MADISON, Illinois – In many estimations, last year’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline provided the turning point of Verizon IndyCar Series season and championship.
When Josef Newgarden nudged way inside teammate Simon Pagenaud and into race lead with 31 laps to go, it cemented the young American as a true threat for the title. Newgarden went on to win the championship in his first year with Team Penske.
BOMMARITO AUTOMOTIVE GROUP 500: Starting lineup
Will Power, a teammate to both Newgarden and Pagenaud, was an interested observer of the incident after crashing out of the race early.
“That was really the move that won the championship if you look at the points at the end,” Power said recently, reflecting on the 13-point advantage Newgarden held over Pagenaud at season’s end. “I thought the way Newgarden attacked the second half of the season was really impressive.
“He was on the inside (making the pass heading into Turn 1). At the point that (it happened), Simon kept squeezing him and squeezing him but left a car width (for Newgarden). It was fair both ways, really. It was a risk that two Penske cars were going to be in the wall, but they weren’t.
“If won Josef the race; it was a good move.”
Newgarden won that night. Whoever wins this year’s race on the 1.25-mile oval may get a leg up on the 2018 series championship. With the starting grid set by entrant points due to rain on Friday, points leader Scott Dixon starts on pole with second-place Alexander Rossi alongside in Row 1.
Ten drivers remain mathematically eligible for the title heading into the race, the 15th of 17 this season. Anyone 159 or more points behind the leader after the 248-lap race is eliminated from contention.
Dixon, in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, felt he had a good race car following practice on Friday. He’s not about to look in the mirror to see who may be closing in on him.
“We'll just stick to our own strategy and try and make the car better (during the race), the four-time champion said. “There's no point in us sort of trying to follow along what (the other contenders are) up to. We just need to keep our heads down and try and make the most of it.”
Rossi trails Dixon by 29 points. Newgarden is in third, 66 points back. Power holds down fourth place, 81 behind Dixon. Double race points are available at the season finale in three weeks, but the contenders know they need to remain within reach of Dixon for now, if not overtake him.
Rossi has won the two most recent races and knows he must keep the pressure on.
“I still need to win races,” the driver of the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda said. “Scott is not, as I've said many times, he's not going to have a bad weekend, so we're still quite a ways out. The only way to close that gap is to win races.”
BOMMARITO AUTOMOTIVE GROUP 500
Race 15 of 17 on the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule
Track: Gateway Motorsports Park, a 1.25-mile oval in Madison, Illinois. This will be the ninth Indy car race dating to 1997.
Race distance: 248 laps/310 miles
Fuel: 90 gallons of Sunoco E85 ethanol for each car
Full fuel stint: 50-55 laps
Television: NBCSN, 8 p.m. ET (also available on NBCSports.com and NBC Sports app)
Radio: Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, 8 p.m. ET (network affiliates, Sirius 121, XM 209, IndyCar.com, IndyCarRadio.com, INDYCAR Mobile app)