INDYCAR Championship contenders seeing fortunes rise and drop


MADISON, Illinois – Josef Newgarden’s stock is rising in the battle for the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Alexander Rossi’s fortunes have dipped while Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon are setting up to make a charge over the final three races of the season.

Rossi appeared to have the momentum entering last Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. He was just 16 points out of the lead entering the race, but that momentum hit a major obstacle when he was involved in the massive crash in Turn 2 at the start of the race.

Instead of challenging for victory, Rossi finished 18th. Newgarden quietly finished fifth and that increased his lead in the championship to 35 points entering Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

Watch Saturday night’s race on NBCSN beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

Rossi knew his chase for the championship took a pretty big hit last week at Pocono.

“It’s not good,” Rossi said last Sunday. “We’ll just go for wins from this point on.”

It wasn’t good news for Rossi on Friday, either. Newgarden easily won the pole with a two-lap average of 186.508 miles per hour in the No. 2 Chevrolet. Rossi qualified 11thwith a two-lap average of 184.070 mph in the No. 27 NAPA Honda.

“It’s never easy, for sure,” Rossi told NBC after his qualification attempt. “The track isn’t particularly challenging, we missed it today. I don’t know why. We’ll have to try and figure it out.

“Last year, we had a car that was really quick. It was a different experience than we have had this weekend. Right now, the No. 27 NAPA Honda is not where it needs to be. Two-groove racing isn’t going to happen here Saturday night.”

Rossi’s team is going to “Kitchen Sink” the car, meaning the changes are going to be really big.

“All bets are off at this point,” Rossi said. “We’ll take some big risks and try to get it down with some pretty aggressive strategy. We’ll know Saturday night around 10 p.m. if it pays off.”

Pagenaud, who is 40 points back, will start fourth with a two-lap average of 185.143 mph in the No. 22 Chevrolet for Team Penske.

“The first lap was very difficult,” Pagenaud said. “The car was very active in turn three then turn four. It came alive on the second lap, so it was time to be very aggressive on the second lap. I am very happy with the performance. The 22 team did a tremendous job. Team Penske and Chevy as usual gave me a very fast car.”

He is attempting to win the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series championship in the same season.

“Personally, I’m pretty excited that we gained points on Josef for a few races now,” Pagenaud said. “It’s a championship, the best may win over the year. Obviously, he’s my teammate. I can only think of good things for him. But I also want to win, so does Scott, so does Rossi.

“I want to win. We all want to win.

“It’s good to be in it. I think there’s three races to go, all the chances in the world for our team. We’re going to keep pushing. That’s what we’ve been doing. Just keep pushing, doing what we do, try to win races. That’s going to be the name of the game till the end. I love it.”

Dixon qualified eighth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda with a two-lap average of 184.293 miles per hour. He is 52 points out of the lead and very much in contention for the championship with three races remaining.

“We struggled with getting our car up to speed, drivability was really weird, it was hard to keep the throttle up,” Dixon said of his qualification effort. “I think the tire pressures were far too low.

“I think there are lots of strategies to get to the front. We’re starting eighth, which is not too bad, but not great.”

Is Dixon going to be a “Bull on a charge” in Saturday night’s race to close in on Newgarden’s championship lead?

“We’ll have to be, we’re going to have to go after it,” Dixon said. “You have to do that, but you have to do it cautiously, too.

“I think honestly until you’re out of it, you’re never really out of it. I don’t know what the points gap was going in ’15 for us, behind Juan Pablo Montoya, but I think it was in the 60s(actually, 42).It’s definitely achievable from the point deficit right now.

“There’s still a long way to go. I think the next two will be pretty interesting. St. Louis is going to be a lot of fun. Then Portland will be interesting. For a lot of us, too, it was interesting to get back to Laguna for a while. Some teams struggled more than they thought they would. Laguna will be a pretty interesting race with double points.”

For now, Newgarden appears to have the advantage, but he isn’t ready to relax. If anything, the anxiety is about to increase.

“If I finish 15th and Rossi finishes third, you do that a couple races in a row, we’re pretty much like neck-and-neck going into Laguna,” Newgarden told NBC “At Laguna, you could have a 60-point lead going in there and you still have to have a pretty good day. You can’t walk the thing. Probably have to finish 11th or 10th, which is still hard. It’s not easy to show up and finish in that spot.

“To me it’s still wide open, mainly because of double points. I don’t love it because it’s tough that it puts that much emphasis on a season finale. We all know the score going into the season. We know how the game works. I think you got to play to how the championship is laid out.

Unless you have a 100-point lead, you’re not going to be comfy going into the finale.

“Plus, Laguna is an oddball. We don’t know what that’s going to bring. We could be terrible there. If we are scrapping to finish 10th, we have a 40, 50-point lead, that’s not enough. It’s funny this points discussion. It is super close, in my opinion, still, amongst everybody.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”