IndyCar’s three-race West Coast championship drive begins in Portland

IndyCar Portland championship
Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

PORTLAND, Ore. — The spotlight is on IndyCar as the supercharged open-wheel series takes its season to the wire with a nail-biting championship race and a potential changing of the guard both atop the standings and across the grid.

Pato O’Ward will take a 10-point lead in the championship standings to Portland International Raceway, where Sunday will open a frantic three-race drive down the West Coast to settle the title fight.

Five drivers are separated by 60 points as this final sprint begins with back-to-back road course tracks at Portland and Laguna Seca, California, then the finale on the temporary street course in Long Beach.

INDYCAR AT PORTLAND: All the details, info and schedules for watching this weekend

Alex Palou topped the standings six of the last eight weeks dating to his runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500, but O’Ward chipped away and finally surged ahead before IndyCar’s two-week break. Palou’s on-track consistency has been bit by three unapproved engine changes, the last one two weeks ago when the penalty could be pointed to as to why the second-year IndyCar driver was collected in an early race-ending crash.

Palou had to drive his way through the field but traffic has been dicey this season on restarts and he was collected in one of frantic pushes for position. Rinus VeeKay was aggressive trying to gain a few spots and he made contact with Scott Dixon, creating a spin that also collected Palou.

O’Ward went on to finish second, good enough to pass Palou for the championship lead. But his grip is precarious as Josef Newgarden pulled within 22 points with his win at Gateway, his second victory of the year.

Dixon trails O’Ward by 43 points while Marcus Ericsson joins Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dixon and Palou inside the top five at 60 points out. Dixon, the reigning champion, and Newgarden have eight championships between them. O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson all won their first races this season and are tied with Newgarden with a series-high two wins each.

The championship is essentially up for grabs, with O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson all trying to change the face of IndyCar. Dixon and Newgarden have won five of the last six championships and their experience could become a critical factor.

When VeeKay collected two Ganassi title contenders at Gateway, he pointed to drivers stacking up in traffic ahead of him to create an accordion through the pack. O’Ward, who was ahead of VeeKay in traffic, supported that theory after the race when he said drivers desperate for results this season have been overly aggressive with the young new title contenders under the assumption they’ll be too conservative with a championship on the line.

“People know who they can race dirty,” O’Ward said. “I had a lot to lose (at Gateway), and they know that. They’re just taking advantage of what position they’re in in terms of the championship.”

Newgarden, who has jumped from sixth to third in the standings the last six races, believes the parity through the field has bunched drivers together who aren’t used to racing around each other.

Figuring out the nuances of the competition will be critical in closing out the championship.

“We all have our feelings on who we feel like is not the right person to be around, or who we think is aggressive,” Newgarden said. “It’s just part of the learning process, trying to understand your competitors. It’s like that in any series, though. That’s not unique to IndyCar racing.”

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has known all season it would take sensational results to return to Andretti Autosport for a 13th consecutive year, so he has accepted that he must find a new ride at 40 years old. He’s expected to be replaced by Romain Grosjean at Andretti, which is likely also replacing James Hinchcliffe for two driver changes among four cars.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan appears to be auditioning for a 2022 driver and has picked Oliver Askew to finish the season in what will be a third full-time entry next year.

The car also has been driven this year by Santino Ferrucci and Christian Lundgaard. Jack Harvey is also expected to drive for Rahal next year; he’s told Meyer Shank Racing he won’t be back in 2022 when the team expands to a second car for Helio Castroneves.

Simon Pagenaud has not reached terms on an extension with Team Penske, an indication he could move to Shank alongside former Penske teammate Castroneves.

Juncos Racing, back on the grid for the first time since 2019, has entered Callum Ilott, 22, in the final three races. The British racer is the official test driver for Scuderia Ferrari and a test and reserve driver for Alfa Romeo this year in F1.

Ken Roczen signs with HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki for 2023

Roczen Progressive Ecstar Suzuki
Align Media

ANAHEIM, California – Ken Roczen will make the move from HRC Honda to H.E.P. Motorsports with the Progressive Ecstar Suzuki team, ending a long and eventful offseason that saw his split from his longstanding team after he committed to running World Supercross (WSX).

“H.E.P. Motorsports is thrilled to announce that the team has signed Ken Roczen as its premier rider for the 2023 season,” the team announced on Instagram. “Former AMA Motocross champion Roczen will be aboard a Suzuki RM-Z450. Roczen, who won his most recent championship on a Suzuki, will be reunited with the brand and bring his exciting style, determination, and grit back to the RM Army.

“Ken Roczen will compete in the upcoming 2023 Supercross and Motocross Championship series which is set to start on January 7 at Anaheim Stadium in Southern California.”

For Roczen, it is a return to the bike of his youth and on which he had some of his greatest professional success.

“This thing has been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks in the making, but there was so much uncertainty,” Roczen told NBC Sports during Monster Energy Supercross Media Sessions. “It was a very unique situation. I just finally signed two nights ago, so it’s really only legit once the ink hits the paper. It’s been in the works for a long time, but there were just a lot of questions and a lot of input from a lot of other teams too.

“Good things take time, and I’m okay with that. I grew up riding Suzuki. Ot’s like a homecoming. It’s a special feeling”

Roczen won the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship on a Suzuki before making the move to Honda. That year he won nine of 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second as he easily outpaced Eli Tomac by 86 points. He finished third in his next Pro Motocross outing in 2018 after sitting out the outdoor season in 2017.

“I am beyond excited to reconnect with Suzuki for the 3rd time in my career. We’ve had a lot of success in the past and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in our future.” Roczen said in the Instagram post.