Clock ticking for Dixon's title rivals

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

Clock ticking for Dixon's title rivals

IndyCar

Clock ticking for Dixon's title rivals

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The NTT IndyCar Series transitions from Sunday’s drama and emotion at the Indianapolis 500 to the quick-fire grind of its shortened 2020 calendar with a pair of races this weekend, and based on how the points were settled at the Speedway, the doubleheader in Madison, Illinois could blow the title hunt wide open. Once the World Wide Technology Raceway IndyCar event is finished, the series might also be able to start the preparations on who will be crowned champion.

Entering the Indy 500, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon held a 49-point advantage over Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud. Thanks to Dixon’s run to second at the double-points event and Pagenaud’s rough 22nd-place result, the No. 22 Chevy driver fell from second to fifth in the standings, taking his 49-point deficit out to a distant 123.

On a similar Penske theme, Josef Newgarden went into the 500 holding third in the championship, 53 points back from Dixon, and recorded a valuable fifth-place finish. As a result of Pagenaud’s fall, Newgarden has jumped up to second in the standings, but his gap to Dixon has significantly increased to 84 points. After Newgarden, Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward put his sixth-place Indy finish to good use, which elevated him from fourth to third in the standings (-117 points), and Takuma Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Graham Rahal made a healthy improvement from sixth to fourth in the championship after claiming third at the Brickyard (-121 points).

Trailing Pagenaud in fifth, Sato vaulted from 17th in the standings to sixth (-128 points) with the double points for his Indy victory, and one more driver, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan’s Santino Ferrucci, benefited from his fourth at Indy to charge from 11th in the championship to eighth (-154 points).

If there’s one major championship takeaway in the move from Indy to the track formerly known as Gateway, it’s how much harder Dixon has made it for those who are determined to knock the veteran from atop the standings. With seven races remaining to complete – assuming the doubleheader at Mid-Ohio is finalized – and no double-points races left on the schedule, there isn’t much time left for Dixon’s challengers to erase his current advantage.

Prior to the Indy 500, the three drivers closest to Dixon were within striking distance, between 49 and 82 points behind the championship leader. After the Speedway, only one driver – Newgarden in second – finds themselves within 100 points of Dixon; the drivers from third through 10th are 117 to 178 points behind, which is somewhat ominous. Provided the five-time champion has two solid performances at WWT Raceway and keeps Newgarden in sight, Dixon could make big headway in earning his sixth title.

Newgarden came out of Indy best-placed to challenge Dixon, but he’s running out of time to make something happen. Gavin Baker/Motorsport Image

For his rivals, a poor weekend for the No. 9 Honda team at WWT Raceway would be helpful. A maximum of 54 points are available at each remaining round, which means Newgarden could strike a blow to Dixon’s lead at a doubleheader where the defending series champion has been a significant force since winning in 2017. Simply put, the last thing every driver barring Dixon wants is for the 40-year-old to hover around the podium on Saturday and Sunday.

Poor handling, poor strategy, or misfortune will need to enter the frame if the New Zealander is going to be derailed, and in a year where almost nothing has gone according to plan, there’s no reason to dismiss drama from turning the championship on its head.

Separate from the title conversation, the WWT Raceway doubleheader offers the latest chance for some of the perennial championship contenders to earn their first wins of the season. At Penske, Newgarden and Pagenaud have found victory lane, but their teammate Will Power — who fell from fifth in the standings to ninth after Indy — continues to search for front-running pace.

The Andretti Autosport team as a whole, from Colton Herta – the only Andretti driver in the top 10 – to Alexander Rossi to Ryan Hunter-Reay are winless, and only have one podium result across its leading trio. Graham Rahal, with three podiums in 2020, has been sharp, and yet, he’s another driver chasing his first win, with the most recent coming in 2017.

And with WWT Raceway serving as the last oval of the year, Ed Carpenter’s aching need to win, having last stood atop the podium in 2014, is subject to two more tries before 2021 arrives. The same is true for A.J. Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan, who was third at this race last year, and will bid farewell to his storied career as a full-time-ish IndyCar driver at the close of the weekend.

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