Just two races remain in the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, and this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca will set up the championship battle for next Sunday. Alex Palou enters this weekend with a 25-point lead in the standings, with four other drivers still mathematically in contention.
Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, and Marcus Ericsson need to finish ahead of Palou to have a realistic chance to overtake him at the season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach next weekend. All drivers not within 54 points of the lead after this weekend will officially be eliminated. With Palou likely starting the race in Long Beach, they really need to be within 49 points to have a realistic chance of catching him.
Friday Combined Practice Results
Fresh off of his third win of the season last weekend in Portland, Palou is aiming to win the title in just his second season. The Ganassi driver leads O’Ward by 25 points, Newgarden by 34, Dixon by 49, and Ericsson by 75 heading into qualifying tomorrow. Several drivers entered in this event have never raced an IndyCar on this circuit, including some of the title contenders.
O’Ward has made five starts at Laguna Seca in the Road to Indy program and he won once, in 2016. He has tested an IndyCar at the track but this will be his first race in the series. Newgarden and Dixon have combined for 71 race wins and eight series championships, and they have experience at this venue, but they have not tasted victory here. Newgarden’s only start came in 2019 when he finished eighth. Dixon, who finished third in that race, made two starts at the track while in his first two IndyCar seasons, finishing fourth in 2001 and sixth in 2002. Ericsson finished 11th in his only appearance in 2019.
Newgarden got his weekend started in the best way on Friday, leading the opening practice session in his No. 2 Penske Chevrolet. Colton Herta won from pole position the last time IndyCar was here in 2019. He was second-fastest on Friday, leading the way for Andretti Autosport. Palou was third quick and Ed Jones was fourth with Alexander Rossi rounding out the top five in the session.
Herta went off course near the corkscrew but he wasn’t the only one. Helio Castroneves nudged the tire barrier in Turn 2, also known as the Andretti Hairpin, with the nose of his No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda with about 18 minutes remaining. Rossi went off in Turn 3 and continued, while Sebastien Bourdais spun and continued in the No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet. There are 27 drivers entered in the event this weekend, with four rookies among them.
“Overall, we unloaded pretty good,” Newgarden said. “Small differences here or there, but for the most part globally it felt like the car was in the window. Just got to look after it. Obviously, things can change quickly. In Portland, we were pretty sorted out in practice one, we choked in qualifying and were pretty far off the pace. That’s the number one thing for us in the 2 car, have a consistent run all the way through. If we can do that, we’ll be in the fight.”
There will be one final 45-minute practice session tomorrow at 1:45 PM ET, followed by qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, which begins at 5:05 PM. Qualifications will be shown live on Peacock and will air tape-delayed on NBC Sports Network at 11:30 on Saturday night.
Photos courtesy of IndyCar