INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

Dixon a legitimate threat to win 2019 NTT INDYCAR Series Championship

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Don’t count out five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in this year’s battle for the championship. By winning last Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio for a record-extending sixth time in his career, Dixon chopped 36 points off his deficit to points leader Josef Newgarden, who spun off course on the final lap.

That puts Dixon 62 points out with four races to go, including the final race that pays double points at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca on September 22.

Dixon is fourth in points heading into the two-weekend break before racing resumes in the August 18 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Does last Sunday’s win at Mid-Ohio elevate Dixon to “Dark Horse” status in the 2019 championship race?

“Yes, big-time,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com. “We know with the last four races to go; it’s going to be pretty tough. Penske is strong and Alexander Rossi has been tough as well. We’ll keep our heads down and try to make the most of it.

“It shifts it up a bit. We started the weekend 98 points back and now we are only 62 points back. Those are the weekends that you need. You don’t wish that on your competitors, but it sounds like he got caught up with Ryan Hunter-Reay on an awkward part of the track and it cost him 10 spots or so. We know Josef is a huge competitor and will bounce back strong.”

But, with three top drivers ahead of him including Team Penske’s Newgarden, sensational Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi and reigning Indianapolis 500 winning driver Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske, is it “doable” that Dixon can leapfrog all three drivers up and make up the 62-point deficit?

“Yeah, because it’s double points for the last one,” Dixon said. “Anything is possible, man. We’ve just got to keep our head down. We can’t start thinking about that right now, and if you win races, that will take care of it.”

That is exactly the mindset Dixon was in when he told NBC Sports.com that he was taking a “win or else” attitude into the Honda Indy Toronto on July 9. At that time, he was 106 points behind Newgarden.

Since that time, Dixon has been on a tear.

He finished second in Toronto, second the following weekend in the Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway and won last Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

Newgarden finished fourth at Toronto, won at Iowa and made a crucial last-lap mistake at Mid-Ohio when he tried to pass Hunter-Reay for third place on the final lap.

The two drivers banged wheels and Newgarden was knocked into the gravel pit and stalled his engine. Instead of finishing fourth, he finished 14th. Combine that with Dixon’s victory and it dramatically tightened the points race.

“That’s a big shift,” Dixon said. “Those are the weekends you need. We always go on about that 100-point mark, but when you come to the last race if you’re that far back it’s going to be impossible.

“You’ve got to take it. You don’t wish that on anybody. Talking to Ryan, who I guess that altercation was with, he really didn’t know what Josef was trying to do. I’m kind of a bit surprised to be honest, especially in the situation that he’s had, but it happens. It happens to the best of us. We make these mistakes, and the unfortunate part with Josef, I think that’s going to wind him up even more and he’s going to be super strong come Pocono.

“Either way, I think he’s going to be the person to beat. That team is super strong right now, and we’re going to have to work hard.”

Each of the next three races has the normal points structure which includes 50 points to win, one bonus point for the pole and one bonus point for leading the most laps. The final race of the season pays double, meaning the winner gets 100 points instead of 50.

By scoring his sixth win at Mid-Ohio, Dixon re-established himself as “The King of Mid-Ohio.” He must maintain that regal status at Pocono, Gateway, Portland and Laguna-Seca to claim a sixth NTT IndyCar Series championship.

Dixon reclaimed his throne at Mid-Ohio and is “The King” once again.

“You can only feel like ‘The King’ when you’ve won and it had been quite a while since we had won at Mid-Ohio,” Dixon said. “The sixth win, it feels really good, just for the sheer fact that we hadn’t won here since 2014. We’ve won a lot here as a team, but it’s been a while since we’ve won.

“There’s always races that you can analyze and maybe work out a little bit different. But today was a good hard race, and man, we really worked for it.

“What is more shocking is up starting sixth and eighth in the field at a track where you can’t pass. It was super exciting today and a crazy finish with Felix racing us hard at the end.”

“It’s hard when you go into a one-lap shootout when you bring a knife to a gun show,” Dixon said. “It was really, really tough.

“As always, super hard racing.”

It’s Dixon’s ability to compete in “super hard racing” that has brought him back into the thick of a championship battle. When it comes to winning championships, nobody in today’s NTT IndyCar Series knows how to do that better than Dixon.

Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.