Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey Race Preview

The final race of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season is among us. The 17th and final round will take place on Sunday for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/INDYCAR Radio Network).

It seems like it was just yesterday that we were opening the season on the street of St. Pete. Now, a little over six months later, it’s time to crown a champion.

1st Race Back In Over a Decade

This is a unique season finale in that it’s a new track for most of these drivers. The last time the venue hosted an Indy Car race was back in 2004. Most of these drivers in the field weren’t around then.

So, to have a race that crowns a champion with no one really having any experience on the track will be an ultimate wildcard.

“Laguna Seca is a track I haven’t raced at before, but we have tested there,” said point leader Josef Newgarden. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge because of that and since there are three other guys still in contention for the championship, along with a bunch of guys looking to win the race. We’ve reviewed our data from the test and all other races this year and feel like we have a great plan headed into the race.”

Fellow American Ryan Hunter-Reay agrees.

“Although I’ll miss Sonoma after our pole-to-win performance there last year, it’s great to have Laguna Seca back on the INDYCAR schedule,” Hunter-Reay said. “Laguna Seca is one of those iconic tracks that belong on the NTT IndyCar Series calendar. I have some great memories there, most notably winning in Formula Atlantic in 2002 as well as hosting three of our (Racing for Cancer) Race to Beat Cancer events at the venue. We’re also looking forward to seeing all of our partners in attendance and running a new livery in honor of DHL’s 50th Anniversary this year.”

Penske/Ganassi/Andretti Should Once Again Be Strong 

Combined, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport have won 12 of the last 13 Indy Car races on the season and all but six since this new car was unveiled for the 2018 season and beyond. In Laguna Seca, they have the most to lose. The top five in the points standings are filled with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti drivers. With them needing to win, I have a feeling one of them will.

With how this season has gone, expect a Penske, Andretti or Ganassi car to pull into victory lane on Sunday afternoon. They’ve won 78-percent of all races since 2015.

Top 6 In The Standings Still Shining

Want to win in the NTT IndyCar Series, you need to be on top of your game. There are no fluke winners here. Just look at the last 14 races on the season – all 14 of them contested saw the race winner be in the top six of the current points standings.

Yes, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Takuma Sato have combined to win every Indy Car race since Long Beach.

All six are on top of their games right now and in an intense title race for the Astor Cup. With how this season has gone, expect one of which to win this weekend too.

Points Battle

This is the biggest story line right? A champion will be crowned on Sunday night. Who is it though?

Currently, four drivers enter this weekend eligible – Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon. Combined, they’ve won each of the last four championships in the series and five of the last six overall. The only champion since 2013 that wasn’t one of these drivers was Will Power in 2014.

While this one is hard to predict since we haven’t raced at Laguna Seca in 15 years, we can only look at how these drivers have done on natural road courses this season.

Newgarden, has finishes of second, fourth, 15th, third, 14th and fifth respectively.

Rossi, has one win but that and a third place run in Portland are his only podiums in six tries.

Pagenaud, like Rossi, has also mainly struggled in scoring only one top five as that was his win in the INDYCAR Grand Prix. He has finishes of 19th, ninth, ninth, sixth and seventh respectively in the other four.

Dixon, has been the best out of this group but he’s likely too far out. He was 13th, second, second, fifth, first and 16th respectively in six tries.

Rookie Of The Year Battle

Heading into the season finale, it’s likely down to just two of the four drivers who can take home the distinction of Rookie of the Year. While all three of the four are still eligible, Santino Ferrucci and Felix Rosenqvist are the drivers in the cat birds seat.

Rosenqvist leads Ferrucci by 26 points. Herta, is 49 points out himself. Yes, double points are on the line this weekend but other than Rosenqvist, I don’t think any of them can win.

So, it’s not like the double points are going to be too noticeable.

See, all three of Ferrucci’s top 10 finishes since Texas in June have come on ovals. All four of Rosenqvist’s top 10’s in his recent seven race stretch have been on road or street courses.

Sunday’s a natural road course.

On natural road courses this season, Ferrucci has finishes of 20th, 15th, 10th, 19th, 12th and 17th respectively. On the same tracks, Rosenqvist has finished 23rd, 10th, eighth, sixth, second and second respectively.

What about Herta? He’s finished first, 24th, 23rd, eighth, eighth and fourth respectively.

Can Rossi Give Andretti Their 1st Title Since 2012?

Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have been the ones hogging championship trophies in the NTT IndyCar Series as of late. Since 2008, they’ve won the title in all but one year (2012). That one year was Ryan Hunter-Reay with Andretti Autosport.

