PORTLAND, Ore. — As IndyCar races into the final two races of its season and the closest championship race in nearly two decades, title contender Josef Newgarden is already facing a penalty Sunday at Portland International Raceway.
The two-time series champion loses six spots on the grid because Team Penske ahead of the Portland Grand Prix (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on NBC). On a difficult track, the penalty quickly put Newgarden behind.
Newgarden remained optimistic he can overcome the setback and still have Sunday’s race in the running for a third IndyCar title.
INDY CAR IN PORTLAND: Schedules as seen on NBC, Peacock this weekend
“I wouldn’t say it’s ideal, but I don’t know if it’s crucial,” Newgarden said on Friday before setting the fastest lap in individual practice at the 1.964-mile, 12-turn street circuit. “Hopefully it’s not a huge disadvantage and I don’t think it will be.”
Rookie David Malukas was second fastest in practice, followed by Scott McLaughlin, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta. Points leader Will Power was tenth fastest.
FRIDAY PRACTICE: Velocity chart from the first session
Power leads the championship with two races remaining – on Sunday in Portland and on September 11th at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. But his lead was reduced to just three points by Newgarden, his Team Penske teammate, who drove on IndyCar’s final outing to his fifth win of the season to pull straight into Power’s rearview mirror.
But there is absolutely no air to breathe in this title fight: Scott Dixon, the six-time champion, is 14 points adrift of Power while a trio of Chip Ganassi Racing drivers challenge Penske’s teammates. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson is 17 points clear while reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou is fifth overall, 54 points back.
Indeed, contenders include Scott McLaughlin and Pato O’Ward in sixth and seventh overall as both remain mathematically eligible to win the title. Any driver 54 points or more behind the leader after Sunday’s race will be eliminated and O’Ward is currently 58 points behind Power.
In this intense championship fight there have been seven lead changes this season between Power, Newgarden, Palou, Ericsson and McLaughlin and the three points separating Penske teammates Power and Newgarden are the closest with two races remaining since 2008. The 43 points separating the top five drivers in the championship is the closest title chase since 2003 when 41 points separated the top 5.
Ganassi’s objective is clear: Chip Ganassi has told his three rivals that he wants them to finish 1-2-3 in the title race and that his drivers should make a clean sweep of the checkered flag at Laguna Seca next weekend.
“Rule #1 is don’t take out your teammate,” Dixon said. “Of course everyone drives to win, but it takes a certain respect when you’re competing against your teammates.”
Dixon also noted that two weeks ago at Gateway, Penske driver McLaughlin appeared to have intentionally avoided Newgarden to help Newgarden win the race. McLaughlin was leading the last restart, controlling him and pulling out a nice lead before Newgarden easily caught him to win his fifth race of the season.
When asked by The Associated Press after the Gateway race how Newgarden caught him so quickly, McLaughlin credited “the slipstream effect”. I did everything I could to try and break away from that as much as possible.”
But when asked by AP why McLaughlin appeared to stand still as Newgarden sped past, he disagreed.
“Yes I do not know. I don’t know,” McLaughlin said.
Power said team owner Roger Penske gave his drivers a briefing ahead of Gateway, warning them not to race unnecessarily and cost the overall team effort. But Newgarden’s interpretation of the boss’s orders seemed to be that winning is the ultimate goal.
“I think it’s wise not to be at each other’s throats for the whole race,” said Newgarden. “You would probably have that opinion at any time of the year. But when it comes down to it, Roger has always felt it’s time at the end of the race.
“When it’s time to go, it’s time to go and Roger understands that. But he wants us to do the best we can. Ride hard but ride fair and don’t kill each other. But sometimes things happen. All you can do is try to make it as fair as possible.”
IndyCar rookie Callum Ilott has settled into the series well with an active role at Junco’s Hollinger Racing. He agreed to a contract extension in July to return next year to what Ilott expects to be an expanded two-car team.
Although he has no control over who the team hires for a second seat, he has spoken to Ricardo Juncos about possible appointments. At the top of his list? Arrow McLaren SP driver Felix Rosenqvist.
Rosenqvist is knocked out of his IndyCar seat with McLaren when Palou is released from his contract with Ganassi, a case currently in arbitration and snaking through the courts. McLaren wants to bring Rosenqvist into its new Formula E team, but the Swede wants to stay with IndyCar.
“Felix I would love to have him and I think he would be one of the best options we can get,” Ilott told AP. “I would open my arms to him. Out of everything I think this would be the best situation for whoever we could get because he has the most experience and he’s also a great guy.”
Ilott came from the European system and while technically still a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, he said he is currently separated from the F1 world and has no real remaining responsibilities. It’s made IndyCar his full focus and he’s not sure other young European drivers who have financial backing but can’t break into F1 will follow Ilott and fellow rookie Christian Lundgaard to the United States.
He said JHR is not actively looking for a rider to bring a budget to help with expansion, but the team would consider someone to make the jump from Europe.
“I know how difficult it was for my side as an F2 guy to get into IndyCar, I think it was challenging and they were going to have a lot to learn from me,” Ilott said. “Does it develop us as a team? Probably not as fast as Felix.”
Ilott then hinted that JHR could be interested in a current Indy Lights rider – Linus Lundqvist could bag the Lights title on Sunday – or even a veteran. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who retired from IndyCar this season, is under a sportscar deal with Chip Ganassi Racing but has also been credited for several IndyCar openings in 2023.
“Are you going to take someone from Lights who knows the circuits but not necessarily the Indy car? That’s probably easier than (an F2 driver) in a way,” Ilott said. “Or take someone who might have been to IndyCar but hasn’t been in the series for the past year or two? There are many options out there.”