By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
Simon Pagenaud can no longer be overlooked in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series title hunt.
The Frenchman brought the smack down in Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto by winning the pole, leading 80 of 85 laps and winning the race.
But more so than that, Pagenaud reminded everybody that he was still someone to pay attention to as the season’s middle portion winds down.
Pagenaud’s diversity is his strength, having won at 11 different tracks since his first win at Detroit in 2013. What’s more impressive is since joining Team Penske, Pagenaud has ten wins and led the most laps in eight of those. The No. 22 Chevrolet tends to dominate when finding victory lane and that should worry the rest of the paddock, especially given that there are bonus points for leading the most laps.
Those stats don’t mean we can count out the rest of the title contenders, however. Josef Newgarden may be the driver to beat at Iowa given that his worst finish at the .875 mile oval in the last five years is sixth. However, Alexander Rossi has continued to be the wildest and most exciting driver to watch in American racing today. The Californian put on a clinic at a similarly-sized oval in Phoenix in 2018 when he was down a lap early in the race and made up that lap to finish third behind Newgarden and Robert Wickens.
The American duo on top of the standings have garnered much of the focus this season. Newgarden is Penske’s near-perfect young charger with three wins and three extra podiums to lead the points. Rossi has two wins and three runner-up finishes for Andretti Autosport and is only four points behind Newgarden. In fact, the pair have combined for three “1-2” finishes with Rossi winning at Long Beach and Newgarden winning at Detroit and Texas, a fact that has frustrated Rossi.
Pagenaud is behind Rossi in points but many were looking behind Pagenaud to Scott Dixon as the next championship contender. And why shouldn’t they?
Dixon is a five-time series champion with 45 wins in American open wheel competition. The 2008 Indianapolis 500 champion is one or two Indianapolis 500 wins away from being a serious threat to A. J. Foyt in the Indy car racing G.O.A.T (greatest of all time) discussion. Dixon’s won at two of the next three venues INDYCAR visits and is primed to make a run at the top two in the championship.
However, Dixon is 86 points behind Newgarden in points and hasn’t finished better than third at Iowa despite racing there every year since the series first raced there in 2007. Combine that with the fact that Newgarden’s had only two finishes below fourth all year long and Rossi has one finish outside the top 10 because of an incident that wasn’t his fault and it’s clear that Dixon has a mountain to climb.
The championship battle is closing up between the top four contenders in the championship. If current trends are maintained then elbows will be out, tempers will run high and the pressure could cause a meltdown.
Everyone will see the first step of that at Iowa on Saturday night. It might not be a bad idea to figure out a way to get to Newton. It’s little more than a half hour east of Des Moines, if you were wondering.