INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski

Newgarden not taking championship lead for granted at Portland

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PORTLAND, Oregon – Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden appears to be in control of the 2019 NTT IndyCar series championship. He has a 39-point lead over teammate Simon Pagenaud, a 46-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi and a 70-point lead over five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon heading into Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.

Not so fast, said Newgarden, the 2017 IndyCar champion who won the title in his first season with Team Penske that year.

“I don’t think we can feel too confident or secure where we’re at,” Newgarden said. “I really don’t. I think we’re in a good spot, without a doubt. It would be silly to not recognize it’s a good position.

“It’s not something that you can just sit back and rest on. It’s going to be tough the last two rounds. I wish we could have gotten a little bit more here the last three races. For sure Mid-Ohio, you look at that and say it was what it was. If I would have done a better job, that would have helped. Pocono could have been a little better. Here definitely could have been a little better.

“We’ve not had a smooth last three races. We’ve got to clean that up now for the final two. I think we’re in a good position, but we can’t do anything different than what we’ve been doing all year. We have to keep sort of attacking with some caution I think.”

The battle for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship heats up this weekend with the penultimate race of the season at Portland (Ore.) International Raceway in Portland, Ore., as NBC Sports presents coverage of the Grand Prix of Portland this Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Pre-race coverage on NBC begins at 3 p.m. ET.

The top two drivers in the standings are teammates at Team Penske. Both Newgarden ad Pagenaud should be familiar with each other’s equipment because their cars, along with fifth-place Will Power’s, are all prepared at Team Penske in Mooresville, North Carolina.

“I don’t know if it helps or hurts,” Newgarden said of battling Pagenaud for the title. “I know what he’s doing all the time, and vice versa. We’re a unit that works together, him, Power and myself. Yeah, it’s a dynamic I know very well. I got to think that’s going to be a positive.

“They’re all going to be tough. Simon is always difficult. He’s a very strong driver. When you look at the whole picture, Rossi is still a fantastic driver that’s tough to beat. Same thing with Dixon. I don’t think it’s anywhere from over.

“Portland could flip this thing on its lid with a hundred points at Laguna. It’s going to be down to the wire. Here not anywhere from a blowout here. Just got to keep your finger on the pulse.”

Pagenaud, Rossi and Dixon all remain in play for the championship because there remain 150 points available over the last two races in addition to bonus points for the pole and leading the most laps.

First place in 15 of the 17 IndyCar Series races is worth 50 points. However, there are two “double-points” races including the Indianapolis 500 and the season-finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca on September 22.

Pagenaud is 38 points behind Newgarden, Rossi is 46 and Dixon is 70 entering this weekend’s round at Portland International Raceway.

Newgarden believes he was extremely lucky last week when he was involved in a last-lap incident with rookie driver Santino Ferrucci, who got into the marbles in Turn 3 and dove low into the turn in Turn 4, spinning out Newgarden.

Luckily for Newgarden, all of the cars that drove by him after that incident were not on the same lap and not battling him for position.

“I was happy I wasn’t in the fence, to be honest with you,” Newgarden admitted. “I was surprised I wasn’t in the fence. The engine was still going. I wasn’t in the wall. I was trying to get it out of any stall. Thank goodness, I’m kind of straight. I can’t believe we’re still going here. I couldn’t believe it. I thought we were going to be in the fence.

“I had no idea about the other cars. I was trying to stay out of people’s ways, which is what you need to do, keep my car straight and consistent, just get across the line.

“I felt fortunate the engine was still fired. Didn’t turn into a bigger disaster. I still don’t know how it didn’t. But fortunately, it didn’t.”

Newgarden had words with Ferrucci after the race and spoke his mind in a post-race interview with NBC Sports.

Rarely do I ever try and put someone in their place when I think they need to be put in their place,” Newgarden aid. “I think Santino needed to learn a lesson.

“This is no disrespect to fans or anyone. Most people will not understand what he did wrong in that final corner. They’ve never driven an IndyCar. They don’t know the subtleties of it. I think what he did was very risky. He needs to learn from that. I told him that. It’s really a racer’s thing.

“Hopefully he gets that. I think when you go to bigger ovals, it’s even a bigger potential problem. Like I said, I gave an assessment on NBC. That’s how I felt about it.”

Next up for Newgarden in his bid to win a second NTT IndyCar Series championship in the last three seasons is the demanding Portland International Raceway, a 12-turn, 1.964-mile road course in Portland, Oregon. The race distance is 105 laps / 206.22 miles.

The Portland race winner has gone on to win the Indy car championship 10 times: Bobby Rahal (1987), Danny Sullivan (1988), Emerson Fittipaldi (1989), Michael Andretti (1991), Al Unser Jr. (1994), Alex Zanardi (1998), Gil de Ferran (2000), Cristiano da Matta (2002) and Sebastien Bourdais (2004 and 2007).

Since 2008, the driver who has led the championship with two races to go has failed to win the championship five times. Dixon in 2008 and 2018, Dario Franchitti in 2011, Will Power in 2014, Pagenaud in 2016 and Newgarden in 2017 are the exceptions who have won the title after leading with two races remaining.

“We were able to maintain the points lead in Gateway, and that was a huge deal for us,” said the 28-year-old Newgarden. “Now that Simon (Pagenaud) has moved into the second spot in championship points, we’re going to work hard as a team to really continue to battle for the championship. That’s great for Team Penske to have two drivers battling it out for the title.

“Now we focus on Portland. It’s a technical road course, so we’re really going to have to make sure we hit all of our marks to make sure we don’t lose any ground. It’s going to be a tough race for the whole field, especially for the championship contenders. I’m excited for the challenge along with the rest of my team, and we can’t wait to get on track there with the Hitachi Chevy.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.