The 2021 finale for the NTT IndyCar Series takes place this weekend in Long Beach, California and three drivers eye the open-wheeled series’ overall championship trophy, the Astor Cup.
The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach takes place Sunday at the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course with a 2:45 pm Central green flag drop. The 85-lap feature finishes an extremely competitive 16-race campaign for IndyCar that has seen nine different drivers claim checkered flags at races held earlier this season.
For the 16th straight year, this year’s IndyCar series champ will be determined with the final race. Within the trio of Astor Cup contenders are a pair of potential first-timers and a two-time kingpin.
Current points leader Alex Palou (Chip Ganassi Racing) holds a 35-point edge over Pato O’ Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) heading into the final race.
Even with double of the amount of points eligible to be claimed this weekend, many within the know expects the 24-year-old Palou to claim his first-ever championship Sunday afternoon, barring an early race bow out and subsequent victory by O’ Ward.
“I’m looking forward to this weekend and the championship fight,” said Palou at a press conference held earlier this week. “I think it’s going to be a good one. We’ve had a great season so far with eight podiums.”
It’s not impossible for O’ Ward to snare his first-ever title as well, but given Palou’s consistency this season, O’ Ward’s late-grab might be improbable. Yet the 22-year old is optimistic that good fortune might come his way.
“I feel like the team and I have grown a lot,” reflected O’ Ward. “We haven’t had the most-perfect season, as no season will be perfect, but we have maximized the package multiple occasions, which is cool. We’ll see what we can pull off this weekend.”
Two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden (Team Penske) currently sits third in the standings (-48) but would need a victory combined with bottom finishes from both Palou and O’Ward for even a glimmer of a hope.
“We’ve gotta figure out how to be strong this weekend, but we’re happy to be here,” Newgarden said. “It’s been a real pleasure to be driving with these guys. There’s a great deal of pride amongst all of us that we have such amazing talent in this championship. It might be impossible (for us), but to be in the fight is really cool.”
Other drivers will be looking for strong results to finish the season on a high note, including defending IndyCar champ Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing), who currently sits fourth as well as Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport), who won last weekend’s race in Monterrey.
The other intriguing storyline heading into the finale is who will jettison to the front of the IndyCar Rookie of the Year race. Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin and Dale Coyne Racing’s Romain Grosjean sit almost side-by-side in the standings (thirteenth for McLaughlin, fifteenth for Grosjean). Grosjean has four Top 5 finishes on the year while McLaughlin has only a pair, but McLaughlin has had higher results overall for the season.
A first-time career victory for either would seal the deal, and it’s not impossible that either could pull that off. This might be the race to watch where the Top 10 results make the most impact overall in the rookie battle.
Saturday afternoon’s qualifying round determines the order of the field of 28 while Sunday’s race day coverage on NBCSN begins at 2 p.m.
For more information on the NTT IndyCar series, head to their official website.
Arch City Media will have a full recap posted Sunday night.
By trade, he is a six-time, regional Emmy Award-winning news videographer/editor for KTVI/KPLR-TV. By hobby, he is an announcer and digital content producer for St. Louis-based Arch Rival Roller Derby. Also a webcast announcer for post-season roller derby tournaments on wftda.tv. Yep, this Illinoisan primarily writes about derby, covering Arch Rival, the St. Chux Derby Chix and the STL GateKeepers men's league. He also writes about St. Louis SLAM Women's Football, St. Louis Lions women's soccer and other sports topics.