IndyCar title battle turns on its head at Watkins Glen (VIDEO)

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Josef Newgarden entered today’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen with a 31-point lead over Scott Dixon in second place in pursuit of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

But he leaves it only up three points, and with the top four drivers now covered by just 34 points.

And with double points on the table at the Sonoma season finale in two weeks, it’s anyone’s guess who will hoist the Astor Cup in a year where several different drivers have staked their claim to the title but few have really solidified their grasp.

Josef Newgarden (1st, 560 points)

At some point, Newgarden’s recent run of form – and perhaps luck – was due to run out for the driver of the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet.

Newgarden had won three of the last four races and added two other runner-up finishes as well. All told, in the last six races, Newgarden had scored 270 points – a full 70 more than anyone else (Helio Castroneves 200, Simon Pagenaud 191, Scott Dixon 190 and Will Power 178 were next up), to vault into the lead.

But after Newgarden lamented missing a potential pole run – and the bonus point that went with it – on Saturday, Sunday’s race may have produced the one or two critical mistakes that cost the great American youngster his first series championship.

Once Newgarden hit the guardrail leaving the pits, then got clobbered by Sebastien Bourdais, it was a major hit to his race. The team repaired the car and put on a new rear wing, but Newgarden fell off the lead lap and ended 18th.

So what are Newgarden’s initial thoughts going into the title, after today’s tough hit?

“It was always going to be a dogfight. You still have to finish well in the points. You’d have to have a 90-point lead. That’d be hard to get going into Sonoma.

“It’s a five-horse race. I think the team that’s most perfect is going to get it done.

“I know we have the capability to do it. Team Penske can do it. I think you need to win the race. It doesn’t matter if you have the lead. We need to win the race regardless. We could be 15 (points) down, it’d be the same scenario. It’s double points. I don’t know if a three point lead makes much of a difference.”

Scott Dixon (2nd, 557)

It could well be a case of “the Iceman cometh,” again. Cliche as it is to write, here we are at another second-to-last race of an IndyCar season and Dixon is once again within striking distance.

Today was a typically smooth Dixon drive, starting and ending second on a day when his No. 9 NTT Data Honda was close to Alexander Rossi but not quite the measure of him.

Dixon’s within three points of the lead following today’s race. And for the driver who’s finished top-three in the points every year but last year since 2006, it’s almost old hat.

“The points chase definitely closed the gap. I think it’s down to three points now, which makes it pretty interesting. Have to bring our A game to Sonoma and see what we can take away,” Dixon said.

“I don’t know, tonight I’ll probably have a couple beers, chill out, take the kids to school tomorrow morning, then get in some training.

“But yeah, I think you just got to treat next week as another race. I think you can’t overcomplicate it. Obviously we want to win it. There’s a lot on the line. But, you know, I think if you overthink things too much, then it ends up being a very bad thing.

“I don’t know. I’ve never raced Josef really in a championship like this. It’s not just the two of us. I haven’t seen the points clearly yet, but I imagine Helio is through, Pagenaud is still there as well. With double points, you can have a pretty hefty swing, as we found out last year.”

Helio Castroneves (3rd, 538)

Ending fourth after starting sixth was another cool Helio Castroneves kind of day, where he’s got just enough banked to keep hope alive in the pursuit of his elusive first championship.

Whereas fourth last week at Gateway was a huge disappointment because, like at Phoenix, Castroneves lost a potential victory from his grasp, this fourth place today was one where he seized his opportunity.

Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, was back to being happy in his post-race interview after being despondent last week. He joked he wouldn’t mind if anything happened to Newgarden (all in good fun, of course), while he called himself a certain type of dog, and called Dixon something that was surprising to hear.

“I think I’ll be a Chihuahua…all of a sudden, I bark!” Castroneves laughed, and then proceeded to make a Chihuahua-like yipping sound.

“I don’t care if it’s big, small, or whatever, I want to be the first. Sonoma is a good track for us. If I didn’t win, I’m glad Dixon didn’t, and that makes it tight for the championship.

“Dixon’s like a cockroach. In a good way!” he added. “You think he disappears and then he’s there. I hope he doesn’t take it in a bad way!”

Simon Pagenaud (4th, 526)

The second driver in last week’s battle with Josef Newgarden had a quiet weekend in Watkins Glen, continuing his struggles at this circuit. The driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet started 12th, finished ninth, and couldn’t get by Max Chilton for eighth and two more critical points.

It continued his season of being good but not great in defense of his title. Such is Pagenaud’s consistency, though, that ninth was his third worst finish of the year, only better than 14th at the Indianapolis 500 (double points) and 16th in Detroit race one.

“We fought for the best finish we could today in the Menards Chevrolet. We were really prepared for a wet race and if it would have been run in the rain I think we would have been tough to beat. But we just had too much downforce to run in the dry and make up the ground we needed to. Still, everyone on the team did a good job to finish ninth and we come out of Watkins Glen still in the hunt for the championship. We know what it takes to win at Sonoma and that’s what we’ll be fighting for next week.”

The rest

Three other drivers – Will Power (492), Alexander Rossi (476) and Graham Rahal (466) – are still within mathematical range of being able to win the championship, but cannot realistically do so. Power, 68 points back, has the best chance within these three but would need a win and all four drivers ahead of him to finish outside the top-10 to have any shot.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.