The second half of the season has painted the NTT IndyCar Series title chase as a two-car battle. Team Penske star and 2017 champion Josef Newgarden has been the frontrunner after every race except the Indianapolis 500, and he trailed by only a single point after finishing 4th at Indy. His attention to detail has been well documented with him constantly preaching that his team doesn’t need to win every race but that they simply need to make sure they’re getting everything they have out of each car they bring to the track. It’s worked so far to the tune of a series-high four wins as well as seven podiums.
Chasing him nearly every step of the way has been Andretti Autosport phenom Alexander Rossi. Fresh off a runner-up finish in last year’s chase for the championship, Rossi seemed a smart pick this year to get over the hump and win his first title, especially considering it was a contract year. He’s never held the lead this year, but he’s been stalking Newgarden as closely as he did at Texas Motor Speedway in June’s DXC Technology 600 when the pair finished 1-2 under the lights at No Limits, Texas.
A funny thing has happened though as summer comes to a close. Both drivers have had their share of struggles. Newgarden spun and lost points at both Mid-Ohio and World Wide Technology Raceway, and Rossi has finished outside the top-ten in back-to-back weeks. It looked like five-time and defending champion Scott Dixon would be the one to take advantage, and he did for awhile with four straight weeks in the top-two, but at Gateway last weekend a fluke incident cost him his car and likely his championship chase.
That leaves Simon Pagenaud.
The Frenchman and 2016 IndyCar Series champion, was wasting away in an abyss of hot seat rumors and admittedly poor driving early in the season, but May changed everything. He won the Indy Grand Prix, then the 500, and he was suddenly the points leader. That only lasted a week, but Pagenaud never went away.
His deficit bulged to 61 points after Road America in late June, but July and August have kept Pagenaud just close enough with two races remaining. He won Toronto and followed it up with finishes of 4, 6, 3, and 5. It all equates to a 38-point hole with Portland and the double points finale at Laguna Seca to wrap the season.
So can Pagenaud do it?
Sure he can. Pagenaud is no doubt motivated to hoist the Astor Cup the same year as the Borg-Warner Trophy, especially given the early season rumors that Rossi could replace him at Team Penske. He also finished a respectable 6th in Portland last year. The main reason he might do it, though, is that it just seems like every time you doubt Simon Pagenaud he proves you wrong.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt for Newgarden to forget his steady goes it mantra and gets greedy like he did at Mid-Ohio and to a lesser extent, Gateway.
Either way, the chances are pretty good that Roger Penske welcomes the championship winner home for the fourth time in six years.
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