ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Josef Newgarden didn’t think that he would enter Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete with much of a chance to earn his third NTT IndyCar Series championship in four years. See, with the way Scott Dixon started the 2020 season, he didn’t think that anyone could.
Dixon, won each of the first three races run and had a top two result in four of the first five overall. In fact, once Dixon won the Aug. 29 race at the World Wide Technology Raceway, it was his sixth top two in the opening eight races of the season. With a race on that same track a day later and six overall races left, he appeared to be untouchable.
Newgarden, found himself over 100 points down, 117 back to be exact going into Race 2 of the St. Louis race weekend. How can you make up that many points on a driver of Dixon’s caliber?
Dixon, doesn’t sit in the top three of every major statistical category in INDYCAR history for no reason. To make up 117 points in six races, including a race 24 hours later on the very track Dixon just won at mixed with the next race weekend being on a Mid-Ohio doubleheader to where Dixon had six career wins at including last year, followed by two more races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course to where Dixon had four straight top two finishes on including a win just this year back on July 4, well it appeared next to impossible.
But, here Newgarden was. He entered this weekend 32 points back. He made up 85 points on Dixon in those six races. What’s one more race?
“I was a little bit somber coming into this weekend, to be honest with you, I think just because of the fact that we knew we didn’t control our own destiny,” said Newgarden. “We knew going into the weekend that we didn’t have control over it. The only thing we could do was to take care of what we could control and try to win the race. If you win the race, it gives you the best opportunity to maybe win the championship.
“We couldn’t control them. We knew that. We knew that going into the weekend. It’s the most disheartening thing, you can’t control the outcome. All you can control is winning the race, hoping that something falls your way. We didn’t have a lot fall our way this year. I was hoping today may be the day.
“Like I said, I was looking forward most of the day. All we could do was control what we were doing, where our car was, trying to win the race. That’s all I focused on.”
Newgarden, had to be flawless again with all Dixon needing to do is finish ninth or better. That’s exactly what happened. Dixon earned his sixth career championship with Newgarden coming home a close second.
Dixon finished third in the race while Newgarden scored his fourth win of the season. He cut his 32 point deficit entering the weekend in half, as he made up 101 points on Dixon over the last six races.
“It’s tough to get to this point, to look at the year, some of the things we’ve come back from, certainly how close we got, then to fall short,” Newgarden continued. “At the end of the day we did. We fell short. Just wasn’t good enough.
“I think all we can do is shake our competitor’s hand, tell Scott great job, tell his team great job, and come back next year and hit him harder. That’s all we can really focus on at this point. That’s what I’m going to focus on.
“Proud of what we did today. It was a really hard race. Tough to get right at the end with all the cautions. The tires were very tricky to drive after the warmup and the caution laps. Happy to get a win out of here. So proud of my team. They were just on it all year. I don’t think I would change one thing that we did. I don’t see how we could change one thing that we did. They were perfect all season in my eyes. Just short.
“I guess a decent way to go into the off-season with another victory and to hold our head up high.”
Still, it’s a season Newgarden can hang his hat on. Just look at how much ground he made up. In a six race span to close this season, Newgarden had five top four finishes — four of those in the top two. Dixon, finished better than fifth just once.
But, it was that string of races to start the year to what was the deciding factor in this. If cautions fell differently, Newgarden may be the champion after all.
Newgarden can hang his hat on that he actually had what was likely a faster car than Dixon all year still. Yes, Dixon started out that hot, but Newgarden also threw away points early too with some bad luck.
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?
Newgarden entered the 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.
“I hate to harp on the past,” said Newgarden. “I don’t want to be in the business of making excuses. I think we could have won six or seven races this year, to be honest with you. On one hand I’m really proud. I think we’ve had phenomenal racecars. Team Chevy has given us pretty much everything you can ask for. Great engine performance, great partnerships as always. I’ve always had good races with Hitachi on the car. I don’t know why that is. They seem to be a good luck charm specifically for us this year.
“I’m disappointed. We could have won six or seven. I don’t know that I would change much about what we did this year. I don’t know that I’d ask our team to do much different. We sit down and analyze everything, I don’t know that we missed steps very often. We got bit a couple times being in the wrong place, wrong time. As far as our decision making, I was really proud of pretty much what we did all year.”
When cautions stayed out of Newgarden’s way, he was the better driver with the better car. That’s why he can hang his hat on a solid season but also can be frustrated on what might have been too.