SONOMA, Calif. — Josef Newgarden moved a step closer to his first IndyCar title by leading a Penske parade into the IndyCar season finale.
Four of the five drivers still mathematically eligible to win the championship Sunday are from Team Penske. In qualifying, they showed they have the raw speed to grab this title.
But it’s Newgarden, in his first season driving for Penske, who led the charge. He’s the points leader and three times broke the track record in Saturday’s qualifying session. His final run in his Chevrolet was at 1 minute, 15.5205 seconds and gave Newgarden just the second pole of his career.
The bonus point he earned for the pole gives him a four-point lead over Scott Dixon heading into Sunday’s season finale. The race is worth double points.
"This is IndyCar racing, anything can happen. We checked one thing off the box this weekend and we have one big one to check off tomorrow," said Newgarden. "We’ve got to get through the race, we’ve got to have a good racecar – qualifying is one thing, having speed is one thing, but winning the race is a whole other deal."
Newgarden was ecstatic after the pole-winning run and celebrated with his Penske team. He’s trying to become only the second U.S.-born driver in 11 years to win the championship.
His upgrade to Penske equipment this season has led to four victories and put him in control of the championship. If he finishes higher than all the other contenders Sunday, he wins the title.
Penske drivers Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves qualified second, third and fourth. Dixon was sixth and struggled through all three qualifying sessions.
The four-time series champion started the weekend just three points behind Newgarden and considered the favourite to win the title because of his ruthless attacking style, steely demeanour and experience. But his Ganassi Honda clearly lacked the speed of the Chevrolet’s from Penske.
"The Penske group are fast here, and it’s exactly what we expect, but the race is going to be interesting," said Dixon, who thinks he’ll have to rely on strategy on Sunday to win the race.
"We can definitely make it work."
James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., qualified 16th while Montreal’s Zachary Claman DeMelo will start 21st.
Team owner Chip Ganassi wasn’t thrilled with the sixth-place starting spot for Dixon, but didn’t seem concerned about his chances at another championship. Dixon started ninth in 2015 when he won the race, tied Juan Pablo Montoya in the standings and won the championship on a tie-breaker.
"It was not our best qualifying effort, we’d like to be a little further up there, but they don’t hand out points until after the race," Ganassi said.
Penske really likes his chances with four drivers in contention — he believes Power at fifth in points in a longshot — but knows beating Dixon will be a difficult task. Should Dixon pull it off, would The Captain be crushed?
"I’m as level as I can be, when I am up and when I am down," Penske said. "I will be disappointed, but I’ll move on. When you think about nine races you’ve won this year, I don’t think it’s been a bad year.
"I think Scott Dixon is one of the very best out here, and I respect him and the team. But Josef’s got a great opportunity, and we’ve got three guys that can win this thing."
Castroneves had an anxious few moments after he only made one qualifying run in the first round. Although it was good enough to advance to the second round, he sat nervously on pit road hoping another driver would not bump him from elimination.
The idea to make only one qualifying run was strategic, so Castroneves could hang on to an additional set of tires, but it was risky. He pumped his fist from inside his cockpit when the session ended and he advanced.
The popular Brazilian is in his 20th, and possibly last, full season in IndyCar. Penske has hinted strongly at moving Castroneves to the sports car team he’s launching next season. Castroneves would probably run only at the Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar.
Because there’s been no formal announcement about 2018, there’s constant speculation about Castroneves.
"The media has helped me create a real frenzy at this time," Penske said.
But, Penske sure sounded like a team owner about to move Castroneves out of IndyCar.
"He and I talked about his future 12 months ago, we were looking — do we have a sports car program?" Penske said. "We didn’t know if we would or if we wouldn’t. We have one now, and we want to get through this weekend and probably in the next 30 days we’ll make a decision."