FOUR RACE FOR CROWN

IndyCar bat­tle: New­gar­den leads Dixon, team­mates

The Signal - - USA TODAY SPORTS - Jim Ayello @ji­mayello

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.

TI­TLE CON­TENDERS

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.

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