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Several legacies at stake for IndyCar’s primary four title contenders

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The four drivers with the most realistic shots at winning this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) have fascinating chapters to add to their legacies if they pull it off.

For Josef Newgarden, a title would mean he’d be the first series champion under 30 years old in nearly a decade (since Scott Dixon at 28 in 2008), and would mean he’d capture a title for Team Penske in his first year with the team.

For Dixon, a title would be his fifth – which would move him into elite company on the all-time North American open-wheel racing record list, second in all-time season titles behind only A.J. Foyt with seven.

For Helio Castroneves, a title would be his first after 20 years of trying, and check that second-to-last box (along with a fourth Indianapolis 500 win) he’s been chasing over the run of his illustrious career in what is potentially his final start as a full-time IndyCar driver.

And for Simon Pagenaud, a second straight title would establish his bona fides as the first driver to repeat in six years, and move him into a club of three as a driver with multiple championships on the active grid. Right now, only Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais, with four titles each, are active drivers with more than one title.

Needless to say there is a lot to play for and with double points on offer, it changes the game a bit in terms of who can finish where from a math standpoint to determine the title.

BREAKING DOWN THE TITLE CONTENDERS’ THOUGHTS

Josef Newgarden celebrates after winning at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

That Newgarden’s been a title contender in his first year at Penske speaks to how well his integration has gone with the team, which was an established group on the No. 2 car with his predecessor Juan Pablo Montoya over the last three years. Much of his year has fixated on how well he’s adapted to the Penske setups and having three other high-caliber teammates, different to the one or two different ones he had driving for Ed Carpenter or Sarah Fisher previously.

Coming to Sonoma this weekend, the challenge for him is ensuring his setup in tandem with engineer Brian Campe will see him with enough outright pace to be ahead of his teammates to secure the title. While a test last week may not translate too much given the difference in temperatures, it at least gives him a baseline before Thursday’s open test.

“I think all year long, we’ve been trying to understand, at least me personally, I’ve been trying to understand what Penske has done in the past and how I fit into that equation, and I feel like we’ve been very good about figuring that out for the most part,” Newgarden explained. “Sometimes I’ve been a little bit behind to start a weekend, but for the most part we’ve been able to catch up when needed, and we’re there in the end.”

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Dixon, by contrast, has been the sole title focus at Chip Ganassi Racing and Honda. Honda last had Graham Rahal in title contention at the last race two years ago but Rahal picked the worst time to have his worst weekend of an otherwise dream 2015 year. Meanwhile Dixon parlayed a perfect strategy and a bit of luck – courtesy of Montoya and Will Power crashing into each other – into snatching that year’s title away from all of them.

Although Dixon enters three points back, and has been highly consistent with 15 top-10s from 16 races, there’s still been a lot of points left on the table he wishes he had back coming into this race. And it’s surprised him he’s as close as he is considering those lost points.

“I think with the ups and downs and misfortunes we’ve had throughout the season, I’m somewhat surprised that we’re still within striking distance for the points race, especially with Texas, Indy, Long Beach and St. Pete where we could have had a ton of points through those four alone,” Dixon admitted. “Definitely it makes for an exciting championship last race, which is what everybody expects, I think, out of the Verizon IndyCar Series and how is always is. But yeah, it’s pretty tight.

“I think Ganassi are very strong at these high-pressure, coming-down-to-the-wire situations, and not just for myself but other championships they’ve won through the years,” he added, as Ganassi and Honda look to add another title together beyond the nine they already have (1996 through 1999, 2008 through 2011, 2013).

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 28: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on August 28, 2015 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Castroneves has undoubtedly had a lot on his mind of late. His future in the series has been a talking point since the summer, but before the weekend his immediate future was focused on ensuring his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. was being prepared and ready in advance of Hurricane Irma. Yet with a win and a bit of luck, he can easily make up a 22-point gap.

“We’ll be getting ready here for the hurricane to be honest. I’m just a little confused to go back or not,” Castroneves said last week. “But other than that, championship is on the line. We’re really looking forward to it. It’s mixed feelings. Obviously Newgarden with the secure lead and now so close to Dixon but at the same time opened up a very good chance for me, and obviously I’m going to do everything I can to make that up.”

Simon Pagenaud at Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud is trying to write a different championship script. Down slightly on pace this year, where he’s struggled has been in maintaining success. The setups and pace were so good last year and produced so many wins and poles for his team that keeping them in the ballpark this year has been a challenge, in the pursuit of even better performance. Yet his consistency – some 12 top-five finishes that lead the series by a mile – keeps him alive and well in the title hunt, just 34 points back.

“I thought we had to give a different show to all of you guys, make it more interesting, so we did it a completely different way this year,” Pagenaud laughed.

“Joke aside, it’s definitely a much different situation. Quite frankly, we have nothing to lose, which is a very pleasant position to be in. All we’ve got to do is be aggressive and go to the front and try to win the race. It’s a very simple way to look at it with not much pressure. The goal is just to be the best you can be on that day and try to win the race.”

Double points also keep Power, Rahal and Alexander Rossi mathematically alive but there are only a handful of scenarios that would allow them through to the title. Power, at 68 points back, has the only semi-realistic chance if he was to win and all of the four ahead of him had problems. Where he finishes though could have a big impact on the title pursuit.

SO HOW WOULD INDYCAR FARE WITH EACH DRIVER AS CHAMP?Β 

The question of who would the best champion for the series be is also something to ponder.

Dixon, like Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR, is metronomic in his excellence. A fifth title in an era of parity, and given how many different cars he has had to adapt to and drive well over a largely spec era, would be something to celebrate. Yet like Johnson, Dixon is still largely under-appreciated in the grand scheme of sport. We’ve seen him win titles before, and yet none of them seem to penetrate beyond the IndyCar bubble.

Newgarden is the fresh young gun poised to become the face of the series. It’s been building for years and those who paid attention to him at the start knew the potential was there. Granted, there are some who are uncomfortable with the concept of the series’ potential “golden boy” breaking through in his first year with Penske. Yet a title win for him would give IndyCar another shot at marketing promoting a young American over the offseason. The potential is there, but must be capitalized on given the whiff that occurred last time ’round with Ryan Hunter-Reay after 2012, as that offseason was dominated by the politics of paddock in-fighting and Randy Bernard’s ouster as CEO, and “RHR’s” incredible title rally completely overshadowed.

A Castroneves title would be the best thing for him, but a potential nightmare for the series. If as expected Castroneves doesn’t return to IndyCar full-time in 2018, and races sports cars for Penske’s new Acura prototype program, IndyCar would face the double dilemma of having an Indianapolis 500 champion not driving for the same team and the series champion out of the field. And with the prospect of IndyCar eschewing a season-ending banquet to instead run one alongside a 2018 kickoff party at the Friday night of next year’s St. Petersburg season opener, it’d be fair to say “awkward” would be the drinking term de jour.

As for Pagenaud, at almost no point this year has the defending champion felt like “the big story.” That’s not a knock on him, but it’s been a case where any of Newgarden’s arrival at Penske, Dixon and Ganassi’s switch to Honda, Bourdais’ savage accident and amazing recovery, Fernando Alonso’s magical month of May and all the silly season speculation over the summer have dominated headlines. It was only when he lost a win – at Gateway – that Pagenaud was the main topic of conversation coming out of a weekend. He had his coronation last year with a dominant campaign and a deserved title. In 2017, his potential title – like his season – runs the risk of being an afterthought.

So those are the questions of legacies and story lines to think about heading into IndyCar’s season finale in wine country. And it means IndyCar faces an interesting offseason ahead depending on who emerges top of the barrel at Sonoma.

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.