State of the Championship: who is most likely to catch Palou?

After a few more weeks of summer break, IndyCar will head to the streets of Nashville for the first time on August 8th. Palou will enter the final six races of the season with a 39 point lead in the championship over O’Ward. Dixon sits 56 points out of first place and Newgarden is 69 points behind Palou. 

After the latest runs of the championship projection model, Dixon is still the favorite to win the 2021 title with a 60 percent chance of doing so. This is down nine percentage points from before the Mid-Ohio race where Dixon finished fourth, Palou finished third, and Newgarden finally won Team Penske’s first race of the season. Palou has a sixteen percent chance of winning the title, and Newgarden and O’Ward both sit with around an eleven percent chance of winning the title. 

Things are starting to trend in the right direction as far as the model catching up to Palou’s performance, but we are not all the way there yet. As I wrote about in the last State of the Championship, Palou is such an interesting case that his Elo rating has not yet caught up with his improvement this season. Palou gained 21 Elo rating points in the Mid-Ohio race which puts him at a rating of 1656 and ninth among full-time drivers this season. His Elo rating continues to climb as he has outperformed his Elo expectations in all but one race this season.

O’Ward is the driver closest to catching Palou in terms of point difference, but our model only gives him an eleven percent chance of doing so. O’Ward does have two race wins this season which is tied for the most with Palou, but his performances have been a lot more inconsistent than Palou’s so far. His standard deviation of Average Track Position (ATP), which measures how consistent a driver’s ATP is race to race, is 8.8, the highest among the top four drivers. Lower standard deviations indicate a more consistent ATP, and O’Ward’s standard deviation is over 50% higher than Palou’s. Two other interesting stats from O’Ward are his Top-5 Percentage and his Expected Points. O’Ward’s Top-5 Percentage, which measures the percentage of a driver’s laps that are spent in the top five positions on the track, is just 43.2% compared to 65.8% for Palou and 65.7% for Dixon. In 2020, only one driver who finished in the top five in the points standings had a lower Top-5 Percentage than O’Ward has currently. And the difference between his Actual and Expected Points, a measure of how much a driver is overperforming in the points standings relative to how he ran in the races, is +77, the largest difference out of any driver in the field. As I wrote about last time, you do need to be somewhat lucky to win an IndyCar title, but it does indicate that O’Ward has been outperforming what would be expected based on where he runs during the races. This overperformance could continue throughout the season and not be too surprising, or we could start to see some reversion to the mean in the final third of the season. 

Dixon is still the favorite to win right now according to our model, but for reasons I wrote about last time (Palou continues to perform drastically differently than he did last season, Elo ratings are still trying to catch up to this season’s results) Palou is definitely still underrated with the sixteen percent chance the model gives him now. That said, despite dealing with a larger points deficit, I think Dixon still has the best chance of taking the fight to Palou — not O’Ward.

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