Now, can Alexander Rossi give Andretti their second championship in eight years?

Rossi, enters Sunday’s season finale with a 41 point gap behind points leader Josef Newgarden for the championship. But, luckily for Rossi, Sunday’s race is also double points too.

There’s a 20 point difference in points awarded between first and second now.

“The end of the season is finally here and we have an opportunity to come out of Laguna Seca with our first championship,” said Rossi. “There have been some highs and lows this year, but I am very proud of what the NAPA team has accomplished thus far and we are very motivated to have our best weekend yet. This track was my introduction to motorsports at a young age and to come back 20 plus years later has, in a way, has brought my career full circle.”

Rossi, doesn’t enter as the hottest driver though but can certainly turn things around. No one has really any experience on this track as there’s nothing that anyone can gain from the past here. While Rossi hasn’t led a lap since his domination in Road America back in June, he can get things going again this weekend.

Don’t count him out.

Can Dixon Go Back-To-Back?

Scott Dixon’s main goal for 2019 was a simple one – defend his crown. See, Dixon won his fifth series championship last year and wanted to do something for the first time of his career this year and that’s to win back-to-back championships.

Dixon’s first title came in 2003 but his new two would come in five year increments. He won again in 2008 then 2013. He’d not have to wait five years for his fourth though as he won again two years later in 2015. Then, he won his fifth just last year.

That’s three titles in a six year span. Can he get a fourth on Sunday?

“Laguna Seca. What’s can you say,?” said Dixon. “It’s a classic American road course and the series is heading back now for the finale which I think many people are excited about obviously. We are an outside shot for the championship but that’s the way it goes sometimes I guess. But I still think we can move up from where we’re at. That’s the focus for this weekend with the PNC Bank car. We’ll try and get the pole, lead the most laps and win the race, and see where we end up. I’m looking forward to a good weekend.”

While the odds are stacked against him as he enters this weekend’s season finale 85 points behind Josef Newgarden, he’s still mathematically eligible.

Plus, Dixon has been at his best on natural road courses this season. No one has scored as many points (199) as him as he has three top two finishes in his last five starts on them.

If he can win the championship on Sunday, especially with how his season has gone in 2019, it would be among the best ones of his career.

Penske Looking For 4th Title In Last 6 Years

When Will Power won the NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2014, it was Team Penske’s first in eight years. Their last came back in 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr. In fact, from 2002 through 2013, Penske had just one Indy Car title.

But, over the last five years, they’ve won three championships in the series. Can they pick up a fourth on Sunday?

Odds say, yes.

Out of the four remaining eligible drivers to can hoist the Astor Cup trophy in Laguna Seca, half of them belong to Penske including the points leader in Josef Newgarden.

Newgarden, has been stellar this year as he’s scored four wins to go along with 11 top five finishes. His teammate Simon Pagenaud has three wins himself with six top five finishes. While the gap between them is 42, Pagenaud can certainly make up for that.

He’s outscored everyone over the last six races on the season. Newgarden, has the third most points himself.

Pagenaud Having Season Of His Life

How incredible would it be if Simon Pagenaud could go from the hot seat at the beginning of the season to a champion at the end? That’s the reality right now.

Pagenaud, entered the Month of May at Indy looking like 2019 would be the last year in his ride with Team Penske. The way the wording came out when Pagenaud swept the Month of May at Indy as well as what Alexander Rossi had to say when he re-upped with Andretti this past summer confirms that.

Heading into May, it appeared that Penske wanted Rossi to replace Pagenaud for 2020 and beyond. Pagenaud, just wasn’t competing enough prior to that.

See, while he had 14 top 10 finishes in 2018, only four of those landed him in the top five. All the while, Josef Newgarden and Will Power combined to win six times including both races in the Month of May.

Out of his last 21 Indy Car races, Pagenaud had four finishes in the top five. He led just 31 laps in total last year as well.

But, Long Beach is where Pagenaud reminded us that he didn’t go anywhere. He qualified in the Fast Six and pointed to the quality of the field now and that it’s just so hard to get things completely right anymore. He noted, he didn’t go anywhere in the meantime and that we will hear from him soon.

How about the next race?

Pagenaud, chased Scott Dixon down in the final laps in the rain at Indy to win the INDYCAR Grand Prix. It was his first victory since the 2017 season finale. Then, he won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 the next weekend. A week later? He led 116 of the 200 laps in a thrilling Indianapolis 500 victory.

That netted him a contract extension.

