Was Newgarden the better car all year? Luck now on his side with fewer cautions

INDIANAPOLIS — A little over a month ago, Scott Dixon held a commanding lead in the NTT IndyCar Series points standings. Most were lucky just to be within 100 points of him. The only thing left to debate would be if his ring size changed from his last championship won in 2018.

Now, that lead had dwindled down. How? Let’s explain.

Josef Newgarden was the challenger. He said that if he wanted to win his third championship in the last four years, then he needed to be perfect from here on out. He was hot and had all the momentum pushing forward, but was a lot of points out still. In order to not only catch Scott Dixon, but pass him too, it was going to be no easy feat.

So far, he’s been as close to perfect as one can and has gotten some help along the way too.

Newgarden won the second race at World Wide Technology Raceway. He was second in the next race at Mid-Ohio. Then, he was eighth. Meanwhile, Dixon looked pedestrian in finishing fifth (St. Louis) and a pair of 10th place run in Mid-Ohio.

That puts us to the present. Dixon led Newgarden by 72 points heading to the final three races of the season.

Then, things really took a turn.

Dixon and Newgarden were caught out from a Takuma Sato off in qualifying for their group for Race 1 on Thursday evening. Newgarden, started second. Dixon 12th. Newgarden, led the most laps on Friday too and won by 14.2940-seconds. Dixon, finished ninth.

The points gap went from 72 to 40 in one race.

On Saturday, Dixon qualified 15th. Newgarden though only started ninth. By the end of the opening stint, Newgarden was up to sixth. By the end of the race, he came home fourth. Dixon was eighth. That’s another eight point swing.

“We were a little shy of where we needed to be,” Newgarden said on Saturday. “If we had a phenomenal day like we had yesterday, we would be in really good shape. We were just mediocre today. I think we had a car to compete with Will (Power) and (Colton) Herta and (Alexander) Rossi up there, but we just didn’t start up there high enough. 

“With the start, I got kind of buried on the inside and I tried to get as much as I could on the outside, but then Santino (Ferrucci) came in running tight – but he was fine. It just got tight, and I got pushed back a little too far. The key for us was being up higher earlier today. I just had to work for a lot just like Scott (Dixon) did. If we had a cleaner qualifying run, I think we really would have had a better day. 

“I’m really thankful to Team Chevy. There were two wins for Team Chevy here this weekend. They did a phenomenal job, and obviously having Hitachi support is always big for us. Look, we’re in it with a shot. We’re going to go to St. Pete and try and win this championship. I just wish we were in a little closer position.”

The points gap heading to the season finale in three weeks at St. Pete is down to 32. Newgarden, has made up 85 points since his win at the World Wide Technology Raceway on Aug. 30. He’s had four top four’s in his last five starts. Dixon’s had one top five in the same span. Newgarden, has four top two finishes in his last six starts overall on the year. Dixon, had six in the first eight races but none in the last five.

“It’s definitely been a trying last few race weekends between Mid-Ohio and Indy,” Dixon said. “I’m still mad at myself for making that mistake at Mid-Ohio and letting those points get away. 

“As always, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points title comes down to the last race, and even without the double points like we’ve seen before. I’m just really proud of this PNC Bank team and everyone who works so hard to win. Honda has been pushing hard, and we’re always proud to be powered by them along with HPD. Congrats to Will(Power) and Josef (Newgarden) on the wins here. That’s what we’ll be trying to do in St. Petersburg.”

You get a heated battle now. All the momentum is on Newgarden with all the pressure on Dixon. I mean, Dixon has led the points after literally every race in 2020. Can he lose it in the end when it matters the most?

But, is this deficit that Newgarden is drastically cutting into, something that wouldn’t have been that big if luck fell differently earlier this season?

Newgarden has long said that the cautions falling at unlucky times during the course of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season have cost him a potential season championship this year. It happened in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on July 4. He had a podium caliber kind of car but the caution for Oliver Askew’s crash in the middle of a pit sequence wasn’t needed. He’d finish seventh as a result. It happened again in Race 1 at Iowa. He finished fifth. It happened in Race 1 at World Wide Technology Raceway too. He’d finish 12th.

In those three races, Scott Dixon came home first, second, first respectively. The points difference between just those two in those three combined races?

68.

Newgarden entered this past weekend’s Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader with a 72 point gap.

He’s proven that the cautions have hurt him. Say Dixon and he both finish in the top five of those races, the gap would have been far less than 72. It’s more like 15 or less.

With this weekend and these races going pretty straight forward now, three of which having no cautions, would Newgarden be the one in the points lead instead if cautions fell differently earlier?

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