premium, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network.