Laguna Seca Preview

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For the first time in over a decade, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will be the site of US Open Wheel racing when the NTT IndyCar Series presents the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. CART raced at Laguna Seca in 1983, with Teo Fabi continuing his magical rookie season that year, in which he won four races and the pole for the Indianapolis 500.

From 1983 through 2004, CART or Champ Car contested races on the eleven-turn, 2.238-mile circuit near Monterey, California. Like many historic tracks, the list of IndyCar winners reads like a Who’s Who in racing. Bobby Rahal won four races in a row from 1984 through 1987. For the next decade, the list of winners consisted of Danny Sullivan (twice), Rick Mears, Michael Andretti (twice), Paul Tracy (twice), Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser. From 1984 through 1997, there was not a single driver to win Laguna Seca that didn’t also eventually win the Indianapolis 500, the series championship or both.

Beginning in 1998, when Bryan Herta won the event two years in a row – a new group of Laguna Seca drivers made their mark at the historic track that opened in 1957. Besides Herta, the other winners were Helio Castroneves, Max Papis, Christiano da Matta and Patrick Carpentier (twice). In twenty years of open-wheel racing at Laguna Seca, no race was won by a total pretender. That speaks to the difficulty of racing there.

You can’t discuss Laguna Seca without thinking of the famous corkscrew – a set of tight turns encountered immediately after topping a steep hill. It is the signature section of the course, and one of the most famous set of turns in all of racing.

I’ve already discussed the 1996 race, when Alex Zanardi made the daring pass on Bryan Herta going into the corkscrew on the last lap. That is probably the one singular moment in the twenty years that IndyCar raced at Laguna Seca. If you want to read more about it and view the video, go back and read Wednesday’s post. It was a gutsy move that shouldn’t have worked, but Zanardi made it stick and the rest is history.

There aren’t many in this current group of drivers that have raced an Indy car at Laguna Seca. Only Tony Kanaan, Sébastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon have raced an Indy car at Laguna Seca in the past that will be racing there this weekend, when the NTT IndyCar Series crowns its 2019 champion.

Mathematically, there are still four drivers alive for the championship. But let’s be honest, I have about as much chance of winning the championship as Scott Dixon does. He would have to win the race and have Josef Newgarden finish dead-last, with the other title contenders falling out early. It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

But there are still three drivers that have a legitimate shot of winning the 2019 IndyCar championship. As he has been for almost the whole season, Josef Newgarden is the points leader and has the best shot of winning. Alexander Rossi is forty-one points back and Simon Pagenaud is forty-two points back. The double-points awarded at the season-final skews things a bit and makes scenarios a little harder to figure out, but all you need to know is this; if Josef Newgarden finishes fourth or better, he is the champion. It does not matter if the other two contenders win the race. If Newgarden finishes fourth – he wins the championship.

Beyond that, it gets a little complicated. The other two can not win the race, yet still win the championship – but they both need very strong days, with Newgarden having a disastrous day. To make things easy, either Rossi or Pagenaud need to win the race – then see where Newgarden ends up. That’s where things will get really interesting.

Practice One gets underway Friday at 1:30 pm EDT on NBC Sports Gold. Practice Two starts Friday at 5:10 pm EDT, also on NBC Sports Gold. On Saturday, Practice Three will begin Saturday at 1:00 pm on NBC Sports Gold. Qualifying will be shown live on Saturday, beginning at 4:30 pm EDT on NBCSN. Race Day coverage for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey begin on Big NBC (over-the-air network) at 2:30 pm EDT.

Going into the final race of the season, I get the opportunity to curse not one, but two drivers with my picks. So far, this season has been my best season for picking winners. I’ve successfully picked three winning drivers for the sixteen races run so far. That’s still not great, but most seasons I go winless. But I’ve still mostly followed the pattern of picking a driver to win, and they are usually out in a first-lap crash. That’s how my luck usually runs.

For the race, I’m going with Colton Herta to follow in his father’s footsteps at Laguna Seca. Bryan Herta had that place figured out and I have an idea Colton has a leg up on most of his competitors this weekend. It will be a nice way to end the season for Harding Steinbrenner Racing, since many are predicting that this team will not continue in its current form.

As for the championship, I’m not going out on much of a limb. Rossi and Pagenaud have to do too much and then hope for Newgarden to have issues, in order for them to win the championship. The pressure is on those two and I just don’t see Newgarden faltering. Going down the stretch, Newgarden has been good, but not great. But he has done enough to maintain a solid lead in the points. I imagine he will be just good enough again on Sunday. We’ll see.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Laguna Seca Preview”

  1. Rooting for Rossi but I don’t see either of them beating out Josef, he’ll be a two-time champ come Sunday evening. Hope the race is at least decent, they sometimes have a habit of putting on a good show at places where they shouldn’t be able to put on a good show.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I’ll be curious to see if non-championship contenders back down a bit, as is often the case in these finale races, or if a host of drivers who would really really like a good result are aggressive as usual. The contenders’ teammates will likely be playing nice, but I’m not so sure the guys at RLL and SPM, who may well be competitive, will do the same.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Interesting to read Will Power’s take on the race this morning in a motorsport.com article.

      Will is going for a win………. which naturally is what any racer seeks but in this scenario also has a benefit to help Josef :o)

  3. Why is the season ending already? Is the NFL really that much of a threat these days? I think Higher ups at IndyCar overestimated the reach of the NFL which is now in decline. IndyCar fans still want action in September/October. Did anyone notice the empty seats at the Jacksonville/Titans game?

    • The NFL is not in decline, it’s not only stabilized its ratings but has increased them so far this season. Over 100 million people watched week one this year and they averaged 17 MILLION viewers per game.

      Let’s do some quick math: IndyCar averages about half a million viewers per race and maybe 2-3 million for The 500. There are 17 races in the season, if we figure on the high side we can deduce maybe 13-14 million people tuned into IndyCar races over the entire season. That means the average viewership of one NFL game on opening week trounced the entire viewership of the whole IndyCar season. I do not think the reach has been overestimated at all.

      Stats pulled from here
      https://www.foxbusiness.com/media/nfl-ratings-are-up-again-in-week-1

      and here.
      https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EER0M-8WkAAEoMW?format=jpg&name=small

    • billytheskink Says:

      While I don’t think the NFL should be the factor that it is in ending the season so early in the year, I also do not think the series higher-ups or anyone else are overestimating its reach. The NFL remains a quite sizable deal and it does have an affect on series television ratings and media attention.

      The Jacksonville/Tennessee game you mention out-rated the 2019 Indy 500 by 1 million viewers, anything else on television last night by nearly 2 million viewers, and any other cable program by 3.5 million… and it was a matchup of 2 small-market teams that was ONLY shown on the NFL’s own network.

      The biggest threat Indycar seems to face on television, though, is NASCAR. Races directly up against NASCAR races rate notably lower than those that do not.

  4. Thank you for the enjoyable preview article for this weeken’s comeback of Laguna Seca. Here’s wishing everybody trackside and elsewhere a good and safe race.

    Yet, I wonder if you have thought of someone particular as a “total pretender” when you wrote that “no race at Laguna Seca was won by a total pretender”. Every winner is legit because every driver starts those races to win. Yes, some victories may be fluke-ish or should I rather say unexpected. But even the winners of those races are still the first at the chequered flag. Also, they usually are feelgood stories.

  5. “Is the NFL really that much of a threat these days? ”
    yes.

  6. Bruce Waine Says:

    GEORGE – Your crystal ball is remarkable ! !

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