Of those three, Dixon ranked highest in the championship order after finishing a distant fourth, over 12 seconds off race winner Pagenaud. Castroneves was even further behind in fifth, and more than 22 seconds off the lead, while Power managed to get on the podium by finishing third, but couldn’t get close enough to challenge either Newgarden or Pagenaud.
For Dixon, the result caps a year in which he won one race and remained his usual consistent self, but could not overcome the Penske quartet.
“It seemed like the 3 (Castroneves) covered us. He was a massive roadblock at certain parts on the track. It was circumstance. Once we got clear track we could hunt them down. Huge credit to everyone on the NTT Data crew. It was a strong season. Congrats to Penske and Josef on a job well done,” Dixon told NBCSN.
“I think we had good speed but we should have won quite a few races and we didn’t. We got crashed out a bit. It was all valuable points lost. We learned a lot this season. Going back to Honda we made some good gains. We’ll have a bit of a break and get going.”
For Castroneves, the chance to battle for a win likely went by the wayside due to strategy, with the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet group not following Pagenaud’s four-stop strategy. Castroneves detailed that he tried that last year, only to see it fail, so he wasn’t sure about trying it again.
“I last year did that strategy and it did not work, so I said, ‘I don’t want to be that guinea pig again and do the same thing. I want to change,'” Castroneves said of his team’s strategy.
For Castroneves, this comes at a time with his future still uncertain, as he has not yet been confirmed as returning to Team Penske in the Verizon IndyCar Series or moving over to its new Acura DPi entry in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
While he noted that not decision has yet been made, Castroneves asserted that his goal will remain the same regardless: win races.
“Now, you know, whatever happens in the future – sometimes you can use that in different ways, and something that I learned in the past: Sometimes we’ve got to dance according to the music. But at this point we’re definitely going to announce — I feel whatever it’s going to be, if it’s moving on or not, I’m going to continue to motivate and keep working hard to achieve my goals, which is winning races,” he declared.
Teammate Power ran a quiet race to finish third, and ultimately ended up fifth in the final standings. However, Power’s day began with a little drama, as Team Penske swapped his and Newgarden’s pit crews before the race began.
Power remained matter of fact about it afterward, and admitted that he understood why the team made the last-minute change.
“It’s probably something they were thinking of, the team. Basically just assemble the pit stop competition winners from Indy, which is understandable,” he explained. “They needed to make sure they had the absolute best possible chance, had everyone come in under yellow, the best chance to have Josef get out first.”
Power added that, while he entered the race with a mathematical shot the championship, his season never truly had him in a position to make a championship push.
“I just never quite got on a run, never,” he revealed. “I think back to the ones that hurt, and it’s failure at St. Pete and we’re leading at Barber, that’s a huge points swing for me right there that would have put me right in contention here, but getting the puncture. So there were a couple. But yeah, just up and down all year, up and down.”
SONOMA, Calif. – The Verizon IndyCar Series’ season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), will have one additional wrinkle going into it.
Team Penske has made a last-minute crew swap between its No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet and No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, for Josef Newgarden and Will Power, who will start on the front row of the race.
The outside tire changers, so the right side tire changers, and airjack crew will be swapped between the two cars.
Confirmed with Team Penske that the right side tire changers and air jack for the 2 and 12 have switched spots. #IndyCar
Newgarden’s usual outside front (Vance Welker), outside rear (Clay Turner) and airjack (Adam Baranski) will move to Power’s car.
Power’s usual outside front (Matt Jonsson), outside rear (Shaun Rinaman) and airjack (Blaine Hardy) will move to Newgarden’s car.
Both Welker (Newgarden) and Jonsson (Power) are the chief mechanics for both entries.
The team has confirmed the changes to NBC Sports. Jonsson was spotted in a hum by Verizon (No. 2) white crew shirt in the paddock, rather than his usual Verizon (No. 12) gray shirt.
Per Tim Cindric, Team Penske president, the change was made to place some of Power’s race-winning crew from Indianapolis earlier this year onto Newgarden’s car. Cindric is Newgarden’s race strategist, having moved over from Power’s box earlier this year.
Both drivers will start the race on Firestone’s black primary tires.
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.
A concern for all the Verizon IndyCar Series championship contenders was that qualifying could see any of them slip down the starting grid due to any one of a number of different issues. However, that ultimately proved not to be the case.
