INDIANAPOLIS – A week from IndyCar’s return to historic WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi is convinced that NTT P1 Award qualifying on Sept. 21 will play a key role in determining which driver wins the NTT IndyCar Series championship.
With the field of 24 competitors as close in performance as any group in Indy car history and all four title contenders capable of winning the 90-lap race, scoring the pole’s bonus point and getting early track position on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course figures to be critical.
Then there’s the fact that 14 times in the 22 Indy car races at Laguna Seca the pole winner went on to win the race. Twelve drivers contributed to that distinction.
The Firestone Fast Six qualifying, a 75-minute, three-round knock-out format, will be televised live on NBCSN beginning at 4:35 p.m. ET (1:35 p.m. PT local).
“I’ve been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna,” Rossi said. “It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of (the track’s) history.
“So, yeah, it’s 100 percent going to be a critical qualifying session that you’re going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds,” Rossi said. “The guy that’s on pole, if he’s one of the guys that is in the championship fight, it’s going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”
Series leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske leads Rossi by 41 points and teammate Simon Pagenaud by 42 points. Newgarden can clinch his second career title by finishing in the top four. Rossi and Pagenaud likely need to win the race to win the title, and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon is in a must-win situation if he hopes to claim his sixth series championship.
In terms of one of the contenders taking the pole position, Team Penske has dominated the season with Newgarden, Pagenaud and Will Power sitting on the pole in nine of the 16 races. Newgarden earned poles at Belle Isle (second race), Pocono and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway while Pagenaud collected his at the Indianapolis 500, Toronto and Iowa.
Rossi has been one of the few to break through the Penske dominance with a pair of poles, the first at Long Beach and most recent at Belle Isle (first race). Dixon has yet to win a pole this season, but has started on the front row three times (Long Beach, Indianapolis Grand Prix, Texas).
Dixon is the only one of the four title contenders with Indy car experience at this track, but those two starts came in 2001 and ’02. This will be the first Indy car race at the track since 2004, which means this generation of competitors and equipment face a variety of unknowns heading into the four days of track activity.
The first action is Thursday, Sept. 19 with six hours of testing beginning at 9:15 a.m. PT local.
“It’s a blank slate for everyone, (and) that’s exciting,” Rossi said. “It will definitely reward the team and the drivers that come to grips with everything the quickest. It will probably reward them in a championship.”