PORTLAND, Oregon – Jack Harvey couldn’t have said it better.
“Nobody wants to be THAT GUY,” the part-time driver for Meyer Shank Racing said recently to MotorSportsTalk, emphasizing those two words to make sure he got the full weight of his message across.
Harvey was talking about how none of the 21 other drivers in the 25-driver field for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland want to be responsible for impacting the Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle between Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Will Power and defending series champion Josef Newgarden.
That quartet has two races – Portland and the season finale in two weeks in Sonoma, California – to battle it out until a champion is crowned.
The last thing anyone wants to see is a non-contender – be it a rookie, a driver making a one-off or substitution role, or someone mired so far down the standings that has become an afterthought – will make a silly or even stupid mistake that could severely impact the championship battle.
* If any of the four remaining title contenders is going for position on a lapped car and the latter decides to act as if it’s the final lap of the Indy 500, runs out of room on the track and talent, and puts the contender into the fence.
No one wants to see that happen, not the fans, not IndyCar and particularly Dixon, Rossi, Power and Newgarden.
But there’s a problem here.
Portland International Raceway is 58 years old. It hasn’t been on the IndyCar circuit since 2007. So no one really knows how the track will respond under modern-day IndyCar conditions, aero packages, etc.
And perhaps most importantly, it’s one of the tightest and toughest permanent road courses that IndyCar drivers have ever seen or experienced. Trying to pass is one of those situations where drivers almost have to close their eyes and hope they can muscle their way through a turn or past another non-title contender.
We’ve already seen several times during Friday’s and Saturday’s practice sessions instances of drivers wrecking or running off the track.
And that was not in race conditions.
There also were incidents during Friday’s and Saturday’s practices in Turns 7 and 11.
So how do Dixon, Rossi, Power and Newgarden protect themselves – and their championship hopes?
The answer is simple: they can’t. They have to rely upon the unspoken honor system seen not just in IndyCar, but also NASCAR and IMSA. They have to hope and expect drivers not involved in the championship battle to give the four contenders room, don’t race them too hard – especially if the non-contender is a lap or more down – and well, there’s no other way to put it, but to be gentlemanly during the race.
Now, it’s almost a guarantee that we could see an incident in Turn 1 on the opening lap. It’s like a funnel, and only so many cars can fit through. If someone gets too excited or wants to make an early mark for themselves, they actually may make a mark that could potentially take out a championship contender.
The first guy I’m thinking about in that instance is Dixon, who will start 11th. While front row occupants Power and Newgarden and No. 3 qualifier Alexander Rossi would appear to be fairly safe going into that turn, what if someone jumps out of line as soon as the green flag drops and essentially goes for the jugular and whoa for anyone who is in their way?
If the current series points leader is knocked out early in Sunday’s race, the entire championship picture does a complete 180-degree turn. Or if he has a bad finish not caused by someone else, that could really shake up the standings.
And if Power and Newgarden can rally and hold off Rossi, while also picking up valuable points, we could potentially have a championship race for the ages at Sonoma.
Power certainly knows what’s in store when the green flag falls Sunday, both for what he has to do, as well as what many of the non-contenders will do.
“We need to be leading out of the first chicane,” he said Saturday after earning his 54th career pole, moving him into sole possession of second place on the all-time list of pole winners (Mario Andretti is No. 1 with 67 poles). “And then the pressure, it’s good. You have no choice. You’re not being conservative.
“You just know that the only mindset is absolute aggression, taking some risk strategy on the track. That’s the only way it’s going to work for us. It’s not a nice position. I’d rather be way up there in the championship. You know what you got to do simply.”
IndyCar has obviously had very close championship battles in several of the most recent seasons. Drivers know about the pressure they’re faced with – to either win the championship or try to get a good finish that could somewhat help lift what otherwise has been a frustrating or disappointing season.
So let’s hope that those 21 drivers that are not in contention for the championship Sunday really comprehend what is at stake – and why they need to be aware of the ramifications.
It’s one thing if you are cleanly fighting for position without making contact with your rival alongside.
It’s a whole other thing if one or more of those 21 guys throw caution to the wind and in the process cost one or more of the four remaining drivers a championship.
As Harvey wisely said, no one wants to be THAT GUY who ruins a championship run for a team that had fought all season to be in the position it is in coming into Sunday.