INDIANAPOLIS - Now is the time to tune into American auto racing at its highest levels, on display all weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where NASCAR and IndyCar will intersect with both series embroiled in turmoil.
Two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was cleared to compete on the road course on Indy's hallowed grounds after successfully completing Friday morning practice and passing a third medical evaluation. The 31-year-old driver from Nashville collapsed and hit his head this past Sunday at Iowa Speedway, about 90 minutes after he'd crashed while leading the race.
He said he assumes he suffered a concussion when he hit his head in the motorhome lot but spent the first part of the week somewhat isolated in an attempt to heal so he could race Saturday. As he battles for a third series crown, Newgarden is tied with six-time champion Scott Dixon at 369 points and behind only Marcus Ericsson (403 points) and Will Power (395) in the season standings.
Ericsson and Dixon drive for Chip Ganassi Racing, while Power and Newgarden are part of Team Penske.
"I really was very motivated to be here this weekend; I knew if we weren't in this race, it was going to be very difficult to stay in this championship fight," Newgarden said. "That was the end for me. I know that we have to be in the race, so whatever I have to do to be fit and prepared is No. 1 on my plate."
Kurt Busch, meanwhile, will miss his second consecutive NASCAR race because of concussion-like symptoms after a crash last weekend at Pocono Raceway. Chase Elliott heads into Sunday's race on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course as the Cup Series' most recent winner, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver inherited the victory after an unprecedented disqualification to Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Hamlin and Busch crossed the finish line 1-2 last Sunday, but their Toyotas failed inspection after the race, resulting in the first Cup Series disqualification since April 17, 1960, when Emanuel Zervakis was stripped of a victory because of an oversized fuel tank.
NASCAR is still five races away from its postseason, a 10-week knockout format to crown its champion.
IndyCar, meanwhile, has five races remaining in its season and an incredibly tight six-driver title race. Reigning champion Alex Palou is sixth in the standings - eight points behind fifth-place Pato O'Ward and 44 points behind Indianapolis 500 winner Ericsson - but he's being sued by Chip Ganassi Racing over his desire to move to McLaren Racing next season.
Palou said he still believes he can win the title again this year, but that he will be in the McLaren family in 2023. Team owner Chip Ganassi seemed exasperated.
"Good for him," Ganassi told The Associated Press on Friday. "I'm not making any statements. I have no quotes to give."
Newgarden also took the silent approach until after he'd qualified fifth for Saturday's race, one spot behind Power. Newgarden's hard crash while leading last Sunday's race - and the IndyCar standings until a broken suspension stopped his attempt at sweeping the Iowa Speedway doubleheader - dropped him back in the standings and forced Team Penske to put Santino Ferrucci on standby in case Newgarden couldn't drive.
IndyCar's medical staff felt certain Newgarden had passed all critical tests before he was medically cleared in Iowa, and if he did suffer a concussion, it came later when he collapsed in the parking lot. He visited a specialist this week, was evaluated again at IMS on Thursday to be cleared to return to the track and then had yet another examination after logging the second-fastest laps in Friday morning practice.
Ferrucci seemed to have already been waved off by Penske on Thursday night when he wrote on Twitter that he was thankful Newgarden was healthy.
Only problem? He incorrectly spelled it "Joseph," and Newgarden didn't like that one bit.
"It's Josef*," he replied on Twitter. "At Penske, we care about details."
It was an aggressive response from Newgarden, who seemed to be staking claim on both his race car and his spot in the title race. Had he not been cleared to race, it likely would have ended his championship chances.
Newgarden said his reply to Ferrucci was in good fun.
"But from a factual standpoint, you know, the details do matter," Newgarden said. "It is important to remember here at Team Penske, we have a working style and we like to stick to it. I'm just trying to help the next batter up."
Meanwhile, Felix Rosenqvist continued to fight for his IndyCar seat with a pole position-winning run during Friday qualifying. A run of 1 minute, 10.2265 seconds clinched the second pole of the season for Rosenqvist, who is making the case for keeping his ride with Arrow McLaren SP.
The contract extension he recently signed with McLaren Racing gives boss Zak Brown the ability to shift Rosenqvist to Formula E next season, but the 30-year-old Swede doesn't want to leave IndyCar. Brown has four current IndyCar drivers signed - Rosenqvist, O'Ward, Palou and Alexander - for three seats next year.
Rosenqvist is in his fourth season on the American open-wheel series, driving for Ganassi the first two years before joining McLaren. He finished sixth in 2019, 11th in 2020 - when he posted the lone win of his IndyCar career - and 21st last year. He's currently in ninth.
"I think I'm in a good place no matter what happens. I'm going to have a good job somewhere," Rosenqvist said. "IndyCar, I think it's kind of addicting in a way. Like, it's very tough. When you succeed and when you win a race or get a podium or whatever, it's just something you want to do again because it's very rewarding when you do well, but it can also be brutal when you're struggling, as I did last year.
"I'm doing well, and I want to continue that, so yeah, hopefully I'll stay."
Rossi, who is in his final season driving for Andretti Autosport, qualified second. He is moving to Arrow McLaren next year when it expands.
O'Ward, who won Sunday at Iowa Speedway, qualified third and rushed to hug Rosenqvist after he edged him for the pole. O'Ward is lobbying hard to keep Rosenqvist as his teammate in IndyCar.
"I love the guy, and I think what makes the atmosphere in the team so good to work around him is that he's a genuine good guy, and it's very easy to work with him," O'Ward said. "It's in his best interest for the whole team to do well."