PRUETT: And then there were four

Image by Owens/IndyCar

PRUETT: And then there were four

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: And then there were four

To become the next IndyCar Series champion, points leader Scott Dixon and second-place Alexander Rossi find themselves in need of two drastically different outcomes at the conclusion of Sunday’s race in Sonoma.

Behind them, Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden – the only other drivers with a mathematical shot at the title – will need miracles and mayhem to reach IndyCar’s mountaintop.

It’s two Honda drivers and two Chevy drivers, split by desperation and long odds, as IndyCar prepares to say farewell to an amazing 2018 season.

POINTS EARNED AND AVAILABLE

Up front, Dixon’s No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing entry (598 points) has a vaguely comfortable lead over Rossi and his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda (569 points). Power’s No. 12 Chevy and defending champion Newgarden’s No. 1 Chevy are tied for third and trail Dixon by a massive 87 points.

With IndyCar’s continued used of double points for Sonoma, the winner will take home 100 points. Second pays 80 points, third brings 70, fourth offers 64, and from fifth (60) through 10th (40), it decreases in four-point increments. From 11th (38) to 25th/26th (10), each position decreases by two points.

Four bonus points can also be earned, with one for pole, one for leading a lap, and two for leading the most laps.

THE PENSKE FACTOR

With the points structure in mind, if the Penske duo have any hope of toppling Dixon and Rossi, they’ll need to win and watch Dixon finish close to last (24th or lower, to be precise), and have Rossi struggle with an unusual finish of 10th or worse.

At 87 points back, Power and Newgarden cannot afford to finish second, which is only worth 80 points. The Penske mission is simple: either Power or Newgarden must win, and if that happens, they’ll still need to pray cartoon anvils fall from the sky and clobber Dixon and Rossi into submission.

HISTORY SAYS

Before we pivot to the main contenders, a quick look back at Sonoma Raceway’s IndyCar results is necessary. Since 2010, Team Penske has won six of the eight races held on the wine country road course. The Captain’s 75-percent win rate this decade is definitely worth considering in almost every situation that could unfold. Inside the team, Power is responsible for three of those six wins, which is another noteworthy factor. Altogether, a Penske win on Sunday would not be a surprise. If anything, you’d be wise to bank on Power, Newgarden, or the third member of the Penske trio, Simon Pagenaud, who owns the last two Sonoma victories, on being at or near the front at the finish.

But they can’t control where Dixon and Rossi finish, which is why they could win the race and easily lose the championship if the two Honda drivers are competitive and avoid misfortune.

Closing out the Sonoma history thread, Scott Dixon owns the two wins Penske missed since 2010. From 14 visits, the four-time champion has seven finishes of fifth or better at the 2.2-mile circuit, including three wins dating back to 2007. Overall, the New Zealander’s 50-percent finishing rate inside the top five at Sonoma is hard to ignore.

If you had his advantage going into the finale, you’d be smiling too. Image by Black/IndyCar

And while we can’t use it to form absolute conclusions, we can say that if nothing goes wrong, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dixon on the podium or in striking distance of the top three. For Rossi, who has two Sonoma IndyCar starts, his 2016 debut was a strong one for a rookie. Fifth on his first try, everything went sideways for the Californian phenom last year when he placed 21st. Like Dixon, if we ignore the unflattering results, Rossi has shown he knows how to get to the lead pack at Sonoma.  And if you consider his brilliant form in 2018, it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume he’ll be near the sharp end of the grid in a few days at his home track.

THE MAIN FEATURE

If Rossi is going to overtake Dixon’s 29-point advantage and wrest the title from the Kiwi’s hands, he’ll need to bank on going like hell and getting to the front. Rather than try and work out the million different scenarios that are possible, we’ll stick with the more realistic situations to follow and only mention how one, two, three, or four bonus points could change the outcome when it’s warranted.

If Rossi wins, Dixon needs to finish second to earn the championship (Rossi P1=669, Dixon P2=678, Dixon+9).

If Rossi wins and Dixon finishes third, Rossi is champion if Dixon does not have a healthy serving of bonus points (Rossi P1=669, Dixon P3=668,Rossi+1).

For the sake of comfort, a Rossi win and fourth for Dixon (Rossi P1=669, Dixon P4=662, Rossi+7) would remove bonus points from the equation.

If Rossi finishes second, Dixon only needs to finish sixth to win (Rossi P2=649, Dixon P6=654, Dixon+5).

Dixon could still win if he was seventh (Rossi P2=649, Dixon P7=650, Dixon+1), but it opens up a possible swing in Rossi’s favor if the Andretti driver has a few bonus points.

If Rossi takes second and Dixon is eighth, we still have a situation where bonus points for Dixon could trump Rossi’s finishing position (Rossi P2=649, Dixon P8=646, Rossi+3).

