INDIANAPOLIS — Scott Dixon can wrap up the NTT IndyCar Series championship this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He leads second place Josef Newgarden by 72 points heading into the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader. So long as his advantage is 55 points or larger leaving Saturday’s race, Dixon will hoist his sixth Astor Cup championship trophy.
You would think then that Dixon can be conservative for both races on the 2.439-mile Indy road course layout. I mean, so long as he doesn’t lose 20 or so points, he’s in good shape. Despite that, Dixon is still treating this weekend like a normal race week. Why change the approach now?
IndyCar is so difficult that if you let your foot off the gas at any point and go from offense to defense, that could be the difference in first or last.
“For us, we just have to treat it like any other race weekend and try to get maximum points,” Dixon said ahead of this weekend’s race. “The obvious goal is to go out there and try to win, but unfortunately there’s 23, 24 others that have the same goal. Try to do better than we did at the last doubleheader at Mid-Ohio where I definitely made a very large mistake, that gave away some pretty easy points there.”
Plus, Newgarden made up 53 points on Dixon over the last three races. He’s also the defending race winner of the season finale at St. Pete. That’s why Dixon would just rather end this title race by Saturday evening and enter the finale on Oct. 25 with ease.
“I think I feel similar to how we felt all year,” Newgarden said as he’s chasing his third series title in four years. “We sort of just approach it where we try and do the best job possible every weekend, control what we can control, try and score the most points, just like Scott.
“It’s been kind of an up-and-down year. Some weekends seem to go kind of according to plan, how you think, a lot of other weekends have just gone away from us.
“I feel optimistic. I always feel optimistic going into a weekend. We’ll see what we got. I think we had some pretty good pace there earlier in the year. Certainly some things we can work on and be a little bit better at. I think we have a good base to kind of draw from, so I feel optimistic we’ll have some speed.”
Newgarden, said that the pressure is all on Dixon right now anyways. He’s the hunter not the hunted. To have that big of a gap, it’s championship to lose right? While the pressure is nice to have off his shoulders, he’s in a position to have to take risks now and that in turn creates the pressure that he’s feeling instead.
“I think this year is probably the least pressure-packed for us,” Newgarden continued. “We’re certainly in the chase position. We’re not being chased. We don’t really have much to lose. We could slip backwards in the championship from our second-place position. If you’re not winning the championship, I don’t know how much you weight that. You really don’t. From our side, we don’t weight it that much. The championship is really all that matters.
“There’s not a lot of pressure to take risk. But like I was saying before, we don’t ever really stray away from our normal plan. We’re always trying to maximize points. If that means taking a little bit of risk at one point in the race to maximize the points, we’ll do that. Maybe it’s dialing back the risk to maximize the points.
“We really don’t approach weekends differently. It’s always the same goal. I think that part doesn’t change. If you are going to say is it easier or harder, I’d say it’s a little bit easier to go out there and try to make the most of the weekend. We don’t have a lot to protect at this point.”
Another reason for Newgarden to take a risk this weekend is that Dixon won on the road course just on July 4. He also dominated in winning by a margin over 20 seconds that day. He was runner-up in each of the three years prior as well.
While that sounds all good, Dixon says that you can’t take much out of the prior race weekends here and translate that over to this weekend. I mean, it was in the 90s for the July race but the temps will be in the upper 50’s and low 60’s this weekend.
“I don’t think you can really rely on past races, even if it’s at the same track,” said Dixon. “I think obvious situation there is that the track conditions are going to be a lot different. I think 90 degrees to maybe in the 50s somebody said to me yesterday. We’ll see.
“I think it’s going to be similar to when we typically race in April. Obviously this year’s schedule has been a little bit crazy. Yeah, I think things will change. Race distances have changed. We have two different race distances. Fuel mileage will favor one group slightly more than the other. I think our team is confident in the cooler conditions, we seem to fare a little bit better, especially for qualifying speeds. Hopefully that plays true.
“Again, you just can’t rely on any of that stuff. It’s a new weekend, one we’re going to have to approach flat out and make sure we get the best out of it.”
So, with only one practice session at their disposal on Thursday early afternoon, how much does each driver rely on their teammates to help for setups. There’s not much time to try anything out, so hitting the baseline setup is going to be key.
After all, every race run on the road course has been won from a starter coming from the top 4 Rows. 26 of the last 28 Indy Car races in general have been won from a top eight starter.
Dixon and Newgarden need to come out with a good setup on Thursday in order to qualify up front later on in the day. How much can their teammates help in terms of setup and maybe try some out on their cars for the single weekend session?
“Yeah, it depends,” Dixon said. “At least from our program, Felix (Rosenqvist) and I have started to work out, if the 9 does this, the 10 will probably do that. You start to get a bit of a program together. With Marcus, it’s still a little bit unknown, especially because of how the season has been. We really haven’t had that much testing. Even race weekends, just such a limited amount of running that most of the cars start the same, then you don’t veer off too much.
“I think we work really well as a team. I think we’ve got a better understanding of what directions we need to be. Again, this is a little more unique, too, because we’ve already raced here this season. I think a lot of the time the biggest change for us is going to be ambient conditions but also tires. Each year the tires change a lot. At least for us, that’s what you chase the most. Then obviously with the Aeroscreen, that’s been one of the biggest changes, but we’ve already run it here.
“Yeah, still limited practice. I think it’s more about making sure you get on with your own program as quick as possible, then understand what you need to do for qualifying, make sure you get those laps together as best as possible.”
Newgarden, said it doesn’t really change for him in regards of help from Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. They try and help anyways.
“Honestly, it doesn’t change,” said the Penske driver. “We lean on each other every weekend. This weekend will be no different. Whether we’re in the championship fight or we’re not, we lean on each other the exact same way. It would be the same if we were all in the championship fight here. If we’re all pretty close and fighting for it, we’d be leaning on each other just like all year.
“Like Scott said, you kind of get into a rhythm with your team, sort of understand what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, specific likes and dislikes are. You kind of can build a notebook with everybody so we all understand, yeah, like Scott alluded to, one person does this, it kind of means this for the other person. We have a lot we can lean on. We’ll be doing that just like we’ve been doing all season.”
This is still a fight and clash among titans in the series.
“Yeah, that’s the ultimate goal, right, is to leave this weekend without having to worry about the championship,” Dixon finished. “The reality is that it’s still going to be very tough. We’re very similar to what Josef spoke of. We don’t really change our approach each weekend. I think when you come down to the nitty-gritty of the championship, you are aware of the points and the outcomes a little bit more than you would be, say, at the start or middle part of the season.
“We’ll focus on doing what we always try to do, and that’s win the race. I think if we can win race one or race two, that makes things a lot easier. If we can win the both of them, that seals the deal. We’ll go in there with that mindset, see what we come out with.
“You have to work hard. Very tough, up and down through different portions. For me, there would be no better way to close it out and show the thanks for the effort that everybody on our side has put out.”