Monday, September 20, 2021

And Then There Was One


Tough day today, you know?

Not only is it the last Monday of the IndyCar season, it's the last Monday of summer. But let's not dwell on that, let's think about the show that the series put on at Laguna Seca yesterday, and how, for the 16th straight year, the championship heads to the final race of the season.

Think about that...16 years! It's pretty amazing. I mean, now it's kind of expected given the front-to-back competitiveness of the field, but even back in the day, when the field was more top-heavy with talent, it still involved the champion earning it on the final day of the season.

The championship is a post within itself, so we'll get to that later, but for now, let's look at yesterday's Top 5.

Winner -- Colton Herta. Just like two years ago, when IndyCar last came to the Monterey coast, Herta was the dominant winner Sunday, leading 91 of the 95 laps. About the only thing that got in his way Sunday was the rabbit he ran over in the closing stage of the race. Laguna definitely fits his eye, and with it being the last race of the season next year, if Herta is in the title mix when that comes around, just hand him all the trophies.

Second -- Alex Palou. One thing we've learned about the 24-year-old Spaniard this year, besides that he is incredibly quick, is that he is very smart too. He just doesn't make mistakes, and Sunday he did what he needed to do, which was to get to the front and stay there. While I'm sure he was like all of us in that somewhere internally he was screaming for the opportunity to challenge Herta for the race win, he and his team made the correct risk-versus-reward decision to not do anything to jeopardize his championship drive. Second place sucks to every driver, but his runner-up finish takes him to the streets of Long Beach up 35 points in the championship, meaning a Top 10 finish wins him the the Astor Cup.

Third -- Romain Grosjean. By far the driver of the race, Grosjean drove like a man possessed, bumping and hip-checking his way from his 13th place starting position, much to the delight of the crowd in attendance and those watching on TV. He had a great car underneath him and took a lot of chances, especially in the Corkscrew and overall made a total of 27 on-track passes! It was brilliant driving from someone who could be a title contender next year. I have a comp to Grosjean in terms of someone who came to the series from F1 in his late-30s and had an excellent IndyCar career, but I'm gonna hang onto it until after the Indy 500, just to make sure.

Fourth -- Graham Rahal. I know that he has finished higher in the point standings than the 7th place that he is more than likely locked into as his final result, but outside of winning he's had an incredible season. Sunday marked his seventh Top 5 of the season and eighth Top 10. As he said in an interview yesterday, there are a few what-ifs, especially his crash at Indy (which wasn't his fault) when he was fighting for the win but instead finished 32nd. He finished the 500 with 11 points, think about where he would be in the order if he had even finished in the Top 5 back in May. Really, that and getting caught up in a wreck at Gateway might be the difference between his current spot in the standings and having a chance to win the whole thing. Do those kinds of things happen to everyone? Of course, but when you look at the overall season he's had those are really the only two blemishes he has.

Fifth -- Pato O'Ward. Quite a day for O'Ward, who really had trouble with tire degradation but just kept battling and it paid off. While he has to basically sweep the weekend and hope for misfortune on the part of Palou to make up a 35-point deficit, it's not out of the realm of belief that he can accomplish that. What's crazy to think when it comes to the two main championship contenders is that both could've been out of IndyCar if circumstances had worked differently. Two years ago O'Ward was racing in Japan with the support of Red Bull, and last year Palou was in a spot where he wasn't sure if he had the funding to continue in IndyCar. So glad it all worked out for both parties.

Seventh, Josef Newgarden -- Although his title hopes are hanging by a thread as he looks at a 47-point deficit, we have to make mention of the third championship contender heading into the weekend. He had tire management issues as well Sunday, which required four pit stops to fix. Give him credit, though, for battling the hell out of his car and bringing it home they way he did. He has a lot in front of him to win his third title in five years, but even if he doesn't, it'll be his sixth straight year finishing fifth or better in points.

Overall I give the race an A+. While I would've liked to have seen some more action at the point, some days you just have to tip your hat to the winning driver, and this was one of those times. But through the rest of the field, all of the different strategies, hard, physical racing and tons of passing, was pure entertainment. I thought it was the most entertaining road course race we've seen in a while.

So for the first, and probably only time ever, it will all be settled on the streets of Long Beach. I'll be back later to talk about that, as well as the 2022 IndyCar schedule

The Rumble Strip podcast

OK, so I haven't dropped a new pod in quite some time, which I hope to rectify in the next couple of weeks. But in the meantime, check out some of my past episodes and give them a listen!

Photo credit: Chris Jones/IndyCar Media