PORTLAND, Oregon — As Will Power celebrated his triumph in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, team owner Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric offered their proud congratulations and then quickly and quietly departed from the victory lane euphoria.
The big picture is never lost on these men, especially with another NTT IndyCar Series championship within reach with one race remaining.
Despite starting 13th, and then how he started by needing to lock up his brakes to avoid a first-lap, first-corner incident that took out four cars, series points leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske surged to a fifth-place finish to widen his advantage on Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi to 41 points and Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud by 42.
That standing is what matters most entering the Sept. 22 season finale, the double-points Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“It’s not enough,” Cindric said with a chuckle about Newgarden’s edge in trying to add another series crown to his 2017 title.
MAKING A POINT: Official Portland Results
Cindric is Newgarden’s strategist, so he was already thinking about that cushion. Newgarden also admitted he wished their margin was larger because Laguna Seca’s double-points reward can dramatically impact the final standings.
For example, either Rossi or Pagenaud could claim the title with a win at Laguna Seca if Newgarden finished outside of the top four..
"Yeah, 60 would have been better,” Newgarden said of that cushion. “Well, really 70 -- 70 would have been nice. Heck, 90 -- 90 would have been lovely.
"No, it's honestly not enough with double points. It's just not. I don't think we're very comfortable.”
That said, considering an eventful weekend in which Newgarden failed to advance past the first round of qualifying by one-one-thousandth of a second, to be No. 1 and actually add to his margin by three points was a modest positive.
“I wouldn’t say nervous,” Cindric said. “You just always want as much as you can.”
Rossi, who finished second in last year's championship, reminded that anything is possible in mentioning how Scott Dixon came from 47 points back to win the 2015 title over Juan Pablo Montoya.
"We'll just go try and win," Rossi said, "and hopefully the rest takes care of itself."
That Newgarden was able to avoid the first-corner carnage was imperative. Cindric couldn’t see where his driver was for a few anxious moments. Pagenaud was actually bumped from behind by Max Chilton, but the Frenchman rebounded to finish seventh to keep the 2016 champion’s hopes alive for a second title.
“I couldn’t see it for sure,” Cindric said. “I knew (Newgarden) was in it, it was just a matter of where he was going to end up. For him to basically end up clean, and then when they reordered it I thought we were going to have to start 18th, but we were back to 11th, then we ran a solid race after that.”
The result was reminiscent of last year, when Dixon avoided serious damage in a multi-car incident in Turn 3 of the opening lap. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver came back to finish fifth, then clinched his fifth series championship in the season finale at Sonoma.
“Yeah, maybe we've got Scott's mojo from last (year) — it was like Scott could do no wrong last year,” Newgarden said. “Nothing ever bad happened to him, and this year he's had a couple of small things hit him here right at the end, the radiator (at Gateway) and now the battery deal (at Portland).”
Dixon was leading when his battery failed and dropped him back three laps. His 16th place finish leaves him 85 points behind Newgarden. He’s not mathematically eliminated, but realistically is a long shot in needing to win and have the other competitors struggle and end up in the back of the pack.
“That's INDYCAR,” Newgarden said. “Sometimes this cycles around. You'll get the good years, you'll get the bad. Hopefully, we continue to have a good year in Laguna and then kind of finish it off because you never know when you're going to have a bad year again. It's far from over, but I for sure would rather be in the position we are in instead of second or third.”
Cindric praised his driver for a smooth drive. Late in the race, Newgarden was closing on rookie Colton Herta and could have aggressively made a run for fourth place. That kind of aggression has cost Newgarden at times, most recently when he spun out on the last lap and dropped 10 spots to 14th in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
Cindric radioed Newgarden and continually reminded, “Be smart.” And he was.
“He’s the kid you’ve got to pull back, and that’s what you want,” Cindric said. “At the end of the day, if you have to push ‘em forward you probably have to find someone else.
“We didn’t need to race Herta that hard. If it was the first race of the year and we had that much overtake left, it might have been a different story. It’s not the time.”
Newgarden acknowledged again that this race could have negatively impacted the title chase had he not avoided trouble on the opening lap. He recalled a sense of relief that another car didn’t plow into him.
“We just missed all that chaos,” he said. “It happened right in front of me in Turn 1, so I was in the mess. But fortunately we didn't touch anything, it was just right in front of us. I stopped and then went around it, and we got going again.
“We just need to have a better weekend in Laguna. Obviously, it's still going to be quite tough with the double points. If it wasn't double points I think it would be a lot easier, but double points is going to make it difficult.”
INDYCAR concludes its 17-race season with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday, Sept. 22. Television coverage will begin on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. PT local) with the green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m. local). Live radio broadcasts will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).