Eighteen days ago, Josef Newgarden spoke prophetically about the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the championship to be won there.
“You could have a 60-point lead going in there and you still have to have a pretty good day,” he said before qualifying at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. “You can't walk the thing. Probably have to finish 11th or 10th, which is still hard. It's not easy to show up and finish in that spot.
“To me, (the championship) is still wide open, mainly because of double points. I don't love it because it's tough that it puts that much emphasis on a season finale. We all know the score going into the season. We know how the game works. I think you’ve got to play to how the championship is laid out.
“Unless you have a hundred-point lead, you're not going to be comfy going into the finale.”
The season finale is 12 days away now, and Newgarden doesn’t have a 60-point lead, nor does he feel comfy. He is in the lead, yes, but his margin is below his comfort threshold. Alexander Rossi, Newgarden’s closest challenger, is only 43 points behind. Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden’s teammate, is 44 points behind.
Double points at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey are good for Rossi and Pagenaud but dangerous for Newgarden. Especially if he stumbles, no matter how slightly. Finish well and it’s most likely his championship. But finishing well in these circumstances is a difficult task.
Right now, nobody is giving in to the pressure.
“We'll show up at Laguna ready and do everything we can to win,” Rossi said after finishing third Sept. 1 at Portland International Raceway. “There's no point getting nervous. You have to go into it trying to win a race like you would every other weekend, and if we can do that, then the rest is out of our control.”
This is serious drama. As it has been for 14 years running, the NTT IndyCar Series championship will be decided by the final race of the season. And this one? Well, this one is as close, unusual and interesting as we’ve come to expect.
Newgarden’s 593 points lead Rossi’s 552 and Pagenaud’s 551. Scott Dixon is still in the chase with 509, but it would take bizarre circumstances for him to win a sixth championship. Newgarden needs 63 points to clinch his second championship in three years. Without considering bonus points, he needs to finish fourth or better to hold the Astor Cup over his head.
That’s not as simple as it seems. This is the first race at Laguna Seca for Indy cars since 2004. Only four drivers in the current field -- Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan -- have race experience at the 11-turn, 2.238-mile road course. Anything can happen. Anything will happen.
“I don't think anyone has an advantage,” Newgarden said after finishing fifth at Portland. “With (Laguna Seca) being new, I don't know that that helps us. It brings more unknown. I think it's more of a variable that it's a brand new circuit essentially because it's been so long since we've been there. New car, new tires, it's all different from last time. … We don't really know what it's going to bring, and that's just more of a variable. I don't think that helps us. I think it's a wild card, if anything.”
Former baseball player Eric Davis once said this: “If you’re feeling pressure, then you shouldn’t be here.” He should know. He overcame cancer treatment to hit a game-winning home run for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1997 American League Championship Series.
Ignoring pressure is the way all four championship contenders are approaching Laguna Seca. Don't pay attention to points, concentrate on your performance, let the math fall where it may.
“The only control over my destiny is to do the best I can,” Pagenaud said. “It doesn't really matter what Josef or Alex or Scott do. It really is about my own performance. I'm really focused on that -- focused on being in the moment as much as possible.”
And what a moment it will be.
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).