Start of the 2018 Grand Prix of Portland. Photo by Joe Skibinski, Indycar
The end of the Indycar season seems to come faster every year. This season has flown by, and it has been one of the best years I can remember. The close title fight, great racing, and a variety of winners have combined for a great 2021. While Indycar doesn’t have a playoff (thank goodness), the final three races will come as close to a playoff as any three final rounds have been. These races were cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, so 20201 is also Indycar’s return to the west coast.
Portland is a two day event for Indycar, with the first practice Saturday at noon Eastern time on Peacock. Today is Indy Lights practice and qualifying for race one.
Indycar raced at Portland from 1984 through 2007 and was a casualty of unification. The race returned in 2018. While everyone will be watching the title contenders and eagerly awaiting NBC’s Points as They Run graphic every six laps, there are other storylines as well. Let’s start with the five contenders.
There seems to be a rivalry building between Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward. O’Ward has twice passed Newgarden late for his two wins this year. Newgarden held off O’Ward and Gateway to win. This pair have two of the three fastest cars in the field right now. I look for them to be the two fighting for the Astor Cup at Long Beach. along with Alex Palou.
Alex Palou has been nothing short of brilliant this year. I really like his race craft. He has lead the standings for most of the season by not overreaching what the car has on a given day. His last two finishes of 20th and 27th were out of his control. Before dropping out, he was in a position to maintain his lead.
Scott Dixon has been near the top but has been not talked about much this season. He has three finishes below 15th, which is atypical for him. Dixon has a lot of ground to make up. Except for his win in the first race at Texas, Dixon has been mostly a top five car, but not one to be contending for a win every weekend.
Marcus Ericsson has surged to within 60 points of O’Ward with an average finish of 5.4 over the last four races- the best of the five contenders. Ericsson has been one of the many pleasant surprises this season with two wins and a second.
There are other drivers who can affect the points, mainly Colton Herta. In 2019 Herta won the pole at Portland and Weather Tech Raceway. Tire strategy cost him the win at Portland, but he came back to dominate the race in Monterey. Herta has one of the three fastest cars, and has a chance to win both of the next two races. Herta’s front row starts have not yielded great results this season, however. He won from the pole in St. Pete, but his other front row starts show mied results:
Gateway- Started second finished 18th
Indianapolis 500- Started second finished 16th
Detroit Race 2- Started second finished 4th
Road America- Started second finished second
Nashville- Started first finished 19th
Mid Ohio- Started second finished 13th
There is also a group of drivers looking for their first win of 2021. Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean, Jack Harvey, and Graham Rahal are all capable of taking maximum points away from the leaders.
First Turn Follies
To succeed at Portland a driver must get cleanly through turn 1 at the start of the race. In 2018 and 2019, turn 1 has seen multiple cars taken out of the race. In 2018 Marco Andretti flipped at the start. Scott Dixon somehow kept his car going and came back to finish fifth on the way to his fifth title. The key is top qualify up front and avoid the chaos behind.
No driver has won more than two races this season. Usually someone has at least three wins by now and is in a good position to win the championship.
Scott Dixon is still looking for his 52nd win to tie Mario Andretti for second on the all time career victory list.
It is hard to believe Will Power has just one pole this season. He won the Portland race in 2019.
Oliver Askew will drive the 45 car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the final three races. I hope this gives Askew a second chance to be in the series full time next year.
With 27 cars expected to enter each of the three races, traffic for leaders could present a challenge, especially at Long Beach.