Josef Newgarden has the potential to become a perennial two-time IndyCar champion, and he’s all of 28 years old.
Alexander Rossi can cement his status as one of IndyCars all-time elite drivers. That’s baffling given he’s four years into what looks a career that has over a decade left on it at least. He is 27 years old.
Simon Pagenaud can add his name to the list of drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship in the same season, also confirming his place among the greats of IndyCar lore.
Scott Dixon, a near impossible long-shot to win the championship, could pull a rabbit out of his hat and capture a surreal sixth IndyCar title.
The four championship contenders all have different stakes and one goal next Sunday, but what will it really come down to?
Well, probably qualifying.
For the first time since 2004, IndyCars will return to the fabled WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. The very tight, technical, and frankly beautiful track has produced some epic moments in IndyCar history, chief among which was ‘The Pass’ by Alex Zanardi on Bryan Herta in 1996.
However, we would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t point out that the track, while technically gifted, has it’s shortcomings. The elephant in the room is the lack of passing zones on the track. Turn two, aptly named ‘The Andretti Hairpin’ for the legendary family, seems the best place to pass after crossing start/finish. Turn eight, the famous ‘Corkscrew’, is a great passing zone if you’re either a) incredibly brave b) desperate or c) looking to get a ‘track limits’ penalty (we will likely never see a pass like Zanardi’s again). Turn eleven can be a great place to pass if turns nine and ten are executed to perfection.
A lot is required to pass at Laguna Seca. The way I see it, the only to pass is if you have a really good car, the car in front of you has a really bad car / bad tire management, or a mix of both. Push-to-pass has the chance to spice things up, as the track has never hosted an IndyCar race with this element in place.
What does this mean? It means that the qualifying session the day before the race will go a long way into determining the outcome of the race. One mistake, one bad apex, one hold up in traffic could have detrimental impacts on a championship effort.
Yes, there is a chance for an off-strategy call that could cause one of the four to catch a huge break. More than likely, it will come down to brute force in the race to win the championship.
Turning to statistics can sometimes be misleading, but with Laguna Seca, the history tells us that qualifying is pivotal in earning a good race result. Since the split in 1996, there were nine races held at Laguna Seca (1996-2004). In those nine races, the winner started in the top-six eight times. Out of the 27 podium spots up for grabs, 20 of them were earned by drivers who qualified in what we now call the ‘Fast Six’. 31 drivers who started in the top-six earned a top-five out of a possible 45 chances.
In total, out of the 54 entries that qualified in the top-six from the above time period, only ten of those entries finished outside of the top-ten. Only ten entries.
What is one thing those races from 1996-2004 have in common? There was no double points awarded. Given that in today’s IndyCar world the season finale offers some lucrative double points (a maximum of 104 points compared to the standard 54 points for most other races), there should be a certain intensity that comes with this qualifying session, and us fans should be in a treat.
Each of the four drivers in the championship contention have their own story and legacy to cement. In order to get the reward they seek, it will likely come down to how well they can put some laps together on the Saturday before the race. This may well be one of the most important qualifying sessions of their career.
Check out our latest episode on iTunes here, as Mike, Jess, and I talk about many things, including our thoughts on if we think this is the most competitive era of IndyCar ever.