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IndyCar surges out west for 3-race championship close

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — 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 takes a 10-point lead in the championship standings to Portland International Raceway, where Sunday opens 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.

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.”

FREE AGENCY

Desperation is at play as teams are finalizing their 2022 lineups and drivers know they need to find new jobs.

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 has also 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 22-year-old Callum Ilott 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.

ODDS AND ENDS

Colton Herta, Newgarden, Dixon and O’Ward are all 11-2 favorites at Portland, according to FanDuel Sportsbook…. Takuma Sato won at Portland in 2018 and Will Power started from the pole when the circuit was first added to the IndyCar schedule. Power won in 2019 and Herta started from the pole. … None of the final three circuits on the schedule held races last year because of the pandemic.

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

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