And then there were five: How IndyCar title contenders fared Sunday at Portland

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

With a nearly incident-free 110 laps at Portland International Raceway, IndyCar's historically close and incredibly deep title race has been whittled from seven to five - and it's an impressive group. The fastest modern-day driver, the current generation's true superstar, a six-time champion, this year's Indianapolis 500 winner and the best year-over-year improvement in the field.

Not since Scott Dixon's first championship in 2003, when the legend-in-the-making had just turned 23, has IndyCar taken five drivers into a season-finale separated by so few points. Without double-points up for grabs, the chase has more than likely been trimmed to three, with Will Power carrying a solid upper-hand to Laguna Seca next weekend.

Here's how the seven drivers who came to the Pacific Northwest with a shot fared Sunday in the Grand Prix of Portland:

Team Penske driver Will Power (12) talks on a radio Saturday, May 21, 2022, during the first day of qualifying for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Will Power: points leader

Sunday’s race performance from Power was a perfect display of why, despite just one victory this season, the 41-year-old finds himself in the drivers’ seat in the championship race heading into Sunday’s season-finale at Laguna Seca. No nervousness or short-sighted urgency. No mistakes. No drama. With one of the best cars on the grid, taking what the race gives you, staying out of situations that might cause you harm and knowing just when to push and when to be patient tends to be a winning formula. For Power in 2022, it’s only led to the top step of the podium once, but he has eight podiums – an astounding 50% of the races thus far, and he’s finished in the top-6 four more times.

But it’s not as if Power’s season has been picture-perfect. He and Team Penske never had a car to seriously compete at IMS ahead of the 500, and at Road America, contact with Devlin DeFrancesco mired him back to 19th. More contact at Nashville with Alex Palou left Power limping home 11th, and in perhaps the team’s lone truly poor weekend, he rode a bad qualifying run to 15th at Toronto. When misfortune hasn’t befallen Power – or when his team’s given him a car capable of competing at the front – he’s been there essentially every single time.

How it happened:McLaughlin dominates Portland, Power extends points edge

Team Penske dominates qualifyingMcLaughlin takes Portland pole, Newgarden makes best of 6-spot penalty

Sunday’s runner-up finish was no different. It was clear his teammate and polesitter Scott McLaughlin had a car unmatched by the rest of the field, and on an identical tire strategy, running the slower black tires over a longer third stint and red alternates the rest of the race, it was going to be tough to reel him in. Power, however, faced several challengers. Christian Lundgaard got him for 2nd-place on Lap 1, a spot Power snagged back via the first pit cycle. On the final restart, Power took contact from Pato O’Ward trying to work around the outside. The No. 12 Chevy driver calmly defended and held the spot.

It hasn’t been too exciting, but Power’s run to the cusp of his second championship – and first in eight years – has been everything the seasoned veteran has needed. With one race to go, he stands to be potentially the first series champ with a single win since Tony Stewart won the IRL’s 1996-97 10-race season.

Josef Newgarden will start a ways back from his Team Penske teammates in 9th Sunday in IndyCar's St. Pete season-opener.

Josef Newgarden: T-2nd, 20 points back

If Josef Newgarden ends up just short of his third career IndyCar championship, Newgarden, he may look back to Sunday at Portland and wonder what might’ve been. Outside the two-time champ’s five wins – two more than anyone else in the series – Newgarden’s campaign has been filled with head-scratchers.

Whether it be races they just weren’t ever in (16th at St. Pete, 14th at Baraber, and 13th in the 500), ones where they were a touch off the front-pack (7th at Mid-Ohio, 10th at Toronto and 6th at Nashville) or the freak mechanical failure at Iowa that stole a win and left him 24th, there’s more than a handful of reasons Newgarden could find himself bested by a teammate with just one win. Sunday’s final tire call may be the most painful. After one of the four title challengers to start on the slower black tires, Newgarden managed to minimize his early damage over the first 14 laps and finished the first pit cycle 6th after dropping as low as 11th from his 8th-place starting spot.

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Entering that final stop, he sat 4th but instead of acknowledging that Power and McLaughlin far-and-away had the better cars and that a run to 1st or 2nd wasn’t in the cards, Newgarden and his crew opted to run the slower black tires once more. The reason, he said post-race, was their ability to last longer over the stint, but at a track with so little tire degradation, it was unclear how much that might matter. It was a big-risk-big-reward move that didn’t pan out, after Rinus VeeKay rammed into Jimmie Johnson five laps after Newgarden’s final stop. The race’s lone caution left Newgarden a sitting duck on the restart, and within five laps, he’d been caught by Dixon, Graham Rahal, Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi.

Obviously, there’s no way of knowing whether a crash will happen or not, but the telling fact is this: Newgarden was one of just three drivers finishing on black tires. Reds were clearly the closing call and there’s no reason to think Newgarden wouldn’t have, at minimum, stayed in the top-5. Having watched his gap to Power grow from 3 to 20 points Sunday afternoon, that strategy call could ultimately prove costly come next Sunday.

Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, waves to the crowd after winning an IndyCar auto race in Toronto, Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Scott Dixon: T-2nd, 20 points back

To understand Dixon’s day and his prowess as a driver under immense pressure, look no further than his teammate Marcus Ericsson. The pair, having struggled to find the single-lap pace their teammate Palou did Saturday, found themselves starting half-a-grid away from the rest of the championship contenders in 16th (Dixon) and 18th (Ericsson). And while the No. 8 Honda crew took a Hail Mary on strategy, running more than 10 laps longer on the first stint than any of the others in the title hunt, Dixon’s team didn’t appear to panic, despite entering Sunday just three points closer to Power than Ericsson.

Through hard running on-track and quick stops in the pits, Dixon jumped six spots through the first pit cycle (16th to 10th), ran the third stint entirely in 8th and jumped to 6th just before the lone caution. On the restart, with Newgarden running wide through the exit of Turn 1 to try and fade Rossi, Dixon calmly took over 4th and then assumed 3rd after Race Control ruled O’Ward blocked him to save the position. Though it was chaotic on the radio, in the pits and during their pre-race meetings, Dixon and the No. 9 crew made a 13-spot leap through the field look largely effortless – saving their title hopes in the process.

Marcus Ericsson, who finishes second at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., in 2022

Marcus Ericsson: 4th, 39 points back

Ericsson’s day was everything Dixon’s wasn’t, and it’s all but the final nail in the coffin of his hopes of capturing his first championship since the All-Japan Formula 3 title in 2009. The Swedish driver led after six of the seven rounds between the 500 and the Iowa doubleheader weekend, but in the nine races since the start of June, he’s started inside the top-10 just four times and has a lone top-5 over his previous eight starts. Coming into Portland, something needed to turn around fast for Ericsson to have a shot at making up his 17-point gap to Power. Instead, his deficit more than doubled.

It wasn’t until the late-race restart that Ericsson began to carve his way through the field, making up five positions over 14 laps to climb to his finishing position of 11th. In such a close, deep, star-studded title race, finishes outside the top-10 over the closing stretch aren’t going to cut it.

Scott McLaughlin competing at Mid-Ohio in July 2022.

Scott McLaughlin: 5th, 41 points back

For McLaughlin, who’s now dominated two race wins, battled late for another and tacked on four more podiums, a top-5 finish in the championship is as good as he could’ve hoped for after finishing 14th as a rookie. He’s taken his licks – most notably crashing out of the Indy 500 in 29th, giving away a possible top-10 that could’ve been the difference in having a serious shot at a championship, but when the pressure’s been highest down the stretch, no one’s raced better.

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McLaughlin’s outscored the rest of the field over the last two-plus months since Mid-Ohio race weekend where he entered 9th in points. Even with a costly pitstop at Iowa that sacrificed a certain top-5 and left him 22nd, McLaughlin’s six top-4s over the last eight starts has made it abundantly clear he’s left his rookie year, where he was often overwhelmed, frustrated and running listless during race weekends, in the past. Watching the New Zealander overmatch title front-runners and teammates Power and Newgarden isn’t in any way surprising, and his title hopes in 2023 will simply come down to his ability to minimize mistakes.

NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing driver Alex Palou (10) stands next to his car during Armed Forces practice and qualifying day for the 106th Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Alex Palou: 6th, 66 points back (eliminated)

The defending champ simply wasn’t able to recreate the magic he rode a year ago that gave him his first career pole, his third win of the year and took him from 10 points back in the title hunt to a 25-point cushion he’d never surrender. Though he started on the second row Sunday, Palou’s No. 10 Honda lacked the balance to seriously compete.

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He lost considerable ground during his third stint on black tires, dropping from 5th to where he’d finish, 12th. By not replicating his 2021 weekend, Palou is out of title contention and in the awkward spot of needing to aid his team in its title pursuit with Dixon – a team currently suing him in federal court.

Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O'Ward (5) stands in his pit box Tuesday, May 17, 2022, during the first day of Indianapolis 500 practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Pato O’Ward: 7th, 68 points back (eliminated)

O’Ward’s only hope of staying alive was winning Sunday at Portland – something he never really threatened for. The best he could do was jockey with Power for 2nd during the race’s lone restart, and even then, he came away with a wounded car and a blocking penalty that dropped him to 4th. Ultimately, the sequence was worth the risk. As we’ve seen during the early stages of his career, there’s few drivers you’d want more on red tires during a late-race restart, but needing to try and force something to happen Sunday was a symptom of a larger issue that continues to plague Arrow McLaren SP. Three years into its partnership (and eventual takeover) with McLaren Racing, the squad continues to struggle with consistency and reliability that has led to far too many finishes outside the top-10.

At a time AMSP has begun to develop a second car that can consistently challenge near the front in Felix Rosenqvist, it’s risking losing the Swedish driver this offseason while also preparing to onboard another new driver in Rossi. It all combines to make for a chaotic offseason, compared to a year ago, and yet, the team still seems to be held back by the same issues. Something has to change if O’Ward is to find himself in the drivers’ seat (or even in a reasonable fighting spot) heading into the finale next season.