The top five in championship standings all advanced to the Firestone Fast Six for Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Below are quick reports on where the championship contenders will start.
JOSEF NEWGARDEN – POLE
Josef Newgarden’s second career came at an opportune time, as he increases his points lead over Scott Dixon to four and gives him a nice shot of momentum heading into Sunday’s race as he looks to secure his first career IndyCar championship.
On the surface, the momentum comes at a critical time for Newgarden, who looks to counter an error at Watkins Glen that saw him hit the pit exit wall after his final pit stop. However, this was something he downplayed.
“It helps for the start of the race, I think. You got to think it helps. But how many IndyCar races have you seen where being on the pole wasn’t the right thing for the race with the way yellows fall or whatever it is?” Newgarden quipped in the post-qualifying press conference.
Ultimately, Newgarden is hoping for a clean, smooth race on Sunday. “I hope it’s straightforward (on Sunday). That would make our job a lot easier. We just have to focus on making a fast race car that lasts. But you never know,” he added.
SCOTT DIXON – SIXTH
Scott Dixon qualified the worst of the all the main title contenders, ending up sixth at the end. Dixon explained afterward that, while his No. 9 NTT Data Honda felt solid, it just lacked sufficient speed, especially through the corners, to make a run at the pole.
“As a team, I think this is always one of our most difficult circuits that we come to,” Dixon explained. “This morning, we made some good gains, but the conditions this afternoon, we just didn’t have the grip. It was kind of strange. The balance felt good. The car was kind of decent to drive, but just couldn’t carry the speed through the corners.”
Granted, Dixon is not surprised to be outqualified by the Team Penske Chevrolets, given the aero advantage they possess. “The other manufacturer’s aero kit is going to be strong at this track. We know the deficits that we have. But we can still as a team overcome those, whether it’s strategy or a car on the long run that’s hopefully going to be good,” he added.
All told, Dixon remains confident, even noting that he won this race in 2015 after starting ninth, a feat that saw him clinch that year’s championship. “Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there,” he asserted. “I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.”
HELIO CASTRONEVES – FOURTH
Castroneves qualified fourth, the worst of the Penske cars. He revealed that setup problems at two specific corners ultimately doomed his chances of fighting for the pole.
“Unfortunately, I was having some issues in Turn 2 and Turn 6, so I was losing quite a lot of time,” he detailed. “We made some changes for the last one, the last qualifying. Unfortunately, this place is so much of a commitment, I had only one lap. I made that lap, in fact. The second one I was actually even a little bit faster, about 2/10ths faster, but still not quick enough for those guys. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the corner.”
Still, Castroneves believes he has a car that can fight for the race win, which could put him in position to secure his first IndyCar title. “The Hitachi Chevy was actually really good. The entire Team Penske did a phenomenal job. Today was Josef’s day. I’m happy for him today, but prefer have the win actually than the pole position,” he added.
SIMON PAGENAUD – THIRD
Simon Pagenaud made no bones about it: he was going for the pole and threw everything he had at it during qualifying. “I went all in, as hard as I could. Made a little bit of a mistake in turn six, asking for too much. But that’s how you get pole positions. Today it just wasn’t my way,” he discussed in the post-qualifying press conference.
In the end, Pagenaud starts third, a result he feels happy with, and noted that tire wear is expected to be a significant factor on Sunday’s race, and that anything could happen.
“Quite satisfied. I mean, overall it’s awesome for Team Penske, 1-2-3-4 once again here. A testament to the team doing such a good job. Nothing’s lost. Tomorrow is a long race. Lots of tire wear. I’m hoping for a really strong showing,” he added.
WILL POWER – SECOND
Will Power’s championship hopes suffered a little on Saturday. At 69 points off the lead (counting the point Newgarden gets for securing the pole), his best chance was to maximize his point total this weekend, which of course starts with securing the bonus point for the pole.
Power made a valiant run at Newgarden, but his lap of 1:15.5556 fell three hundredths of a second short of Newgarden’s 1:15.5205.
Despite missing out on that valuable championship point, Power knows he is still in the hunt, and that bad days for his title rivals would open the door for him.
“It’s absolutely possible,” he said of his title chances. “I mean, you know, if Scott and Josef have a bad day, I mean, I can be right there. Yeah, see how it all plays out.”
Of note: Alexander Rossi, who is also still mathematically eligible, will start eighth.
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.
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
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.”
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).
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.”
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?
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.