The final race of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season is upon us, and with seven drivers mathematically eligible for the championship entering – five of whom will actually have a legitimate chance once the race begins – it’s time to get out the calculators to begin analyzing who needs to finish where in order to secure the championship.
Earlier this week, IndyCar released a spreadsheet of points possibilities for each of the top six drivers (seventh place, Graham Rahal, will be mathematically eliminated when the green flag waves on Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). That chart is below.
An initial look makes the overall picture seem complicated. However, it’s actually quite simple for the most part. Below are permutations for all of this year’s championship contenders.
JOSEF NEWGARDEN – 1ST PLACE, 561 POINTS (Note: Newgarden entered the weekend with 560 points, but securing the pole netted him one bonus point heading into Sunday’s race)
For points leader Josef Newgarden, the picture is beautifully simple: a race win automatically nets him a championship. In the event none of the championship contenders wins, simply finishing ahead of all of them would also secure him his first IndyCar championship.
Further, with four wins to his name in 2017, Newgarden holds the advantage in the event of a tie. The only driver who could challenge him here is teammate Will Power, but Power would need a victory and a lot of help to do so (more on this later).
The element of bonus points does make things somewhat trickier. Dixon had the opportunity to jump ahead had he secured all four bonus points – pole (1), leads one lap (1), and leads the most laps (2) – if both finished outside the top-10.
But if they slip that far down the order, the door is blow wide open for Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and even Will Power to sweep in and steal the championship.
Regardless, Newgarden is in complete control of his destiny entering Sunday’s season finale.
SCOTT DIXON – SECOND PLACE, 557 POINTS
Scott Dixon, like Newgarden, controls his own destiny. Only four points behind Newgarden, a race win nets Dixon his fifth championship no matter what anyone else does. And, as previously mentioned, finishing in the top 10 would also see him, at minimum, jump ahead of Newgarden if he finishes ahead of Newgarden by at least one position.
Still, as previously described, finishes outside of the top 10 for both Newgarden and Dixon give Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Power a chance to swoop in and take the title. Consequently, although it is possible, it is highly unlikely Newgarden or Dixon win the championship if they encounter problems and finish lower than tenth.
Still, Dixon controls his own championship fate at Sonoma.
HELIO CASTRONEVES – THIRD PLACE, 538 POINTS
Helio Castroneves does not control his destiny in quite the same way as Newgarden or Dixon, but a win would put him even on points with Newgarden…if Castroneves scores at least three bonus points along the way.
Doing so would give Castroneves a final tally of 641 points. Newgarden finishing second would put him on 641 as well, but he would own the tiebreaker (four race wins to Castroneves’ two).
As a result, Castroneves does need help – although only a little. A finish of third or worse for Newgarden would see Castroneves leapfrog him in the standings, and he’s close enough to Dixon (19 points back) that a victory would vault him ahead of Dixon irrespective of where he finishes…unless Dixon gets more bonus points. But, in the event those two end up tied, Castroneves would hold the tiebreaker, having two wins to Dixon’s one.
However, a Pagenaud victory would doom Castroneves’ chances, as the 2016 champion would move ahead of the three-time Indy 500 winner (the gap between them is 12 points, and the gap from first to second at the double-points Sonoma finale is, at minimum, 16). He can also fall behind Power by finishing seventh or worse, assuming Power takes the race win.
Still, Castroneves’ outlook is relatively clear: A race win is his best shot at the title, and puts him in a relatively good spot to do so.
SIMON PAGENAUD – FOURTH PLACE, 526 POINTS
The situation for Pagenaud is somewhat more desperate. A race win, of course, is his best chance to secure his second consecutive championship. But, he needs a bit more help than Castroneves does.
In the scenario where Pagenaud wins, he’ll need Newgarden to finish fifth or worse and Dixon fourth or worse (note: if he and Dixon were to end up tied, Pagenaud would win the tiebreaker by having more race wins, two to Dixon’s one, again assuming he gets the race victory).
Though he missed out on the pole, maximizing the bonus points on Sunday is also vital for Pagenaud’s chances. Doing so would see him on 629 points for the season, and assuming Newgarden finishes fifth or worse and Dixon fourth or worse, he would clear both of them without the worry of going to a tiebreaker.
Teammate Power could leapfrog him with a win and a Pagenaud finish of sixth or worse, which would obviously put paid to any title hopes for the Frenchman.
In summary, Pagenaud’s best chance is to win and score the remaining bonus points. Of course, he maxed out at this race last year.
WILL POWER – FIFTH PLACE, 492 POINTS
Will Power, the 2014 champion, sits 69 points out of the lead. Quite simply, he needs to win, secure the remaining bonus points, and get quite a bit of help.
In a perfect scenario, one in which Power ends the year on 595 points, he’ll need Newgarden to finish 14th or worse, Dixon 12th or worse, Castroneves sixth or worse, and Pagenaud fourth or worse.
Note: a Power tie with Newgarden would go to Newgarden on the tiebreaker (four wins to Power’s three) unless Power scores a victory, in which case a further tiebreaker would be needed.
All told, Power’s championship picture may be the simplest of all: lead the most laps, win the race, and hope your competitors encounter major trouble or fail to finish.
ALEXANDER ROSSI – SIXTH PLACE, 476 POINTS
Alexander Rossi’s hopes hinge on something almost unworldly happening to the lead title contenders.
Rossi, like Power, needs maximum points (lead the most laps, win the race), and must see Newgarden finish 22nd. He would also need Dixon to finish 20th or worse, Castroneves tenth or worse, Pagenaud seventh or worse, and Power second or worse.
With 22 cars entered this weekend, Rossi will be eliminated if anyone not named Newgarden drops out of Sunday’s race.
Behind the top six, seventh place Graham Rahal (466 points) will be eliminated from title contention when Sunday’s race begins.
While there are many more permutations on the docket depending on finishing positions and bonus points, the overall championship picture can be summarized in a few quick sentences:
1) Newgarden and Dixon are in complete control of their championship hopes.
2) Castroneves, too, holds a lot of control of his championship hunt and needs only a little help to break through.
3) Pagenaud has a chance, but needs everything to go perfectly in his favor to have a realistic shot.
4) Power needs all the bonus points on race day (most laps led and the race victory) and needs his title rivals, chiefly Newgarden and Dixon, to suffer significant misfortune.
All told, it adds up to a potentially thrilling season finale, and will yield a 2017 champion with a remarkable story to tell.