SALINAS, Calif – Team Penske knew that they had at the very least a 50-50 chance of winning the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship on Sunday at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Josef Newgarden led the points standings by 41 points over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. They just so happened to share Row 2 at the start of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.
The next threat to Newgarden was his teammate Simon Pagenaud who was 42 points arrears in third. He would roll off in sixth, one row being Newgarden at the start.
Finally, Scott Dixon was the only other one mathematically eligible to take home the season crown this weekend. Despite him starting on the front row in second, he was 85 points back. In order for him to win the title, Newgarden would have to finish in the bottom two of the finishing order while Pagenaud and Rossi were sixth or further back.
So, Penske knew that their realistic chances were more like 66-percent, if not higher. So, the plan was simple, Newgarden would stalk Rossi so that Rossi couldn’t gain any advantage on him. When Rossi pit, Newgarden pit. When Rossi made a move on track, Newgarden would follow in wake. Take no chances and ride in the mirror or Rossi all day and you know that he can’t beat you.
Then, as the race went on, Dixon would get eliminated.
So, the plan would work. It would be Newgarden vs. Pagenaud. Penske vs. Penske. They knew midway that one of their drivers would give them their fourth championship in six years.
The question was, whom?
Pagenaud was going for the race win. Newgarden, was stuck outside of the top five.
“That was weighing on me a lot,” Newgarden said. “I was just happy we were able to get through today. It was kind of a chaotic event. There was moments where I didn’t think it was going to go our way. We kind of set a strategy and stuck to it, and I don’t know that it was working out part way through, but then you saw towards the end, the way things were positioned, it ended up being okay, which made me really pleased. But I think we were trying to cover our bases as a team.
“The most important thing was for a Team Penske car to win the championship, and that’s the way we devised our strategy, and you hope it works out in your favor, but ultimately what’s important is the team winning the championship, and that was our plan.”
It paid off in Newgarden’s favor.
Pagenaud finished fourth, Rossi sixth and Newgarden eighth. Strategy goes to Newgarden. Despite that, Newgarden was worried that they made a wrong move for doing that.
“During the race I was like, I don’t like this. I don’t like the way I’m running this race,” Newgarden continued. “But today was the championship day. I think someone asked that earlier, kind of touched on it. Yeah, it was an odd race. I felt like we were going — I said this, too, I felt like we were going down a rabbit hole and it was just the wrong place to be going because I could see the writing on the wall where it was headed.
“I was doing one thing. My goal was to shadow Rossi, and that’s either going to be in my favor or it’s not. And it looked like it was coming out of that favor, that sort of strategy. But I had to stick to the plan. Our goose was kind of cooked after the first stint. It was like, look, you’ve made your bed, this is what it is.
“I do think we encountered a problem today, though. I don’t know what happened. My first stint was very good. The car felt normal. Rossi was really slow in front of me towards the end, and I was just doing my game. I was shadowing him. I was nervous he was going to wreck me if I tried to pass him. It sort of seemed like it.
“But then the second stint, as soon as I went to black tires, it was like something just happened. It was like we dropped a bunch of downforce or a shock went out or something like that, and I was really struggling with the car, but I was still keeping with my objective to shadow Rossi to the finish.
“So I think something might have been going on there. I don’t know what it was. But I also think the way the strategy was starting to fall — really Rossi’s strength is what was hurting us. He wasn’t very strong, either, and because I was following him and just trying to match where he was, it was kind of dragging me back at times. I think in the first stint we could have made a lot more hay. I think we could have passed him and just been up the road in a very different position.
“I told everyone, look, today was — when you’re in a race season, you have an opportunity every week to win a race, but you don’t have an opportunity every week to win a championship. So today was purely about that. And I would agree with you, I don’t think it was like our typical drive. I think normally we can blitz the field when we need to on a race style, and today was not that style.”
That’s why Newgarden was so elated when he crossed the finish line. Tears of joy began to fall as the normally non emotional Newgarden couldn’t stop crying of happines