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.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”