A few races after though, he found out that the Indy 500 hangover is real. Pagenaud, finished sixth in Belle Isle 1 and was involved in a crash in Belle Isle 2. He was sixth again the next race in Texas and ninth in Road America. All of that Indy magic was vanished.

But, he got the rest that he needed and was able to get recharged. From then on, no one has scored as many points as Pagenaud. Over the last six races, he’s finished in the top five in all of them but two. Even that one was a sixth place result in Mid-Ohio and seventh in Portland. He’s had 10 finishes of sixth or better in his last 13 races. In his prior 20 starts, he had six.

For this weekend, Pagenaud is keeping it simple – they’re in it to win it. This is a chance for him to be full on attack mode in search of his second championship in four years.

“What a season it’s been,” said Pagenaud. “We won the Indy 500, and the DXC Technology Chevy team brought home a few more wins along the way. Now it all comes down to the championship race at Laguna.

“This is my favorite time in racing — it’s crunch time. I love Laguna Seca. It’s a beautiful racetrack where I have done well in the past. Our strategy is very simple — we are going into it, to win it! It’s going to be full attack mode all weekend. The goal is to be the hunted so we can control our destiny. It’s going to be an exciting one with the championship contenders because we’re all going to put everything on the line. I can’t wait!”

That’s why this season would be the best of his career. From going from no job security to winning the Indy 500 and title in the same season.

Qualifying Could Set Up Who Wins Championship

While the excitement for a new track on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule was high for Laguna Seca’s return, unfortunately, how the race goes Sunday will likely be predicated more on Saturday than the actual race itself.

See, this is the same problem we saw for the old season finale at Sonoma. Qualifying on Saturday really shaped who would win the race on Sunday. When you throw in double points and the championship on the line, how the title contenders qualified 24 hours before the race held more merit than the race itself.

With how Laguna Seca races, Alexander Rossi said on Wednesday that he expects a similar thing to occur next weekend.

“Yeah, I think that’s a very fair statement,” the Andretti Autosport driver said. “I’ve been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna. It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of its history.

“So, yeah, I mean, it’s 100% going to be a critical qualifying session that you’re going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds. The guy that’s on pole, if he’s one of the guys that are in the championship fight, it’s going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”

13 of the 16 races run this season have seen the winner come from a top six starting spot. Half of the races saw the winner come from the front row. In terms of natural road courses, these are the starting spots of the winners this year – 4th, 1st, 8th, 2nd, 8th and 2nd respectively.

If you go back to last year, it was – 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st 20th and 1st respectively.

That’s eight of the last 12 races run on natural road courses where they winner came from the front row. All but one saw the winner come from the first 4 Rows. So, qualifying really will shape who wins the championship.

So, who has the edge?

Rossi’s average starting spot on natural road courses this year is 6.33. He’s had three front row starting spots.

Newgarden’s is 9.33 though as he’s started outside the Fast Six in four of the six races on them.

Simon Pagenaud’s average starting spot is 13.66 himself with his starts being – 22nd, 14th, 8th, 16th, 4th and 18th respectively.

If this trend holds true, then Rossi could very well win this title next Sunday.

Likely A Lot Of Green Flag Racing

The yellow flags are down this year. That’s a known fact. I don’t expect many on Sunday either. While this is a new track, it’s not one that produces a ton of yellows. For example, Portland was new last year and we only saw four cautions. This year, we saw .

Also this year, we’ve seen two or fewer cautions in three of the last six races including two of which going green flag to checkered flag without a stoppage.

Furthermore, natural road courses haven’t had many cautions at all this year. COTA and Barber each had one yellow flag fly each. The IndyCar Grand Prix had three. Road America and Mid-Ohio had none.

6 Natural Road Course Races, 6 Different Winners, 5 Different Teams

Odds are likely that we’re going to see a new winner in Sunday’s race. We’ve had six natural road course races run in 2019 and in all six of them we’ve seen a different winner – five of which from a different team.

Colton Herta (Harding Steinbrenner Racing) won in COTA. Takuma Sato (Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing) won a week later in Barber. Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske) won in Indy. Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport) was in June at Road America. Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) won two months ago in Mid-Ohio. Will Power (Team Penske) won the last race in Portland.

So, who’s next?

If we want a new winner look no further than Ryan Hunter-Reay. He finished third in Mid-Ohio and third in COTA while also coming home runner-up in a new race at Portland last year. If not him, then Felix Rosenqvist would be a great pick too. In his last five natural road course starts he’s finished 10th, eighth, sixth, second and second respectively. If not them, then Graham Rahal. He has four top nine finishes in six natural road course starts this season. Josef Newgarden also makes sense. He has three top four finishes in six tries himself.

