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IndyCar Season In Review: Top 10 stories of 2018

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With 2019 right around the corner, it’s fitting to end the year with a recap of the top 10 stories of the Verizon 2018 IndyCar Series season (plus a few more additional mentions):

1. Scott Dixon wins fifth IndyCar championship. The outstanding New Zealand native moved into second place on the all-time championship list with his fifth title, including three in the last six seasons. Only A.J. Foyt has won more titles (seven). Dixon also moved into third place on the IndyCar all-time race wins list (44 victories), behind only Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 triumphs.

Will Power wins the Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images)

2. Will Power wins 2018 Indianapolis 500. Power is no stranger to success at Indianapolis, having won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis three times (2015, 2017 and 2018). But he had never finished better than second (2015) in the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. That is, until 2018, when the Australian native roared to the front late in the race and finally captured what he had chased for his entire career.

3. Robert Wickens critically injured in crash at Pocono. The plucky Canadian IndyCar rookie was involved in one of the worst crashes the series has seen in many years, suffering several injuries – including a spinal cord fracture that left him a paraplegic – in a horrendous wreck at Pocono Raceway on August 19. Prior to that injury, Wickens had enjoyed an outstanding debut season. Even with missing the final three races of the season due to his Pocono injuries, Wickens still managed to earn Rookie of the Year honors, he was so dominating prior to his fateful crash.

4. James Hinchcliffe fails to qualify for Indy 500. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a vexing place for the Mayor of Hinchtown. The Canadian driver suffered the most serious crash of his racing career while practicing for the 2015 500, came back to earn the pole in the 2016 edition of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, and then failed to qualify for the 2018 500, running out of time to make one last effort on Bump Day. But Hinchcliffe vowed to come back stronger than ever in the 2019 500. A win would definitely be in order, given all he’s endured at IMS.

5. Emergence of Alexander Rossi as bonafide championship contender. Rossi came out of virtually nowhere to win the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as an IndyCar rookie. But he would prove not be a one-hit wonder. He’d finish 11th in 2016, improve to seventh in 2017 and finished runner-up to Scott Dixon in the 2018 season, including earning three wins. The Dixon-Rossi rivalry will likely be one of the most-watched in 2019.

6. NBC to air all IndyCar races in 2019, including the Indy 500. There was major news off-track on March 21, 2018, when IndyCar signed a three-year media rights deal with NBC Sports Group to televise all IndyCar races starting in 2019, including the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, the first time the Greatest Spectacle In Racing has been televised on anything but ABC/ESPN in more than a half-century.

Danica Patrick’s final race of her overall racing career was the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images).

7. Danica Patrick’s final IndyCar race. Both ends of Danica Patrick’s “Danica Double” – her final races in both NASCAR Cup and IndyCar – ended with less than stellar finishes. Patrick wrecked in her final Cup race, the Daytona 500, and finished 35th. Then, three months later, Patrick again made an early exit, crashing out on Lap 67 of her final Indianapolis 500. And with that, Patrick’s two-plus decade racing career, dating back to when she first began piloting go-karts, came to an end.

8. Resurgence of Ryan Hunter-Reay. After several difficult seasons, the Andretti Autosport driver had a huge comeback campaign in 2018. Not only did RHR finish the highest (fourth) since he won the IndyCar championship in 2012, he also broke a two-year winless streak, earning victories at Belle Isle 2 and the season finale at Sonoma. He also finished second four times (Birmingham, Belle Isle 1, Road America and Portland). Given the year he had in 2018, Hunter-Reay is already among potential contenders for the 2019 IndyCar title.

9. Harding Racing takes some big steps. After a part-time dabble in IndyCar racing in 2017, Harding Racing began a quick climb toward prominence in its first full season in 2018. It started the season with two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. hired as a “consultant.” But Little Al proved to be so much more by wearing numerous hats, from strategist to advisor to driving coach. He further showed his commitment to the organization by moving from his lifelong home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Harding’s base in Indianapolis. But Unser was only part of the puzzle. The team hired two of the most promising young drivers at season’s end – 2018 Indy Lights champ Patricio O’Ward and runner-up Colton Herta – to lead their two-car operation in 2019. And shortly after the 2018 season ended, the organization changed its name to Harding-Steinbrenner Racing with the addition of George Steinbrenner IV as a full partner going forward.

10. Tony Kanaan endures worst season of IndyCar career. This was not the kind of season the Brazilian native had hoped for when he joined AJ Foyt Racing for 2018. More than anything, Kanaan had hoped for a resurgence in his career. But the opposite happened, as the 43-year-old Kanaan – who turns 44 on New Years Eve – struggled to his worst campaign in 17 seasons on the IndyCar circuit, finishing 16th overall. He managed just four top-10 finishes, with a top showing of sixth at Toronto, seventh at Belle Isle 2 and eighth at both Phoenix and Long Beach. But while the season was rough, there were still some highlights: Kanaan ran his 300th consecutive IndyCar race (at Sonoma), and he and wife Lauren welcomed their first daughter, Nina, to go along with three sons.

Newly promoted IndyCar President Jay Frye. (IndyCar)

And a few others worth mentioning:

A. Last week’s announcement of the promotion of Jay Frye to President of IndyCar.

B. The introduction of the new-style Indy car body not only brought about great racing, it was a big hit in terms of popularity with fans.

C. The addition of Portland Raceway back to the IndyCar schedule for the first time since 2007.

D. The end of a 14-year run at Sonoma Raceway (to be replaced in 2019 as the IndyCar season-ending venue by WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway)

E. Losing ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway) for the foreseeable future. However, the Phoenix area’s loss will become Austin, Texas’ gain as IndyCar announced a few months ago that it will race for the first time ever at Circuit of the Americas in 2019.

F. Sebastien Bourdais winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg for the second straight year.

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Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”