MRTI: Indy Lights Championship Fight Down to O’Ward, Herta

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The 2018 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship has come down to a pair of teammates in Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta – both race under the Andretti Autosport umbrella, with Herta competing under the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing banner.

O’Ward, with seven wins – it could easily be eight if not for an error in Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg – has probably been the faster of the two drivers, though Herta used a streak of four wins in a row to vault himself ahead of O’Ward entering Iowa Speedway.

However, since then, O’Ward has distanced himself from Herta, with four wins in a five-race span (Iowa, Toronto Race 1, and both races on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course) – he also finished second in the race he didn’t win (Toronto Race 2).

Herta, meanwhile, suffered a broken thumb after a crash in Toronto qualifying, which he aggravated after crashing again in Race 1. He pulled off in Race 2 to prevent further damage, and then was unable to outduel O’Ward at Mid-Ohio, finishing second in both races.

As such, O’Ward leads Herta by 32 points entering Gateway Motorsports Park. And with only three races left in 2018 (Gateway, and two races at Portland International Raceway), it’s imperative for Herta that he gain ground this weekend.

With seven cars entered at Gateway, the maximum points swing is 26 at (ovals award 1.5 races worth of points in comparison to the road and street courses), and the max swing at Portland will be 18 points per race (assuming seven cars are also entered).

So, Herta still has chances to make up the ground, but he will need to finish ahead of O’Ward, and likely win grab a victory, at Gateway to give himself a realistic shot entering Portland.

And if Herta can have drivers like Santi Urrutia and Victor Franzoni, also race winners in 2018, finishing in between them, it would make his Portland effort much more manageable.

For O’Ward, a Gateway victory could put the championship out of reach. And if O’Ward thinks he can take a win this weekend, expect him to go for it.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay leads the Pro Mazda Championship entering Gateway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires also sees the points leader hold a somewhat sizeable advantage over his main adversary – Rinus VeeKay leads Parker Thompson by 25 points entering Gateway.

The last four races, at Toronto and Mid-Ohio, saw Thompson’s strong 2018 come unraveled, with a pair of DNFs at Toronto allowing VeeKay, who swept the weekend, to close gap from 46 points to seven.

And at Mid-Ohio, another weekend sweep from VeeKay combined with a troublesome weekend for Thompson – he finished fifth and sixth in both races – to see VeeKay jump ahead to a 25-point lead.

Thompson, like Herta, must finish ahead of VeeKay to give himself a realistic chance at the championship entering Portland, and a perfect scenario for him would involve other drivers (e.g. David Malukas, Oliver Askew, and Harrison Scott) being in the mix as well and finishing in between him and VeeKay.

There are 48 points up for grabs at Gateway, and if Thompson maxes out that weekend, he would gain at least 10 on VeeKay, but having VeeKay finish fifth or below would bring the gap down to singe digits, giving him a much more realistic chance entering Portland.

For VeeKay, extending his win streak to five in a row would nearly make the Pro Mazda championship “all she wrote.” It wouldn’t be out of reach, and there is a one-race drop to be factored in – each driver will drop their worst finish of 2018 from their results – but it would make Thompson’s task astronomically difficult at Portland.

Rest assured, in both Indy Lights and Pro Mazda, the championship fights are boiling to a head, and Gateway could prove to be the most pivotal point in both championships.

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Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”