Advantage Josef Newgarden. Entering the Harvest Grand Prix with a 72-point deficit to championship leader Scott Dixon, the Team Penske driver aced Round 1 at the IMS road course with the title on the line. Not only will the fight continue into Saturday’s 75-lap race, but it’s fair to say momentum has shifted in favor of the challenger.
Newgarden, the defending series champion, earned one point for being fastest in his qualifying group, another for leading, two for leading a race-high 34 laps, and added 50 more for winning, giving the No. 1 Chevy driver a crucial and maximum 54-point haul to slash into Dixon’s lead with two races left in the season. Simply put, there was nothing more he could do to reel in his closest rival.
“If you’d given us a couple of those races where we the caught bad yellows, we’d be really in this fight,” Newgarden said after earning his third win of the year. “It’s almost a shame what kind of deficit we’ve had in the points, but this team has been unbelievable. They’ve been the quickest in pitlane all year. They’ve done a great job. They deserve to be in this championship fight. It’s still a bit of a hill but we made a little smaller today, which is really good news. But we needed three perfect races to finish. This is one of them down. Two to go.”
Starting 12th and placing ninth, Dixon climbed as high as sixth at one point, appeared to have seventh in hand, but made another mistake – for the second consecutive race – with two laps to go and fell to ninth. The end result saw his 72-point cushion nearly halved, cut to 40 points.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver didn’t have a terrible day, but Newgarden’s crushing performance, topped by a 14.2-second lead at the checkered flag, could further tip fortunes in his favor as the field prepares to qualify for Round 2 Saturday morning. Provided Newgarden’s front-running speed carries over, Dixon’s championship cushion could be in serious jeopardy by the streaking Penske driver.
Although a 40-point lead is by no means small, a maximum of 54 points per race are available on Saturday, and again at the October 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, giving Newgarden 108 points to pursue in his bid to displace Dixon from the lead and capture his third IndyCar championship.
For Dixon, qualifying for Round 2 will be crucial. Based on the race’s fastest laps, the five-time champion was second only the polesitter Rinus VeeKay, setting his best on Firestone’s alternate tire (1m10.8394s). Newgarden, on alternates, was nominally slower (1m11.0865s), which could make for an entertaining run for pole.
If Dixon can rediscover the form that once built a championship lead of more than 100 points, finish ahead of Newgarden in Round 2, and expand his lead by 15 points, he’ll be crowned on Saturday. And if Newgarden can deliver anything close to a repeat of Round 1, IndyCar fans will need to tune into the St. Petersburg race for a pressure-packed close to a crazy year.