Josef Newgarden, left, and Scott Dixon two weeks ago at Toronto, which Dixon won. Photo: IndyCar

INDYCAR: Despite Dixon’s big points lead, Newgarden still confident he can bounce back

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Short of someone slicing his tires or putting nails in them when no one is looking, Scott Dixon is definitely in the driver’s seat in the quest for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

With five races remaining this season, Dixon – who is going for a fifth career IndyCar championship — comes into this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with a commanding 62-point lead over his closest challenger for the title, defending series champion Josef Newgarden.

Third-ranked Alexander Rossi is 70 points behind Dixon, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay (-91) and Indy 500 winner Will Power (-93).

“With five races to go, I’m still saying anyone that’s within 120 points, they’re still in the conversation and have to be considered in the conversation when you look at Sonoma,” Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk.

Just outside that 120-point spread Newgarden referred to are four additional drivers who could still be in the championship conversation, especially if they win one or more of the remaining quintet of races.

Those five and the margin they’re behind Dixon heading into Sunday’s race are Robert Wickens (-125 behind Dixon), Simon Pagenaud (-144), Graham Rahal (-151) and James Hinchcliffe (-152).

While not looking ahead, Newgarden is also realistic that the championship could be won or lost in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 16.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Newgarden said. “There are still a lot of people in it when you look at the finale at Sonoma.

“Because (Sonoma) has double points, it really changes the way it looks, the spread of points. You don’t have to be so tight up against each other. Indy (the Indianapolis 500) is the same way: Indy can reward you and so can Sonoma.”

Dixon, who is tied with Newgarden for most wins thus far this season (three apiece) will prove hard to overtake, let alone beat, given the season he’s had thus far.

But as far as Newgarden is concerned, he and his team have to worry more about their own situation and try to forget Dixon is where he is currently in the standings.

“I think the big thing for us is we have to find ways to capitalize on days where we’re not winning, or even days where we lose too many points,” Newgarden said. “Toronto is a good example, it was obviously a mistake that led to winning or a second-place finish, and it turned into a ninth-place finish. Those are the kind of days that really hurt us.

“I think as a whole, we’ve probably been stronger from a speed standpoint than Scott, but he’s had more consistent finishes in the top five, and that’s going to add up at the end of the year.

“The last five races it comes down to if we can figure out how to have a better average and take the wins when we can get them, hopefully.

“But more importantly, just finish second or third on days when we’re not winning and make sure don’t turn those into ninth’s or 10ths. I think that’s really the key to try and overhaul Scott for the championship.”

And given that double points will be in play at Sonoma, the whole championship could once again come down to the final race, as it has for the last several seasons.

“We’ll see who will have the best average (in the last five races),” Newgarden said. “But I think the end game is putting yourself in position for Sonoma, where you can decide your own destiny. If you can do that, it makes your job a lot easier going into Sonoma.

“If you can win the race to also win the championship, I think that’s the kind of position you want to be in going into Sonoma.”

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Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.