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Several legacies at stake for IndyCar’s primary four title contenders

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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.

For Helio Castroneves, a title would be his first after 20 years of trying, and check that second-to-last box (along with a fourth Indianapolis 500 win) he’s been chasing over the run of his illustrious career in what is potentially his final start as a full-time IndyCar driver.

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

Josef Newgarden celebrates after winning at Mid-Ohio. Photo: IndyCar

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.”

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to 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)

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).

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 28: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on August 28, 2015 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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.”

Simon Pagenaud at Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

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.

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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