If Josef Newgarden wants to earn his second consecutive NTT IndyCar Series championship, he’ll need to channel his inner Jay Rock and follow the rapper’s instructions to ‘Win, win, win, win’ at the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader.
The odd Thursday-Saturday event, which features practice and qualifying for Round 1 on the first day, Round 1 on the second day, and qualifying plus Round 2 on the third, is where Team Penske’s reigning title winner has the simplest of missions to carry out.
Facing an imposing 72-point deficit to championship leader Scott Dixon, there’s no need to worry about managing his finishing positions relative to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver: It’s a basic case of going forward and going for broke. Between the two primary title contenders, Newgarden is the only one with no added pressure to carry, and that’s what makes the Harvest GP — and the season finale at St. Petersburg — pure exercises for the 28-year-old American.
If the gap between Dixon and Newgarden were closer, the situation would be far more complex for the Tennessean, but since he can’t control the New Zealander’s fate, the only option is to free himself of any mental constraints and go on a relentless attack in qualifying and the races.
Dixon’s lead is sizeable enough to where he could have the worst possible day by finishing 25th and last at Round 1, Newgarden could take pole, win, and earn maximum bonus points (54 in total), and the Kiwi would still head into Round 2 with a 23-point advantage.
Another maximum points run for Penske’s lead driver in Round 2 and a another last-place finish for the five-time champion would turn the title chase on its head, giving Newgarden a 36-point lead heading into St. Pete. But how many people expect Dixon, winner of the Indy road course race in July, who has three straight runner-up finishes at the circuit from 2017-2019, to come away with a pair of 25th-place results?
This is why a ‘win, win, win, win’ approach by Newgarden is the only option available across the 85 laps in Round 1 and the 75 laps in Round 2. If Dixon finishes ahead of Penske’s only title hope, or crosses the finish line close behind Newgarden at Indy — within two or three cars if his rival wins — the title could be settled in his favor by Saturday afternoon.
Provided Dixon is more than 54 points ahead of Newgarden by the end of Round 2, he’ll be IndyCar’s newest six-time champ.
So, if you’re an ardent supporter of Team Penske and Newgarden, pray for poor qualifying performances by Dixon and distant finishes in both races while the No. 1 Chevy makes two stops in victory lane. Two podiums combined with two bad days for Dixon — even if they aren’t last-place results — would also do the trick and take the fight to Florida. And if you’re a fan of the No. 9 CGR Honda outfit, prayers for top five pace, no spins, and no drama could lead to big celebrations.
Newgarden cannot afford mediocrity at Indy, and for whatever reason, he’s never come close to the podium in seven tries. In fact, all six finishes from 2014-2019 were outside the top 10, so his challenge is to correct recent history on the IMS road course. And Dixon cannot get tangled up in a messy start, which has become the norm in Turn 1 and 2, or play things too safely and let cars go streaming by if Newgarden is running well.
Barring his teammates, the entire field will treat the Kiwi like a wounded animal, knowing he won’t risk banging wheels or knocking a wing off the car in a heated battle for position. But with each surrendered spot, the difficulty of Newgarden’s job is lessened. It means his doubleheader could be rough if Dixon isn’t near the front, and that’s where Newgarden will be looking to spend his weekend.
Just as we would have never predicted Dixon would come away from Mid-Ohio with two 10th-place finishes, there’s no guarantee the championship leader will continue his streak of Indy road course podiums. And despite Newgarden’s lack of results on the 2.4-mile, 14-turn circuit, he’s the last driver you want to count out when the odds aren’t in his favor.
Race 1 is live on the USA Network at 3:30 p.m. ET on Friday, and Race 2 is live Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.