SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — On the same day NASCAR opens its playoffs, the IndyCar Series will crown its champion.
Without gimmicks, elimination rounds, stages or bonus points, IndyCar has naturally produced the finale NASCAR yearns for every season: five drivers go into the season finale Sunday at Sonoma Raceway in contention for the title.
This is again a Penske vs. Ganassi showdown. Penske has four drivers in mathematical contention to grab the title, while Ganassi has one, Scott Dixon, the greatest IndyCar driver of his generation.
“It’s not just one competitor, it’s not two,” Dixon said, “we’re going into the last race with five cars that have a pretty good shot at winning it.”
It is basically a winner-take-all scenario, created when Newgarden opened up the points battle two weeks ago when he crashed his car exiting pit road at Watkins Glen. The Team Penske driver had breathing room atop the standings before that gaffe, now he’s got a pack of contenders ready to pounce at Sonoma.
It doesn’t help Newgarden that one of them is Dixon, who sits just three points behind him in the standings. The Iceman already has four championships, the last coming in quite similar fashion in 2015. Dixon won the finale at Sonoma, a race worth double points in the standings, to end the season tied in the standings with Juan Pablo Montoya.
The title went to Dixon on a tiebreaker — the only day all season Montoya did not lead the standings.
The New Zealander, a three-time winner at Sonoma, is currently tied with Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti with four championships, and one more crown would move him to second alone — behind seven-time champion A.J. Foyt.
Newgarden also must contend with his own teammates. Helio Castroneves is third in the standings, 22 points back. Reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud is fourth, 34 points back, and Will Power is a distant fifth, 68 points behind Newgarden. The entire Penske organization is racing itself Sunday to see if one of the four can bring Penske another title.
The organization changed nothing about its approach to the weekend when Sonoma opened Thursday for a daylong practice session.
“Oh, it’s business as usual,” Newgarden said. “I think that’s the way Team Penske operates. It’s also what’s helped us have so much success this year, is that’s the way we operate. I think we’re going to need to work together if we want to be better than the field. It’s not going to be, in my opinion, straightforward or easy to be better than everyone this weekend.”
Newgarden, in his first season with Penske, is 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.
But Castroneves won’t go away quietly. He’s seeking his first championship in his 20th, and perhaps final, season in the sport. His future in the Penske organization is undetermined, and Castroneves could be relegated to an Indianapolis 500 specialist.
Pagenaud is seeking to become only the second driver since 2007 to score consecutive season titles, and is the defending race winner. Power is a three-time winner this season, a three-time winner at Sonoma, and he’s trying to win his first title since 2014.
“I think you have to aim to win the race,” Newgarden said. “That’s what’s going to win you the championship. I mean, you’d like to do both. I would say win the race, and the championship will sort itself out.”