New­gar­den on cusp of an­other ti­tle

Marco An­dretti looks to end sea­son strongly

The Morning Call - - VARSITY - By Jenna Fryer

MONTEREY, Calif. – Josef New­gar­den, clad head-to-toe in solid black, was the last cham­pi­onship con­tender to ar­rive at an IndyCar event al­ready un­der­way. He climbed the stairs, saw chal­lenger Alexan­der Rossi bogged down in in­ter­views and spread his arms wide as he made his en­trance.

“Good evening,” New­gar­den bel­lowed, paus­ing just long enough to pat Rossi on the back.

It was a para­dox­i­cal mo­ment for the IndyCar points leader, who con­trols his own fate in Sun­day’s sea­son fi­nale on the his­toric La­guna Seca road course. A fin­ish of fourth or bet­ter gives the Ten­nessee na­tive his sec­ond cham­pi­onship in three years.

As New­gar­den has grown from a wide-eyed rookie in 2012 to an elite IndyCar driver, he has found the spot­light to be con­tra­dic­tory to his in­tro­verted per­son­al­ity. He also be­lieves Team Penske is viewed by many as the “Death Star” of mo­tor­sports, a race team so dom­i­nant fans liken it to the ga­lac­tic su­per­weapon from “Star Wars.”

New­gar­den is a will­ing par­tic­i­pant in fa­cil­i­tat­ing that im­age, but he ac­tu­ally prefers to keep his head down and re­treat into pri­vacy. He briefly re­lo­cated to North Carolina when he was hired by Penske in 2017 but has since re­turned to Nashville with his fi­ancee.

“I mean, I don’t feel like we’re the Death Star, but I’ve heard peo­ple call it that,” New­gar­den said. “I think what every­one has for Team Penske is a deep amount of re­spect. But I just see a lot of peo­ple hate them be­cause they think they’ve won so much and in so many dif­fer­ent series, specif­i­cally IndyCar, they’ve just dom­i­nated so much over the years that I don’t think peo­ple like it.

“But that’s also sport, right?” he added. “You want to see the un­der­dogs win or the mid-dogs. It’s kind of tough to be in that po­si­tion be­cause I think if peo­ple maybe liked you be­fore join­ing that team, they don’t like you now be­cause you’re part of that group.”

The IndyCar cham­pi­onship will be de­cided in the fi­nale for the 14th con­sec­u­tive sea­son, with New­gar­den hold­ing a 41point lead over Rossi, a Cal­i­for­nia na­tive. Also in the mix is In­di­anapo­lis 500 win­ner Si­mon Pa­ge­naud, New­gar­den’s team­mate, at 42 points out and reign­ing series cham­pion Scott Dixon, who trails New­gar­den by 85 points.

The race is worth dou­ble points, a quirk Dixon used to his ad­van­tage to snatch the ti­tle away from Juan Pablo Mon­toya in 2015 when he over­came a 47-point deficit by win­ning the race.

Nazareth’s Marco An­dretti en­ters the race in 16th place out of 36 driv­ers in the cham­pi­onship points stand­ings.

Dixon’s comeback is the model Rossi has fo­cused on as he tries to avoid a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sea­son fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the stand­ings. For Rossi or Pa­ge­naud to win the cham­pi­onship, New­gar­den must fin­ish sixth or worse and they must win.

That strat­egy fits Rossi just fine be­cause in his mind, “a lot of peo­ple say win­ning isn’t ev­ery­thing. I com­pletely dis­agree.”

Since win­ning is the only thing that mat­ters to Rossi, he’s earned the moniker “An­gry Alex” for his scowl and short tem­per fol­low­ing de­feat. Rossi said those re­ac­tions are in the mo­ment, only hap­pen af­ter dis­ap­point­ment in rac­ing and that he re­ally isn’t an an­gry per­son by na­ture.

Rossi badly wants to win an IndyCar cham­pi­onship, and win­ning it at La­guna Seca would be fit­ting for his fam­ily. His father brought Rossi to his first race at the pic­turesque, 2.258-mile per­ma­nent road course as a child and the venue be­came an an­nual out­ing for the as­pir­ing racer.

La­guna Seca last hosted Indy cars in 2004 and only four cur­rent driv­ers — Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Se­bastien Bour­dais and Ryan Hunter-Reay — have raced the cir­cuit in elite cars. Of the three other ti­tle con­tenders, New­gar­den has never raced at La­guna Seca, Pa­ge­naud has only done it in a sports car and Rossi com­peted in the Skip Barber Driv­ing School pro­gram.

But Rossi has a unique fa­mil­iar­ity with the cir­cuit from his many years as a spec­ta­tor and will have a large con­tin­gent of fam­ily and friends at the track all week­end. He’s try­ing to re­move him­self from the party at­mos­phere and fo­cus on tak­ing the ti­tle away from New­gar­den.


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