Josef Newgarden has done everything he possibly can to repeat as Verizon IndyCar Series champion in 2018.
He has three wins (Phoenix, Alabama and Road America), three other top-five and four additional top-10 finishes, as well as four poles.
In the five races since his win at Road America, he’s finished no lower than ninth (fourth at Iowa, ninth at Toronto, fourth at Mid-Ohio, fifth at Pocono and seventh this past Saturday night at Gateway, which he came into as the defending winner).
And yet, Newgarden finds himself and his championship hopes in big trouble.
With just two races remaining on the schedule, Newgarden is the farthest back of all drivers still in contention for the championship (Ryan Hunter-Reay is still mathematically in the mix, but he’s 147 points behind series leader Scott Dixon).
Heading into this Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, Newgarden is 78 points behind Dixon. There are only a maximum of 158 points available for any driver to be earned, including double points in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.
To have any hope of repeating as champion, that pretty much means Newgarden must win both races, lead at least one lap and lead the most laps in each of the two events.
Oh yeah, and one more VERY important thing: he has to hope the three drivers ahead of him – Dixon, Alexander Rossi (26 points behind Dixon) and Team Penske teammate Will Power (68 points behind Dixon and 42 points behind Rossi) – all have bad days in both races.
While the deck may seem to be stacked against Newgarden, stranger things have happened in past IndyCar championship battles.
His seventh-place showing at Gateway – he ultimately lost 12 additional points in the standings to Dixon to make matters worse – was far from what he hoped for.
“Tough night,” Newgarden said after Saturday’s race. “We kept in it, we tried to make the most of it. We just lost too many positions there at the end.
“We worked hard. We had great pit stops; the guys did a great job. We just couldn’t get the timing right tonight and had to settle for the Verizon Chevy finishing seventh.”
Now, Newgarden tries to bounce back into the title mix. It’s pretty simple what needs to be done.
“We go on to Portland and try and redeem ourselves,” Newgarden said.
That could be easier said than done, though, but Newgarden isn’t giving up.
“We’ve got to stay relatively good here through the end,” Newgarden said. “We can only control what we can control, and we’re just going to put our best foot forward and see where it puts us at the end of the battle.”
If he could do part of this season over, Newgarden points to May and June as his worst months. He finished 11th in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, eighth in the Indianapolis 500, ninth in the first Belle Isle race, and then struggled to a 15th place finish in the second Belle Isle event, as well as 13th at Texas before getting back on the winning track at Road America.
“Probably the worst stretch was the month of May through Texas is what hurt us, we just had a bad stretch there,” Newgarden said. “It was too long of a stretch. It wasn’t two races; it turned into five races. If we could have just cut that down a little bit to two or three races, then we’d probably be in a much better position right now.
“I think that that stretch of five races is really what hurt us the most in the championship, and if it doesn’t work out at the end of the year, that’s probably what we’re going to look at as the worst point.”
Because IndyCar hasn’t raced at Portland since 2007 (the last winner was Sebastien Bourdais), it’s pretty much a new track for most of the drivers in the field, including Newgarden. Because of that, drivers will test there Thursday, as well as have a test prior to the season-ending Sonoma weekend.
“For Portland, I’m just really excited for a new track,” Newgarden said. “It’s been some years since I got to go to a new racetrack, and I always love that challenge of having to figure out really quickly, and everyone is going to be on top of their toes trying to figure out the track as quickly as possible.
“That to me is a fun challenge and one I think we’re pretty ready for. We’ve been doing as much research about the place as possible, and I think we’re as prepared as we can be without actually testing there (before Thursday).”
Newgarden is known for being an aggressive driver, but given where he’s at in the standings and with just two races left, he will have to take things up to perhaps the highest level he’s ever had to if he hopes to retain his championship.
“I’ve always just liked being in the attack mode,” he said. “Last year I think we were pretty aggressive even when we were down in the championship, and when we got in the lead we were aggressive. We kind of just stayed on it. My approach hasn’t really been different.
“Yeah, we’re going to be attacking (in the last two races). … I think Dixon particularly, he’s probably going to be more safe and conventional in the way he runs. He’s probably going to be running more conservative. But I don’t think you’ll get that from a guy like Rossi. I think those guys will try and attack just as much as Will (Power) and me will.”
And that’s particularly the case at Sonoma. If Dixon and/or Rossi struggle at Portland and Newgarden and Power excel, Sonoma becomes a must-win for either Team Penske driver.
“I mean, I could be 60 points out at Sonoma, or heck, we could be 70 points out at Sonoma, and we could still win the championship,” Newgarden said. “It just depends on what kind of crazy situation unfolds there.
“I think ideally you’d like to be within 15 points at Sonoma or 17 points, and then the race is in your control. If you win the race, you win the championship. That’s really the ideal situation.
“But if we can chip away and get closer and reduce that gap down to 30 or 40 points (after Portland), I think that puts us in a much better position to try and seal things up at Sonoma.
“I’d love to (repeat as champion). It would be great for us if we could go back-to-back this year. But if it doesn’t materialize, then it doesn’t. We’ll try and be a little bit better next year.”