The only clear path to a championship for Rossi if he fails to win and takes a runner-up finish is to have Dixon cross the line in ninth (Rossi P2=649,Dixon P9=642, Rossi+7) where maximum bonus points for Dixon would be meaningless.

It paints an interesting scenario. If we pretend the Penske drivers do not exist and the team does not have a 75-percent win rate at Sonoma this decade, Rossi will need to win and hope Dixon is no better than fourth at the checkered flag.

If the 100 points for the win goes to anyone other than Rossi, he cannot afford to place lower than second, and even in that instance, Dixon won’t be forced to deliver fireworks to capture a fifth title. The worst scenario for Rossi is to have the Penske drivers, or strong rivals from another team take first or second. Simply put, if Rossi’s chasing one or two drivers home on Sunday, Dixon can have an average run – average for him, at least – and still earn the IndyCar crown.

Rossi’s perfect day involves finishing first or second and forcing Dixon to push like a crazed animal until the final lap. Minus huge pressure to place second or third, Dixon has all kinds of options to work with.

Rossi has hit strong late-season form, but will it be enough to get him over the line? Image by King/IndyCar

If Rossi finishes third, Dixon only needs to finish eighth (Rossi P3=639,Dixon P8=646, Dixon+7) to render the bonus point conversation moot. Dixon can still win with ninth (Rossi P3=639, Dixon P9=642, Dixon+3) provided Rossi doesn’t have all four bonus points.

For Rossi to breathe easy in third and strip bonus points from the mix, he’ll actually need Dixon to finish 12th (Rossi P3=639, Dixon P12=634, Rossi+5), which is asking for a lot of cartoon anvils to intervene on his behalf.

What’s the takeaway? Rossi doesn’t want to finish third or lower.

And if Rossi finishes fourth, plus wants to ignore the ramifications of bonus points, he’ll need Dixon to fall all the way to 15th or worse if he intends to be our next champion (Rossi P4=633, Dixon P15=628, Rossi+5).

On the flipside, if Rossi’s fourth and Dixon’s at least 10th, Rossi loses, period (Rossi P4=633, Dixon P10=638, Dixon+5). Barring something truly unexpected happening, how many people would bet on Dixon missing out on the top 10?

If Rossi’s fifth, Dixon would need to be 17th to have no hope of earning the championship. Those are long odds.

Drawing back to the earlier point, only a win or possibly a second place by Rossi will turn up the heat on Dixon. Once we abandon a top two finish, a wily veteran like Dixon and his well-drilled No. 9 team can avoid taking undue risks and be rewarded with the title.

ABSTRACTS

If Sonoma starts off with a Portland-like accident and the racing gods aren’t smiling on Dixon in the same way they were in Oregon, a parked Ganassi Honda would certainly improve the championship odds for Rossi. But it wouldn’t be a guarantee for the Andretti man.

Provided he takes the start, Dixon will have a minimum amount of 608 points if he ends up 25th or 26th in the race. Remarkably, for Rossi to become champion on Dixon’s all-time worst outing at Sonoma, he’d have to finish ninth to keep bonus points from being used against him (Rossi P9=613, Dixon P25/26=608, Rossi+5).

Dixon’s 29-point lead might look small with 100 points up for grabs, but with the heavy payout limited to finishing up front, a bad day for Dixon is far from instant gratification for Rossi. It further proves that when we get down to business Sunday afternoon, drama will need to visit Dixon in some shape or form to keep Rossi and the Penske boys in title contention.

And if we imagine the race with Dixon out early and only Rossi, Power, and Newgarden left to play, the Penske duo are still facing an uphill battle to keep the championship in The Captain’s camp.

On that front, Power or Newgarden could win and Rossi would be crowned, without bonus point considerations, by ambling home in eighth (Power/Newgarden P1=611, Rossi P8=617, Rossi+6).

Stepping into the absurd, if Dixon and Rossi drop out early, Power or Newgarden still need to win. If they finish second, Dixon, with his 608 points for finishing last, would beat the Penske drivers and their 591 points that come with second.

Yes: If Rossi and Dixon are parked, Dixon is still champion from P26 if Power or Newgarden finish P2!

YOUR MISSION

If you’re a Scott Dixon fan, he’ll need to race hard if Rossi’s up front, but other than that, the path to a fifth title gets easier if his main rival is anything but dominant. The better the Penske drivers perform, the better it is for Dixon. In a rare twist, Chip Ganassi might actually be rooting for Roger’s drivers if his guy isn’t capable of taking the win.

If you’re an Alexander Rossi fan, you’re hoping the Penske drivers struggle and leave the biggest portion of points on the table for his taking. And you’re also hoping Dixon’s team misses the chassis setup just enough to get mired in a pack of midfield runners. But if the Penskes are strong and Dixon’s being Dixon, there might not be much Rossi can do to overcome the points deficit.

And if you’re a Will Power or Josef Newgarden fan, sacrifice a couple of old Verizon flip phones to the racing gods and say 10 Hail Rogers. They’ll need it.

 

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