Editor’s note: For the next four days leading up to Sunday’s IndyCar championship-deciding Grand Prix of Sonoma, we will feature each of the four title contenders.
Today we focus on defending IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden. We’ll feature Will Power on Friday, Alexander Rossi on Saturday and Scott Dixon on Sunday.
SONOMA, California – Coming into last year’s season-ending IndyCar race at Sonoma Raceway, Josef Newgarden would ultimately not be denied the championship, his first as an IndyCar driver.
Newgarden clinched the title by finishing second in the race to Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who himself had won the IndyCar championship the season before.
Now, Newgarden is faced with a much different scenario heading into this Sunday’s season-ending and championship-deciding Grand Prix of Sonoma, in the final IndyCar appearance at Sonoma Raceway (for at least the near future).
Sitting 87 points (the same number Team Penske teammate Will Power is also in arrears) behind series points leader Scott Dixon and 58 points behind second-ranked Alexander Rossi, Newgarden has nothing to lose and everything to gain – in this case, a second consecutive IndyCar championship – but it won’t be easy.
It would take one of the greatest Hail Mary efforts ever seen in IndyCar history for Newgarden to overtake Dixon, Rossi and Power.
But Newgarden believes that with a little luck and if a few extra breaks go his way – and not in Dixon’s or Rossi’s direction – anything’s still possible.
Dixon and Rossi and their teams have to be mindful of every possible point they can each earn: 104 points per driver is available to be captured – 100 points for the win and a maximum of four bonus points for leading a lap (1 point), leading the most laps (2 points) and earning the pole position (1 point).
While those two drivers will likely have to play the numbers game more so than Newgarden, the Tennessee native is still in the same kind of position as he was when he first started racing more than 20 years ago: all that matters Sunday is a win.
“That’s it, just win” Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk. “All we really have to do is go out, hope we have a good strategy for the race and win and see what happens.”
But a win is only part of the equation, and Newgarden readily understands that. Even if he does take the checkered flag first, he’ll still need “help” from both Dixon and Rossi. Mechanical failure or a crash must befall both drivers, not just one, and would have to occur early in the race.
Dixon and Rossi would have to finish last and second-to-last — in either order — in the 25-driver field for Newgarden to have a chance for the championship if he also wins the race.
Otherwise, Newgarden will fall short of repeating as champion.
“We’re just going to try and win the race,” Newgarden told. “Even if we were in the points lead, we’d be trying to do the same thing, to win the race and let everything take care of itself.
“We’ve been trying to do that for the last three or four races, but it just hasn’t panned out. … I’m really just hoping this weekend that everything falls our way. Hopefully we have the right strategy for the day, get the right breaks with the yellows and we have a strong crew all day.
“I feel confident the team is going to have what we need to get it done. We just need to have everything fall into line for us.”
To use a well-worn phrase, Newgarden and his team can only control what they can control.
But there’s also seven rookies entered in the race and how they will react with an IndyCar championship battle going on around them on the twisting 2.52-mile, 12-turn permanent road course is something to be considered.
Included in that group of seven rookies are two drivers who are making their IndyCar debut Sunday: 2018 Indy Lights champ Pato O’Ward and series runner-up Colton Herta.
But Newgarden says he isn’t overly concerned that nearly one-third of the 25-driver field has never been in an IndyCar championship-deciding season finale.
“We always have rookies coming in and out and they can always play a factor into races, depending on how quickly or slowly they get up to speed,” Newgarden said. “But I don’t think it’s a big deal.
“I think it’s great when we have rookies to create some excitement for the race. It’s another element that people want to look at.”
Herta and O’Ward are going to be especially closely watched for several reasons.
First, they’ve never gone through pit stops before in Indy Lights. And then there’s the approach onto and exit from pit lane.
Second, an IndyCar race is significantly longer than what they were used to in Indy Lights.
And third, it’s very easy for a rookie to quickly get nervous if he suddenly has one or more of the four title contenders coming up and closing fast in his rearview mirror.
“They’re going to want to see what Herta or the champion Pato does,” Newgarden said of both fans attending the race or watching it on NBCSN (6:30 p.m. ET start). “I think it’s exciting, if anything. But I don’t worry too much about them.
“You just have to account for them, for sure. You know they’re in the race. If you’re around them, you’ll probably act a little differently just because it’s their first time. But it doesn’t worry or bother me. I always think it’s great when we have rookies coming up and it’s exciting to watch.”
Part of Newgarden’s perspective about rookies comes from the fact it wasn’t all that long ago – 2012 to be precise – that he himself was a first-timer on the IndyCar circuit.
“I was that guy that people probably looked at and said, ‘He doesn’t have a lot of experience, so we need to watch out for him,’” he said with a slight laugh.
“And that’s okay, you have your rookie stripes at that time in your life. So yeah, it’s not a big worry to me, but you will account for them, for sure.”
Since then, the Hendersonville, Tennessee native has gone on to win not only last year’s championship, but has also captured 10 victories – including three triumphs this season – plus 22 podiums and six poles in 116 career IndyCar starts.
He’d like to add another win – and championship – to that total on Sunday.