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The other IndyCar title set to go down to the wire in 2022

IndyCar’s 2022 Rookie of the Year contenders, Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas, have enjoyed a fascinating battle this year. Following the second Iowa race, in which Lundgaard’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda suffered a mechanical failure, and Malukas’ Dale Coyne Racing similarly-powered machine finished eighth, the pair were separated by just four points.

Then Lundgaard delivered an excellent runner-up finish in IndyCar’s second race at on the Indianapolis road course, while Malukas was in midfield, and the Dane extended his points advantage to 41 in Nashville, where he finished in the top 10 and Malukas was taken out by fellow rookie Kyle Kirkwood. However, Malukas recouped most of that deficit with a brilliant second place at the last round at Gateway.

Lundgaard has the edge heading into the final two rounds, with 283 points to the 272 of Malukas, but it's still anybody's game.

This week, the pair tested at Laguna Seca, but this weekend’s penultimate round at Portland has a bigger question mark over it. Malukas has raced six times at the 1.964-mile road course on the Road to Indy, accruing three wins, whereas his Danish rival has no experience there. On the other hand, RLL has generally been stronger at the course than DCR, and even scored a fortunate win there in 2018 with Takuma Sato – now Malukas’ team-mate.

Formula 2 race winner Lundgaard, a former Alpine junior, acknowledges that he's “been more comfortable on street circuits and road courses than we have on ovals” this season. By contrast, Malukas considers the Month of May, finishing as the best-placed rookie in 16th although the ROTY honour went instead to Jimmie Johnson, as the point where “we kind of flipped a switch, starting getting a lot better with the car, strategy, the racing, continued to go forward”. 

Both drivers were grilled by the media ahead of Portland, and each admitted that their teams had put pressure on them to understand the significance of the rookie championship.

“There's always a rookie championship no matter what series you're racing in,” said Lundgaard. “But I don't think it's a big topic in Europe. For sure the team has pushed me further and further to understand how much it actually means.

“Obviously coming into IndyCar, I hoped to be in a better position at this point in the season than we are. You can only hope for the best. I think we've had our ups and downs, we've had good weekends, some worse ones.

Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. (Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images)

“You only get one shot at the rookie championship. You have to make the best of it. I think that's what's important about it, at this point now I know I'll be here next year. I mean, I know anyway I'm not going to get another shot at it, but I also know I need to learn as much as possible this year going into next year, but at the same time I want to end it on a high.

“Unfortunately David is pushing me extremely hard with his pace. I think it's going to be a tight battle at the end.”

Malukas said: “It's always been in the back of my head. It wasn't kind of my main goal. My main goal was to enjoy the IndyCar experience and learn as much as possible. But Dale [Coyne, team owner] was in my ear every day, ‘We need this rookie [award], go and get it.’ He was pushing me and driving me forward.

“Lundgaard definitely has been pushing us 100 percent, especially after the IMS performance. I was like, ‘Man, how am I supposed to get a podium? That's going to be tough.’ Part of the push in Gateway was having that in mind.

“Like I said, Dale is always in my ear that we really need it. A lot of pushing going on. In Gateway we succeeded under the pressure. Hopefully we can carry that into the last two rounds.”

Lundgaard seemed undaunted by his lack of experience at Portland, citing his IndyCar debut last August at IMS road course where he qualified fourth, and said he’d prepared for the track in a similar manner to the other tracks on the 2022 schedule with which he was unfamiliar.

I think it's pretty much the same preparation as every track you go to,” he said. “I mean, looking at Indy GP last year, the one race I did, I basically showed up on Friday and drove practice. That's pretty much it.

“For me, I enjoy coming to new tracks. I enjoy the challenge of going out there pretty much blind. We saw Nashville, I'd never been at Nashville, and we were real quick straightaway. The most I can hope for is that the car is in a decent window and we can fine-tune it from there, be at the better end of the field.”

David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Honda (Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images)

Lundgaard said that his lack of circuit knowledge had made it “a tough task to come in and be expected to perform”.

“There's been a few events this year where I've told my strategists to give me more information because we can be six-tenths off the pace compared to my team-mates - I don't know where the pace is,” he said. “These things we've kind of learned as a team, moved in that direction of helping me as much as possible early in the weekend. The pace has been there. Obviously we didn't need it in Nashville, which was nice. Seemed to be able to sort that out.

“I think for me the ovals are still where we need to improve. Personally I think I'm quite comfortable with street circuits and road courses. I've done that pretty much the whole of my car career. Ovals is still different. I think this is what has been tough this season.

“You only got one shot at it, at the rookie championship. You need to perform at your best and limit retirements. I think we've got the most out of it, but I'm sure there's a lot to learn. I think the whole winter we'll look into things to improve.”

Malukas said the big advance for he and his team this year has been with race strategy and pit stops, as “you don't do pit stops, strategies, fuel saving, tyre saving” in junior categories.

“All of that was very new to me,” he said. “At the beginning of the season I was definitely very lost with all of it.

“I've managed to learn how to figure out how to do all these things, just following veterans like [Will] Power. He passed me on track [at Gateway]. Man, I got past again. ‘Wait, this is actually really good. I can follow Power's line, where he does this fuel saving.’

“From these moments I've managed to learn, learn how I can use all the tools I have from me, the team, Honda, how I can use those to help me as a driver.”

David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Honda (Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images)
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