FOUR RACE FOR CROWN
IndyCar battle: Newgarden leads Dixon, teammates
There are no Davids in this battle. Only a pair of Goliaths.
In one corner stands a trio of the sport’s finest drivers, bound together by their alliance with the winningest owner in Indy-car history, Roger Penske.
In the other stands a living legend, who is looking to join A.J. Foyt as the only other driver to win five American open-wheel championships (Foyt has seven).
This Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, only one of them can walk away with the crown.
Week in and week out, Penske’s army repeats the refrain: It doesn’t matter who among them brings him his 15th open-wheel title, just as long as one of them accomplishes the mission. Don’t doubt their sincerity.
For championship leader Josef Newgarden, a win Sunday would mark the opening salvo in his assault on the Verizon IndyCar Series record books. In his first six seasons, the Tennessee native already has racked up the same number of wins (seven) as Scott Dixon did in his first six seasons. A win Sunday — what would be his series-high fifth of the year — not only means he’d surpass his racing idol in that regard, but that he’d be the first driver younger than 30 to win an IndyCar championship since Dixon in 2008.
For Helio Castroneves, just 22 points back of Newgarden, the stakes are higher than for any other contender. Despite his wishes, the Brazilian superstar’s days in the series appear to be numbered, as Penske has different plans for the man who brought him three of his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories. Leaving a full-season job in IndyCar is not what Castroneves wants, but he might not be powerless in the decision. Win the championship Sunday, and perhaps he can stave off Penske’s sports car program for one more year. Lose, and he walks away from the sport he loves with the burden of knowing that while he is easily one of the all-time greats, he went 20 seasons without winning a title.
There’s a case to be made that Simon Pagenaud has bee the most consistently excellen driver in the series. He is the onl one to have completed all 2,24 laps this season, and his 12 top five finishes are the best. No on else even has 10. Yet entering th finale, he’s 34 points back of New garden and in need of a little hel to win the title. A victory Sunday however, would put him in prim position to do something n Penske driver has done since G de Ferran in 2000 and 2001 — win back-to-back championship for Team Penske.
Barring a monumental co lapse for all three, Scott Dixon i the only man standing in the wa of Penske’s third championship i four years. In all four of his cham pionship seasons, the runner-u always was a Penske driver. D Ferran played bridesmaid to Dix on in 2003, Castroneves in 200 and 2013, while Dixon surpasse former Penske star Juan Pabl Montoya at the finale in 2015 t wear his fourth crown.
A meaningless three point behind Newgarden, Dixon doe not need another championshi to cement his legacy as the great est driver of this generation. I the four titles, 41 wins, 96 pod ums, 28 poles and 2008 Indian apolis 500 victory haven’t alread done that, then the respect h commands from his peers should Half the drivers in the paddoc would mention Dixon as the driv er they most admire, while th other half would say he’s the driv er they most respect. Why? Be cause despite turmoil amid hi Chip Ganassi Racing team, de spite a death-defying crash in thi May’s Indy 500, despite a thie putting a gun to his head at a Ta co Bell drive-thru after he wo the Indy 500 pole, the Icema has overcome all of it. He is coo calm and collected as always an again finds himself on the prec pice of a championship.
Ayello writes for The Indianapolis Star part of the USA TODAY Network.