JHR, RLL biggest winners of fierce Leaders Circle battle at Laguna

The battle to earn IndyCar's final Leaders Circle contract played out in dramatic fashion as the last laps of the 2023 were completed in Monterey on Sunday.

With guaranteed prize money contracts of $910,000 offered to the top 22 in IndyCar's entrants' points, a few teams went into the season finale with added pressure to finish the contest on the right side of the cut line.

The big winners started with Juncos Hollinger Racing, with JHR's Agustin Canapino hauling the No. 78 Chevy to 14th in the race and holding onto 21st in the entrants' standings in the process. Leaving Portland in 21st, Canapino was in great shape for most of the Monterey race, but contact made with his teammate Callum Ilott, which broke his front wing, saw the No. 78 car drop quickly in the closing laps.

In the end, Canapino — who had Ilott's race engineer Yves Touron assigned to his car over the final races to help in their Leaders Circle quest — was safe, but barely so.

The Argentinian completed his rookie year with 180 entrants' points accrued for the No. 78, two points ahead of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's No. 30 RLL Honda which clinched 22nd in the entrants' championship over Andretti Autosport's No. 29 Honda driven by Devlin DeFrancesco. By a single point.

The last Leaders Circle contract was settled by dueling bouts of misfortune, and in the case of Andretti Autosport, rage and frustration. Credit the resilience of the RLL mechanics for repairing Vips' car after he was taken out in a lap 1 crash, and thanks to their efforts, the rookie returned to finish 24th — 24 laps down at the checkered flag — which was just enough to close the No. 30's season-long entrants' account at 178 points.

DeFrancesco's strong drive was, like most drivers in the race, marred by frequent contact. It was the likely result of an impact received at the back of his No. 29 Honda that turned his transmission into a sentient being and started a downward spiral. Shuddering and shifting at will, DeFrancesco's pace was greatly compromised, and due to his significantly reduced lap speeds, IndyCar black flagged the No. 29 and ordered him to pit lane for his mechanics to try and find and resolve the problem.

While there, a fresh set of tires were installed in the No. 29 and DeFrancesco was sent back out to continue racing — with the shifting problem unresolved — which was not, according to an IndyCar official who spoke with RACER, what the series had in mind. Ordered to return to the pits, an IndyCar official stood in front of the No. 29 and prevented the situation from happening again.

As one onlooker described the situation, a senior Andretti team leader “went ballistic and aggressively motioned for DeFrancesco to go back out on track” while the official refused to move aside and allow the No. 29 to continue racing. Having left the first time without the series' approval, the No. 29 was parked, finishing four laps down in 22nd place.

In the all-important entrants' championship, the No. 29 earned 177 points to the 178 captured by RLL's Hail Mary with Vips in the No. 30 entry, leaving Andretti's car 23rd and the first car out of the $910,000 pay days.

And to spare any confusion, the final entrants' standings show the aforementioned drivers in positions that are one spot lower, with the No. 78 in 22nd, the No. 30 in 23rd, and the No. 29 in 24th. Due to a Leaders Circle policy that only allows eligibility for the top three cars from each team, Chip Ganassi Racing's fourth car — the No. 11 Honda, which placed 14th in the entrants' championship — is ineligible, which moves all the cars behind it forward by one position.

A special clause was written into the Leaders Circle rules that allows Andretti’s fourth entry to be the only one in the series that is eligible for a contract if places inside the top 22, which makes its one-point loss to RLL's No. 30 a double blow to the team…

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