Preview: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

INDIANAPOLIS (Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021) – There are two races remaining in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ 2021 season, and Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca likely comes down to the finish of one driver.

Keep an eye on where Alex Palou stands at the end of the 95 laps.

The four other drivers still mathematically in contention for the season title – Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson – need to finish ahead of the series points leader to have a realistic chance to overtake him at the season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sept. 26.

All drivers not within 54 points of the lead after this weekend’s race will officially be eliminated, and if the leader participates in Long Beach, they’ll need to be within 49 points to catch him. Palou leads O’Ward by 25 points, Newgarden by 34, Dixon by 49 and Ericsson by 75.

Palou is bidding for his first series championship in just his second season. He won last weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland for his series-leading third victory of the season.

Here are five hot topics heading into the race weekend:

Limited Experience for All

Palou was one of the handful of INDYCAR drivers who had never experienced a race at Portland International Raceway, but he didn’t let that deter him. He earned the bonus point for winning the NTT P1 Award pole, handled the stress of restarting 17th following a Lap 1 incident and wasn’t threatened in the final 25 laps as he pulled away from the other contenders.

Palou faces another new track when practice begins Friday at Laguna Seca. Like Portland, the driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing has tested at the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course in Northern California, but he has never raced there. Can he win again?

O’Ward has made five starts at Laguna Seca in the Road to Indy program – all in Indy Pro 2000 – and he won once, in 2016. He, too, has tested an INDYCAR at the track, driving the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, but he has not raced there in one of these cars.

Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) and Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) have combined for 71 race wins and eight series championships in this series, and they have experience at this venue, albeit without a victory. Newgarden’s only start came in 2019 when Colton Herta won for Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Newgarden finished eighth.

Dixon, who finished third in that race, made two starts at the track while in his first two INDYCAR seasons, finishing fourth in 2001 and sixth in 2002. Ericsson finished 11th in his only appearance in 2019.

Herta at the Point

Herta, the second-generation driver now piloting the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian, was a blur in the 2019 race. After winning the NTT P1 Award pole, he led the first 17 laps and relinquished the lead only during pit cycles. Of the 90 laps, he controlled 83 of them.

Herta’s victory shouldn’t have been a surprise. His father and current race strategist, Bryan, was legendary at this track. He won three consecutive poles from 1997-99 and won the race in 1998 and 1999. He nearly won the 1996 race, too, but was famously passed on the last lap by Alex Zanardi charging through the dirt in the Corkscrew.

The younger Herta won the second race of this season, in St. Petersburg, Florida, from the pole, and started from the top spot and largely dominated the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in August in Nashville before crashing late in the race trying to catch Ericsson. He desperately wants another win this season to generate momentum for a 2022 title run.

Andretti Autosport helped Alexander Rossi produce his best performance of the season last weekend in Portland, a second-place finish driving the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda. Rossi finished sixth in the 2019 race at Laguna Seca.

Others To Watch

Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet) isn’t having the season he wanted, but the winner of the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix in mid-August on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course took well to Laguna Seca two years ago. Power was the only driver in the same zip code as Herta, finishing .5878 of second back. He also led six of the seven laps Herta didn’t.

Rossi is still searching for his first victory of the season as is teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is completing his 12th and final season in Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda.

Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) tied a season best at Portland, finishing fourth as he did in St. Petersburg. Harvey would like to end his association with Meyer Shank Racing with his first series victory.

Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) did virtually everything right at Portland, leading a race-high 36 laps, before giving way to a different fuel strategy and finished 10th. He, too, is looking for his first win of the season.

Callum Ilott will make his second career INDYCAR start in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet, and Oliver Askew returns to the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. They are among the 27 drivers entered in this event.

A Team Penske First?

Believe it or not, there is something Team Penske has never done in INDYCAR competition: Have one of its drivers win the series’ Rookie of the Year Award. The award dates to 1979.

But Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) has the potential to lock up the crown Sunday with a strong performance. He enters the weekend 38 points ahead of Romain Grosjean, who drives the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR. McLaughlin has been ahead of Grosjean in points since the completion of the season’s third race but stretched the advantage after a ninth-place finish at Portland.

The top-10 finish was McLaughlin’s fifth of the season and second in succession. He finished fourth in the Aug. 21 oval race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Grosjean has been at a disadvantage in this battle because he did not compete in three of the four oval races, including the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, which awarded double the usual number of points. McLaughlin scored 84 points in the three races Grosjean wasn’t in.

The Weekend Schedule

The final two race weekends of the 16-race season are three-day events, with the first of two 45-minute practices Friday at Laguna Seca at 5:30 p.m. (ET). The action can be viewed on Peacock Premium, NBC’s live streaming service.
The second practice of the weekend is Saturday at 1:45 p.m. (ET), with NTT P1 Award qualifying at 5:05 p.m. (ET). Both will air live on Peacock Premium.

Sunday’s schedule includes a 30-minute warmup at noon (ET) – again on Peacock Premium – with the 95-lap Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC beginning at 3 p.m. (ET), also simulcast on Peacock Premium. The green flag is estimated at 3:30 p.m. (ET).

Like the Portland race, this one also is five laps longer than the most recent event in 2019. That’s 95 laps to the checkered flag.