With three races remaining in the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season, Chip Ganassi Racing's Alex Palou has all but locked up his second series championship in three years, but the fight for 22nd place could have major financial ramifications across the sport.
Heading into the final oval race of the year, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois, Palou holds a nearly insurmountable 101-point lead over teammate and six-time series champ, Scott Dixon, and a 105-point cushion over this year's Indy 500 winner and two-time series champion, Team Penske's Josef Newgarden. Scott McLaughlin, also driving for Team Penske, along with Arrow McLaren's Pato O'Ward, are both mathematically still alive for the championship as well but will need to win Sunday's race and see Palou finish somewhere deep in the field to resuscitate their championship hopes.
It's been a season of dominance for Palou, who beginning with the GMR Grand Prix on Indianapolis Motor Speedway's road course, reeled off four wins in five races to jump out to his big lead in the championship. Even when he has suffered some bad luck, Palou has thrived—he managed a fourth place finish in the Indianapolis 500 after pit lane contact with Ed Carpenter Racing's Rinus Veekay sent him to the back of the field, and he managed a second place finish in the Honda Indy Toronto race despite his front nose being almost completely torn from the car.
While Palou has experienced a lot of highs in this year's series, quite a few teams have suffered reverse fortune and are mired deep in the championship standings. Yet, they have a sort of championship to fight for as well for 22nd place in the season-ending standings, which will qualify them for IndyCar's Leaders Circle guaranteed payout of $910,000.
IndyCar Drivers Fighting Last Leaders Circle Position
IndyCar began the Leaders Circle program in 2002 to provide incentives for teams to compete in the entire season schedule. Paid to the top 22 car entries, the Leaders Circle money is rewarded to teams throughout the season and can make a big difference in a smaller team's annual budget. Because IndyCar caps Leaders Circle payouts to three entries per team (except for Andretti Autosport, which receives four), Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 8 driven by Marcus Armstrong doesn't count in the Leaders Circle program.
Going into Sunday's race, just 22 points separate the 19th place Meyer Shank Racing's No. 06, driven by Helio Castroneves, from Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport's No. 29 driven by Devlin DeFrancesco. In between are A.J. Foyt Racing's No. 14, piloted by Santino Ferrucci; Ed Carpenter Racing's No. 20, which swapped Conor Daly for Ryan Hunter-Reay after the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix; Juncos Hollinger Racing's No. 78, with Argentinian sports car ace Agustin Canapino in the cockpit; Meyer Shank Racing's No. 60, which has been driven by Daly and rookies Tom Blomqvist and Linus Lundqvist since regular driver Simon Pagenaud has been held out of racing in the aftermath of a terrifying crash in practice at Mid-Ohio in July; and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's No. 30, which Daly will drive this weekend after Jack Harvey stepped out of the car.
While Palou may be heading toward the checkered flag in the race for series champion, the fight for 22nd still very much matters. These final three races promise a compelling blend of heart-beating wheel-to-wheel action as these five teams battle it out for the last $910,000 payout for next year.
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