Title Contender Newgarden Leads Opening Practice at Laguna Seca

Championship weekend began today as 26 drivers tested the limits of the 2.238-mile Laguna Seca circuit.
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske

The final weekend of the 2022 season has arrived, with a host of championship contenders ready to do battle. The series returns to Laguna Seca to race for the 25th time. This is just the third time IndyCar has raced here since 2004, as they prepare for the famous "corkscrew" in Turn 8. Teams and drivers had just one practice session today, where Josef Newgarden posted the quickest lap of the afternoon.

Two-time defending race winner Colton Herta was second-fastest. He was followed by his Andretti Autosport teammates Romain Grosjean and Alexander Rossi. Rookie Callum Ilott rounded out the top five in practice for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

2022 Firestone Grand Prix at Laguna Seca - Practice 1 Results
Pos Driver Team Engine
1Josef NewgardenTeam PenskeChevrolet
2Colton HertaAndretti AutosportHonda
3Romain GrosjeanAndretti AutosportHonda
4Alexander RossiAndretti AutosportHonda
5Callum IlottJuncos Hollinger RacingChevrolet
6Simon PagenaudMeyer Shank RacingHonda
7Will PowerTeam PenskeChevrolet
8Pato O'WardArrow McLaren SPChevrolet
9David MalukasDale Coyne w/ HMD MotosportsHonda
10Marcus EricssonChip Ganassi RacingHonda
11Scott McLaughlinTeam PenskeChevrolet
12Felix RosenqvistArrow McLaren SPChevrolet
13Devlin DeFrancescoAndretti AutosportHonda
14Alex PalouChip Ganassi RacingHonda
15Christian LundgaardRahal Letterman Lanigan RacingHonda
16Helio CastronevesMeyer Shank RacingHonda
17Scott DixonChip Ganassi RacingHonda
18Takuma SatoDale Coyne w/ Rick Ware RacingHonda
19Jack HarveyRahal Letterman Lanigan RacingHonda
20Graham RahalRahal Letterman Lanigan RacingHonda
21Rinus VeeKayEd Carpenter RacingChevrolet
22Conor DalyEd Carpenter RacingChevrolet
23Kyle KirkwoodAJ Foyt RacingChevrolet
24Dalton KellettAJ Foyt RacingChevrolet
25Jimmie JohnsonChip Ganassi RacingHonda
26Simona De SilvestroParetta AutosportChevrolet

Will Power comes into the weekend as the favorite to win the title. The 2014 champion holds a 20-point lead over Newgarden and fierce rival Scott Dixon from Chip Ganassi Racing. Power is seeking his second title, while Newgarden tries for his third - all since 2017. If Dixon is able to win his seventh title on Sunday, he would tie the all-time record held by AJ Foyt.

Dixon is understandably still haunted by his speeding penalty in the Indy 500 but a seventh title might ease that frustration over the offseason. "Anything is possible," he said of their chances this weekend. "I think it can be as simple as somebody having a mechanical issue. That’s the tough part. I think it’s pretty cool that we don’t need any resets or any chase championships or anything like that. It always comes down to the wire in this series."

Both Power and Dixon are over the age of 40, and they are the only two drivers that have completed every lap this season. There may be a ton of young talent throughout the paddock, but these two have valuable experience that has helped them get to this point.

"I can’t tell you how much experience does play into it," Power said. "Over a season, over even a race, it makes a big difference, and that’s why you see the championship as it is. There’s definitely some super quick, young fast guys. What is putting the whole thing together is the experienced bit in my opinion, and you don’t even have to be the quickest guy. You have to be experienced and smart and, obviously, a great team as well makes a difference."

This is the 14th time in the last 15 seasons that the championship will be won by either Penske or Ganassi. The lone exception was Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport winning the title a decade ago.

Marcus Ericsson (-39 points) is mathematically still able to win the title on Sunday, but he would need a minor miracle to pull that off. If he is somehow able to do that, he would become the first driver since Dario Franchitti in 2010 to win the Indy 500 and the championship in the same season.

Scott McLaughlin is also still alive, sitting just two points behind Ericsson. He has all of the momentum though. In the last five races, the Penske driver has finished 3rd, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, and 1st. He has three wins, three poles, and seven podium finishes this year. He also nearly won at Texas and Nashville.

If anyone can spoil the fun for the title contenders, it is Herta. The second-generation driver has dominated the two most recent races here, winning both from pole position while leading 174 of the 185 laps. Herta is one of five drivers (including his father Bryan) that have won back-to-back races at this track.

Title Contender Newgarden Leads Opening Practice at Laguna Seca

Outside of the championship, there are still several items to keep an eye on this weekend.

Many drivers remain winless this season and will try to end the year on a high note. The most notable names searching for their first victory this year include Felix Rosenqvist, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal, Grosjean, and reigning series champion Alex Palou.

The Rookie of the Year championship will be decided between RLL's Christian Lundgaard and Dale Coyne Racing's David Malukas. Both drivers have a runner-up finish this season, with Lundgaard holding a 5-point edge entering Sunday's race.

Rossi is making his final start with Andretti, as he will move to the Arrow McLaren SP organization next season. In his seven-year career, Rossi has notched eight wins, seven poles, 28 podiums, and led 874 laps. His greatest achievement was obviously winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500, but the 30-year old is still sour about not winning a championship with the team.

There is also the possibility that Herta could be making his final start with the team as well. Depending on what happens with the FIA and their Super License ruling, Herta could be in line for a Formula One seat next season with AlphaTauri to replace Pierre Gasly, who is expected to move into Fernando Alonso’s spot at Alpine.

Herta has downplayed the rumors that this has been a distraction to he and the No. 26 team this season. "To be honest, I don’t know fully what’s going on because I haven’t wanted to know," he said. "I’ve been telling my dad to keep me out of the loop a little bit so I can focus on IndyCar. I’m not ready to say where I will be for next year. I have a contract with Andretti for next year and I don’t want to think about anything else until next season, so that’s about it."

Qualifying is always important, but it is critical for having success at Laguna Seca. Out of the 24 races here, 20 of them have been won by a driver starting on the front row. Only twice has a driver won the race from a starting position outside of the top three. That bodes well for Team Penske tomorrow.

The Saturday schedule features a one-hour practice session at 1:15 PM ET. Qualifying will begin at 5 PM with no on-track activity after that. Championship Sunday will provide a 30-minute warmup for the drivers ahead of the season-ending race. All of the on-track action will stream live on Peacock.

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