It's no secret that there's a bit of an extra inducement to winning the Firestone Indy Lights championship this year. The champ will end up with a scholarship towards graduating to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012. And while it's no guarantee of finding a spot in IICS (see Vernay, JK), it certainly helps their chances.
With five Lights races left, there are three drivers within 68 points of one another at the top. In first is Josef Newgarden, in front of his teammate Esteban Guerrieri by 63 points. Just five points behind him is Stefan Wilson, who has come on strong in the last couple of races.
Two Sam Schmidt entries (Newgarden/Guerrieri), and one Andretti (Wilson). So who will win out in the championship battle?
Josef Newgarden is definitely in the driver's seat right now. He's won four races, and outside of perhaps Toronto, hasn't really had many poor results. His biggest competition in the upcoming races might not come from the other two drivers mentioned, but from teammate Conor Daly, who takes back over the 77 car for a couple of races. Newgarden needs to make sure he's finishing races if he wants to clinch soon.
Esteban Guerrieri has shown all manner of talent in his first year, but incidents at Iowa and Edmonton are the big reason he's 63 points back. This is a guy who has won five poles, but you feel like he's left some performance on the table in the races themselves. He's going to need to find his winning ways again (and have a spot of luck) if he wants to fight back into contention with Newgarden.
Stefan Wilson is the only Indy Lights veteran of the three here, and he's had some nice breakthroughs in 2011. He grabbed his first win at Toronto, and finished P2 in the 2nd Edmonton race, but it might be too little, too late with the way the SSM cars have been racing. 68 is not an impossible gap, but it is pretty imposing nonetheless.
It's going to be interesting to see how the teams respond at Trois Rivieres this upcoming weekend. Will Newgarden pad his lead or will Guerrieri or Wilson be able to close the gap?