By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
PORTLAND, Ore. – Despite already having a championship to his name, NTT IndyCar Series points leader Josef Newgarden is anything but comfortable heading into Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.
One of the showstoppers from last year’s 105-lap contest due to his daring passes heading into the Shelton Chicane, the man with a 38-point advantage over his Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud knows the task at hand in these final two races.
The gap between the two Penske teammates could favor the leader as his 38 points is an advantage that nobody has overcame since 2008. Obviously, it should bring some confidence to the 2017 champion but it’s just not the case.
“I would say it is because we’re in such a favorable position,” Newgarden said. “I don’t think it’s a secure position, but it is the favorable one.
“If we lose it, it probably would sting a bit more. If you are 38, 48 points back, I think it stings less. It sucks either way. But if you lose it with a bigger advantage, then yeah, I think it just stings a bit more.”
Even if he has the points lead and the focus right now is Sunday, Newgarden knows the bigger picture is the double-points system in the finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in three weeks.
Look no further than 2015 when Juan Pablo Montoya. He led the entire championship trail all the way until the finale at Sonoma Raceway when he lost the battle to Scott Dixon via tiebreaker.
In Friday’s press conference, Newgarden brought up Dixon, who is currently 70 markers behind him and sits fourth in points. Who’s to say Dixon has another classic race where he cuts the deficit and puts himself in excellent position in Monterrey.
Only problem Dixon has are the setbacks that puts him this behind with two rounds to go. Those were his last-place finish in the first race at Belle Isle and car issues last Saturday at Gateway.
From now on, he’ll just go after it and see where it’ll take him as his bid for a sixth title could be obsolete if he doesn’t have a strong result.
“I’d rather be 70 points ahead. It’s kind of a bummer after last weekend,” Dixon said. “I think it could have been a good opportunity. Car felt decent. To have something small like that take us out.
“That’s racing. We’ll just get on with it. It’s nice not to have to worry about points, that scenario. Kind of just get after it, try to have a good weekend, see what happens in Laguna.”
It’s nothing but controlling his own destiny for Pagenaud, who knows what’s at stake but didn’t deny how exciting the title battle is coming down to four guys at this point of the season.
“The only control over my destiny is to do the best I can,” Pagenaud said. “It doesn’t really matter what Josef or Alex (Rossi) or Scott do. It really is about my own performance. I’m really focused on that, focused on being in the moment as much as possible. We’ll see what we can do.”
Before the race, there’s another chase Newgarden and the other 22 drivers in this weekend’s grid have to conquer, qualifying.
That’ll be key for the title contenders because there’s no guarantee how the opening lap will impact the championship chase.
At this rate, being the pole sitter may be the safest bet but who’s to say how it’ll unfold Sunday.
Newgarden commented nobody can truly predict qualifying, especially how two out of the three main practice sessions saw the entire 23-car grid separated by under a second.
“Some days it’s the right ingredient to be on pole. Nothing happens from a strategy standpoint that affects that and you want to be starting first,” Newgarden said. “Some days you could start 20th and that ends up being the better position to start in. It’s hard to predict. Sometimes it falls that way, sometimes it doesn’t.
“I think if you’re on pole, you hope it’s going to be a pretty clean day. If you’re in the back, you hope something favors you. I’m telling you, it’s hard to predict.”
The fight to not just go for the pole but making the Firestone Fast Six could be the most anticipating qualifying session we’ll see in Indy car this year and that’ll unfold at 6:00 pm EST live on NBCSN.
It’s a can’t miss television moment and so will the race Sunday at 3:00 pm EST on NBC.