The fierce championship battle puts the three challengers at the front of the field in Sunday's first IndyCar event at Portland in 11 years. Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power won the pole, teammate and defending series champion Josef Newgarden qualified second and Alexander Rossi third.
They are chasing Scott Dixon, who was a distant 11th after a poor qualifying effort. Dixon has two races left to lock down his fifth series championship, and he'll have work to do in IndyCar's celebrated return to the Pacific Northwest. CART first raced at Portland in 1984 when the series was the strongest in the U.S. and Al Unser Jr. won the inaugural event. Two years later, Mario Andretti beat son Michael Andretti by less than a second on Father's Day.
Michael Andretti went on to win the race three times, tied with Unser for most in track history. Sebastien Bourdais is a two-time winner, including in 2007, the last time IndyCar ran on the permanent road course. The big joke all week has been that at 11 years, Bourdais is the longest defending race winner of any event in IndyCar.
Not much has changed since that last race. Upkeep on the track included a resurfacing and the widening of Turns 4-6, with curbing added. Beyond those major changes, the facility almost looks frozen in time. Even so, the event has created a palpable excitement in the paddock and brought a crush of crowds to the old-school grandstands and dusty dirt patches that dot the 1.967-mile, 12-turn facility.
Portland does not have a Ferris wheel, a concert venue or any of the amenities tracks are adopting these days to simply stay alive. Yet the fans have come by train, bicycle and shared cars to the main gate, where they wind their way to an old pedestrian bridge with rusted steps that crosses them into the infield.
They come to see the racing. No frills. Just fast cars and a tense title race, just the old days. IndyCar has just two more rounds and Sunday is perhaps the most important. The Sept. 16 finale at Sonoma is worth double points, so a driver mathematically still eligible can pull it off with a big day. So it is at Portland where Dixon, Rossi, Power and Newgarden must a have a strong day to stay in the chase.
Power won last week at Gateway and his title hopes have been renewed. "I'm right there, thanks to double points," said Power, who had a double-point victory for Chevy at Indianapolis. "If not for the double points, I wouldn't have a chance, but certainly, if I can win this weekend then I am right there."
All four championship contenders are tied with three victories this season, but it's been Rossi and his Andretti Autosport team on the march. Rossi has two wins and a second-place finish in his last three starts in his bid to win his first IndyCar title. His run at Gateway required a brazen strategic call in which Rossi took a mediocre car and snatched a second-place finish sandwiched between Power and Dixon, who both had flawless drives.
Dixon believes Rossi, the challenger, can take more risks because he's not guarding a title. Rossi doesn't see any risk at all other than last Saturday, when a different fuel strategy was his only chance of gaining any ground on Dixon.
"Nothing has really changed that much," Rossi said. "Because the results have been there, what we've been doing is more on display. I don't think anything has shifted from Day 1. I think our Sundays have been better, obviously. I didn't make mistakes. We didn't have mechanical issues. When that happens, the pace has always been there, right?
"It was just about cleaning up loose ends and making sure nothing silly happened from either my end or the team's end or pit stops, then we were going to get results. That no one lost confidence is the thing you've got to see the most, just the continual desire to try to pull it off."
Dixon last raced the track in 2002; Power was in the field in 2007. Rossi and Newgarden are making their Portland debuts, but Dixon does not believe prior visits give the veterans an advantage. Development in cars and tires and technology make it difficult for teams to have much of a baseline from year-to-year, never mind an 11-year gap.
"Totally different," Dixon said. "The track itself is different, the surface is different. The cars are totally different. It's almost like we're are a new track again." Dixon, Power and Bourdais had been the fastest of the field leading into Saturday's qualifying session. Bourdais set the fast lap in the final practice then slid off course in Turn 10 and struck the tire barrier on the next lap.
His team had to frantically repair his car into some something ready to qualify, and he wound up fourth. Bourdais has consistently been one of the fastest drivers of the weekend.