MONTEREY, Calif. – INDYCAR's championship weekend officially begins today with six hours of testing at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. But the four NTT IndyCar Series title contenders, three rookie-of-the-year hopefuls and series president Jay Frye kicked off the final stretch of the 2019 season with a fan event Wednesday night streamed on NTT INDYCAR Mobile.
The drivers were interviewed by Leigh Diffey, who will call Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey for NBC. The comments by the drivers set the stage for what stands to be an exciting weekend.
For starters, this is the 14th consecutive year that the NTT IndyCar Series championship will be decided by the final race. In this case, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden leads Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi by 41 points and teammate Simon Pagenaud by 42 points. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon is 85 points in arrears.
As has been the case since 2015, the final race will have double the regular number of points distributed, which means a win Sunday is worth 100 points (plus a bonus point for leading a lap, another bonus point for winning the pole, and two more bonus points for leading the most laps). A sweep of the event will earn a driver 104 points, with the most a second-place finisher can earn in that scenario 81 points (double the usual number of points, plus another for leading a lap).
The drivers had predictable responses to the double-points format.
“I hated it when I was leading (in 2016), now I love it,” Pagenaud said. “Keep (the points) coming.”
Newgarden controls his path to the championship. He can secure a second career title – he won in 2017 -- by finishing fourth or better regardless how the other contenders finish.
“We’re confident, but we’re not overly confident,” he said. “As I’ve told people, it’s not easy to finish fourth in an INDYCAR race. (Fourth place) is a good day, a really good day.”
The contenders won’t just have themselves to contend with this weekend. For example, Team Penske’s Will Power has won two of the past three races. Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay won last year's season finale -- at Sonoma Raceway -- to steal some of the weekend spotlight from Dixon, who won the championship.
Pagenaud said he feels “grateful” and “excited” to be in position to fight for this championship, but he’s already got an Indianapolis 500 victory and two other race wins this season to label this "the best year of my career."
“But at the end of the day I’m here to win championships – I’m not here to be fifth or sixth or whatever,” INDYCAR’s 2016 champion said. “I have a chance (to win) this weekend, and it’s a good chance. For me, it’s not even about the others really; it’s just about myself. I’ve got to prepare my race car the best I can, prepare myself for the racetrack, understanding (how) to be fast and then be the fastest on the weekend.
“The others can worry about (their positions).”
Dixon needs to win the race to have any chance at a sixth career series championship. Because of the long odds, Dixon said he doesn’t feel any new pressure this weekend.
“As far as crunching the numbers, for sure no,” he said. “I guess there’s always pressure in racing and you never want to make silly mistakes, but we’d have to have a lot go our way, including (three others) have pretty bad luck to flip it. It is what it is.”
This will be INDYCAR’s first race at the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course since 2004. None of the title contenders were in that race and only Dixon (2001 and ’02) has raced an Indy car here. However, Pagenaud won a pair of sports car races here, and Rossi considers it his home track. Newgarden has never raced here in any type of car, but there will be nearly 10 hours of track time before Sunday's green flag waves.
"You can't ask for more than that -- that's pretty good," Newgarden said. "If you can't figure it out in that time period you're probably not going to figure it out this year."
Rossi, who first visited the track as a young boy with his father, raced Skip Barber cars and the Formula BMW Series here. While none of that is applicable to the racing that will go on this weekend, it gives him a starting point in terms of confidence.
“For sure the subconscious confidence that comes with it being a familiar place is a good thing,” he said. “Whether it translates into anything is impossible to say, but it’s not a completely foreign environment for me and it’s a place that I loved coming to. I wake up happy coming to this racetrack.
“Even today just driving in for setup day and going over the Turns 5-6 bridge and driving the hill and seeing the paddock brought back a lot of memories and a smile to my face. I just kind of took a moment and thought, ‘This is cool.’ Regardless of how it ends up it’s really cool that my whole family will be here this weekend. This is where the journey all began.”
Thursday’s open test will be split into two sessions: 12:15-2:15 p.m. ET (9:15-11:15 a.m. PT local) and 4:30-8:30 p.m. (1:30-5:30 p.m. local).
Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist will try to hold off Dale Coyne Racing's Santino Ferrucci and Harding Steinbrenner Racing's Colton Herta for the Rookie of the Year Award. Rosenqvist leads Ferrucci by 26 points and Herta by 49 points.
INDYCAR concludes its 17-race season with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday. 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).