MONTEREY, Calif. — The stock answer for drivers not in the NTT IndyCar Series championship fight is to say they will steer clear of the four contenders and avoid impacting that outcome. But that might not be so simple.
Team Penske’s Will Power realizes he can help his teammates, points leader Josef Newgarden or third-place Simon Pagenaud, by claiming points from rivals. That starts with today’s run for the pole in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. If Power wins the pole, that’s one point that won’t be won by second-place Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport or fourth-place Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.
“Simply for me, it's whatever those guys need,” Power said. “If I'm ahead, on pole, then it's take points away. Win the race and make it much harder for someone else to win the championship.”
Then Sunday’s 90-lap race on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course becomes an interesting, ongoing dynamic in which drivers have to keep in mind more than just what they are doing. Contenders need to be aware of where the others are running. But for drivers not in that hunt, they are also aware that a contender might give up a spot without much of a fight if it won’t effect the championship.
“Certain people will get their elbows out if they have to,” rookie Colton Herta said. “It all depends on where they are in the running order and where they’re at in the championship in that running order.
“Let’s say Newgarden is leading and I can go for a pass, he’s probably not going to fight it that much because he just needs to finish fifth or sixth. Obviously, you never want to hurt somebody’s championship fight and you never want to take someone out. You race them like you normally do. I try to show respect to everyone. I try to always keep it within limits. Don’t change anything, don’t do anything unexpected and you’ll be fine.”
Newgarden’s cushion is 41 on Rossi, 42 on Pagenaud and 85 on Dixon. But it’s a double-point race, which means anything is still possible. Dixon is a five-time champion. Rossi was a runner-up last year but doesn't have a series title. Newgarden won in 2017 and Pagenaud prevailed in 2016.
Newgarden acknowledged the possible scenario that Herta described.
“If we’re running seventh and (other contenders) are running fourth then maybe I don’t force the issue,” Newgarden said. “If I’m running seventh and they’re leading, you have to. That’s when you have to become aware of where you’re at.”
Power, the 2014 champion, laments not being in that championship hunt. He’s fifth in the points, but 124 behind. But he’s been the hottest driver at the end of the season with wins at Pocono and Portland as well as a fourth at Mid-Ohio.
“Obviously the main thing for this weekend is for the team to win the championship,” he said of the team’s bid to win a 14th Indy car title for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske.
Power wants to see Newgarden or Pagenaud win, but isn’t inclined to show favoritism to one of them over the other.
“Definitely not favoring anyone in the championship,” he said. “They're both there. They both deserve it, including Rossi. I know how hard it is to get to that point. You got to give the guys that have made it and have a chance a lot of respect, honestly. You can't be playing any games out there.”
Graham Rahal, who is ninth in the points, is another driver on the outside looking in. It’s one thing to race contenders clean, he agreed, but it’s not so easy to avoid impacting the championship.
“I mean, you got to race them as hard as always,” Rahal said. “At the same time, I do think you've got to respect the position. You have to respect that you don't want to be the guy to alter the championship. You don't want to be the guy that ruins it for somebody that has worked as hard as they have all year.
“With the double-points scenario, really it's very easy to do that, to screw it up. If we didn't have double points, this thing would be pretty much over. You just kind of move on and see who is going to finish second.”
Rahal recalled how he was in position to finish second in the 2015 championship before an incident with Sebastien Bourdais dropped him back. Because that Sonoma race was double points, Rahal ended up finishing fourth in the championship.
“You don't want to be the guy that is the one that has that effect on it,” Rahal said. “At the same time, in my case, I'm here to win. I have no other interest but to win this weekend. If I finish seventh again this year, it's not going to do me any good.”
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).