Two longtime friends separated by just 11 points with two races remaining. Welcome to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES Rookie of the Year race. It’s personal.
Yes, Christian Lundgaard and David Malukas are the stars of what has been a terrific championship run, but their battle that resumes this weekend at Portland International Raceway is real, and it has deep roots.
Years ago, they took part in the same European karting competitions and were friends off the track. Lundgaard was in a class just above Malukas, which allowed them to soak up each other’s performances. The photo above, featuring Swedish driver Rasmus Lindh, is from a 2016 event in southern Portugal.
Malukas has been on his way to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES since 2017, and he remembers the day last year when he learned that Lundgaard would be joining him in the United States.
« Let’s say when I heard that Christian Lundgaard was going to race the INDYCAR SERIES, I thought to myself: ‘(Blank blank) it, this is going to be really difficult (for me),' » said the driver of the Honda no. 18 from Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.
It has been interesting to see these two young drivers develop at this level. Each has needed a few races this season to get their bearings, but they’ve been among the series’ top drivers since May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Malukas, the series’ youngest driver who turns 21 on September 27, was the top rookie in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, finishing 16th. In the nine races since, Malukas has averaged 11.6. Lundgaard’s average over the last eight races is 11.7, with six finishes in the top 11, including a second place at the Gallagher Grand Prix, the July 30 road race at IMS.
Lundgaard’s recent results could be even better if his car hadn’t suffered brake problems during the July 24 oval race at Iowa Speedway. The driver of the #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Mi-Jack had finished 10th the day before in the opening race of the double confrontation. A fortnight after turning 21, Lundgaard was third when it resumed with less than two laps to go in the August 7 street race in Nashville, but he was swallowed up by the veterans and relegated to eighth place.
Malukas did his best work on the oval tracks, as evidenced by his second place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway. It was there, while chasing two Team Penske riders, that he showed what he had believed all along: that his program, as well as his confidence, increases with each lap.
« I feel like since May came around, that’s when we switched and started to get better with the car, the strategy and the racing, and we started to go from there. before,” he said. “After getting that podium and having a really good race there, it just helped him even more. »
Malukas also benefited from several strong qualifying runs this summer, securing five top-eight starting positions during that eight-race stretch and reaching the Firestone Fast Six round twice (at Detroit and Toronto). Lundgaard has qualified in the top six at the last two non-oval races — at a road course and a street course — giving him confidence ahead of the Portland road course and a similar circuit at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, site. from the season finale on September 11.
The two drivers say they used each other as a barometer, especially when the intensity of the Rookie of the Year title race increased. They are also together in the standings, Lundgaard being 15th and Malukas 16th.
Both drivers say much of their drive to win the award came from their teams.
« I don’t think it’s a big topic in Europe, » Lundgaard said of rookie honours. “It is sure that (RLLR) pushed me more and more to understand what this means. You only have one chance, so you have to make the most of it. I think that’s what’s important.
“Fortunately, David pushes me over the edge with his pace. I think it’s going to be a close battle until the end. »
Malukas said winning the award « wasn’t my main goal » for the season, but team owner Dale Coyne has tweeted about it for months. Coyne’s team has seen two drivers win the award since 2010 (Alex Lloyd and Ed Jones), with Santino Ferrucci earning Indy 500 top rookie honors in 2019.
“Dale was in my ear everyday, like ‘C’mon, we need this rookie championship; here we go to get it,’” Malukas said. “He was really pushing me and pushing me forward.
“Lundgaard really pushed us 100%, especially after the performance on the IMS road circuit. I was like, ‘How am I supposed to get on the podium? Oops, this is going to be hard. I mean, part of the pressure at Gateway was to have that in mind.
“So a lot of pushing going on. »
Lundgaard used a moment from Wednesday’s teleconference with the media to push his friend again, reminding Malukas of a conversation that allegedly took place earlier in the year.
“I know your mum said she was a big fan (of me),” Lundgaard told Malukas. “You said that earlier in the season. »
Malukas was quick to respond like only a true competitor would.
“She follows all (your social media), but she is a big fan of (Josef) Newgarden,” he said.
They both laughed it off, but it’s all going to be business over the next two weeks, with a big prize and a good end to the season on the line.
« I don’t remember much (of the photo above), but I do remember we had a great time, » Malukas said. « We were good friends back then, and there’s another photo somewhere of him throwing me in the air. »
And now ?
« I wouldn’t say we became enemies, that’s for sure, » Lundgaard said smiling.
The battle for the rookie title continues Friday with the weekend’s first NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice session at Portland International Raceway. The session begins at 5:30 p.m. ET, with live coverage on Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Sunday’s Portland Grand Prix, a 110-lap race, is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network.