LONG BEACH, Calif. — The IndyCar championship race tightened ahead of the Grand Prix of Long Beach after a messy qualifying session put contenders Alex Palou and Pato O'Ward in the middle of the pack.
Josef Newgarden, a distant third in the standings but still mathematically in the mix for the title, seized the opportunity and won the pole for Sunday's season-ending race.
Palou arrived at the temporary street course with a 35-point lead over O'Ward in the standings, needing only an 11th-place finish to make him the first Spaniard to win an IndyCar title. His cushy lead and incredible consistency this season have O'Ward and Newgarden both admitting they need near-miracles to deny Palou the crown.
O'Ward and Palou failed to advance to the final round of qualifying. Newgarden pounced with Saturday's pole-winning run and credited a fan who has been roaming the temporary street course hyping Newgarden and his Team Penske all weekend.
"We've fought hard all year, but it's very improbable for us to win the championship,'' Newgarden said. "Our goal is to win the race.''
O'Ward starts eighth, two spots ahead of the 24-year-old Palou. Both drivers slowed during their qualifying runs for a local yellow, allowing several cars to move ahead of them and advance into the Fast Six final round.
O'Ward was furious and believed some ahead of him should have been penalized, which would have advanced him into the final qualifying round. During a lengthy delay by IndyCar race control to determine potential penalties, Arrow McLaren SP team president Taylor Kiel admitted that O'Ward teammate Felix Rosenqvist had sped through the local yellow and should have lost his position.
"We have literal data that shows at least two other cars didn't get penalized and kept going quickly in the yellow flag,'' O'Ward said. "Maybe rules don't apply the last race of the season? When everything's at stake? It just sucks.''
The 22-year-old Mexican was furious when he left pit road. He had calmed down by the time he reached the news conference, but he grew heated again when the subject was raised.
"We're still waiting on the explanation, just like you and everybody else,'' O'Ward said. "But I doubt I'll get an explanation.''
Palou sat atop his pit box with his Chip Ganassi Racing team and watched the final qualifying shootout. He had never seen the 11-turn course built over nearly two miles in downtown Long Beach.
Palou, who brushed the wall during qualifying and needed several saves in Saturday morning practice, wasn't too bothered about his mid-pack starting position.
"The good thing is we have a base,'' Palou said. "We know we have a good race car.''