But, what about those that fit the different team description too?

Dale Coyne Racing, AJ Foyt Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing, Carlin or Meyer Shank Racing are up then. Who are the favorites among these groups?

Sebastien Bourdais has to be one as he has a top 12 finish in all six tries but only two of which were in the top 10. Santino Ferrucci has two finishes better than 15th himself.

I doubt the Foyt duo will have much of a shot, same for Carlin. But, the ECR boys may. Ed Jones and Spencer Pigot are always fast on natural road courses.

MSR also is a sleeper. Jack Harvey has three top 10 finishes in six tries including a podium in Indy.

Honda’s The Ones To Beat? Manufacturer Looking For 2nd Straight Manufacturers Title

Honda has won five of the six natural road course races run this year. They in fact have won seven of the last eight on these types of tracks overall.

That’s good news for Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing, Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Meyer Shank Racing and Dale Coyne Racing this weekend.

While Chevy has won eight of the last 13 races overall, five of those eight were contested on ovals. It’s Honda’s turn to flip the script and end the year on top again.

Also, they could earn their second manufacturers championship in-a-row as well.

In 2018, Honda earned their first NTT IndyCar Series manufacturer’s title since 2011. See, when the DW12 came out for the 2012 season, Chevrolet joined Honda in the series as the two engine suppliers. Chevy, came in and took Honda to the woodshed in winning the manufacturers title in five straight years since their return.

Prior to 2012, Honda was the saving grace to the series. After joining Indy Car in 2003, Honda won the manufacturer championship in 2004 and again in 2005 when competing with Chevrolet and Toyota. From 2006-’11, Honda was the sole engine supplier before Chevy re-entered in 2012.

But, last year it was all Honda. It was a big accomplishment for them to not only knock Chevy off their perch, but to do so in the first year of the new unified package. They had the pace and durability.

Now, they’re on pace to win again. They lead Chevy.

Only full-season entries earn manufacturer points, with the highest two finishers for each manufacturer at each race earning points based on the driver point system (50 for first place, 40 for second and so on; with double points awarded for the Indianapolis 500 and Sonoma). Bonuses are added for a race win (five points) as well as pole positions and being the fastest Indy 500 opening-day qualifier.

Durability is a key to the manufacturer point system, however. Each full-season entry is allotted four engines for the season to complete a total of 10,000 miles that includes testing, practice, qualifying and the races. If a car uses a fifth engine or more without completing the 10,000-mile threshold first, it becomes ineligible to earn manufacturer points.

Honda, has seven wins this season. They have two of the top four in the points standings and 10 of the top 13. What makes this even better is, out of the nine drivers in the top 12, five different teams are represented. Furthermore, four of their six teams have won this season and that comes after all four organizations that they represented in 2018 reached victory lane.

For Honda, while they have the lead, Chevrolet is coming.

Chevy won four of the first six races in 2018 but just two of the final 11 for the rest of the season. They won only 1 of the first 4 races in 2019 too. That was a string of 12 victories in their last 15 tries for Honda heading into the Month of May and three for Chevy.

But, that’s where the bowties turned it on. Chevy has won eight of the last 13 races and is making this a battle again. They also won the Indy 500 for the second consecutive year.

They seem to have the preferred package on ovals but Honda’s have the advantage on natural road courses.

AJ Foyt Racing Ending The Season Much Better

Last race in Portland, second year driver Matheus Leist brought his No. 4 Chevrolet home eighth. A week prior, his teammate Tony Kanaan finished third in his No. 14 Chevrolet. A week prior to that, Kanaan was eighth in Pocono. Heading into the season finale in Laguna Seca, AJ Foyt Racing has had three straight races where one of their drivers has earned a top 10 finish.

That’s huge.

In fact, if you go back to Iowa, they’ve had a top 10 in four of the last five races run. By comparison, they had four top 10 finishes combined last season. Count the two earlier this year at Indy and you’ll see that they’ve had as many (5-4) in the last five races as they had in the previous 28.

Now, can they end the season on a high note?

Leist, has now scored 101 points on natural road courses this year. That’s actually tied for 14th most with James Hinchcliffe.

Kanaan, has moved up to 15th in the overall points standings.

“I really like Laguna Seca,” Kanaan said. “It’s a track that I had a lot of success at in the past-I won the Indy Lights championship there in ’97 and had my second podium in Indy car in ’98. The track is very challenging, it has a lot of hills and a lot of blind corners-The Corkscrew is extremely famous for that.”

