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IndyCar Iowa II

Is there really an IndyCar title fight, or is it just an illusion?

OPINION: Back-to-back victories in the Iowa double-header for Josef Newgarden have trimmed his points deficit with five races to go in the 2023 IndyCar battle. But is championship leader Alex Palou really at risk of his advantage being overcome?

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet congratulates Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Last weekend, Josef Newgarden made the IndyCar Series title fight interesting. Well, a bit. The Team Penske driver’s double victories at Iowa Speedway, a track he truly excels at, puts him 80 points off dominator Alex Palou.

So, should Chip Ganassi Racing’s Spanish ace be worried?

Not really. Those 80 points are effectively a win and a sixth-placed finish, so Newgarden is going to have to keep up his hot form from here on in. But his Iowa brace – he’s now up to six and in some rarified air of IndyCar greats with half a dozen victories or more at one track – gives him an outside chance.

On the plus side, Newgarden has dominated at every oval track this year. Penske has a proven record for winning just about everywhere. And he’s chased titles before – winning the Astor Cup in 2017 and 2019.

On the downside, inconsistency has been his downfall. Too many times we’ve seen Newgarden infuriated, but it’s been a more of a lack of execution, rather than a lack of opportunity that has defined his season. While the St Petersburg engine problem and Long Beach fuelling issues weren’t his fault, he damaged his car on the opening lap at Barber, which cost him dear.

Qualifying has been Newgarden’s true Achilles heel, starting outside the top 10 on five occasions (versus Palou’s twice). His best starting spot all season has been third, while Palou has two poles and a streak of seven top-four starts from Long Beach to Mid-Ohio.

Of course, Newgarden is always going to be able to look back at this year with huge satisfaction as he scored his first Indianapolis 500 victory. I say ‘his first’, because I expect more. His first word as he crossed the line – “Finally!” – spoke volumes for Newgarden thinking he should have done it before. It’s also something he does have over Palou…

Qualifying has often been an Achilles heel for Newgarden, while Palou has twice taken pole positions in 2023

Qualifying has often been an Achilles heel for Newgarden, while Palou has twice taken pole positions in 2023

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

The huge challenge for Newgarden to overcome

Let’s look at the man he has to beat: Palou has also been in this situation before, winning the 2021 title in his first year with Ganassi. After a mind-mangling 2022 – when he was sued by his own race team! – he rebounded this year with some mind-blowing performances.

His biggest error was binning his car in practice at Road America, a race he’d go on to win, while not even getting rammed into the pitlane wall at the Indy 500 – which dropped him to last – could stop a brilliant charge back to fourth.

Talk about Palou attracting attention from Formula 1 teams is real. They have taken notice of how good he is, but I believe one has already snared him and we’ll find out some time in September how that will play out.

As well as being an ace behind the wheel, Palou is also a master of saying the right things off the track too. Privately, I reckon he thinks he’s got this tucked up as long as he keeps doing exactly what he’s been doing all season. Of course, there’s the risk of getting taken out in the rough and tumble of IndyCar, or a component failure or messed-up pitstop.

"We know in IndyCar, with the big swings, you can make a lot in only one weekend by winning or having a bad race, so you can never give up" Alex Palou

But watching him operate with Ganassi’s #10 car this year has been a lesson in huge focus on delivering his best on each given day. His worst finishes this year are a pair of eighths. In contrast, Newgarden has finished in worse positions on five occasions.

While Newgarden was brilliant at Iowa, Palou’s podium finish on Sunday must have made the victor’s heart sink. “I told him that you weren’t supposed to finish there!” Newgarden told NBC as the top three drivers celebrated at the finish line.

Afterwards, Palou was – as usual – saying all the right stuff to keep a lid on things…

“I'm glad we have those points in the bag, but I'm not comfortable, honestly,” he said. “I will be comfortable if we won the championship already.

“We know in IndyCar, with the big swings, you can make a lot in only one weekend by winning or having a bad race, so you can never give up. I'm looking forward to the next couple of races, which we know that we have a good car for, and I have a lot of confidence.”

