IndyCar Series set for championship shootout at Sonoma

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden tops the IndyCar Series standings heading into the season finale at Sonoma. (Tom E. Puskar/AP)

The Verizon IndyCar Series season winds down Sunday and it’s sure to be a wild one at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in California with several drivers in contention for the title.

Considering double points are up for grabs it doesn’t take a mathematician to realize no one is safe from clinching early, not even championship leader Josef Newgarden, who enters the finale with a slim three-point lead over Scott Dixon.

Newgarden’s three other Penske teammates are also in the thick of the title hunt. Alexander Rossi, sixth in the standings, and Graham Rahal, seventh, are both technically still in it, but then so are the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL playoff race.

Here’s a realistic rundown of the five drivers who have a shot at the Astor Cup.


Josef Newgarden, Team Penske (Chevrolet)

Standings: 1st, 560 points
2017 wins: 4
2017 pole positions: 0

The future is now for Newgarden as the fate of the championship is in the hands of the 26-year-old from Nashville, Tenn. Entering Sonoma at the top of the leaderboard, all Newgarden has to do is finish higher than the other guys on this list to secure his first championship. Easier said than done, of course, but being in the driver’s seat (pun intended) to control his own destiny gives him an advantage.

Newgarden has exceeded expectations in his first year with Team Penske and surpassed the combined total wins from his five previous seasons. Two of his victories this year have come at road courses Barber and Mid-Ohio, both similar to Sonoma. A Newgarden championship would do wonders for IndyCar with a young, media-savvy superstar in their hands, someone the series has been lacking for a long time.

Newgarden has shown he’s willing to wrestle anyone for the championship including his own teammates and who knows if that may come back to bite him. His pit-lane gaffe at Watkins Glen — racing teammate Will Power too hard to the exit line, running out of real estate and hitting the barrier — opened the door for the shootout for the championship rather than a comfortable cruise.

Coincidentally, the previous driver in the No. 2 Chevrolet for Team Penske, Juan Pablo Montoya, led the standings all season in 2015 until the final day at Sonoma when Scott Dixon swooped in and claimed the championship on a tiebreaker. Hmm …

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda)

Standings: 2nd, 557 points (3 back)
2017 wins: 1
2017 pole positions: 1

He’s done it before, so why not again? Only three points separate Dixon from Newgarden, which in a double-points race might as well be nothing.

Dixon is a four-time series champion and owner of 41 career race wins with three of those at Sonoma. A 42nd victory would tie him with Michael Andretti for third on the all-time wins list while a fifth championship would break a tie with Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti for sole possession of second on that list and just behind A.J. Foyt (seven). The New Zealander has shown no signs of slowing down at age 37 with plenty left in the tank to tackle the all-time record books.

Helio Castroneves, Team Penske (Chevrolet)

Standings: 3rd, 538 points (22 back)
2017 wins: 1
2017 pole positions: 3

It’s now or never for three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves, who has yet to claim a series championship in his 20-year career. Castroneves has come close, finishing second in the standings four times and third place three times.

The future is still a question mark for the 42-year-old Brazilian — will Penske keep him in the No. 3 car or will he shift over to sports car racing? — and this may be his final shot.

Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske (Chevrolet)

Standings: 4th, 526 points (34 back)
2017 wins: 1
2017 pole positions: 1

The defending series champion claimed his first title last season as the new guy in his second season with Team Penske, but Pagenaud has been surpassed by the newer guy Newgarden.

Pagenaud, from Montmorillon, France, won at Sonoma from pole position a year ago but had a 43-point advantage on teammate Power for the title entering that race. The last time someone won back-to-back IndyCar championships was Dario Franchitti, who pulled off a three-peat from 2009-11.

It would be understandable if Pagenaud is still fuming from Newgarden’s win last month at Gateway. Newgarden bumped Pagenaud out of the way for the lead late in the race en route to victory. The points swing continued as Pagenaud also lost ground to Dixon, who slipped by for second, while he finished third.

Will Power, Team Penske (Chevrolet)

Standings: 5th, 492 points (68 back)
2017 wins: 3
2017 pole positions: 6

Power has finished within the top four every season since 2010 when he began racing full-time for Team Penske.

The 2014 series champion from Australia has three wins this season, but it’s his six pole positions that stand out as qualifying at the front for Sonoma could be his golden ticket to the title where, like Dixon, he owns three victories already at the track.

Power still needs some luck. While the double points scenario guarantees he has a shot at scoring a maximum 104 points (pole, lead a lap, lead the most laps and win the race), it also means he will need the other four drivers ahead to finish at or near the back of the pack to ensure a title victory. Plus, Power just injured his knee while surfing and who knows how much that will affect him.

Still, if anyone could pull off those odds it’s Power and it would make for one heck of a come-from-behind story.


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