Written by Dan Jones, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
Who’s ready for one last bout of short oval racing action? The NTT IndyCar Series sure is, as they head to the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Motorsport Park, for Round 15 of 17 of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series, with two historical achievements potentially on the line, heading into the last oval event of the year.
But before we look at the two pieces of history that could possibly be made in Gateway, let’s recap the last event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Scott Dixon finally took a victory in 2023, despite a spin on lap one. Similarly to May, Rahal Letterman Lanigan looked a very strong outfit, with Graham Rahal taking a first pole in six years, ahead of Christian Lundgaard.
But Turn One saw one of the most incredible moments of the season. Devlin DeFrancesco, who was already starting a remarkable fifth, darted around the outside of four drivers to take the lead on Lap One. The Lap One chaos wouldn’t stop there, as a chain reaction in the mid-pack caused a Chip Ganassi Racing nightmare, with both Dixon and Marcus Armstrong spun, and Alex Palou in the melee. Armstrong, stuck in the middle of the corner, would cause another reaction. With Romain Grosjean hitting Armstrong before, crucially, Josef Newgarden was launched over the Ganassi machine, effectively ending his championship hopes.
Otherwise, it looked smooth sailing for Rahal, who looked set to take a first victory since Detroit 2017, but Dixon's skewed strategy from the spin saw him cycled into the front pack, and quickly became part of the picture. Once it was clear that Dixon could make it to the end on his fuel load, the pressure was on Rahal, who hounded down the Kiwi, but just ran out of laps, handing Dixon his first victory of 2023.
But let’s look at what’s on the line in Gateway. Alex Palou has the chance to claim his second IndyCar Series title, in what has been a runaway season. Palou currently lies 101 points ahead of Dixon, and 105 ahead of Newgarden in the standings. If Palou leaves Gateway with a championship lead greater than 108 points, he will be crowned the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series champion. However, a 99 point gap would also effectively seal Palou the title, due to the five-point reward for starting the race.
Will it happen this weekend? It’s unlikely. It could be argued that Gateway is Palou’s worst track on the entire schedule, the Spaniard boasting a best finish of ninth in last year's event. Short-track ovals are Palou’s weakest type of circuit, with the Ganassi racer only claiming a podium once on a short-track. Palou’s other issue will be the man mentioned below, although Palou has a shot at Gateway, it will likely happen in Portland.
The man who might just halt the celebrations? Josef Newgarden, who is chasing his own bit of history at World Wide Technology Raceway. Newgarden is looking to become the first driver to win all oval events in a calendar year. Newgarden’s quest is to add to his victories in Texas, Indianapolis, and Iowa, to claim a historical feat done by no driver in IndyCar history. And his shot at history is much more realistic than Palou’s too. Newgarden has won the last three events here, in addition to his 2017 success. Newgarden is by far and away the favourite in St. Louis, to create an unthinkable achievement.
But let’s look at the circuit, a 1.25 mile (2.012km) oval, featuring two completely different corners. Turns one and two are narrow and shorter corners, however, they have steeper banking at 11 degrees. Daring moves to the inside are common here, but drivers can also go round the outside, as proved by David Malukas last year. Turns three and four are longer, and more progressive, but harder to overtake, with the banking only at 9 degrees, a difficult challenge for the 28 drivers.
Talking of drivers, there are four driver changes to make you aware of. Let’s start with the usual oval changes, Ed Carpenter is back in the #33 for his oval-only schedule, whilst Takuma Sato is back in for Marcus Armstrong in the #11 Chip Ganassi Racing, in what looks like his last race for Ganassi, and potentially his last IndyCar race outside the Indianapolis 500, as Armstrong looks set to complete a full schedule next year.
And, as has become a formality in recent races, Linus Lundqvist is back in for Simon Pagenaud, in the #60 Meyer Shank Racing car. Pagenaud continues to be declared unfit, with the hope being he returns at Portland - although this looks unlikely. Pagenaud was replaced by Daly for Iowa - more on that later, but Lundqvist has had oval tests, in addition to racing here in Indy Lights, the Swede continues to be assessed by multiple teams over a 2024 seat.
The big driver change in the off-week, is down at Rahal Letterman Lanigan, who have removed Jack Harvey from the #30 car for the rest of the season, in a bid to get back into the leader’s circle. His replacement for Gateway will be oval regular Conor Daly, who has finished in the top ten four times at the circuit. Daly is an obvious choice, considering his oval experience, and although RLL don’t have a particularly strong oval package, Daly has performed impressive feats in smaller packages. Daly isn’t expected to replace Harvey for Portland and Laguna Seca, that looks set to be Toby Sowery and Juri Vips, but we will look at that closer to the time.
But who’s gone well at Gateway? Can anyone stop Newgarden? As mentioned, Newgarden has been the most successful driver here with four victories, and Penske all-round have been strong, with Power adding to Newgarden’s four successes with his own victory in 2017. Scott Dixon is the other man, alongside Newgarden, looking to keep the title battle running to at least Portland, and although it isn’t his strongest event, he has won here, back in 2020, a similar feat would push Palou’s inevitable title to Gateway, but as Dixon proved in Indianapolis, never count him out, whatever the circumstance. Takuma Sato will be filling in as earlier mentioned, and he would love to replicate his 2019 success around St. Louis, with Helio Castroneves the only other winner, way back in 2003.
But who’s the most likely to stop Newgarden? Pato O’Ward may see this as an excellent chance to finally claim a 2023 race win, the Mexican having finished 4th, 2nd, 2nd and 3rd in his last four visits to the track. O’Ward has absolutely nothing to lose at Gateway, and with Newgarden potentially going slightly cautious to keep his oval record, and championship hopes alive, if O’Ward will win any weekend, it’ll be at Gateway.
The rest of the Penske line-up will be strong too. Power has claimed four poles here, and has gone fairly strongly at short ovals in recent years, as has Scott McLaughlin, who came third last year, and could well have been in victory contention for a longer period, had it not been for a lighting delay. Team Penske’s short-oval package has been unbelievably strong, and don’t be surprised if we see that again this weekend.
David Malukas has happy memories of Gateway too, having put in a stellar performance last year to claim a second place finish in his rookie season, overtaking Scott McLaughlin on the last lap, and could have well been victorious, had the race been slightly extended from its count of 260 laps.
It’s a weekend to look forward to, and with Marcus Ericsson’s move to Andretti finally being announced, the driver market will be as hot as ever, with drivers running out of chances to prove what they can do.
The championship is on the line, further history can be achieved, and we are in for a historical weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. With 260 laps of short-track oval racing to look forward to, what is there not to love about the weekend at Gateway?