Following an ill-timed caution flag with 85 laps to go in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, Josef Newgarden’s Verizon IndyCar Series title hopes were on life support.
After jumping from 14th at the green flag to the top-five in the opening 115 laps, the No. 2 Fitzgerald Chevrolet had dropped to 15th place, stuck behind those who already made pit stops prior to the yellow caused by Sebastian Saavedra’s accident in turn one. Unable to advance his position on the following restart, the diagnosis appeared headed for a massive reversal in the points table, with Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon being the potential benefactor.
A window of opportunity however, opened for the Tennessean when an accident in turn one on Lap 125 eliminated both James Hinchcliffe and J.R. Hildebrand. Electing to go off sequence, Newgarden and his Team Penske teammate Will Power pitted to top off their fuel tanks, allowing them the chance to take less ethanol than their rivals, meaning a faster final pit stop and the possibility to advance up the order.
The strategy play by Roger Penske’s squad proved to be the winning move as both drivers entered the top-five with ten laps to go. With the Australian leading, Newgarden with less gas on board zoomed past Tony Kanaan and Alexander Rossi to take second and began to close on his in-squad opposer. Although the Chevrolet pilot failed to overtake Power before the checkered flag, a runner-up effort further solidifies his case to win a series championship in his inaugural season of driving for the Captain.
As I mentioned in my recent look at the title picture before Pocono, the 2.5 mile triangle was perhaps the final hurdle where Newgarden could be vulnerable. Following Chevrolet’s struggles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, Honda appeared to have a wheel up on the bow-tie backers with Dixon benefiting the most. Entering Sunday’s action only 12 markers behind the American prospect, the Iceman looked poised to jump from third to first on the table headed to Gateway Motorsports Park next week.
The early good fortune, unfortunately, was absent when it mattered at the finish as an inability to efficiently save fuel on Sunday may have cost Dixon extra time in the final pit shuffle. The New Zealander placed sixth, losing ground to the championship leader.
The same story held true likewise for another member of Team Penske on Sunday: Helio Castroneves. Despite starting at the back of the pack after issues during Saturday qualifying, the Brazilian was on a similar pit stop plan to Newgarden, but could not exploit it to the full. In what could be his final full season on the IndyCar circuit, Castroneves’ hopes to finally snag the championship trophy were hampered as he finished one spot behind Dixon in seventh-place.
The situation also is getting darker for Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Rahal was upfront at the midway mark, but also was handicapped by needing more gas on the last stop and settled for ninth. Sato meanwhile, looked primed to rejoin the title picture after taking the pole position on Saturday. The reigning Indy 500 champion would plummet toward the back of the order in the opening stint and never recovered. The Japanese veteran’s 13th-place output all but ends his hopes for a series crown and the same tag could be placed upon Rahal likewise.
Heading to St. Louis for its first IndyCar event since 2003, Josef Newgarden holds an 18-point edge on Scott Dixon, who may face the toughest route to the championship based in part on the dominant form Team Penske has showcased recently on road courses, which make up two of the final rounds of 2017. Castroneves drops to third, 22 out of first, with Simon Pagenaud, who charged late to finish fourth Sunday now within 26 points and race-winner Will Power 42 back in fifth.
With no other full-time competitors within 75 points of Newgarden at this point, smart thinking says that the above five names will provide the eventual champion, with the popular Tennessee chauffeur in a greater controlled placement regarding both position and momentum.
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