If the results of the Indy Road Course race were bad for Honda teams and drivers, the results from the race at World-Wide Technology Raceway (the oval formerly known as Gateway) were an absolute disaster. For those of you who have not been keeping score, both Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) and Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) were taken out of the race by Rinus VeeKay. Palou lost his lead in the driver’s race to Pato O’Ward (McLaren-Chevy) and Dixon being shuffled to fourth behind Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy).
From a manufacturer’s point of view, things still looked good after Palou and Dixon were take out. Colton Herta (Andretti-Honda)and Alexander Rossi (Andretti-Honda) were in the top group and had two of the best cars. Herta looked like he was going to get his first oval victory. That was until Herta broke a driveshaft and Rossi put his car into the wall.
In the end, Newgarden won the race, O’Ward finished second, and the best Honda was Takuma Sato (Rahal-Honda) in 6th.
So let’s look at the possibilities with three races to go:
- Portland, September 12 at 3 p.m. Eastern
- Laguna Seca, September 19 at 3 p.m. Eastern
- Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, September 26 at 3 pm. Eastern
With its lockout of the top 5 at Gateway, Chevy took 33 points out of Honda’s 67-point lead going into Gateway. Honda now leads by 35 points. Effectively, Chevy needs to win two out of three to have a chance, and may need to win all three. Historically, this is how the tracks play out:
Portland: Honda and Chevy have split the two races since Indycar has returned to the track; Takuma Sato won in 2018 and Will Power (Penske-Chevy) won in 2019. To say the track has played evenly between Honda and Chevy would be a little misleading. Although Power won in a Chevy, the next three cars were Hondas and using today’s points scale, the points would have been close to even. Also, several of the top Hondas were taken out in a pileup at the festival curves. And in the 2018 race, the top five runners were Hondas.
Laguna Seca: This rates as more of a toss-up. 2019 was the track’s first year back on the schedule and Colton Herta dominated and won from pole. However, of the top five, three were Hondas and two were Chevys. A lot will ride on who wins the pole Saturday.
Long Beach: Honda has won the last three races since the last major engine revision going into the 2017 season. Alexander Rossi has won the last two. So this will be the hardest track for Chevy to gain points and may be Honda’s ace in the hole.
Honda has another advantage going into the final: fresher engines. All of the regular Chevy runners were using their fourth or fifth engines at Gateway. On the Honda side, only Jimmy Johnson, Jack Harvey and Alex Palou have used more than three.
What does this mean? Any Chevy runner that takes a new engine the rest of the way will get a six-spot grid penalty, and will become ineligible to score manufacturer points. Already, Josef Newgarden is on engine #5 and was ineligible to score manufacturer points at Gateway. On the Honda side, Alex Palou is on engine #6 and is ineligible to score points.
So, while the Chevy runners will have to use the engines they used at Gateway for the rest of the season, the following 10 Honda runners will likely get new engines at Portland to use the rest of the way:
- Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi)
- Scott Dixon (Ganassi)
- Graham Rahall (Rahal)
- Ed Jones (Coyne)
- James Hinchcliffe (Andretti)
- Alexander Rossi (Andretti)
- Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti)
- Colton Herta (Andretti)
- Takuma Sato (Rahal)
- Romain Grosjean (Coyne)
So while the race between Honda and Chevy is close, the tracks remaining and the age of the engine fleet favors Honda.
The Driver’s Championship
We’ve gone over the race results from Gateway, let’s take a look at the standings going into Portland:
- Pato O’Ward (Arrow-McLaren-Chevy) 435
- Alex Palou (Ganassi-Honda) -10
- Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy) -22
- Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda) -43
- Marcus Ericsson (Ganassi-Honda) -60
The big question is “Where is this going to end up?”
The data tells us that three driver’s most likely to win are O’Ward, Palou and Newgarden, just because of the tightness of the standings for the top 3. Let’s look at Dixon and Ericsson first.
Scott Dixon: I would rate his chances as being the worst of the five. Mainly because Dixon has qualified worse than Palou at every natural terrain road course this season. Passing at these tracks is at a premium and qualifying has been a small issue for Dixon in comparison to Palou. I am not sure he can be counted on to beat both Palou and Ericsson for three races in a row. He has won more titles than any other active driver so you can’t count him out until the numbers say he’s out.
Marcus Ericsson: Marcus is the dark horse. He has scored more points since the Indy 500 than any other driver other than Newgarden (see below). He has also scored more points on road courses and street courses than any driver in the top 5 by a fairly significant margin.
Ericsson is one of the two hot drivers in this five-racer pack, but he might be too far behind Newgarden and Palou. He’d have to stand on the podium at both Portland and Laguna Seca to have a shot, and on the top step at one of them.
So let’s go to the top three three:
Of the top three, I will be most surprised if O’Ward wins the title even though he leads at the moment. Of the top five, O’Ward has by far the least points on road and street courses so far and that’s all we got the rest of the way. Unlike Newgarden and Palou (who have each earned near DNFs on at least one road course this season), he has not been taken out of any road/street races by contact or engine failure. His car on road and street courses has either been great (Detroit 2) or he finishes off the pace. And he has a nasty habit of burning out his rear tires on road courses. Tire management is a strength of both Palou and Newgarden and a
problem at Laguna Seca.
Alex Palou: Natural terrain road courses are his strength and two of the final three are road courses. The fact that he has never raced at Portland or Laguna Seca (or Long Beach), hasn’t been an issue since he joined Ganassi (remember Barber?). Also, of the top five drivers, he has a significantly higher scoring average on natural terrain road courses this season. He finished ahead of O’Ward in four of the five road course events this season and ahead of Newgarden in three of the five.
Josef Newgarden: Of the top three, Newgarden has the hot hand, mostly because of Palou’s misfortune. He has the most points of anyone since the Indy 500. But Portland, Laguna, and Long Beach are not among his best tracks. He has finished fifth and 10th in the two races at Portland. He finished eighth in his only appearance at Laguna. At Long Beach, he has been on the Podium twice in eight races but has never won. I would never sell him short and I think he has a better chance than O’Ward since he has won two driver’s titles already.
So how will this play out? Without any mishaps or incidents, Palou should finish ahead of both O’Ward and Newgarden at Portland and Laguna Seca. Then it comes down to whether anyone can keep up with the Andretti cars at Laguna. If Palou leads going into Long Beach and Herta and Rossi are both on their game, it will be hard for anyone else to overtake Palou.
He’s still my favorite.