WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Josef Newgarden enters the final two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season in somewhat unfamiliar territory. Despite being a championship contender the last two years (he finished seventh in 2015 after entering the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma with a mathematical shot at the championship, and finished fourth last year), he wasn’t in command of the title picture at any point.
The 2017 season is a different story. On the strength of four wins, including last week’s victory over teammate Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden has vaulted himself 31 points clear of second-place Scott Dixon ahead of the final two races of the season.
Having such a lead might cause some to believe that Newgarden is changing his focus to play “prevent” in the final two races. However, as Newgarden explained in a Friday press conference at Watkins Glen International.
“To me, I think the safest thing is to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Newgarden asserted emphatically.
He explained that 31 points is hardly a comfortable margin, given the manner in which points are distributed and the fact that the season finale in Sonoma is a double-points race, which means he can’t simply go into conservative mode.
“The way I look at it, it’s not a very safe lead, it’s really not,” Newgarden detailed. “Even if you say, ‘Well, okay, (Scott Dixon) is leading the race, we’re second or third, we should just stay put here and get some points’ – if we finish third, I think that closes it up enough to where Scott can be in striking distance at Sonoma, where if he wins the race, he wins the championship.”
Complicating matters further is the fact that all three of Newgarden’s Team Penske teammates are still mathematically alive in the championship, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud especially within striking distance. As a result, none of them may be willing to play second-fiddle in a supporting role.
Conversely, Scott Dixon is the lone representative from Chip Ganassi Racing, meaning it’s possible that teammates Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton, and Charlie Kimball could play supporting roles to his championship chase.
And yet, the competitiveness within Team Penske is something Newgarden thrives on. “The best thing about Team Penske is they let us all race each other,” he revealed. “It’s kind of a dream situation. I think it’s awesome that Team Penske’s always done that. They’ve let their drivers race.”
And, unless one of his teammates is mathematically eliminated from title contention, that competitive atmosphere is unlikely to change in the final two races.
“Until there’s a clear situation where there’s nothing to gain for someone else – maybe all to gain for the team, then I think that might flip. But right now there’s no situation for that. I think everyone is still going to push as hard as they can and try and get the most points,” Newgarden finished.