Alex Palou owns a commanding 74-point lead in the IndyCar championship standings, but there is one reason that stands out as to why this battle is far from over.
Following his second straight victory and his third in the last four IndyCar races, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou has opened up a 74-point lead in the championship standings over teammate Marcus Ericsson.
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, the Indy 500 champion, finds himself a further seven points behind Ericsson as the highest placed non-Chip Ganassi Racing driver after eight of 17 races on the 2023 schedule.
No driver has secured the championship before the season finale since Dan Wheldon in 2005, but Palou certainly looks like he is capable of ending that streak, given the year he has had.
Ericsson hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 this year, yet he still trails his teammate by 74 points, which equates to roughly a win and a half. Palou has reeled off seven straight top five finishes and hasn’t finished lower than eighth place in 2023.
But there is one key reason why this IndyCar championship is far from decided, and that is Newgarden’s strength on the short ovals.
Even with a huge championship lead, all you need is one bad break and your rival to win that race, and that gap reduces drastically. There’s a reason why no championship has been sealed before the season finale in 18 years, and there’s a reason why that still would have been the case even without the double points format used from 2014 to 2019.
And Newgarden looks like the ideal candidate to capitalize on any “bad break” that might come Palou’s way. We all know that Newgarden is good on oval tracks, having won six of the last eight oval races that have been contested.
Well, maybe we don’t. Newgarden himself didn’t even realize he had won that many.
But specifically, he has even been stronger on short ovals, and three of the season’s final nine races are set to take place at either Iowa Speedway (doubleheader) or World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
Not since 2018 has Newgarden not won at either track, and not since 2019 has a season been contested in which he did not win at both, provided both were on the schedule.
Newgarden won at Iowa Speedway in 2019, and he won one of the two races there in 2020. Upon the track’s return to the calendar in 2022, he was poised to sweep the doubleheader weekend before a shock failure sent him hard into the wall.
The two-time series champion, who would be a three-time champion if not for that shock failure, is a four-time winner at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and the winner of the last three races at the track going back to 2020.
Compare that to Palou’s struggles on short ovals. He has just two top 10 finishes in eight career starts at these two venues, and he has never placed higher than sixth place at either. The positive for him is the fact that he placed inside the top nine in two of the three races there last year.
If I’m Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing, I’m going into the final nine races of the year assuming Newgarden takes the full 54 points from each of these three races.
In a worst-case scenario, that puts them 81 points behind instead of 81 points ahead. The goal becomes scoring as many points as possible in these events to minimize the potential damage.
Bottom line, the idea of Palou’s lead being safe is one of deception.
Scott Dixon had a 117-point lead at one point in 2020, but even that championship battle came down to the final race, with Newgarden taking more than 100 points out of that gap by finishing ahead of Dixon in each of the season’s final six races.
He trimmed that gap even with only one of those six races being a short oval race, and he did it despite Dixon not finishing outside of the top 10 during that stretch.
It may sound cliche, but it truly is never over until it’s over in IndyCar. This is the most competitive racing series in the world, and drivers have gone on win streaks before. Not since 2015 has a season been completed without a driver winning back-to-back races.
Sure, Palou has earned the right to be called the favorite. DraftKings Sportsbook, which is currently offering an instant $150 to anybody who signs up and places any $5 bet, lists him at -300.
He is on a hot streak and looks every bit unbeatable. But we are not even at the halfway point of the season. It’s not a simple case of “just hand him the trophy”.
The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid is the ninth of 17 races on the 2023 schedule, and it set to be broadcast live on USA Network from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course starting at 1:30 p.m. ET this Sunday, July 2. It is the second race of the year on USA Network as opposed to NBC. Start a free trial of FuboTV today and don’t miss it!