What to watch in IndyCar's closest title fight since '03: 'New' Will Power vs. hot Dixon, Newgarden

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

Thanks to one of IndyCar’s most notorious Turn 1s, everything we know about the series’ tightest title race since 2003 with two races left could go up in flames seconds after Sunday’s green flag.

The IndyCar field is yet to make it through the track’s starting chicane in Turns 1-3 intact in the three races since the series returned to Portland International Raceway in 2018. Nearly a dozen cars have had their days significantly altered or ended completely from contact in that turn on Lap 1 alone. And yet, we’ve seen drivers turn what appeared to be disastrous starts into solid days – Scott Dixon rising from the dust cloud in 2018 to go from last to 5th to save his title hopes, and the top-3 starters a year ago missing Turn 1 completely, falling to the back, and still finishing 1-2-3.

Here are some notes, trends and questions that stand out to me as Will Power hopes to hold onto his minuscule 3-point lead on teammate Josef Newgarden with Ganassi’s Dixon Marcus Ericsson and defending champ Alex Palou in pursuit.

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Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden (2) high fives a pit crew member during the Pit Stop Challenge on Carb Day before the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Friday, May 27, 2022, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis.

Who are the contenders for the IndyCar title?

Here’s where the four-, five- or seven-driver title race (depending on who you ask) stands with two races left at Portland and Laguna Seca:

>>Power, with just a single win this year at Detroit, leads Newgarden by three points due to his seven podiums, 10 top-5s and four poles this year.

>>Newgarden’s career-high five wins have rocketed the two-time champ near the front in a feast-or-famine season -- his finishes outside the top-10 matching his victory total.

>>Dixon’s forgettable first four months of the year (outside his record-setting Indy 500 pole) gave way to a summer more typical of the six-time champ. He’s won two of the last six races, landed in the top-5 in six of those nine starts and hasn’t finished outside the top-10 since the 500, pushing him 14 points back of Power.

>>Though incredibly consistent with 11 top-10s through 15 races, Ericsson’s only victory came on the biggest stage at this year’s 500. He’s nabbed just one top-5 over his last seven starts and has fallen from the title lead to 17 points back in 4th-place.

>>Palou, the defending champ who last year picked up his first three IndyCar wins, is winless in 2022 despite five podiums and 12 top-10s. If not for an ill-timed yellow in the 500, a spin on wet grass on the IMS road course and contact with Ericsson early at Road America, Palou would be closer to another title but heading into tracks he finished 1st and 2nd at a year ago, his 43-point deficit still gives him a fighting chance.

>>Though mathematically alive, Scott McLaughlin (6th, 54 points back) and Pato O’Ward (7th, 58 points behind) would almost certainly need to sweep the final two races of the year and hope Power, Newgarden and company find really tough luck out west.

Team Penske driver Will Power (12) stands by his pit box Friday, July 29, 2022, during practice for the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Is this 'new Will Power' for real?

Power hasn't been in this position for several years. From 2010-2014, the Australian driver held the points lead with one or two races left four times. Only once – 2014 – did Power finish on-top. In his three failures from 2010-12, a disaster of a finale (25th in 2010, 19th in 2011 and 24th in 2012) slashed his chances after finishing in the top-6 in the penultimate race. In those instances, Power entered with leads of: 17 points with two races left (2010), 11 points with one to go (2011) and 36 points with two remaining.

He took 2nd-place all three seasons by a combined 26 points. Finally, in 2014, holding a 51-point lead entering the double-points finale, he held on for his first and only championship.

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The concern this year is his extremely narrow margin of three points to Newgarden and how hot-or-cold he’s been of late. In all but one of the eight races since his lone win of the year, he’s finished on the podium (four times) or outside the top-10 (three times). That mirrors how Power’s faired in his 24 starts over the final two races since he joined Team Penske full-time in 2010: nine podiums to eight finishes outside the top-15.

His podium percentage (37.5%) is almost identical to his figure (38.3%) across his full-time Team Penske tenure. But those finishes outside the top-15? They’ve come far more often (33% to 22.4%). Then consider this: Only three of the eight drivers leading by 20 points or fewer with two races (or one double-points finale) left have won the title – and one of them (Dario Franchitti in 2011) lost his lead, then regained it.

Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, celebrates on his car after winning an IndyCar auto race in Toronto, Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Watch out for Dixon, Newgarden

Power’s closest challengers have shown a propensity for come-from-behind to win titles (Dixon) or making things interesting when the pressure’s on (Newgarden). The Ganassi driver’s been able to win three of his six titles when he’s faced similar (or worse) deficits.

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Newgarden doesn't have a come-from-behind title but he’s picked up valuable experience as a hard-charging challenger the last two years. Newgarden won two of the last three races trying to chase down Dixon to finish just 16 points back in 2020. A year ago, finishes of 5th at Portland and 7th at Laguna Seca almost erased his title hopes before the Team Penske driver took pole at Long Beach and finished 2nd. Though he ended up 38 points behind Palou, he did almost all he could in hoping the Ganassi driver would falter.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) sits on the wall with his father Ramon Palou before the start of the Gallagher Grand Prix on Saturday, July 30, 2022 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis.

How much do wins matter?

As weird as it might seem, Newgarden finishing head-and-shoulders above the field in wins (Dixon, McLaughlin and O’Ward are tied for 2nd with two each) but not winning the championship wouldn't be too uncommon. It happened six times from 2000-2011 between CART, the IRL and IndyCar. Twice, Power finished with two more wins than the eventual champion (Franchitti) in 2010 (5 vs. 3) and 2011 (6 vs. 4).

Gil de Ferran won his CART titles in 2000 and 2001 with Team Penske with two wins each season while three drivers finished with three or four victories.

What would be rare is a champion with two wins or fewer. According to IndyCar’s historical archives, top-level American open-wheel racing series have only crowned 21 champs with two wins or less – and we haven’t seen it since de Ferran in 2001.

Though it counted for double-points, Ericsson's only win is the 500, Power has a single victory and Palou remains winless.

When it comes down to it, wins may not be necessary as much as avoiding trouble and continuing to log top-5s and podiums. You just have to hope your competitors don't win, either.

Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O'Ward (5) and Chip Ganassi Racing driver Marcus Ericsson (8) on the opening lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Saturday, July 30, 2022, during the Gallagher Grand Prix.

Can Ericsson stop slide, find more magic?

For much of this season, Ericsson looked like the man to beat. His largest lead was 35 points after the 10th round of the year at Toronto to cap a streak of finishes of 4th-1st-7th-2nd-6th-5th. Since, he’s lost 52 points to the lead over five rounds without a top-5. Since 2000 (encompassing the IRL and IndyCar title races), no eventual champ has gone into the final two rounds sitting worse than 3rd.

To make matters worse, entering a stretch of the season where qualifying will be as pivotal as ever, the Swedish driver holds the 12th-best average starting position among full-season drivers this season (though he’s turned that into the 3rd-best finishing position). Over the 10 road or street-course races this year, Ericsson has made just one appearance in the Fast Six, compared to Newgarden (7) and Palou (5).