PREVIEW: 2019 NTT IndyCar Series finale – Title contenders and permutations

by Jordan Groves

This weekend, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series will draw to a close and one of four drivers will be crowned champion. WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will play host to the championship decider, the 2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, with the finale also awarding double-points to the drivers.

As a result of double-points being awarded, there are one-hundred points on offer for the race winner, eighty points for second-place, seventy points for third-place and so on. What’s more, the usual bonus points will still apply. The pole-sitter will get an extra bonus point, as will any driver who leads a lap in the race. The driver who leads the most laps of the race will also be awarded two extra points. This means that a single driver could leave Laguna Seca with a points haul of 104-points if they can win the race from pole position whilst leading the most laps.

Heading into the finale, Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden is at the top of the standings, as has been the case for the vast majority of the 2019 season. Josef has a lead of forty-one points ahead of second-placed Alexander Rossi for Andretti Autosport. Just one point separates Rossi from third-placed Simon Pagenaud, with the fourth and final contender, Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Scott Dixon, a fair distance further back; trailing Newgarden by eighty-five points.

Newgarden will be aiming to secure his second NTT IndyCar Series championship trophy on Sunday. It has been a spectacular year for the American, who started off the season in the best of ways by winning on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. With further wins at Detroit, Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway, Josef has led the way in the championship standings after every race this season except one, the Indianapolis 500, where team-mate Pagenaud briefly took the top spot away before relinquishing it back at the next race.

Aside from Josef’s four wins, it has been his consistency that has put him in a position to secure his second title. With only three finishes outside of the top ten and twelve finishes in the top five, Josef can be proud of the effort that he has put in this season; with only a handful of blots on his scorecard after a last-lap mistake at Mid-Ohio and a last-lap incident with Santino Ferrucci at Gateway Motorsports Park costing him a number of vital points.

Credit: Shawn Gritzmacher / Courtesy of IndyCar

Alexander Rossi will enter the weekend as Newgarden’s closest challenger, having retaken the second spot in the championship standings after finishing on the podium at Portland International Raceway. Like Newgarden, Rossi has found himself in contention for the title after a great run of consistent results this season. However, Rossi took a little longer to find his stride at the start of the season than Newgarden did. His win at the Grand Prix of Long Beach kicked off what would be a great run of six podium finishes in eight races, including another win at Road America.

However, Rossi has had three finishes outside of the top ten, including one at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis where he did not even make it to turn one on lap one before picking up damage after an incident with Patricio O’Ward. He would also be involved in the controversial early wreck at Pocono Raceway and would then fall outside of the top ten a week later at Gateway Motorsports Park.

As a result of these recent poor finishes, Rossi now trails Newgarden in the standings by forty-one points, having been as close as four points away just a handful of races ago after the Grand Prix of Toronto. Nevertheless, Alexander has every chance of stealing the title at the last opportunity, as a poor finish for Newgarden could see Rossi vault to the top of the tables should he finish on the podium.

Newgarden’s team-mate, Simon Pagenaud, will also be going into the finale hoping to secure his second title. After questions began to be asked about Simon’s future at Team Penske after a difficult 2018 season, Simon has ended all potential speculation by having an incredible year. A superb month of May saw him win both the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500, before following that up with a third win of the year on the streets of Toronto.

Pagenaud’s road to being in the hunt for the title has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, with his month of May triumphs punctuating what had been a slow start to the season. In the first ten races, Pagenaud failed to finish any higher than sixth-place on all but two occasions, those two occasions being both Indianapolis races. However, a late improvement in form over the last few races has seen him climb back into contention, trailing Newgarden by just forty-two points heading into the finale. Like Rossi, Pagenaud could find himself right in the mix for the title should Newgarden falter in the final race.

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

The final championship contender heading into this weekend’s race is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon. The reigning series champion is just about in mathematical contention heading into the race at Laguna Seca, trailing Newgarden by eighty-five points after a wildly inconsistent season.

It took until the eighth race of the year for Dixon to pick up his first victory of 2019, with the New Zealander bouncing back from an uncharacteristic driver error in the first race of the Duel in Detroit to win the second race on Sunday. Later, he would narrowly hold off his rookie team-mate, Felix Rosenqvist, to take his second win of the year at Mid-Ohio.

In the sixteen races held this season so far, Scott has finished in the top five on ten occasions, with all but one of those ten races seeing him finish on the podium, too. However, the six remaining races all saw Dixon outside of the top ten, with three of those being race retirements. His mistake at the first Detroit race and his incident with Colton Herta at Texas Motor Speedway put Dixon in a hole that would be difficult to climb out of, but his pair of mechanical issues in the last two races at Gateway and Portland really put the nail in the coffin of his realistic hopes of taking the championship again. He will, essentially, have to hope for a miracle if he wants to keep his crown heading into 2020.

So those are the four championship contenders heading into this weekend’s race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Now, let’s take a look at the all important permutations that will decide who walks away with the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series title.

For championship leader Josef Newgarden, his goal this weekend is simple. If he finishes in the top four, he will claim the championship no matter where his rivals place. It is also highly likely that he would win the title if he finishes in fifth-place, too, as Rossi and Pagenaud would need to win and take two and three bonus points respectively to take the title for themselves.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

If Newgarden finishes in sixth-place or lower, things could start to get really interesting. If Newgarden finishes sixth with no bonus points, Rossi and Pagenaud could win the race and take the title. Newgarden could still win the title in this situation if he scores numerous bonus points, however.

If Newgarden finishes anywhere from seventh to ninth place, Rossi and Pagenaud would win the title if either of them won the race. Bonus points would be irrelevant here. If Newgarden finishes in tenth place or lower, Rossi and Pagenaud could win the title if they finish in second place with bonus points. The lowest position Rossi or Pagenaud could finish and still walk away with the crown would be in fourth place, but that would rely on Newgarden finishing well down in seventeenth place or lower, with Rossi and Pagenaud also having to score bonus points to take the championship.

The top three aside, Scott Dixon’s championship hopes rest on an extraordinary set of circumstances. If Dixon won the race on Sunday, he would win the title if Josef Newgarden finished in twenty-third place or lower and if Rossi and Pagenaud finished in sixth-place or lower. What’s more, he would also need to not lose any bonus points to the trio. Even with all of those factors going in his favour, the title could still end up going to a tiebreaker on prior results.

If all of this was not enough, the four title contenders will also head into the weekend having to deal with the relative unknown of racing at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. IndyCar has not raced at Laguna Seca since 2004, so a lot of the teams and drivers on the grid will not have much data heading into the race; aside from some laps of testing earlier in the year. Laguna Seca is a notoriously difficult circuit to overtake at, so qualifying could be just as important for the title showdown as the race itself.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series is set for a thrilling conclusion this weekend. Qualifying will take place on Saturday, September 21, with the race itself – the 2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – will take place on Sunday, September 22.

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