How Will This Championship Play Out?

After a weekend where I was submersed in football (some good, some very bad), it’s good to refocus on the battle for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Sometimes it’s good to push away from racing for a few days. After the last few weekends where we saw Scott Dixon’s lead shrink from sixty-two points to twenty-six and then go back to the current spread of twenty-nine – it was good to forget about it for a few days so that I can look at it with a more refreshed perspective as we go into the final race weekend of the season.

When the series left Toronto was when Scott Dixon held a whopping sixty-two point lead after winning the race. However, that lead was over Josef Newgarden – who was second in the championship at that time. Alexander Rossi was third then and was seventy points behind Dixon. Rossi finished eighth at Toronto, following a ninth place finish at Iowa and a sixteenth place finish at Road America before that. Rossi had become an afterthought in the championship and it looked like his early season success of three straight podiums with a win at Long Beach was a fleeting memory.

But after the series left Toronto; Rossi got red-hot, Newgarden got cold, while Dixon had some of the best drives of his career after setbacks in each race.

After Toronto, Alexander Rossi reeled off dominating wins at Mid-Ohio and Pocono, while nursing a fuel-saving strategy at Gateway for an unlikely second-place finish. At Portland, an ill-timed yellow flag prevented leaders Newgarden and Rossi from ever sniffing the lead for the rest of the day. Rossi finished eighth, while Newgarden finished tenth. Still – it’s Rossi, and not Newgarden, who is now in second place trailing Dixon by twenty-nine points.

It’s not that Newgarden has had poor results, they just haven’t been the kind of results that will win championships. After winning at Road America, Newgarden has had respective finishes of fourth, ninth, fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth. While they weren’t bad finishes, Newgarden has been trending in the wrong direction. Since Toronto, where Newgarden finished ninth, he has gone from second place in the championship to fourth and trailing Scott Dixon by eighty-seven points heading into the season finale at Sonoma.

Will Power, Newgarden’s Team Penske teammate, has had an impressive resurgence. After finishing eighteenth at Toronto; Power finished third, second and first in the next three races. His momentum was halted when he experienced electrical issues early in the race at Portland, before eventually crashing into the Turn Twelve tire barrier. After winning the pole at Portland, Power finished a disappointing twenty-first at Portland. Power currently sits in third in the championship.

The IndyCar website ranks Newgarden behind Power, even though they are both eighty-seven points behind Dixon. Both drivers have three wins on the season and four poles. I don’t know if it’s a typo and they should both be tied for third, or if there is another tie-breaking scenario that’s not showing up on the website. Regardless, Power and Newgarden are a lot further back than Rossi.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is still mathematically alive, but is so far back that it would take something just short of a miracle to earn him this championship. He would have to win the pole and the race, while Dixon, Rossi, Power and Newgarden all finished last. While possible, I wouldn’t count on that happening.

If you believe in destiny and you saw Scott Dixon’s performance at Portland two weeks ago – you would conclude that Scott Dixon was destined to win the 2018 championship, which would be his fifth. Sitting in a cloud of brown dust on the opening lap and surrounded by cars too damaged to continue, Scott Dixon somehow emerged unscathed. He slowly worked his way out of the melee and rejoined the field at the very back, but still on the same lap. After working his way through about half the field, he was penalized for speeding on pit road and found himself at the very back of the field again. After everyone, including myself, had assumed Dixon’s day was done on the opening lap – he somehow pulled off a fifth place finish and actually extended his lead over Rossi on the day.

Skeptics would say that Dixon has been flirting with disaster for the last few races and his luck will finally run out at Sonoma. Others will say that Dixon is leading a charmed life and his luck will continue.

Alexander Rossi has had an interesting season. In six of the first seven races of the season, Rossi finished no worse than fifth. He had four podiums and one win. Beginning with the second Belle Isle race and through Toronto – Rossi had finishes of twelfth, third, sixteenth, ninth and eighth – before righting his ship at Mid-Ohio. He had a mediocre stretch sandwiched in between two very productive parts of his season.

For Will Power, it has been feast or famine. Power had a terrible start to his season before the Month of May, when he became the first person to sweep both races at IMS. He followed May with a seventh and a second at the Belle Isle double-header. But in the middle part of the season, Power had a stretch of four races where he finished eighteenth, twenty-third, sixth and eighteenth. At that point, most had given up on Power as a championship threat. But that late summer stretch of Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Gateway put him clearly back in the championship hunt before his disastrous race at Portland.

As Power was salvaging his season, Newgarden was watching his go downhill as I documented earlier.

With double-points available this weekend at Sonoma, anything can happen. But with both Power and Newgarden being eighty-seven points out; I consider them wild-cards and not that likely to be celebrating a championship on Sunday.

