New­gar­den leads Penske to top four spots on grid

The Mercury News - - Sports - By Jenna Fryer

Josef New­gar­den moved a step closer to his first IndyCar ti­tle by lead­ing a Penske pa­rade into the IndyCar sea­son fi­nale.

Four of the five driv­ers still math­e­mat­i­cally el­i­gi­ble to win the cham­pi­onship Sun­day are from Team Penske. In qual­i­fy­ing, they showed they have the raw speed to grab this ti­tle.

But it’s New­gar­den, in his first sea­son driv­ing for Penske, who led the charge. He’s the points leader and three times broke the track record in Satur­day’s qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion. His fi­nal run in his Chevro­let was at 1 minute, 15.5205 sec­onds and gave New­gar­den just the sec­ond pole of his ca­reer.

The bonus point he earned for the pole gives him a four-point lead over Scott Dixon head­ing into Sun­day’s sea­son fi­nale. The race is worth dou­ble points.

“This is IndyCar rac­ing, any­thing can hap­pen. We checked one thing off the box this week­end and we have one big one to check off to­mor­row,” said New­gar­den. “We’ve got to get through the race, we’ve got to have a good race­car — qual­i­fy­ing is one thing, hav­ing speed is one thing, but win­ning the race is a whole other deal.”

New­gar­den was ec­static af­ter the pole-win­ning run and cel­e­brated with his Penske team. He’s try­ing to become only the sec­ond U.S.-born driver in 11 years to win the cham­pi­onship.

His up­grade to Penske equip­ment this sea­son has led to four vic­to­ries and put him in con­trol of the cham­pi­onship. If he fin­ishes higher than all the other con­tenders Sun­day, he wins the ti­tle.

Penske driv­ers Will Power, Si­mon Pa­ge­naud and He­lio Cas­tron­eves qual­i­fied sec­ond, third and fourth. Dixon was sixth and strug­gled through all three qual­i­fy­ing ses­sions.

The four-time se­ries cham­pion started the week­end just three points be­hind New­gar­den and con­sid­ered the fa­vorite to win the ti­tle be­cause of his ruth­less at­tack­ing style, steely de­meanor and ex­pe­ri­ence. But his Ganassi Honda clearly lacked the speed of the Chevro­let’s from Penske.

“The Penske group are fast here, and it’s ex­actly what we ex­pect, but the race is go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing,” said Dixon, who thinks he’ll have to rely on strat­egy on Sun­day to win the race.

“We can definitely make it work.”

Penske re­ally likes his chances with four driv­ers in con­tention but knows beat­ing Dixon will be a dif­fi­cult task.

“I think Scott Dixon is one of the very best out here, and I re­spect him and the team. But Josef’s got a great op­por­tu­nity, and we’ve got three guys that can win this thing.”

Cas­tron­eves is in his 20th, and pos­si­bly last, full sea­son in IndyCar. Penske has hinted strongly at mov­ing Cas­tron­eves to the sports car team he’s launch­ing next sea­son.

ROBERT REINERS — GETTY IMAGES

Josef New­gar­den, the IndyCar se­ries points leader, will start from the pole position in Sun­day’s sea­son-end­ing race at Sonoma Race­way.

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