WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Josef Newgarden entered today’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen with a 31-point lead over Scott Dixon in second place in pursuit of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
But he leaves it only up three points, and with the top four drivers now covered by just 34 points.
And with double points on the table at the Sonoma season finale in two weeks, it’s anyone’s guess who will hoist the Astor Cup in a year where several different drivers have staked their claim to the title but few have really solidified their grasp.
Josef Newgarden (1st, 560 points)
At some point, Newgarden’s recent run of form – and perhaps luck – was due to run out for the driver of the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet.
Newgarden had won three of the last four races and added two other runner-up finishes as well. All told, in the last six races, Newgarden had scored 270 points – a full 70 more than anyone else (Helio Castroneves 200, Simon Pagenaud 191, Scott Dixon 190 and Will Power 178 were next up), to vault into the lead.
But after Newgarden lamented missing a potential pole run – and the bonus point that went with it – on Saturday, Sunday’s race may have produced the one or two critical mistakes that cost the great American youngster his first series championship.
Once Newgarden hit the guardrail leaving the pits, then got clobbered by Sebastien Bourdais, it was a major hit to his race. The team repaired the car and put on a new rear wing, but Newgarden fell off the lead lap and ended 18th.
So what are Newgarden’s initial thoughts going into the title, after today’s tough hit?
“It was always going to be a dogfight. You still have to finish well in the points. You’d have to have a 90-point lead. That’d be hard to get going into Sonoma.
“It’s a five-horse race. I think the team that’s most perfect is going to get it done.
“I know we have the capability to do it. Team Penske can do it. I think you need to win the race. It doesn’t matter if you have the lead. We need to win the race regardless. We could be 15 (points) down, it’d be the same scenario. It’s double points. I don’t know if a three point lead makes much of a difference.”
Scott Dixon (2nd, 557)
It could well be a case of “the Iceman cometh,” again. Cliche as it is to write, here we are at another second-to-last race of an IndyCar season and Dixon is once again within striking distance.
Today was a typically smooth Dixon drive, starting and ending second on a day when his No. 9 NTT Data Honda was close to Alexander Rossi but not quite the measure of him.
Dixon’s within three points of the lead following today’s race. And for the driver who’s finished top-three in the points every year but last year since 2006, it’s almost old hat.
“The points chase definitely closed the gap. I think it’s down to three points now, which makes it pretty interesting. Have to bring our A game to Sonoma and see what we can take away,” Dixon said.
“I don’t know, tonight I’ll probably have a couple beers, chill out, take the kids to school tomorrow morning, then get in some training.
“But yeah, I think you just got to treat next week as another race. I think you can’t overcomplicate it. Obviously we want to win it. There’s a lot on the line. But, you know, I think if you overthink things too much, then it ends up being a very bad thing.
“I don’t know. I’ve never raced Josef really in a championship like this. It’s not just the two of us. I haven’t seen the points clearly yet, but I imagine Helio is through, Pagenaud is still there as well. With double points, you can have a pretty hefty swing, as we found out last year.”
Helio Castroneves (3rd, 538)
Ending fourth after starting sixth was another cool Helio Castroneves kind of day, where he’s got just enough banked to keep hope alive in the pursuit of his elusive first championship.
Whereas fourth last week at Gateway was a huge disappointment because, like at Phoenix, Castroneves lost a potential victory from his grasp, this fourth place today was one where he seized his opportunity.
Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, was back to being happy in his post-race interview after being despondent last week. He joked he wouldn’t mind if anything happened to Newgarden (all in good fun, of course), while he called himself a certain type of dog, and called Dixon something that was surprising to hear.
“I think I’ll be a Chihuahua…all of a sudden, I bark!” Castroneves laughed, and then proceeded to make a Chihuahua-like yipping sound.
“I don’t care if it’s big, small, or whatever, I want to be the first. Sonoma is a good track for us. If I didn’t win, I’m glad Dixon didn’t, and that makes it tight for the championship.
“Dixon’s like a cockroach. In a good way!” he added. “You think he disappears and then he’s there. I hope he doesn’t take it in a bad way!”
Simon Pagenaud (4th, 526)
The second driver in last week’s battle with Josef Newgarden had a quiet weekend in Watkins Glen, continuing his struggles at this circuit. The driver of the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet started 12th, finished ninth, and couldn’t get by Max Chilton for eighth and two more critical points.
It continued his season of being good but not great in defense of his title. Such is Pagenaud’s consistency, though, that ninth was his third worst finish of the year, only better than 14th at the Indianapolis 500 (double points) and 16th in Detroit race one.
“We fought for the best finish we could today in the Menards Chevrolet. We were really prepared for a wet race and if it would have been run in the rain I think we would have been tough to beat. But we just had too much downforce to run in the dry and make up the ground we needed to. Still, everyone on the team did a good job to finish ninth and we come out of Watkins Glen still in the hunt for the championship. We know what it takes to win at Sonoma and that’s what we’ll be fighting for next week.”
Three other drivers – Will Power (492), Alexander Rossi (476) and Graham Rahal (466) – are still within mathematical range of being able to win the championship, but cannot realistically do so. Power, 68 points back, has the best chance within these three but would need a win and all four drivers ahead of him to finish outside the top-10 to have any shot.