Josef Newgarden

Newgarden Clings to Optimism Entering St. Pete After Long Climb Into Title Contention

Josef Newgarden knows the math. He knows there are 19,872 possible championship finish scenarios between him and Scott Dixon this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, with only 1 percent favoring Newgarden.

He could care less.

“You're saying there's a chance, and that's all we need,” Newgarden said.

Reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden is 32 points behind five-time series champion Dixon entering the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Oct. 25 (2:30 p.m., NBC, Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network).

Dixon will secure his sixth title and burnish his legend by finishing ninth or better in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Dixon has finished 10th or lower only three times in the 13 races so far this season, but two of those results have come in the last four races.

There is hope for Newgarden. And that’s something that didn’t look possible in early July.

Dixon started the 2020 season with an epic sledgehammer blow to his competitors, winning the first three races. When his streak reached three wins July 11 at Road America, Dixon already led the series standings by 62 points – more than a race worth of padding. Newgarden was fourth, 71 points behind Dixon.

Even when Dixon’s hot streak ended, Newgarden was losing ground in the points. Newgarden climbed to second in the points during the summer, but he was 117 behind after Dixon won the first race of a doubleheader Aug. 29 on the oval at World Wide Technology Raceway.

The next day, Newgarden fought back. He staved off Pato O’Ward to win the second race of the doubleheader at Gateway in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. That trimmed the gap to Dixon to 96 points, as Dixon finished fifth.

Newgarden was turning the tide. But there were just ripples of a comeback, not a rip current of speed and upheaval in the standings. Still, Newgarden insists that weekend was a pivotal mile marker in his journey to contending for the title this weekend.

“The first three races were just bad because Scott racked up so many points so quickly, then we kind of were ebbing and flowing for a little while,” Newgarden said. “We'd have a good race, then a weird race. The points would go up and down.

“The point where the trend has reversed was Gateway race two. That's what we've been working toward. We're going to try to continue that trend through St. Pete. We need another really good weekend.”

Since that second Gateway race, Newgarden’s finishing chart reads second and eighth at Mid-Ohio and first and fourth at the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Dixon’s ledger during the same span reads a pair of 10ths at Mid-Ohio and ninth and eighth at IMS.

Those results trimmed the gap between Dixon and Newgarden to just 32 points and ensured the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship would be decided at the final race of the season for the 15th consecutive year.

That’s only part of the drama facing Dixon and Newgarden. The other wrinkle is that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first – and only – street-circuit race on the 2020 schedule, which was altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prowess on a street circuit isn’t an issue for either driver. Both have multiple wins on temporary circuits, with Newgarden’s street-course tally including a victory in the 2019 season opener at St. Petersburg.

But both know that danger and title-ending calamity loom more prominently between the unforgiving, narrow concrete walls of a street circuit than on a natural road course, with its much larger run-off areas and more distant walls. Street courses show almost no mercy for mistakes.

“For us, it's just to have a pretty simple weekend, try to keep it clean,” Dixon said. “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. It was a 15-year run, but we came up short.”

Both drivers also have ample experience in title fights, as Dixon has won five NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships and Newgarden two. But there is a new wrinkle for Newgarden in this year’s title fight – he’s the hunter and not the hunted.

In his two previous championship seasons of 2017 and 2019, Newgarden led entering the final race of the season and closed the deal both times in a double-points season finale that gave his closest rivals a better chance of winning the Astor Challenge Cup.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is paying regular points this weekend, which creates a challenge in which Newgarden must find a sliver of sunshine in a scenario with 99 percent cloud cover.

But he has that 1 percent chance. That’s all he needs. And it’s a far better opportunity than he had after seeing Dixon romp to his third straight victory of the season on a mid-July day in Wisconsin.

“I think for us, I don't feel the pressure so much on our end,” Newgarden said. “You probably normally don't when you're pursuing versus trying to hold someone off. I'm surprised we're here, to be honest. 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, we don't change our approach.”