After a dramatic qualifying session at Long Beach, Josef Newgarden secures pole for the Acura Grand Prix while title contenders Alex Palou and Pato O'Ward endure some bad luck with yellows knocking them both out of the fast 6. Palou’s teammate Scott Dixon qualified second which could be an advantage in helping Palou if the New Zealander can manage to overtake Newgarden at the start and win the race. The Long Beach street course is notorious for being a difficult track to overtake which is why the qualifying session was so crucial especially for the three title contenders who have everything on the line for the season finale.
Newgarden expressed how happy he was after securing pole position for qualifying and also reflected on some of the disappointing qualifying sessions that occurred earlier in the season.
He also expressed how grueling the last couple of weekends have been for him and the team:
“I was pretty much screaming that whole last lap,” Newgarden said. “I’m so happy. It’s been a little bit demoralizing the last couple of weekends with where we qualified. We’ve had really good cars. To start where we’ve started these last couple of races, it’s just taken the life out of me a little bit.”
Although Newgarden has pole locked in for the race, it will be an uphill battle for him and the team if he wants to win a third championship title. In order for the Penske driver to win the championship, he must not only win the race but must also lead the most laps and Palou will need to finish twenty-fifth or lower out of the twenty-eight car field. Newgarden knows the challenge he and the team Penske team will be facing on race day and remains hopeful.
“Yeah, pretty happy for our whole team, especially Gavin, all the boys on the car, Hitachi, Team Chevy. Got one goal accomplished for the weekend. Hopefully, we can finish things off tomorrow and have a clean day. Staying alive, man, for now.” replied Newgarden in the post-qualifying press conference.
Scott Dixon, who will start second next to Newgarden for the race wants to do anything he can to help his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou bring home the championship. In the post-qualifying press conference Dixon revealed his plans to help out Palou for the race:
“Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. Sorry, Pato (smiling). No, it's definitely an interesting day. Lots of highs and a pretty good low this morning, clipping the wall in six and crashing the car. The car in qualifying was really good. A bit bummed. Helio totally screwed us on that last lap there. I think we definitely had enough speed to be right there for the pole.”
“Great starting position in P2. Definitely fight for the win. Obviously not fighting for the championship, which feels a little strange, but obviously, we'll be doing anything we can to try and help that trophy stay at home.”
Championship leader Alex Palou will start tenth on the grid for the race and conveyed some disappointment with the unfortunate circumstances involving the yellow flag that ultimately cost him a fast six spot on the grid because he had to slow down and was not able to get another lap in on time. In the post-qualifying press conference, Palou described his session:
“Yeah, I was happy. I think we had a really good car Q1. I thought we had, yeah, a good car also in Q2. That yellow flag didn't help us at all. I think we were going to be easy through, but racing stuff, right? I'm happy because the car's good, a bit better than yesterday and this morning. Yeah, should be a good race tomorrow.
Palou remained positive despite the disappointing qualifying session and knows that it will be difficult to win the championship despite the lead he has over Newgarden and O’Ward heading into the race. Palou responded to being asked about how good he feels about his chances for winning the championship at Long Beach:
“ Yeah, I think we are in a good position. We have a really fast car. Obviously we didn't get through because of that yellow flag, as others.”
“We are fast. I think we have lots of chances, but we still need to finish the job tomorrow. It's not going to be easy. There's a lot of fast drivers here, lots of good cars. There's some drivers starting up the back as well.”
In order for Palou to secure his first IndyCar championship title, he must finish twelfth or higher, or thirteenth and higher if he leads a lap and therefore earns an extra point.
Pato O’ Ward also missed out on the fast six during qualifying like Palou because of a yellow flag that involved Newgarden’s teammate Will Power. O’ Ward was putting down his fastest lap but was forced to slow down and therefore he narrowly missed out on moving into the next qualifying round. O’ Ward will start the race eighth ahead of the Spaniard. After qualifying, O’Ward also revealed his disappointment with the unfortunate yellow flag incident:
"The No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet has been strong. We didn't roll off the best on Friday but I think we made some really good changes and kept improving throughout the weekend. We had enough for the Firestone Fast Six. We should have been in the Fast Six. It is disappointing to get left out by a very odd call. All we can do is come back tomorrow, try to win the race and hopefully the rest falls into place."
During the post-qualifying press conference, I had a chance to ask O’ward about the confidence that he has had with the Arrow McLaren team since he joined and whether he knew all along if they would be in the top three for the championship this season.
"You've always expressed a great deal of confidence with the Arrow McLaren SP team since you first joined them. Did you know all along this season that you would end up in the top three for the championship?"
O’ Ward replied:“ For sure that was the goal. Last year we finished fourth, so the goal just starting off on the season was definitely to not be fourth, to be at least third, then maybe a bit better. Yeah, I mean, we can still finish there. “
“We're sitting second right now. At least from where I'm at, it's really tight. We need to have a good race tomorrow to try to secure second. We just need to monitor where Alex is and see if we should really risk it to go for a win or not if we have a chance, or just try and save second, which is where we are.”
O’Ward is second in the championship standings, there are thirty-five points separating him and Palou heading into the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach season finale. O’Ward needs to win the race and Palou will need to finish twenty-fifth or lower. If O’Ward finishes second and he earns at least one bonus point for leading a lap he can still win the championship if Palou finishes twenty-fifth or lower.
As the starting grid currently stands for the race at Long Beach, Palou seems to have the odds in his favor since his goal is to finish at least twelfth while both Newgarden and O’ Ward have to fight for top positions and rely on Palou having at least a twenty-fifth result. However, judging from the way qualifying unfolded, the task at hand will not be easy for Palou. With yellow flags a constant threat combined with the challenges that this tricky street course already imposes on the drivers, it’s evident that there is a high chance for driver errors along with uncontrollable circumstances that could make or break each title contender’s championship goals.