Read Also:
Palou has done plenty of winning himself this year, with a hat-trick across Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio giving him command of the standings

Palou has done plenty of winning himself this year, with a hat-trick across Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio giving him command of the standings

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Newgarden is also a polished performer when it comes to his quotes on the matter, and he was open about his disappointment at how well Palou had done.

“I would have liked it to reach 50 or 60,” he said of the points difference. “That would sound better, but that's not where we're at, and I think we did a pretty good job given what was in our control this weekend.

“It's hard not to give kudos to Alex. I think he just did a great job. Clearly we had the upper hand this weekend, and he had a great weekend too. You know, he maximised what he could, and I think that speaks to what he brings to his programme.

“He maximises his results. He minimised a loss today. You know, it could have been more and he just made sure it wasn't. He is a tremendous competitor.”

That’s where we are right now, so let’s take a race-by-race look ahead, and see how this title might play out based on past performance.

Nashville

It’s a street track that comes across as being designed by someone on acid. Two wildly fast sections over a curved bridge are quite the signature, but the action really happens at the big stops at the end of those ‘straights’.

Marcus Ericsson once won this race after flying through the air; it’s the fever dream of the schedule and mad stuff can absolutely happen here. Palou finished third here last year to Newgarden’s sixth, but it’s likely to be a decent mix of Penske and Ganassi cars with Andretti Autosport’s swift street fighters thrown in for good measure.

Indianapolis Road Course

From the ridiculous to the straightforward: We’ve already been here before this year, of course. Palou won from third on the grid, Newgarden placed seventh from 13th on the grid after one of those qualifying sessions.

Expect Arrow McLaren and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard to be strong here, so there is still a big opportunity for a points differential between Palou and Newgarden – but it’s more likely to be in Palou’s favour, although he only finished 10th in the corresponding event last year (Newgarden was fifth).

Newgarden is enjoying a hot streak on ovals, but only one more race on the 2023 schedule is left-turn only

Newgarden is enjoying a hot streak on ovals, but only one more race on the 2023 schedule is left-turn only

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Gateway

We are back in Newgarden’s favourite territory. His streak of five consecutive oval victories started here last season, while Palou could only finish ninth.

Palou says he feels more comfortable with his pace on the 1.25-miler than he does at claustrophobic Iowa, but absolutely counts on a repeat win for his rival here: “I need to do the work in Nashville and Indy Road Course before getting there,” he freely admits.

Portland

A Penske 1-2 last year on this sweeping road course with a drag strip for a front straight, although it was Newgarden’s team-mates Scott McLaughlin and Will Power at the sharp end. Newgarden was eighth and Palou 12th (although he qualified fourth to Newgarden’s eighth) – but that sharp first turn is the stuff of nightmares for title-chasers.

This is where Palou’s title hopes ended last year, with an abject 12th on a day that was huge for Power’s ultimately successful championship campaign.

Laguna Seca

You couldn’t write this script, but the 2023 title protagonists finished one-two in last year’s final round around this majestic Californian classic road course.

Palou was in a class of his own and won by over 30s – despite starting 11th. Newgarden came through from 25th after an embarrassing qualifying spin.

Last year, Newgarden beat Palou by 24 over the final five. In 2021, when Palou won the title, it was 37. But just as in 2021, that simply won’t be enough to wrest the title away from Palou’s hands

But guess what? Just like its only rival as be besting road course in the United States – Road America – Laguna has been completely repaved since last year. It’s almost as if they wanted to add another variable to this title race…

The stats tell us that Newgarden has consistently outscored Palou in the final five races during their three seasons together in IndyCar. However, only in 2020 – when Palou was driving for minnows Dale Coyne Racing in the weird COVID-impacted season – did Newgarden score enough points to overhaul a deficit of 80.

Last year, he beat Palou by 24 over the final five. In 2021, when Palou won the title, it was 37. That second figure is the exact same amount that Newgarden trimmed from Palou’s lead last weekend in Iowa.

Just as in 2021, it simply won’t be enough to wrest the title away from Palou’s hands – unless something utterly unexpected happens between now and the checkered flag at Laguna Seca in September.

Palou will be a hunted man in the final five races of the season, but Newgarden knows something major will have to happen to give him a shot

Palou will be a hunted man in the final five races of the season, but Newgarden knows something major will have to happen to give him a shot

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

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