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IndyCar’s Sonoma points permutations

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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)

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet walks to driver introductions before 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)

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 celebrates victory at Road America. Photo: IndyCar

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 celebrates his victory at Iowa Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

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

Simon Pagenaud still has a chance at his second consecutive championship, but needs a little help to do so. Photo: IndyCar

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

FONTANA, CA – AUGUST 30: Will Power of Australia driver of the #12 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet celebrates after winning the IndyCar Championship during the Verizon IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 IndyCar World Championship Race at the Auto Club Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

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 celebrates with his team in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen. Photo: IndyCar

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.

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Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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