It’s not quite the halfway point of the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season in terms of number of races, but after six contests the championship contenders are beginning to emerge.
The top three are, “different verse, same as before” with five-time INDYCAR champion Scott Dixon leading 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud and two-time INDYCAR champ Josef Newgarden.
Fourth place, though, is a bit of a surprise. It’s Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward of Mexico followed by 2014 series champion Will Power and Graham Rahal.
As of now, there are eight races remaining, including a double points-paying 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge scheduled for Aug. 23.
Dixon won the first three races of the season before finishing 12th in the second of two races at Road America. He rallied with a second-place finish in the first of the Iowa INDYCAR 250s on July 17 and fifth the following night at Iowa Speedway.
That has given Dixon a fairly comfortable 49-point edge over Team Penske’s Pagenaud before INDYCAR reconvenes Aug. 8-9 for the Honda Indy 200 doubleheader at Mid-Ohio. Dixon is a six-time winner at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, including last year’s race.
Dixon is right where he wants to be in terms of the points.
“You always want to be in the lead,” Dixon said. “It’s always a good story when you come from behind to win the championship, but honestly you want to lead and keep the lead the whole season. That is what we are definitely going to try to do.
“This is the spot you want to be in, and hopefully we’ll keep it there.”
Dixon’s lead over defending INDYCAR champion Newgarden is 53. O’Ward is fourth, 82 points out of the lead.
Power and Rahal are next, both 102 points behind Dixon as the series is six races into a scheduled 14-race season.
“I think we are pretty strong,” Rahal said. “I feel like we have a chance to really improve with Pato O’Ward and guys that we can do pretty good. I think we can close that gap a little bit. Dixie is going to be strong. Friday night at Iowa, I passed him a couple of times, and he finished (second). How did that happen?
“At the end of the season, he is going to be tough to beat for the championship.”
The points leader has been impressed with Rahal’s recent resurgence and still views him as a viable championship contender in 2020.
“Graham has been doing an awesome job,” Dixon said. “Strategy clipped his wings a little bit at the Indy road course. That two-stopper was going to be interesting for some people. I expected him to be a lot better in Race 1 at Iowa, then it showed in Race 2. Yes, that caution bolted him to the front, but he was very quick in that stint.
“Graham has crazy speed sometimes, man. Not always in qualifying, but in the race, it’s like, where did that thing come from? It’s good to see him in the championship, I think he will work on that and do quite well.”
With a dramatically revamped schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this season features doubleheaders events at several venues to make up for the loss of other contests that had to be canceled, including new doubleheaders announced for Mid-Ohio, World Wide Technology Raceway and the INDYCAR Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It’s also condensed with a lot of doubleheaders that are going to make up this season,” Rahal said. “It certainly feels like it is more a sprint than we are used to.”
Both Rahal and Power have to make up two races worth of points to overtake Dixon. O’Ward’s deficit is closer, as the rookie driver from Monterey, Mexico, continues to impress in his first full-time season in INDYCAR.
“We’ve worked with Oliver Askew in the past with some of the tests we’ve done with rookies,” Dixon said. “Pato has done several races before this season and was a standout in Indy Lights and the championship over Colton Herta, and we all know how good Herta is. I’m not surprised. Schmidt (predecessor of Arrow McLaren SP) has been very strong in the past. They have a lot of depth to that team at the moment.
“I may not have expected him to be fighting for the championship this year, but they definitely have potential and will be a force to be reckoned with not only this year, but in years to come.”
Third place is occupied by Team Penske’s Newgarden, who dominated the second race of the Iowa INDYCAR 250s on July 18 at Iowa Speedway for his first win of the season and his third top-five finish in the first six races.
Newgarden believes he still has time to defend his 2019 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
“I don’t think it’s too late at the moment,” Newgarden said. “We are starting to shake things up now. There is a long way to go. We are just shy of halfway. I do think we need to have a stronger second half to the season. We had the potential to showcase the strength that we needed in the first half; we just didn’t have all of the finishes materialize like we needed to.
“I feel confident. We have a good handle on what we need to be doing, we have great race cars underneath us, a great team underneath us. It’s a matter of really executing the results for the second half. That is what we are focused on.”
INDYCAR is extremely competitive in terms of drivers that can win races, but Newgarden was not surprised that a driver as legendary as Dixon started the season with three straight wins.
“Anything is possible,” Newgarden said. “You never know how these races are going to fall. We gave Scott too many layups to start the year. Their team is so good and Scott is so good, they are going to take advantage of that whenever you open the door and give them the opportunity.
“Some of that was self-inflicted and some of it was out of our control. We’re hoping that happens to us on the second half. If they give us some opportunities or if things fall perfectly for us, we are going to take advantage, just like they did.”
Then there is Pagenaud, the winner of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 who began the season with a second place behind Dixon at Texas, a third place in the July 4 GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis, a “last-to-first” victory at Iowa Speedway on July 17 and a fourth-place at Iowa the following night.
He knows it will be difficult to track down Dixon for the championship lead, but the “Flying Frenchman” remains determined.
“Dixon certainly had a fast start, but equally so I think we have had some tremendous performances, whether it was Texas, Indy GP and both Iowa races,” Pagenaud said. “I am very proud of what Team Penske and all three teams are doing right now. We are being consistent, we have pace, and we are scoring points. Dixon may be in a good cycle right now, but it's a long season, and we are chasing him down, biding our time.”
When Dixon looks in his rear-view mirror in the championship chase, he sees two Team Penske drivers ready to pounce.
Dixon wouldn’t expect it any other way.
“The Penske crowd is always our toughest competition,” Dixon said. “Andretti Autosport is typically strong. Some of their big feathers have had an uneasy start as far as problems. Alexander Rossi has been plagued by a ton of problems.
“There is still a ton of time in the season, so that will change a lot. We know the competition is super tough. It’s a matter of keeping our head down, focusing on race wins and not change anything like racing for points and racing for championships.”