It’s officially championship week in the NTT IndyCar Series. Sunday, on the streets of St. Pete, will mark the 14th and final event of the 2020 season. The last time we were here, the season was getting shut down promptly because of COVID. Now, we’re back, over seven months later to decide this thing.
It’s Scott Dixon vs. Josef Newgarden.
Dixon, leads Newgarden by 32 points heading into the season finale. The duo have won each of the last three series championships and four of the last five overall.
It’s also Ganassi vs. Penske. The tandem of organizations have won the last seven INDYCAR championships and 11 of the last 12 in total. They’re two of the most fierce competitors on the track.
While there could be a rivalry sparked between the two, especially with how close these two organizations and drivers have been, instead, there’s nothing but mutual respect.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Scott (Dixon), without a doubt,” Newgarden said on a zoom call on Wednesday afteroon ahead of Sunday’s race. “He’s one of the best that we’ve seen in the INDYCAR Series. But I think in racing overall. I wouldn’t limit it to just our championship. I think he’s a world class driver that’s very diversified and has an incredible amount of accomplishments over a long period of time.
“He’s been consistent throughout his whole career. He’s just always there. He’s very dependable and very capable in any situation, which is why I think he’s had such success.
“I’m happy to compete against him. I want to kick his butt this weekend. I have a tremendous respect for him. If we don’t have enough to beat him, we’ll shake his hand, his team’s hand, say great job, try to beat them next year.
“They’re one of the toughest to beat, and specifically Scott is one of the toughest to beat because he’s so consistent and dependable. I respect that a lot about him. That’s a key quality he’s had throughout his career.”
Dixon, shares the same sentiments back.
“The respect is absolutely mutual,” Dixon, a five-time series champion, said. “We’ve had a lot of great years so far racing together. As we’ve already seen, as soon as Josef (Newgarden) hit his stride, which was pretty much the first season or second season in INDYCAR racing, he’s been a standout. Even from junior categories I remember watching. It’s a bummer he was never on our team. I think it would have been a fantastic situation to race with him in a team situation on that level.
“As we’ve seen, Josef is exceptionally good in all areas that INDYCAR throws at you, whether it’s the short ovals, superspeedways, to the street and road courses. That’s why he’s a two-time champion already, and many more to come.
“Yeah, excited to race with him as we do every weekend. Hopefully he trips up a little bit this weekend, makes it a little bit easier. We’ll see how that goes.”
Newgarden, wouldn’t have to trip up much to allow Dixon a sixth title. In fact, he has to be flawless this weekend. He’s got a 1-percent shot at hoisting his second straight Astor Cup championship trophy on Sunday afternoon.
“I love on the fact sheet, I saw this put out, it was like 20,000 scenarios, 1% of the scenarios means we can win the championship,” said the Tennessee native. “You’re saying there’s a chance and that’s all we need.
“Yeah, I don’t know, it’s going to be an exciting weekend. We’ll see how it shakes out. We’re just going to go into our thing, see where everything lands at the end of it.”
While the pressure could be on for either driver, they’re both keeping it status quo. Newgarden has trimmed 85 points off Dixon’s lead between the second race of the World Wide Technology Raceway weekend until now. Would the pressure be on Dixon to not lose the championship especially after he’s led the standings after each and every race this season?
“I think you honestly just try to keep it as any other race weekend, which it is,” said Dixon of the situation. “They all pay the same points, apart from Indy this year. I think that’s the constant situation when you’re in any race, analyzing the situation that you’re in, who you’re passing.
“This weekend may be a little more prominent. Cars that you maybe are having opportunity to pass or not, that you’re racing hard, depending even which team they’re from. That could alter things.
“I think that’s typical of any race weekend. Yes, there’s a little more on the line with being caught up in an accident, points and situations like that. But I think that is something you deal with every race weekend.
“Again, to simplify it, you go as we do every race weekend, to win, not just myself but my teammates and everybody involved. That makes it the most simple. I think when you start to cloud it and make it complicated, then it gets complicated. We’ll just try to keep it as simple as possible.”
Newgarden agrees. He’s keeping the same level headed approach too. Yes, he’s made up that much ground and yes all the momentum is on his side and yes he has to be literally perfect this weekend in order to win his third series championship, but despite that, he says he’s not feeling pressure on his end either.
“I think for us, I don’t feel the pressure so much on our end,” said the defending series champion in Newgarden. “You probably normally don’t when you’re pursuing versus trying to hold someone off.”
The reason Newgarden feels no pressure is the fact that he says that he’s honestly surprised that he’s in a position to win a championship right now. With the way Dixon started this year and how this season has gone in general, he’s happy to be fighting for a title still.
“I’m surprised we’re here, to be honest,” Newgarden continued. “It almost makes it more disappointing looking at the year now that we’ve clawed back to this point. We were in such a deficit, there was such a hill. We’ve reduced the hill, without a doubt, but it’s still a mountain to climb. It’s going to be a very hard task for us to try to win the championship.
“I don’t think there’s a ton of pressure. I’m just really proud of what we’ve come back from this year, some of the adversities we’ve had to work through. But as far as the approach, answering that specifically, I mean, honestly for us, we don’t change our approach. I’ve never really changed my approach.”
Newgarden said that he can’t push too hard to try and win a title with the deficit he’s facing anyways. You either have a car capable of winning this race on Sunday or not. If you push too hard forcing a car not good enough to win, he’s going to likely find the wall anyways and take himself out.
“When you do start to get yourself in a tough situation is when you start trying to compensate, or if you’re trying to play to a certain level or you’re trying to drive the car to a certain speed, that’s when you can overcomplicate things and create more issues than just trying to go out and maximize the potential of the car,” said Newgarden.
“If we have a fifth-place car on the weekend, you can only force so much. For me, it’s all about calculated risks, getting the most out of the weekend. For us, that needs to be a win. If it’s not there, I’m not going to take a sixth-place car and try to pass five guys in front of me. I’ll probably end up in the wall doing that. I don’t see the approach changing for us very much.”
Newgarden, says that he didn’t feel the tide change in this championship until his win in St. Louis 2. Dixon, won the first race in St. Louis a day prior for his sixth top two finish in the first eight races run. Since though, he’s not finished on the podium in any of the last five races including a best result of fifth.
For Newgarden, since his win in Gateway, he’s had three top two finishes in five races with one finish worse than fourth.
Still, even with that said, all Dixon has to do is finish ninth or better on a track that Newgarden won at last year and even if he wins again on Sunday, he can host another title.
“For us, we try to typically keep it pretty simple,” Dixon said. “I would say that was not the case for the last few races, which got us into a bit of a tailspin. Josef and Team Penske, him and his teammates, have been doing a fantastic job.
“For us, it’s just to have a pretty simple weekend, try to keep it clean. Obviously the goal is to go for a win. That makes it a lot easier, then you don’t have to worry about any of the scenarios. As you mentioned, there’s many different scenarios. I think we’re still lucky to be in the situation that we are, the points lead that we do have.
“As we all know, that doesn’t guarantee you anything. NTT INDYCAR Series is renowned for throwing some curves in situations like this. It’s always exciting. We tried to stop it going down to the last race, as you mentioned, it was a 15-year run, but we came up short.”
The respect is mutual. So is the competition.