Fifth Gear: Portland, Laguna Seca Tests


Two races to run, with so many stories to consider.

Just three points separate the top two drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings, with third place just 14 points behind. Seven drivers have a mathematical chance of winning the Astor Challenge Cup as season champion. Just 11 points separate the top two drivers in a sudden Rookie of the Year race.

It’s all in play ahead of the final two races of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season on back-to-back weekends, the Portland Grand Prix on Sunday, September 4 at Portland International Raceway and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, September 11 at WeatherTech Laguna Circuit. That’s it. And better yet, there are no clear trends or tea leaves indicating which driver will win.

But nearly every NTT INDYCAR SERIES team has had a day of private testing split between the two circuits over the past five days, giving a small indication of what could possibly unfold over the final two weekends of race of 2022, filled with equal pressure and excitement.

Three teams and nine drivers tested last Friday in Portland: Andretti Autosport (Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi), AJ Foyt Racing (Dalton Kellett, Kyle Kirkwood) and Team Penske (Scott McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden, Will Power) .

Monday at Laguna, six teams and 13 drivers tested: Andretti Autosport (DeFrancesco), Arrow McLaren SP (Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist), Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Palou), Dale Coyne Racing (David Malukas, Takuma Sato), Juncos Hollinger Racing (Callum Ilott) and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard, Graham Rahal).

This lineup covers all teams with a championship contender or rookie of the year. Ed Carpenter Racing and Meyer Shank Racing were the only full-time production teams not to test at the West Coast track on Friday or Monday.

Although the times and speeds have not been officially released from the private tests, various media reports and social media feeds have provided an opportunity to try and make detailed inferences:

Palou could occupy an important place

We know what Alex Palou is capable of in Portland, having won the race last year from pole to accelerate his road to the series championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing.

A lot has changed in the team dynamic since those good days. Palou and the team are locked in a legal dispute over the driver’s squad destination next season, with Ganassi and Arrow McLaren SP claiming the Spaniard’s services from 2023.

Despite this major distraction, Palou and his crew at Ganassi have done a stellar job of staying focused on repeating as series champions for a second straight season. Palou is fifth in points, 43 behind leader Will Power, despite not winning this season in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

There is almost no doubt that Palou must lead the table with two straight wins to erase this deficit and repeat as champion. But we know he can win in Portland, and testing in Laguna has shown that a win there is also possible.

Palou led the full-day Laguna test, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Raw speed has never been a problem for the Spaniard.

But Palou’s speed gap – more than two-tenths of a second ahead of second-placed Felix Rosenqvist – is surprising given how close the peloton has been in recent races. Palou was also almost four tenths of a second ahead of his team’s closest pursuer, Marcus Ericsson, who is fourth in the standings and just 17 points behind Power.

Of course, teams and drivers have different checklists to complete during testing that can mask their ultimate pace. But it’s clear that Palou isn’t going to go down without a massive fight over the next two weekends.

Electric can still stand on gas

Much has been said this season about the “new” Power, which has eschewed a “checkers or convenience store” mentality in favor of racking up every possible point its No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet can provide.

This change in strategy worked, as Power leads teammate Josef Newgarden by three points despite just one win over Newgarden’s top five. Power is aiming for his second championship of the season, having also won the title for Team Penske in 2014.

But Power can still put the pedal to the metal, as evidenced by its series-leading four NTT P1 Awards in 2022 – and Portland’s Friday timesheet.

Power led the one-day test at Portland International Raceway by more than two-tenths of a second over Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta. Newgarden finished third, three tenths behind his Team Penske teammate.

That bodes well for Power, who won in 2019 at Portland and earned one of his career-record 67 poles in 2018 at the Oregon road course. If Power wins the NTT P1 Award this weekend, he will break the INDYCAR SERIES career pole record he shares with Mario Andretti. Equally important, Power will earn a point, which could prove crucial late Sunday afternoon, September 11 in Monterey.

Malukas momentum continues

David Malukas reignited the Rookie of the Year race by finishing his career-best second in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline on August 20 at World Wide Technology Raceway, closing within 11 points of the leader. Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Races.

Malukas and Lundgaard both tested Monday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, with Malukas’ No. 18 Honda HMD finishing sixth overall and Lundgaard 11th. Malukas was nearly half a second behind leader Palou, but more importantly, he was four tenths quicker than Lundgaard.

Again, these are just tests. But this rookie fight seems to be raging until the final checkered flag in the hills of Monterey.

Under pressure

It’s the time of the season for raw nerves and bitten nails, as the melting pot of Championship and Rookie of the Year races heats up to its most hellish intensity. Drivers push over the precipice to find any edge, and sometimes they tip over the line.

This was evident in both tests. Media reported there were numerous off-track excursions Friday in Portland, including series leader Power. It continued Monday at Laguna, where rookie of the year leader Lundgaard reportedly spun without contact at the start of his first moto and Ericsson missed nearly three hours of practice due to repairs on his Honda. #8 after crashing into Turn 6.

No driver was injured and all cars were reportedly repaired. But the pressure is there.

DeFrancesco’s double duty

Devlin DeFrancesco is not in competition with Lundgaard and Malukas for Rookie of the Year honors with two races to go, as he is 106 points behind Lundgaard in the standings. But the Canadian has been preparing for a strong final part of the season as the only driver to test Friday at Portland and Monday at Laguna Seca with Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.

DeFrancesco was the faster of the two rookies at Portland and trailed only Malukas among the four rookies at Laguna Seca, about a tenth of a second.


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