In August, Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather fought in what many dubbed “the fight of the year.” While Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) expects to have far fewer punches thrown, the battle for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship will be no less intense.
At the top, three drivers from Team Penske (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud) and one driver from Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon), IndyCar’s two powerhouse goliaths, will fight it out in a largely winner-take-all outing. Will Power, the fourth Penske driver and the 2014 champion, is not to be forgotten either, but at 68 points out of the lead in fifth place entering the weekend (now 69 after Newgarden won the pole), he would need a lot of help to take his second IndyCar title.
Regardless, the 2017 IndyCar champion will come from either Penske’s or Ganassi’s operation, for the fifth straight season.
And yet, despite having all four of its drivers against Ganassi’s one in the title decider, history suggests it’s Ganassi who may have the upper hand – even if on pace this weekend, Penske has had the edge.
Since leaving CART to join what is now the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2002, Penske has claimed three championships: 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.), 2014 (Will Power), and 2016 (Simon Pagenaud). In that same time period, Ganassi has seven: 2003 and 2008 with Dixon, 2009 through 2011 with Dario Franchitti, and 2013 and 2015, again with Dixon.
Further, dating back to 1996, the first year Ganassi’s operation claimed a major American open wheel championship (that year’s CART PPG Indy Car World Series title), Ganassi has 11 overall IndyCar championships compared to Penske’s five.
Recent history further supports Ganassi’s possible advantage. All four of Dixon’s championships have seen him beat Penske drivers, among others, to do so – Castroneves and Gil de Ferran in 2003, Castroneves again in 2008 and 2013, and Castroneves, Power, and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015.
Further, Dario Franchitti’s run of three straight championships from 2009-2011 also came at the expense of Penske. Franchitti used fuel strategy in 2009 win the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and claim the championship over Penske driver Ryan Briscoe (and Franchitti’s own teammate Scott Dixon). The next two years, Franchitti got the better of Power to take the crown in each season.
Conversely, Penske’s two most recent IndyCar championships came in intra-team battles, with Power beating Castroneves in 2014 and Pagenaud beating Power in 2016 (of note: Pagenaud was mathematically alive entering the 2014 finale at Auto Club Speedway, driving for what is now Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, but was not a factor in the title-deciding race).
Team Penske president Tim Cindric discussed as much in a teleconference earlier this week, and revealed that fighting Dixon for a championship is always a tall task.
“I think if it wasn’t Scott Dixon, I would say that our odds are really good,” he said of Team Penske’s chances of overcoming Ganassi and Dixon for this year’s title.
“When you look at the fact that Scott has been there, done that, executed really more than all of our guys combined, I would have to do the math, but he’s been the guy to beat when it comes to championships.”
Cindric and Penske have been witness to Dixon overtaking their drivers to a win a championship before. In 2015, Penske drivers Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya made contact, sending Power into a spin and damaging Montoya’s front wing. While they rebounded to finish sixth (Montoya) and seventh (Power), Dixon took the race win and claimed the championship from Montoya on a tiebreaker (he had three wins, the most of anyone that year, to Montoya’s two).
Another wrinkle in the Penske team’s plan is points leader Josef Newgarden taking part in his first championship battle as a big player. Given Newgarden’s misfortune at Watkins Glen, one might assume the added pressure makes things all the more difficult.
Cindric, who now serves as the lead strategist on Newgarden’s No. 2 entry, explained that it is critical to continuity with a driver who is entering his first true championship fight.
“I think the approach with (Josef): I don’t know how else to say it, but business as usual. You try and go through each session and build on the last session. It’s just typically what he responds to. If things don’t work out well, and we don’t end up toward the front, the guy’s really, really good at making the most out of a situation.”
On the other side, Mike Hull, managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing, is aiming to keep his objectives entering the weekend as simple as possible, and the math suggests things are very simple. If Dixon, only three points back of Newgarden, wins the race, he wins the championship.
“Certainly the easiest way to win the championship is to win the race. But I think that you accept what’s given to you on, in this case, race day at Sonoma,” Hull asserted in a teleconference. “We’re going to race to win. If we can’t win, we’re going to finish second. If we can’t finish second, we’re going to finish third. That’s how we’ve always raced here. We’re going to just stay after it.”
Of course, the numbers game between the teams is something Hull could not ignore. It can be easy to think that Penske’s four cars all still having a title chance gives them advantage, however Ganassi has three other drivers (Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Max Chilton) who could play supporting roles to Dixon.
In the end, though, Hull revealed that he hopes this facet does not prove to be significant.
“Certainly we think about it. But I think we race our race. And we have good teammates here at Chip Ganassi Racing. They pull for each other. And they race clean, they race fair. I think at the end of the day that’s how you’re judged. I would hope that everybody that races in this race will be judged as a result of racing in a very fair and a manner that’s driven by integrity,” Hull asserted.
As mentioned, Penske’s Newgarden led Ganassi’s DIxon by three points (560-557) entering the weekend, but increased that gap to four by capturing the pole. Castroneves now sits 23 points back in third, with Pagenaud 35 back in fourth, and Power 69 points out of the lead in fifth.