Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Game on for Alex Palou & Josef Newgarden

With five races to go in the 2023 season, it appears the NTT IndyCar Series championship is going to come down to a head-to-head fight between two of the series’ true heavyweights.

Both points leader Alex Palou and two-time champion Josef Newgarden came away from the Iowa Speedway with the results that they had hoped for. Newgarden, the current oval king, swept the weekend to run his oval winning streak to five races (dating back to Gateway last year, while Palou finished eighth and third, respectively, and was happy with getting some good points at a track that by his own admission hasn’t always been so good to him.

Once everything was shaken out, Palou’s 117-point lead over Newgarden had been trimmed to 80, with the series heading to Newgarden’s hometown, Nashville, next weekend.

With the final five races being contested over just six weeks, momentum means something. And as we’ve seen in IndyCar, anything can happen.

So how could things shake out between now and when the Astor Cup is handed out at Laguna Seca?

Lets go to the tale of the tape.

See also
Josef Newgarden Earns IndyCar Iowa Weekend Sweep

Nashville

Of the five races left on the schedule, this one could prove to be the most unpredictable. Nashville’s tight quarters makes it a true street fight, with plenty of contact, broken parts and red flags.

Case in point: in the inaugural race in 2021 there were eight cautions and two red flags, and Marcus Ericsson went airborne early in the race. Somehow, the Swede pitted to fix his damaged car, and won from an 18th-place starting position. Last year’s race also featured eight yellows, and Scott Dixon pitted six times, then needed to hold off a charging Scott McLaughlin to win the race.

Advantage: Even. While Chip Ganassi Racing drivers have won both races, the chaos that preceded those wins played more of a hand in the victory than the performance of the cars.

Indianapolis

Both drivers head to the doubleheader weekend with NASCAR on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with good vibes. Back in May, Palou won on the road course in dominant fashion, then won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and finished fourth despite pit road contact with Rinus Veekay that put him near the back of the field in the early part of the race.

Newgarden, of course, won the 500 with a last-lap pass on Ericsson to win for the first time, and finished seventh on the road course. Newgarden has one win on the road course, which came in 2020, but overall has an average finish of 12.6 in 11 road course starts.

Advantage: Palou. His 17-second win back in May was too easy, and odds are he will do it again.

Gateway

No analysis needed for World Wide Technology Raceway. Newgarden is on the biggest oval win streak we’ve seen in IndyCar since Al Unser won five in a row in 1970, and has won four of the last five races at the paperclip on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Palou, meanwhile, has never finished better than ninth in his three starts at Gateway, and is all but conceding he will lose points at this round.

“I hope [to extend the lead] before getting to Gateway,” Palou said after Sunday’s (July 23) race at Iowa. “It’s not as bad as Iowa in the past, but it’s not been great. I think I feel a bit more comfortable there, and also we have a bit more performance from the car. But [Newgarden], I count him on winning there, so I need to do the work in Nashville and Indy Road Course before getting there.”

Advantage: Newgarden.

Portland

With 53 points being the maximum a driver can earn on a race weekend, and five being the fewest, if Palou somehow adds enough points to his cushion over the next three races to where all he has to do is take the green flag to win the championship, he heads west with the title already in his pocket.

However, if it goes the other way, especially if there is a big points swing at Gateway, it gets interesting. Palou said earlier in the season that there could come a time where he would be focusing more on racing for points than for wins, but if Newgarden keeps applying the pressure, who knows what can happen.

Advantage: Even when it comes to who can win the race, but in terms of the championship, it depends on who has the most momentum.

Laguna Seca

If Palou makes it this far with his lead somewhat intact, he will be able to breathe a little easier, especially knowing that in his two starts here he has finished second and first, respectively. The pressure would come if Newgarden has cut the lead to a point where a win on his part forces Palou to finish somewhere in the front of the field.

Advantage: Palou.

How Palou can win the championship:

Of course, the easiest way would be to do what he has done all year, win races or pick up podiums. But the key to all of that has been that Palou has consistently qualified near the front of the field. Along with his two poles, and in a seven-race span between Alabama and Mid-Ohio, the Spaniard never started worse than fourth. If he can continue to start near the front of the field, it’s going to put more and more pressure on Newgarden.

How Newgarden can win the championship:

He has to keep winning, and get some help. Over the last two seasons, winning hasn’t been an issue for the two-time IndyCar champion, who has nine wins in his last 27 races. He’s got that part on lock. The problem is that when he hasn’t won, Palou oftentimes has, as he’s notched five wins in his last 13 events. The help part comes in the form of poor Palou finishes, which has only happened twice in the last two seasons.

See also
Alex Palou's Points Lead Shrinks, But He's Happy with His Results at Iowa

Palou certainly has the upper hand, but in his short time in the series, he’s come to learn that IndyCar can be all sorts of crazy.

“I’m glad we have those points in the bag, but I’m not comfortable, honestly,” Palou said Sunday. “I will be comfortable when we’ve won the championship. We know in INDYCAR with the big swing you can make in only one weekend just by winning and having a bad race, yeah, you can never give up.”

After a week off, the series will reconvene the first weekend of August for 80 laps around the streets of Nashville. The Big Machine Music City Grand Prix will go green at 12 p.m. ET on Aug. 6 with NBC providing TV coverage.

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Jeremy

I don’t wish anything bad for Palou, but I hope (for excitement in the series) Josef can slowly reel him in over the next 4 races and make the last race a showdown. Then, may the best man win!

I wouldn’t be opposed to both Dixon and Newgarden making a run, turning it into a 3-way fight at Laguna Seca. However, I think he’s just a bit too far back at this point to pull it off.

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