This close to a year is reminiscent as the one in 2017 where Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz combined to get a top 10 in each of the final five races that year. The problem was, the team hit the reset button in the offseason and brought in new drivers (Kanaan and Leist). With both current drivers being free agents at the end of the year and their longtime sponsor ABC Supply not returning for 2020, this momentum could get halted again when the checkered flag flies on Sunday.

“I’m looking forward to the last round of the season-Laguna Seca,” Leist said. “It’s a place that I’ve never been to but I’ll confess that I’ve played a lot of iRacing there and it seems like a pretty cool track. Also Tony (Kanaan) really likes that track, he won there in Indy lights and had good runs in Indy car so it’s good to have a teammate with a lot of experience at that track. I can lean on him and chat about it and get some tips from him.”

Rosenqvist Could Play Spoiler

The attention now is on the championship battle in the NTT IndyCar Series. But, one driver could play spoiler on Sunday – Felix Rosenqvist. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is on the verge of earning Rookie of the Year Honors. He leads Santino Ferrucci by 26 points and Colton Herta by 49.

With this being another race on a natural road course, I think the advantage lands to Rosenqvist. The last two natural road courses, he’s finished runner-up in both. All four of Rosenqvist’s top 10’s in his recent seven race stretch have been on road or street courses.

On natural road courses this season, Rosenqvist has finished 23rd, 10th, eighth, sixth, second and second respectively. Trends say he will win.

Plus, this track races a lot like Mid-Ohio, a place where Rosenqvist so narrowly missed out on earning his first career win. He’s scored the fifth most points on the season on these types of tracks. His teammate Scott Dixon has scored the most.

“I think the rookies have definitely made a statement this year,” Rosenqvist said. “Having raced all over the planet, I would say that INDYCAR is the toughest beast yet to master for me. I think Colton Herta and I have had similar years where it took off a bit too fast, and then the reality of INDYCAR struck us, and a change of approach was needed.

“I have definitely calmed down during the year, trying to take what’s there every weekend instead of forcing myself into errors – trying to go for the top spot at any cost. I also think that’s why I’m the leading rookie right now. The speed has been there from the start, but it’s just so much more needed to take the points every weekend. Speed alone will not give you success in this championship.

“It’s cool that there is a battle going on between Santino (Ferrucci), Colton and I for Laguna. I’ve been on quite a streak on the road courses lately and I feel hungry for that first win, and Laguna would be just the right place to get it done. Being with Chip Ganassi Racing for my rookie season has been more helpful than anything. The team has given me access to everything in order to become ready to win races. I think the field is so tight these days that literally anyone can be fast, but what CGR does differently is getting all the details right, and that’s why they normally come out on top!.

On top of that, we’ve had a different winner in all six natural road course races run this season. Why not a seventh?

Who’s Going To Win The Championship?

We know that four drivers remain in contention to take home the Astor Cup trophy on Sunday. Josef Newgarden leads Alexander Rossi by 41 points. Simon Pagenaud is third with a gap of 42 markers. Scott Dixon is fourth, 85 points out. Realistically, this is a three man battle for the title.

Scott Dixon has scored the most points on natural road courses this season (199) which is 17 better than second (Will Power), 20 more than Rossi, 29 more than Newgarden and 39 more than Pagenaud, I just don’t think even with double points that it’s going to be enough. He has to hope for all three ahead of him to have bad luck and finish in the bottom of the running order. I just don’t see it.

But, what about the other three? To me, it could be more interesting than you think. Newgarden, has held onto the points lead for all but one race this season. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just three times. But, what if I told you that two of those results outside of the top 10 were on natural road courses? What if I told you that Newgarden’s finishes on natural road courses are only – second, fourth, 15th, third, 14th and seventh respectively. That’s just three top five finishes in six tries. That would certainly open the door for Rossi or Pagenaud.

The problem for Rossi is, he hasn’t been much better and he hasn’t led a lap since June 23. Rossi, has scored just one podium in his last five starts on the season too. While he dominated in Road America and finished third last weekend, his other results on natural road courses are – ninth, fifth, 22nd and fifth. That’s not going to be good enough.

Pagenaud, well he may be in the catbirds seat soon. He’s outscored everyone over the last six races. He’s out finished Newgarden in four of the last six races run. His problem is, since his win in Toronto, he’s only been on the podium once as well.

Newgarden, hasn’t exactly been tearing it up lately in terms of competing for race wins as he’s left the door open, it’s just that Rossi and Pagenaud haven’t been able to do anything about it. Now, the opportunity is there, can they capitalize or will Newgarden earn his second championship in three years.

The safe pick and my pick is Newgarden.

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