IndyCar's five-way finaleby John Oreovicz on 13th September 2017
Sonoma hosts IndyCar's 2017 finale this weekend, and once again it's Penske vs Ganassi
No other form of motor sport produces a nail-biting championship finale scenario as consistently as the Verizon IndyCar Series. Only twice since 2005 has the title essentially been decided going into the final round, and this weekend sees five drivers in with a shot.
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden holds a slim three-point advantage over four-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Ganassi Racing. Two of Newgarden’s Penske team-mates are still solidly in the mix (Hélio Castroneves is 22 points back, defending champion Simon Pagenaud is -34), and Penske’s fourth driver Will Power (-68) still has a remote shot at the crown thanks to the double points on offer on Sunday. A dominant winning performance from pole position could net a driver as many as 104 points.
It’s a big moment in the budding career of Newgarden, a 26-year old Tennessee native in his first year with the Penske organisation. The team newcomer seized control of the points chase with a hot streak through July and August that netted three race wins, but a crash exiting the pits in the most recent event at Watkins Glen made his margin for error at Sonoma razor slim.
Pared down to basics, it’s Dixon versus the might of Team Penske, and the driver who wins the 85-lap race is likely to also claim the IndyCar Series championship. The on-track numbers favour the Penske juggernaut, but history gives the advantage to Ganassi’s Dixon (the most successful active IndyCar driver with 41 race wins, including three at Sonoma).
A Ganassi driver has snatched the title from the grasp of a Team Penske runner on five occasions since 2008, most recently in 2015 when Dixon overcame a 47-point deficit to Juan Pablo Montoya. Penske’s two championships in that period – Power over Castroneves in 2014 and Pagenaud over Power in 2016 – were the only two that were pretty much decided prior to the Sonoma finale.
Pagenaud crushed the field at Sonoma on the way to the championship last year, leading a race record 76 of 85 laps from pole position. If he repeats that performance, Newgarden would need to finish third on Sunday to emerge as the season champion.
For Pagenaud, the idea of winner takes all gives him comfort: “We have nothing to lose, which is a very pleasant position to be in. All we’ve got to do is be aggressive and try to win the race. It’s a very simple way to look at it with not much pressure. I’m very excited for it. This is exactly why I go racing, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Castroneves is the sentimental favourite. A Penske driver since 2000, the Brazilian delivered Roger Penske three Indianapolis 500 victories but he has never won an IndyCar Series championship. At 42, Castroneves is driving as well as ever but with his transfer to Penske’s sports car team to partner Montoya driving Acura prototypes in IMSA competition in 2018 to be confirmed in the next few weeks, this is likely to be his last shot at an IndyCar title.
“We’ve just got to keep bringing what we’ve been doing the whole season,” Castroneves says. “We’re not here by luck. We’re here because we perform as a team, as a group, in a consistent and competitive way most of the time, and that’s what we’re going to have to continue doing.”
Newgarden, until he tagged the guardrail at the Watkins Glen pit exit and was collected by Sébastien Bourdais, hadn’t put a wheel wrong all year while adapting to his new environment at Penske. Young drivers have sometimes struggled to find their footing within America’s most famous racing team with its buttoned-down, corporate dominated culture.
But Newgarden is an especially bright and articulate young man and he slid easily into The Penske Way – faster than any other driver Team Penske president Tim Cindric can recall during his 18-year tenure with the organisation.
“The thing that has been remarkable to me is his poise,” Cindric relates. “I really haven’t seen him at the point of panic and he controls his emotions very well. I see that quality in a lot of really successful drivers. If you look at NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson is really the guy that you would say is the epitome of cool and collected. Josef has shown that he’s able to keep it under control under the most difficult circumstances.”
Cindric’s counterpart at Chip Ganassi Racing, managing director Mike Hull, also rates Newgarden highly.
“I think what he represents is the generation that’s coming next in IndyCar racing,” Hull said. “He’s got amazing ability. He’s got a great mind. He thinks his way through. He represents everything that’s good about IndyCar racing in terms of ladder system drivers making it into probably one of the best arenas there is to race in the world. I have a great degree of respect for who he is.”
For Cindric, however, Dixon remains IndyCar’s Gold Standard.
“I think if it wasn’t Scott Dixon, I would say that [Penske’s] odds Sunday are really good,” Cindric said. “When you look at the fact that Scott has been there, done that, executed really more than all of our guys combined, he’s been the guy to beat when it comes to championships. You don’t see him make any mistakes. He’s as solid as they come.”
Dixon and the Ganassi team were able to overcome a switch to Honda’s powerful engine and finicky aerodynamic package this year to emerge as the only threat to Penske. And Dixon has done it almost single-handedly; he has scored 81 more points than the closest Honda driver and his Ganassi team-mates rank ninth, 12th and 17th in the standings.
Dixon is actually unlucky to not be firmly in command of the championship. He crashed out through no fault of his own at Indianapolis and Texas, and bad luck with caution flags probably cost him wins at St. Petersburg and Long Beach.
“You’d always prefer to be leading by a healthy margin,” Dixon says. “But with the ups and downs and misfortunes we’ve had throughout the season, I’m surprised that we’re still within striking distance for the points race.
“Definitely it makes for an exciting championship last race, which is what everybody expects out of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and how it always is,” he adds.
The man under the most pressure is Newgarden, as the only driver among the five championship contenders who has never won at Sonoma. His reliability was never in question until the Watkins Glen incident, which occurred late in the race after team-mate Power beat him out of the pits.
Can the young gun bounce back from his error?
“I try and move forward pretty quick but it’s always tough,” Newgarden admits. “I hate making errors and doing that to the team. It’s tough, but hey, you’ve got to move on pretty fast, and we’ve got to do it quickly.
“I don't think it will change our mindset or the way that we attack the season finale, but it does create less opportunity for error on the event. The good thing about it is we can control our own destiny, and if we win the race, then that basically secures the championship.”
With all four Penske drivers in contention, Newgarden isn’t expecting any team orders – other than don’t crash with your team-mate, a rule he came perilously close to breaking with his aggressive pass on Pagenaud for the win August 26 on the Gateway oval.
“We’re there as a team; we’re there as a unit. It doesn't matter who wins the championship; it doesn't matter who wins the race. It just needs to be a Penske car,” declares Newgarden. “We work as a team, and so if one of us succeeds, we all succeed. One of the greatest things about Team Penske is they let us race. A lot of times it works out and there are a couple times it hasn’t. But I like their approach to that, and I think it’s cool that that’s the way they operate.”
One Ganassi man versus four from Penske. Who will prevail on Sunday?
“I wish I could tell you that we were going to go there, get pole, lead every lap and win the championship and win the race,” Dixon said. “You know, that’s our aim, that’s our goal.
“But reality might be a little bit different.”