Even with double points, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series finale could have been meaningless for the championship battle.
Josef Newgarden’s near-perfect 2019 IndyCar season has given the Tennessee native a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi heading into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Had it not been for a few minor mistakes, the 2017 series champion could have put the title beyond his competitors’ reach.
The No. 2 Chevrolet visited victory lane four times this year at St. Petersburg, Detroit, Texas and Iowa with only four finishes below fifth place out of 16 races this year. But those four races have kept the championship battle alive for Rossi, 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and five-time series champion Scott Dixon.
Newgarden’s first hiccup was in May at the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Newgarden’s team put on dry-weather tires in a late pit stop when rain arrived before a full course yellow for a spin. The team hoped that the rain would go away quickly, but it did not.
That strategic blunder and a pit safety penalty for a loose tire going across pit road when switching to rain tires a few laps later dropped Newgarden to the rear of the field for the restart and culminated in a 15th-place finish instead of a possible top-five.
Newgarden’s ambition for an IndyCar title is admirable, but his competitiveness has gotten the points leader into trouble. In the second Detroit race of the doubleheader weekend, James Hinchcliffe exited the pits in front of Newgarden, and instead of performing a clean overtake heading into Turn 3, Newgarden locked up his tires and spun. Newgarden finished in 19th-place after the Team Penske crew fixed the damaged vehicle.
Fast forward a few weeks to Mid-Ohio and Newgarden spun while trying to get third place on the final lap from Ryan Hunter-Reay. Instead of staying in fourth, the 2011 Indy Lights champion finished 14th. A few weeks later at Gateway, Newgarden tried to get fourth place from Santino Ferrucci on the last lap, but instead spun and fell to seventh after avoiding wall contact.
For all the mistakes, Newgarden doesn’t look back on what could have been. An extra win is always possible when you’re that competitive, but the goal is to fix any errors.
“It’s a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down,” said Newgarden. “Because you could say the other thing, well, you made a mistake at (Austin) and didn’t get that win. It goes both ways, it’s all going to come out in the wash, you just try to be as consistent as possible and I think we’ve done a pretty good job this year. For sure there’s some areas that we needed to clean up but you’re going to have that every year.”
NBC IndyCar analyst and 2003 Champ Car champion Paul Tracy has won at WeatherTech Raceway for Newgarden’s current team owner Roger Penske twice (1993 and 1994), and argued that Newgarden lost sight of the championship battle based on what happened at Mid-Ohio and Gateway.
“(Newgarden’s) desire to beat other guys clouded his vision of the big picture,” said Tracy. “One would say I’m very guilty of that as well. I think he just got wrapped up in the heat of the moment and wanted to finish on the podium (at Mid-Ohio) and thought he had a shot at it and it went bad quickly. I certainly can sympathize with him on that because I’ve done it plenty of times.”
For Newgarden to take the 2019 IndyCar title, a fourth place finish would lock up the crown no matter where Rossi, Pagenaud or Dixon finish. Finishing fifth or sixth with Pagenaud or Rossi winning will give Newgarden the title depending on how many bonus points Pagenaud or Rossi score. Dixon’s position is simple: win and hope that Newgarden finishes last or next to last.
All scenarios will work themselves out after 90 laps on Sunday.
About those bonus points
Bonus points could matter as there are several scenarios that would have Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud being tied based on winning the pole (one point), leading a lap (one point) or leading the most laps (two points). But not taking into account bonus points, Newgarden (593 points) will win the IndyCar title if he finishes fifth or better. Here are the other scenarios:
>>Newgarden finishes sixth-10th: Rossi (552 points) or Simon Pagenaud (551) wins the title if he wins the race.
>>Newgarden finishes 11th: Rossi wins the title if he finishes first or second (and Pagenaud doesn’t win), Pagenaud wins if he finishes first.
>>Newgarden finishes 12th-15th: Rossi or Pagenaud win if they finish first or second. (Whoever finishes ahead of the other wins, of course.)
>>Newgarden finishes 16th: Rossi wins if he finishes in the top three (and Pagenaud finishes behind him), Pagenaud wins if he finishes first or second (assuming Rossi doesn’t finish ahead of him).
>>Newgarden finishes 17th-18th: Rossi or Pagenaud win if they finish in the top three. (Whoever finishes ahead of the other wins, of course.)
>>Newgarden finishes 19th: Rossi wins if he finishes in the top four, Pagenaud wins if he’s in the top three. (Whoever finishes ahead of the other wins, of course.)
>>Newgarden finishes 20th: Rossi or Pagenaud win if they finish in the top four. (Whoever finishes ahead of the other wins, of course)
>>Newgarden finishes 21st-22nd: Rossi wins if wins if he finishes in the top five, Pagenaud wins if he’s in the top four. (Whoever finishes ahead of the other wins, of course.)
>>Newgarden finishes 23rd: Scott Dixon wins the championship if he wins the race and Rossi and Pagenaud finish outside the top five. Rossi wins if he finishes in the top 6 and Dixon doesn’t win the race, Pagenaud wins if he finishes in the top 5 and Dixon doesn’t win the race.
>>Newgarden finishes 24th: Scott Dixon wins the championship if he wins the race and Rossi and Pagenaud finish outside the top five. Rossi or Pagenaud wins if they finish in the top 6 and Dixon doesn’t win the race. (Whoever finishes ahead of the other wins, of course.)