Last year, Josef Newgarden trailed Scott Dixon by 62 points with five races remaining and managed to overhaul the four-time champion with a great finishing kick that saw him score two wins and a pair of second places.
But holding on to his title figures to be tougher this time around, because Newgarden is 66 points behind Dixie with only three races left going into Saturday night’s race at Gateway. And the 27-year-old native of Tennessee can point to a five-race stretch that may be too much to overcome. He entered the month of May with two victories and the points lead, but by the time he staggered out of Texas, he was fourth after having run 11th at the Indy GP, eighth in the Indy 500, ninth and 15th at Belle Isle and 13th at Texas.
“Yeah, the worst stretch was the month of May through Detroit – or really, through Texas – [that] is what hurt us,” said Newgarden, who will start this weekend’s race from third following the qualifying washout.
“We just had a bad stretch there. It was too long of a stretch. It wasn’t two races; turned into five races. If we could have just cut that down a little bit to two or three races, then we’d probably be in a much better position right now.
“The month of May wasn’t a disaster for us, but we definitely had more on the table. The GP, I made a mistake and took us out of the podium, and then I think Indianapolis we certainly had a podium car, if not the potential to win the race, but things didn’t fall our way from a strategy and a ‘race unfolding’ standpoint. It just did not fall the way we needed to have a strong day at the 500.
“I think that that stretch of five races is really what hurt us the most in the championship, and if it doesn’t work out at the end of the year, that’s probably what we’re going to look at as the worst point.”
Tied with Alexander Rossi and Dixon for victories at three apiece, Newgarden has led the most laps in 2018 (476 to Rossi’s 379) but sits third in the points standings. Yet he’s the defending winner at Gateway, and his ballsy hip-check of teammate Simon Pagenaud propelled him toward the title in his first season with Team Penske. He didn’t test there, but is hoping his victory at Phoenix last spring provides some good setup information.
“I don’t have a bunch of information on Gateway,” he said. “We’ve not been there, so we have no data to look at. We’ve got nothing to go off of really. I’ve got to hope that it’s going to be like Phoenix. Phoenix, to me, was an improved show. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but I think it was much better than the year before. There’s big tire drop-off. Even at night-time, because that’s a night-time race, too, so I am hoping it’s going to race like Phoenix.”
It’s not like Saturday night is a must-win, but Newgarden knows he’s got to be up on the wheel the final three races to try and catch Dixon and Rossi.
“I could be 60 points out at Sonoma, or heck, we could be 70 points out at Sonoma, and we could still win the championship,” he reasoned. “It just depends on what kind of crazy situation unfolds there. I think ideally you’d like to be within 15 points at Sonoma or 17 points, and then the race is in your control. If you win the race, you win the championship. That’s really the ideal situation.
“But if we can chip away and get closer and reduce that gap down to 30 or 40 points, I think that puts us in a much better position to try and seal things up at Sonoma. It’s hard to put an exact figure on it because there’s so many points available in that race, but within 15 or 20 points would be ideal.”