Laguna Seca Preview

First of all, I would like to extend our condolences to those drivers, team members and fans; who fall under the reign of the British Crown. I’ve seen heartfelt tweets from several drivers and former drivers from the United Kingdom, as well as the British Overseas Territories, over the loss of their Queen. I don’t know of anyone who studied the British Empire and the Royal Family, more than my own father did. He was fascinated by British history. Queen Elizabeth II passing away yesterday would have been a very sad day for him.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Susan and I were at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the 2022 campaign of the NTT IndyCar Series. Just a few blinks of the eye later, and the series will crown the 2022 champion this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. A lot has happened since the start of the season – at home and in the IndyCar paddock. Susan had a fairly major health scare this summer, but she is much improved – so much so, that I think she would have been able to make the trip and attend the race this weekend. The only thing holding us back was our budget. Plane tickets aren’t cheap just a few days in advance.

Just as much has happened on and off the track this season in IndyCar. We saw Alexander Rossi finally make the jump to another team – the supposed greener pastures at Arrow McLaren SP. We witnessed the emergence of what I think may end up being a very talented rookie class. We watched in amazement as Scott Dixon gave away what appeared to be a sure win in the Indianapolis 500. There is really no such thing as a sure win in that race, but Dixon came about as close that day as you can. We also were privy to seeing Marcus Ericsson etch his name and likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

That first race at St. Petersburg, we saw second-year driver Scott McLaughlin break through by winning the pole and then the race. At the next race, he came within a whisker of winning his second race in a row before teammate Josef Newgarden pulled in front just before the line on the final lap. McLaughlin’s coming-out party was official – or so it seemed. In the third race of the season, he hit a snag and entered what turned out to be a slump – before finishing seventh at Road America. But at Mid-Ohio, he won and got his season back on-track (no pun intended). Before winning last week’s race at Portland, McLaughlin had racked up three podium finishes and a fourth-place finishing the previous five races. That resurgence has kept him alive for the championship entering this weekend’s race at Laguna Seca.

This season, we’ve also been treated to one of the best IndyCar soap-operas I can remember. By all appearances, reigning IndyCar Champion Alex Palou chose to break his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing this summer, by signing with McLaren for 2023 – even though Ganassi holds the option for Palou next season. After Palou’s intentions were announced, Ganassi sued his driver while keeping him in the car. It’s an odd and awkward situation that has undoubtedly caused a huge and unnecessary self-inflicted distraction, as Palou tried to defend his title. Palou was officially eliminated from the championship last week at Portland.

Laguna Seca is on our bucket list. We attended the last season finale at Sonoma in 2018, and had a blast visiting Northern California. We vowed to get to Laguna Seca, but COVID and life have gotten in the way. Maybe next year?

I’ve been intrigued with Laguna Seca since CART started racing at the circuit in 1983, with Teo Fabi winning the inaugural IndyCar race there. Bobby Rahal won there the next four years in a row. Other legendary names to visit IndyCar Victory Lane at Laguna Seca include Danny Sullivan, Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Helio Castroneves, Max Pappis, Cristiano da Matta, Patrick Carpentier and Colton Herta. You’ll notice there are few in this list that have not won either an IndyCar championship or an Indianapolis 500. There are no fluke winners on this list.

Champ Car stopped racing at Laguna Seca after the 2004 race. The feeling at the time was that the cars had simply outgrown the track. Colton Herta is the only IndyCar driver to win at Laguna Seca since the series retuned fifteen years later in 2019.

IndyCar has been using the current configuration since 1996, which features eleven turns on the 2.238 mile circuit. Of course, the signature portion of the track is the famous corkscrew on the backstretch. The course meanders to the top of the hill, then suddenly drops six stories through the subsequent “S-turns”. The Corkscrew is also the site of The Pass – Alex Zanardi’s famous pass of Bryan Herta on the final lap of the 1996 race, that probably still haunts Herta to this day.

I always sort of feel sorry for the person that wins the race that decides the championship. Rarely is that race won by the driver that clinches the title, but the champion gets all of the glory after the race. The race winner is something of an afterthought. We have been to two IndyCar season finales – 2013 at Fontana and 2018 at Sonoma. Scott Dixon won the championship both of those years, but can you tell me who won either of those races? I doubt if many can. Had we not been there, I wouldn’t remember them. For the record, it was Will Power in 2013 and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2018.

I’ve already gone on record before Portland saying that Scott Dixon is going to end up winning the championship. I’ll stand by that prediction, but even though Dixon salvaged a podium finish after starting sixteenth – he still ended up losing six more points to Will Power. But Dixon did pull into a tie for second with Josef Newgarden. The two drivers with eight championships between them, now trail the 2014 champ by twenty points heading into the weekend.

It’ll be tough for Dixon and Newgarden. Even if either of them wins the race, Power can still win the championship with a podium finish. None of the drivers still alive for the championship can afford a poor qualifying effort – not at this track, where passing comes at a premium. Qualifying will be an extremely important factor, when it comes to deciding the championship. If Dixon qualifies sixteenth again on Saturday, I’d say chances are good that he will not win the championship, unless Power and Newgarden qualify back there too.

If I’m predicting Dixon wins the championship – who wins the race? The smart money would be on Colton Herta to win his third race in a row on the track that his family seems to own. But no one ever accused me of being smart. Some might say that Scott McLaughlin has found his groove and that he will win his fourth race of the season. That seems too easy.

I am seeing a storybook ending for a driver that is leaving the only IndyCar team he has ever driven for in his seven-year IndyCar career. Alexander Rossi will go out on a high note, winning one more race for his Andretti Autosport No. 27 team, then will be completely overshadowed by Scott Dixon winning his seventh championship.

The weekend gets underway Friday at 1:30 pm local time (5:30 pm EDT) with a 75-minute practice session shown live on Peacock. Practice two rolls off Saturday at 1:15 pm EDT on Peacock. Qualifying takes place Saturday afternoon at 5:05 pm EDT on Peacock. The Sunday Morning Warm-up begins at Noon EDT, while the race broadcast gets underway at 3:00 pm EDT with a 3:30 pm green flag.

My TV will be busy this weekend. My Tennessee Vols will still be playing Pitt, when qualifying gets underway on Saturday. Then my Titan play a late game on Sunday, kicking off about an hour after the green flag on Sunday. Some tough decisions will have to be made this weekend, but I have an idea that IndyCar will win out.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Laguna Seca Preview”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Ganassi tested here while Penske tested at Portland a few weeks back. That seemed to help Penske at Portland, if it helps Ganassi as much at Laguna Seca then Dixon has a puncher’s chance.

    Still, Laguna Seca is not a track known for unpredictability. This should favor the guys with the top raw speed in the series: Newgarden, O’Ward, McLaughlin, and especially Power and Herta. That said, it is Newgarden who I would pick if I had to pick the championship contender most likely to make a championship-clinching on-track pass.

  2. The Queens death is a very sad day for many as she was such a dedicated monarch serving the Nation for so many years. In London we had massive crowds for the firing of an unbelievably loud gun salute at lunch time.

    For me I would like to see Power or Dixon win as I feel both are near the end of their fully competitive careers.

    McLaughlin would be my pick for 2023 at present and he will have a good number of other chances as will Newgarden.

    Ericsson would not be fully deserving in my view and is only in the frame care of the ridiculous double points given at the 500. He is my favourite driver of the five.

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