What do IndyCar’s contenders need to do at Laguna to stay in the hunt?

What do IndyCar’s contenders need to do at Laguna to stay in the hunt?

Fingers will be busily tapping away on calculators this Sunday in Monterey. With each gain or loss of position during the 95-lap contest at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, teams in contention for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will be keeping track of where their drivers fall within the standings at the penultimate round.

When it’s over, the five drivers with a mathematical chance of winning the title will likely be pared down to two or three, and if calamity strikes, a new champion could also be crowned.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou is the man in charge at the moment with a 25-point advantage over Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward. Third in the standings is Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden at a 34-point deficit, and from there, the gap widens to CGR’s Scott Dixon in fourth at 49 points behind Palou. CGR’s Marcus Ericsson is fifth, trailing by 75 points.

As it would involve a number of miracles for Ericsson to overhaul the others to claim the title, we’ll focus on the various points possibilities for the top four, and let’s start from the back.

Dixon’s in a tough situation. The six-time champion could take the maximum number of points available at Laguna – 54 – which would move him from 428 to 481 markers, and it still wouldn’t be enough to overhaul Palou. If Palou’s car quits on the pace lap at Laguna and he finishes 27th and last in the field, he’d leave Monterey with a one-point lead over his teammate with 482 points.

Granted, Dixon also has an uncanny ability to rally from behind when the championship is on the line, so don’t count the New Zealander out. That being said, anything less than stellar turns in qualifying and the Laguna race could end this year’s bid to earn his seventh IndyCar championship.

At 49 points behind Palou, Dixon and the other contenders must stay within 54 points of whomever leaves Monterey with the lead; a final offering of 54 points are available at Long Beach next weekend, so if someone falls 55 or more points behind after Laguna, they’re done.

(And for the sake of practicality, any driver sitting 50-plus points behind at Long Beach would be in mathematical contention only, as there’s such a small chance the leader could be overhauled by someone that far back in a single race. Said another way, the leader coming into Long Beach – assuming the current gaps stay relatively similar – could not lose enough points at the last race for those at 50-plus behind to jump up and win the championship.)

In Dixon’s case this weekend, Palou could finish fourth (509) to his seventh (454) and it’s 55 points down and game over for the Kiwi. For the No. 9 Honda team, the margins in Monterey are razor-thin to stay in the championship fight.

For Newgarden, Laguna doesn’t present the same degree of urgency to win at all costs, but he can’t afford to finish outside the podium. At 443 points, a perfect performance would boost his tally to 496; he’d catch and draw equal with Palou if the CGR driver finished 11th without scoring any bonus points for pole, leading a lap, or the two for leading the most laps.

Newgarden doesn’t need to win this weekend to keep his title hopes alive, but anything short of a podium will leave him with a mountain to climb at Long Beach. Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

Newgarden’s close enough to Palou to have some wiggle room; a great day for the Spaniard and a terrible race for the American would be the only scenario where the Penske driver’s quest for a third title would end. If Palou happens to win (528), Newgarden would need finish no worse than fourth (475); even there, he would be in a 53-point hole entering Long Beach and that’s not a solvable situation.

It’s an obvious overstatement, but a bad Sunday for Palou would make life much easier for Newgarden, and definitely for Dixon. Getting ahead of Palou by the checkered flag is their one and only mission.

O’Ward’s task is the “easiest” of the foursome, and yet there’s no reason to believe the Mexican will treat Monterey like it’s one of two consecutive opportunities to overtake Palou in the standings. Nobody wants to arrive in Long Beach as a long shot to claim the title, or needing to pray for misfortune to restore their chances of winning the championship.

Holding 452 points coming into Laguna, a pole and a full helping of 54 points with a win would take O’Ward out to 505; in that scenario, Palou would need to finish seventh or worse for the lead to change hands.

Conversely, if Palou wins, and does so without the point for pole and the two for leading the most laps (528), O’Ward would need to finish ninth (474) or better to remain in the championship battle, but the contest would be effectively over for AMSP. If Palou captures maximum points (531) and O’Ward is second with a few bonus points (492-494), the gap will reach a nearly untenable 37-39 points.

The situation softens a bit if Palou comes home third (512) and O’Ward is fourth (484) as the count would only grow from 25 to 28 points, but once again, the last thing O’Ward, Newgarden, or Dixon can afford is to have Palou take the checkered flag in front of them in Monterey.

Palou’s coronation is far from guaranteed, so for those who are rooting for one of his rivals to earn the championship, the door remains open for both drama and high achievement to carry the title challenge into Southern California.

A tense afternoon of racing with major championship ramifications at play gets under way Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.