Gentlemen, start your engines: It's IndyCar week at PIR
Three races remain in the IndyCar Series, including the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway this week, and it's anybody's guess as to who will be crowned champion.
It's been Scott Dixon's series in the past with the Chip Ganassi Racing driver winning six championships, including last season, when the series had to skip Portland because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, a couple of upstarts sit atop the point standings: Pato O'Ward from Arrow McLaren SP (435) and Ganassi's Alex Palou (425). Hot in pursuit are Team Penske's Josef Newgarden (413), Dixon (392) and Ganassi's Marcus Ericsson (375).
Each has won at least one race, as have Colton Herta, Rinus Veekay and Will Power, who, when we last saw the IndyCar Series in 2019, took the checkered flag at Portland International Raceway.
Practice, qualifying and support series racing takes places Friday-Saturday, Sept. 10-11, and the big IndyCar race on the 1.964-mile, 12-turn road course starts at noon Sunday, Sept. 12. It's the 27th year of open-wheel racing at PIR, which started with the CART series (1984-2003) and continued with Champ Car World Series (2004-07).
A couple of young fellows sit atop the points standings.
O'Ward, a second-year driver and native of Monterrey, Mexico, scored his first IndyCar win this year. He was the 2020 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year. He was the 2018 Indy Lights champ before making the ascension to IndyCar with Arrow McLaren SP in 2020. He's only 22 years old.
"To be honest, man, it's so tight," O'Ward said, of the points race. "There's still three races to go, 150 points on the table."
O'Ward finished second to Newgarden at World Wide Technology Raceway, an oval in Madison, Illinois, in the series' previous race, and took the points lead after Palou crashed and failed to finish.
"This means we're going on the right path," he said. "We're just going to push until the checkered flag waves in Long Beach (the final race) and see where we stand."
Palou, born and raised in Spain, joined the powerhouse Ganassi team this year. He has two wins, seven top-5 finishes and nine top-10 finishes. Last year, he made his IndyCar debut with Dale Coyne Racing.
He led the IndyCar Series in points until his crash at Madison, Illinois.
"It's never good when you crash, even worse when you lose the points lead and lose so many points," said Palou, 24. "We had a really hard day in front of us, starting P21 (after qualifying), we had an engine change. We were top 10 after 60 laps, in good position to fight for the race, when another car hit me and teammate Scott Dixon.
"But, it's nothing that's going to stop us for fighting for this championship. We are prepared. I am part of, obviously, a really big team and they gave me tools to perform every weekend."
Race coverage starts at noon Sunday on NBC, including locally on KGW (8). Practice and qualifying sessions will be streamed live on Peacock Premium.
Support series are Indy Lights, ARCA Menards Series West and USAC National .25 Midget Series.
Tickets are still available, as low as $20 for single-day general admission ($65 for weekend) and $70 for single-day grandstand ($85 for weekend).
To view the full schedule and for ticket info, see http://www.portlandgp.com.
Three road/street courses await the teams and drivers — Portland and then Monterey, California, and Long Beach, California.
"It will be an interesting three races, as tight as the championship is," Power said. "It always is this way. I've never seen someone wrap it up (early) in all my 15 years in IndyCar; no one's wrapped it up before the last race. It never happened. Looks like the same here."
Said Newgarden: "The good news is, if we win all three, it definitely adds up to winning the championship."
Chip Ganassi Racing and other teams tested at PIR recently.
"I love it," Palou said. "It was my first time there, driving in Portland. On TV, to be honest it looks like a small track for IndyCar, but when you're driving it's super fun — high-speed corners and tough braking zones. I think we have a good car there.
"It's super important to qualify well. You need to have a balanced car, you can't have a really bad car in high speed or slow speed."
Palou credits Dixon for helping him step up to be an IndyCar contender.
"When you are part of probably the most successful team in IndyCar, you can feel that, you got the necessary tools to fight for races and championships," he said. "And, with probably the best IndyCar driver of all time, Scott Dixon … I wouldn't be top 3 in the championship fight without everything he tells me. He's been a huge help for me."
The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States will be commemorated during Portland race weekend.
There'll be a moment of silence at 7:28 a.m. Saturday at PIR, marking the time one of the hijacked planes hit the North Tower of World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. There'll also be a tribute during pre-race ceremonies on Sunday.
A commemorative pin is being sold; see shop.indycar.com. The series encourages people to give blood to the American Red Cross; see redcross.org/give-blood.html.
Besides the three title contenders, Chip Ganassi Racing also has a pretty decent fourth driver. It's Jimmie Johnson, who has won seven NASCAR Cup championships, tying him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most ever, with 83 race wins and 222 top-five finishes.
Having departed NASCAR after the 2020 season, the 45-year-old Johnson has lived out his dream, thanks to a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. He's racing this year and presumably next for Ganassi in the IndyCar Series.
He has competed in nine races with his familiar No. 48. He hasn't finished in the top 10, yet, but he has finished seven races. He's improving.
It's been a steep learning curve for Johnson in IndyCar.
"But, I didn't think the curve would be as steep as it is. It's tough to be a rookie," said Johnson, who tested at PIR. "I sympathize with rookies all ages.
"It's much more specialized than I gave it credit for going in," added Johnson, who has a two-year contract with Ganassi. "With all that said, I'm having a blast. These cars are so much dang fun. I like the tracks, the culture, the vibe of IndyCar.
"I'll do it at least a couple years. If I get people to support me from a sponsorship standpoint, I'd do it for a long time. It took me five years to convert from offroad racing to the stock car, and I'm assuming there will be similar journey (into IndyCar). Hopefully it won't be that long."
The name Robin Miller has been synonymous with the IndyCar Series (and CART and Champ Car). The great motorsports writer for the Indianapolis Star and then other publications and broadcast entities later in his career died Aug. 25 at age 71.
"Racing has lost one of its most well-respected journalists and most beloved personalities," said Roger Penske, chair of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and longtime team owner.
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