Newgarden not taking championship lead for granted at Portland

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.