That leaves Dixon and Rossi as the likely winners for the championship. Like Power and Newgarden, Dixon and Rossi have three wins each on the season. I mentioned that Dixon has been flirting with disaster. If you look at the qualifying results for Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Portland (Gateway qualifying was rained out and set by entrant points); Rossi qualified first, third and third. Dixon qualified ninth, thirteenth and eleventh.

Qualifying does not always translate over to the race, as Dixon has proven in every one of those races; but at a track like Sonoma, where passing is rare – qualifying position could determine the race and the championship. Rossi has definitely had the upper hand over Dixon in qualifying over the last few races.

So when you look at these two drivers and their results, there is a strong argument for both of them to win the 2018 championship.

Scott Dixon may go down as one of the greatest drivers to ever turn a wheel in IndyCar. I also think he is currently at the top of his game, driving better than he has ever driven before. You don’t need to look beyond his most recent race to see evidence of that. He is tough on ovals, street courses and natural terrain road courses. He is cool and calm under pressure and we learned long ago to never count him out.

Less than three years ago, I had barely heard of Alexander Rossi. When he won the 2016 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, I looked upon it as a fluke and a cheap victory. I didn’t care for him either. My perception was that he was arrogant and aloof. But last year, I began to change my opinion of Rossi. I learned to appreciate his dry sense of humor and I really came to admire his driving ability. He has quickly adapted to this form of racing that was somehow foreign to the young American driver. He really impressed me with his drive at Watkins Glen last year and I could tell he had his eye on the championship heading into this season.

After three races, I was convinced the championship was his. But with hiccups at Barber, Detroit and Road America – it was obvious this was anybody’s championship.

This has been a very odd championship race to watch. It’s been fun, but it’s been odd. It seemed that it was the championship that no one wanted. Just when it looked like one driver was in the process of getting a solid lock on it, they had a bad race and let someone else in. At some point in the season, the Top Four of Dixon, Rossi, Power and Newgarden have all led in the points – but then they would let that lead slip away.

Scott Dixon is in an unusual spot for him. He already has four championships and is pursuing his fifth. He is usually the one chasing down the championship leader and is usually successful. Now he is the hunted one. He, too, has seen his lead slip to less than half of what it was a little over a month ago – but he is still holding on by twenty-nine points over Rossi, who is chasing his first championship.

I’ve made my position on double-points known several times and will not get into it now – maybe Friday, but not now. But for those wondering – I’m against double-points. Period. For any race.

But for now, we have to deal with them – or the drivers have to deal with them. If Rossi wins the race on Sunday, I think Dixon can still win if he finishes second (I think). But if Rossi wins the race and Dixon finishes third and doesn’t win the pole – I think Rossi takes the championship…I think.

It’s now time for me to pick who I think will win the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Championship. Keep in mind, that I think I picked a total of two winners over the sixteen races that have been won this season. Usually, my pick encounters a problem and has an early exit. I say this to let you know that I will be doing this driver no favor by picking him. It will probably doom him to a first lap crash that will take all suspense out of the championship for the entire day.

I make this pick not on who I want to win nor is it based on all the data I presented earlier. It’s strictly a gut feeling, which is usually a scary thing to do. Who does my gut tell me will win the championship on Sunday? Alexander Rossi.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “How Will This Championship Play Out?”

  1. Immediately after the final last year, Power was interviewed on TV and he said that the Team Penske orders for the race were to totally block Dixon. Period. Nice sportsmanship.

    And they did. And Newgarden took the championship.

    I expect exactly the same this year.

    So ………. qualification becomes just as important as the first corner, but after that it just matters which team has the most cars at the front of the pack.

    And Andretti has LOTS of cars.

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Doesn’t the tie-breaker usually just go down the finishing positions? If they’re tied on points they go to wins, if they’re tied on wins they go to second place finishes, if they’re tied on second place they go to third place finishes, etc.? I know some series do it that way, not sure if IndyCar does, but it seems logical.

    This has been a fascinating and entertaining season. It boggles my mind that Will Power is still in contention, I’ve completely written him off at least twice this season but here he is in with a shout.

    I’m pulling for Rossi, I like his style, I think he’d have been right at home in the 90’s battling with the likes of PT and Bourdais and Michael, old-school racer who gives no quarter and asks for none. But I think as long as Dixon doesn’t end up with a DNF he will take his fifth title.

  3. No fan of Rossi here. I hope he chokes. I expect him to choke.

    • Much agreement. If all,you can do is run your competitors off the track then you may win a championship but you don’t get any respect here. Ever.

  4. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I love Rossi and will be pulling for him Sunday. I also totally respect Dixon and would be happy for him if he wins. I like Power but don’t expect him to win the championship. I’m not a fan of Newgarden. In truth I think Dixon will win. But go Rossi!

  5. I suppose Dixon could always run out of gas on the final turn of the final lap. All Dixon has to do is follow Rossi’s strategy. That should be pretty easy unless qualifying is…funny. Dixon should win this championship.

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