Tracking the championship progress of IndyCar’s four title contenders during the double-points season finale in Monterey should be rather easy.
At 593 points entering the September 20-22 WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca event, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden will be on a mission to finish the 90-lap race with decent speed and minimal drama. He doesn’t need to win, or land on the podium to capture his second championship, and that might offer a small amount of comfort to the 28-year-old from Tennessee.
With one extra point on offer for earning pole on Saturday, another for leading a lap, and two more for leading the most laps, four bonus points will be in play that could shape the final standings. Here’s a look at the basic outcomes Newgarden and the three rivals pursuing his spot atop the championship are chasing:
Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi holds second with 552 points, and while his 41-point deficit to Newgarden might seem small at a race that pays 100 points to win and has those four additional points on offer, the 27-year-old Californian will need to be spectacular when it matters in Monterey.
With a win and no bonus points for Rossi (652), Newgarden can cruise home in fifth without bonus points and win the title (653). If Rossi has a perfect weekend and earns the maximum 104 points available (656), Newgarden would need to finish fourth with no extra points (657) to deny Rossi the title.
Life becomes much harder for Rossi if he fails to win. Without bonus points for Rossi in second (632), Newgarden can win the championship by sauntering to the finish line in 10th without extra points in hand (633). If Rossi runs second and takes all the bonus points (636), Newgarden’s task would be to finish ninth (637).
Considering that Newgarden has finished fifth or better in 12 of the 16 races held this year, the size of the challenge facing Rossi is foreboding. Winning is the only solution available to Andretti’s contender that places a modest amount of pressure on Penske’s leader to react.
To paraphrase a quote once again from retired NASCAR Hall of Famer Ricky Bobby, “If Rossi ain’t first, he may as well be last.”
The situation facing Rossi is the same for Penske’s 35-year-old Simon Pagenaud, who’s third at 551 points.
His 42-point gap to teammate Newgarden is only one more than Rossi’s, and the needs for the 2016 title winner change very little. If Pagenaud wants to claim his second championship, and wins without earning any bonus points (651), Newgarden can finish fifth (653) while also lacking extra points and seal the title.
A perfect weekend for France’s Pagenaud (655) would force Newgarden to finish fourth (657) to add a second Astor Cup to the one he won in 2017. A second-place run for Pagenaud, with all four bonus points included (635), would have Newgarden targeting ninth to clinch the title (637).
Pagenaud is in identical territory to Rossi when it comes to needing an exemplary outcome in qualifying and the race to have any realistic chance of toppling Newgarden.
In fourth place at 508 points, defending series champion Scott Dixon is the longest of long shots to keep the crown. If the Chip Ganassi Racing driver wins and earns all four bonus points, the maximum number he could reach is 612. Newgarden would only need to finish 20th (613) with no extra points, to keep the New Zealander from winning the title.
In a field of 24 cars, the 39-year-old’s best possible outcome would need to see Newgarden engaged in a nightmarish scenario to facilitate a jump from fourth to first in the standings.
However, even amid that worst-case state, Dixon could finish second, earn all four bonus points, have Newgarden fail to take the start, and it still wouldn’t be enough. It’s pole position and a crushing win on Sunday for Dixon, plus cartoon anvils raining down on Newgarden in the opening laps – and even that might not be get the job done.
Factor in the drivers in second and third that also stand in his way, and Dixon’s small odds of becoming a six-time champ suggest 2020 is the next opportunity for it to take place.
Perfection or desperation. One of those two realities will need to come true for Rossi, Pagenaud, or Dixon at Laguna Seca.
With the inside lane of the downhill run to Turn 2 known as a place where big mistakes have been made on the opening lap and restarts – picture a reenactment of the carnage at Portland a few weeks ago – the drama Newgarden needs to avoid might come calling.
Factor in the hits and spins we routinely see entering the Corkscrew, under braking into the final corner at Turn 11, and the side-by-side collisions leaving the infield at Turn 5, and the stakes are high for IndyCar’s title-contending quartet.
Minus the ACME anvils and IndyCar bowling balls, Newgarden should be just fine. But, for those with strong memories, how many IndyCar races have gone according to plan in 2019? Not enough to let the championship leader sleep peacefully until the season’s over.
The answer to the title question will be provided starting at 12 p.m. PT Sunday on NBC.