So here we are, friends, the weekend before the final weekend of the NTT IndyCar season.
Six months ago, Josef Newgarden opened the season with a win at St. Pete, and as the summer went along, strengthened his case to win his second series title. Now, as we head to Laguna Seca for the season finale, three drivers are chasing Newgarden in the standings, which sets up several different scenarios in which a champion can be crowned.
Before I get to the purpose of this post, I want to editorialize on a couple of items.
1) Like many of you, I wish the season were longer. People who have been fans for a long time remember when the season stretched into October, and even sometimes November. Like my hairline, those days are long gone. Remember the Boston Consulting Group? While many people loved to make them the butt of jokes, one of their suggestions was to end the season earlier than before. And they are right. In the fall, Sundays are for the boys of the NFL. Thanks to beer, fantasy football and gambling, the NFL has become a behemoth. Sunday Night Football is one of the highest-rated shows on TV, and many markets — like Chicago — are dominated by that afternoon’s game. Maybe if IndyCar can match or succeed the numbers pulled by NASCAR in the fall, they can go back to an extended schedule. Until then, they are doing the right thing.
2) I’m glad Sonoma is gone. If the racing were a bit better I guess I would’ve been OK with the series staying there, but nothing about that track ever moved me. Hopefully Laguna provides better racing, the kind that is worthy for a championship-ending race. I’m not completely against holding the finale on a road course, I just want it to be at a track where there are plenty of opportunities to pass and where the points can swing from one lap to another.
3) Double points isn’t right, but it’s necessary. I’m not a fan of double points, because from a purist standpoint I think it potentially takes away from the body of work that a driver may have built during the course of a season. But at the same time, it’s served its purpose. This year is the 14th consecutive season the championship has come down to the final race, which I think is a needed thing for the series.
OK, on to the better stuff. Here’s a list of the championship contenders and the odds for each.
Josef Newgarden (593 points, 2/1 odds)
Newgarden just has to do what he’s done all year, and that is to run up front. A fourth-place finish or a 5th or 6th with bonus points, is all he needs to win the championship. With 12 Top 5 finishes in his 16 events this year, he’s not a lock, but close.
Here’s something that will be interesting to watch: teammate Simon Pagenaud also has a legit chance to win the championship. Team orders are not a thing at Team Penske, but where does that line get drawn, namely with Will Power? Does he just get let go to run the race he wants, or does he give up a potential pole or spots on the track to either of his teammates?
Alexander Rossi (-41 points, 10/1 odds)
Up until Pocono, the seasons of Newgarden and Rossi had been almost identical, but a crash and a P18 at Pocono and a P13 at Gateway may spell Rossi finishing as runner-up for the second year in a row. Still, he rebounded with a podium at Portland which keeps him in contention.
If Newgarden finished seventh or worse, the championship is there for Rossi if he wins the race. One thing that Rossi has in his favor is he has domestique help with teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Zach Veach, Marco Andretti, and, for this weekend, Conor Daly. Count Daly as extra motivated as he has one more shot to solidify a ride for next season.
Simon Pagenaud (-42 points, 20/1 odds)
Simon is in the same situation as Rossi, a win and a Newgarden seventh or worse gives him his second career title. Pagenaud hasn’t been as consistent as the other drivers in contention, but he got tons of double points for winning the Indianapolis 500 and is second in the series with three wins.
I’m giving Rossi higher odds just based on the type of help he’s going to have, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Pagenaud repeats his performance at Toronto and wins the race. His championship back was really to the wall heading to Canada back in July, and he responded by dominating every facet of the weekend. Since that race he’s added three Top 5 finishes to keep himself in contention.
Scott Dixon (-85 points, 1 gazillion/1)
Dixon has stayed in this fight all year through just dogged determination, but P20 at Gateway and P16 at Portland more than sealed his fate. I probably wouldn’t mention any other driver who is 85 points down in this space, but if anyone can pull this one out of his hat, it’s the 5-time champion.
One key to the weekend will come in qualifying. With many of this year’s road/street course starts looking more like a clown show than an IndyCar race, starting up front to avoid any potential danger is a must.
Rookie of The Year
I feel like this is worth mentioning because of the stellar rookie class we have seen this year.
Heading into the finale, Felix Rosenqvist has 365 points — good for 8th in the overall standings — and has built a 26-point advantage over Santino Ferrucci. Colton Herta, who has the only win among rookies this year, is third with 316 points.
As with the actual championship hunt, lots can happen with double points, but I’m going to give the advantage to Rosenqvist. He’s coming off runner-up finishes at both Mid-Ohio and Portland, the previous two road courses on the schedule, and is more experienced and a little better of a road racer than the other two.
However that race ends up, those three have a lot of wins and possible championships on their future
Pit Lane Parley
Are we in one of the most competitive eras in the history of IndyCar? Of course I say yes, but what do Host Mike, Jess and Matt have to say? Give this week’s episode a listen on any of your favorite listening platforms, or check it out on iTunes.