The championship is there for the taking for Josef Newgarden.
The 28-year-old Tennessean has been the benchmark throughout the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, and is one race away from claiming his second title in the last three years.
However, the combination of double points and competing at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – a track the series hasn’t raced at since 2004 – could prove to be the biggest challenge yet in Newgarden’s quest to claim another Astor Cup.
While the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet has a series-leading four victories, perhaps the bigger achievement is his outstanding consistency with 12 top fives (along with a career-best 490 laps led) in 16 races. Those results have catapulted him to the top of the championship standings, 41 points ahead of Andretti’s Alexander Rossi, 42 ahead of teammate Simon Pageanud, and 85 ahead of reigning champion Scott Dixon.
Although there are several variables in play for his rivals to win the title, a finish of fourth or better will lock up the championship for Newgarden.
“I think we’re in the favorable position, for sure,” Newgarden said. “With double points, I’ve tried to make everyone aware all the way along that it’s far from being over, that it’s always going to be a difficult race in Laguna with a double-point situation. That’s where we find ourselves. We’re in the better position. We definitely have a little bit of a comfort, but nothing that you can feel too comfortable about.
“We still have to perform really well. Finishing fourth or higher in an IndyCar race, to guarantee the championship, is not really an easy task. I mean, it’s difficult to run in the top five in the IndyCar Series week in and week out.
“To come to kind of a wild card event out at Laguna Seca where we don’t have a lot of knowledge – we, specifically I, don’t have a lot of knowledge with the track. I think a lot of guys going in that have never raced there; they don’t either. It’s going to create a lot of unknowns. I think it’s still a difficult task for us to make sure we hit everything right and have a solid weekend.”
With the situation as it stands entering the tricky 11-turn, 2.238-mile road course, Newgarden likes the idea of being the leader rather than the one chasing.
“The positive thing is I do feel like we control our own destiny,” Newgarden said. “That for sure is the case, which is why it’s the favorable position. If you’d asked me if I’d rather be 41 points or 41 points down, you’re always going to choose being 41 points up. It’s just a much better place to be.
“But having said that, with the double-point situation it still has to go extremely well because of the way it changes the nature of the finishing positions and the points payouts.
“We’ll just have to see how we get on next week. I have a lot of confidence in Team Penske, as always. You always feel prepared when you come to a new track or a venue you’ve never been at before.
“Certainly I think with Team Chevy, they’ve given us all the confidence in the world. Every race this year we go to we feel we get what we need from them. The communication has been excellent. I feel like we have the right people in our corner. We just need to make sure that we go and execute now.”