SALINAS, Calif – The NTT IndyCar Series is down to one last race of the 2019 season. Sunday’s season finale at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca comes down to one race among four drivers to see who will be crowned as the season champion.
The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/INDYCAR Radio Network) is unique as the series hasn’t raced here in well over a decade. That evens the proverbial playing field.
So, while one of the four drivers will be hoisting the Astor Cup championship trophy on Sunday afternoon, the other three will be looking back as to what they could have done differently.
Here’s what all four could have done at some course during the season.
This has been a pretty straightforward season for the Team Penske driver. He won the season opener in St. Pete and held the distinction of being the points leader following every race with the exception of one. That was due to double points being on the line for the Indianapolis 500 and Simon Pagenaud starting on the pole, leading the most laps as well as winning the race too. Newgarden, finished a respective fourth that day but all those points on the line cost him the championship lead.
But, the points lead now could actually be more than the 41 point margin over second place if Newgarden didn’t make some rare mistakes.
First off, it all starts with the INDYCAR Grand Prix. Newgarden got his way to the front somehow from the 13th place starting spot. The race was his to lose. That’s exactly what happened too.
Newgarden, hit pit lane and his team put slicks on again. That was a questionable move. With rain imminent, if he went with Firestone Wets, he would have likely won. Instead, they put on slicks, the rain fell right after and the rest was history. He’d finish 15th, giving up 25+ points at least in the process.
Another mistake came in Belle Isle 2. Newgarden, was fighting too hard for the lead and got into a tangle with James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi on Lap 33 when all three were battling for the lead heading into the tight right hand corner in Turn 3. He’d finish 19th as a result.
It would be another month before his next mistake at Mid-Ohio. Newgarden, should have finished fourth in the Honda Indy 200. Instead, he pushed too hard on the final lap to get by Ryan Hunter-Reay for the final spot on the podium. Newgarden, spun as a result of contact between the two and finished 14th. If he just plays it conservative, he would have scored 32 points for the race. Instead, he left with 17.
The final mistake came on the last lap two races later in Gateway. He was trying too hard to get by Santino Ferrucci for fourth on the last corner instead of just coming home fifth. He nearly crashed while crossing the finish line seventh. That’s a loss of four more points.
His downfall would be bad luck. In COTA, he was shaping up to finish second before a late race caution caught him out before hitting pit lane for the final time. Instead of a podium, he’d finish ninth and gave up at least 13 points due to an ill timed caution. A bad timed caution in Gateway cost him a top five too as he went from a certain top five result to 13th instead.
Then, two opening lap crashes also cost him.
An opening lap incident with Pato O’Ward in the INDYCAR Grand Prix cost him precious points. Again, this was a crash not of his doing. Rossi, was credited with a 22nd place finish.
A first lap crash at Pocono cost him a fast car and a good finish. He’d finish 18th that day.
Bad luck on cautions and two first lap mishaps could derail Rossi from scoring a championship.
The 2016 series champion’s downfall would be a slow start and an Indy 500 hangover. Through the first four races, Pagenaud did have three top 10 finishes but none of which were in the top five.
Then, his luck changed to good.
He charged to a win in the INDYCAR Grand Prix, then won the pole, led 116 of 200 laps in the Indy 500 en route to a Month of May sweep. That propelled him to the championship lead.
Then, the obligations of being an Indy 500 winner got in the way. Following a Month of May that saw the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Indy 500 qualifying, Indy 500 itself, the series had a doubleheader weekend in Detroit followed by a race in the heat at Texas.
In a four race stretch in June, Pagenaud had three top 10’s again but none were in the top five. He failed to lead a single lap.
That took him from first to third heading into a much needed two week break. It paid off.
Pagenaud, came out the gates in Toronto on fire. He was quickest in every practice, started on the pole and led 80 of 85 laps en route to a dominating race weekend north of the border. That was followed by a fourth place run in Iowa and sixth at Mid-Ohio.
Then came another break followed by a third in Pocono, fifth in Gateway and seventh in Portland.
Pagenaud, has outplaced Newgarden in three of the last four races.
Dixon’s bid for a sixth career championship was hampered by rare mistakes and bad luck mishaps. He came out of the gates hot with a podium in four of the first five races. A rough Month on the Indy oval saw him qualify 18th and finish a disappointing 17th. A week later, Dixon made his first real mistake in two years in crashing on Lap 23 in the wet in Belle Isle. He’d finish 22nd for his first DNF since Texas in 2017.
While he battled back and won the next day on the streets of Belle Isle, he made a crushing mistake in trying to pass rookie Colton Herta with 20 laps remaining a week later in Texas and crashed for a second time in three races. Dixon, went from a sure top five to 17th.
Then, Dixon turned it on again. He had five straight top five finishes including a win and three runner-ups heading into Gateway. Unfortunately, a radiator went out early on in the race in St. Louis which relegated him to a 20th place result. A week later, he had another mechanical issue while leading the race in Portland. He’d finish 16th.
The reason he doesn’t win the championship in 2019 is because of those rare crashes and bizarre mechanical failures.