Preview: Can Josef Newgarden claim victory in the Monterrey showdown?
As quick as we swore in the new IndyCar season, we have already reached its finale just six months later. Once again the NTT IndyCar Series will head to the famous Laguna Seca circuit for the title showdown.
We saw the arrival of a new series title sponsor in NTT, a new team in Harding Steinbrenner Racing and four full-time rookies joined the fray with Felix Rosenqvist replacing Ed Jones at Chip Ganassi Racing, Marcus Ericsson would join Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as Robert Wickens continues to recover from his monstrous shunt in Pocono last season. Santino Ferrucci also joins Dale Coyne Racing and the youthful Colton Herta took up the only available seat at HSR, however, there were set to be two seats with Patricio O'Ward alongside Herta, but financial issues prevented the Mexican from taking his place at the team days before pre-season testing.
O'Ward would eventually find a part-time seat at Carlin alongside Britain's Max Chilton with the incumbent Charlie Kimball filling in for a short period before being signed up to the Red Bull Racing junior programme and get whisked away to Japan to race in its single-seater series.
How have they faired until now?
It's been a highly competitive season, but one driver has stood out above the rest in 2019 and that is Team Penske's Josef Newgarden. After an inconsistent 2018 campaign, the Tennessee driver has been able to rectify his form and become the most consistent driver in 2019, having led the season for its entirety except for just after the Indianapolis 500.
Having captured four wins so far, a couple of which included stunning strategy calls in the season opener in St.Petersburg and at the Texas Motor Speedway, the 2017 champion has been able to maximise his results where possible which has left him with a 41-point lead going into the season finale.
There has been moments of shakiness in the latter stages of the season, one which became evident at Mid-Ohio after a last lap clash with Ryan Hunter-Reay and another final lap bump with Ferrucci at Gateway. But despite his issues, Newgarden remains the favourite, but won't remain comfortable going into the race with the gap to his nearest rivals Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud.
"With double points, I've tried to make everyone aware all the way along that it's far from over, that it's always going to be a difficult race in Laguna with a double-point situation. That's where we find ourselves. We're in the better position. We definitely have a little bit of a comfort, but nothing that you can feel too comfortable about,” said Newgarden.
Rossi once again heads into an IndyCar season finale as the nearest challenger to the points leader. His task is even more difficult this season as he has to overhaul a 41-point deficit to Newgarden. In 2018 he was only 29-points down on Dixon but the opening lap at Sonoma put paid to any chances he had after clashing with Marco Andretti.
The Californian driver, who recently renewed his contract with the Andretti Autosport team, has had a strong season but has lacked the same level of consistency as Newgarden. He has been a lot closer to Newgarden in recent races after a run of top results which included utterly dominant wins in Long Beach and Road America, which meant he was just 30 points adrift going into the final four races.
However, the run-in began with his involvement in a major first lap clash at Pocono which left him powerless to stop the points gap from widening and a tough race at Gateway only allowed Newgarden to pull further ahead in the standings.
The situation had looked better going into Portland with Rossi qualifying inside the Firestone Fast Six, whilst Newgarden and Pagenaud failed to make it past Q1. But a strong race for the Tennessee driver allowed him to minimise the damage Rossi could inflict.
Laguna Seca is a notoriously tough place to overtake, but if there is one driver who will force the issue, it's Rossi.
The third main title contender is the second Penske car of Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion endured a difficult and winless season in 2018. After a tough start to 2019 he swiftly turned his fortunes around in the month of May.
The Frenchman powered his way to victory in the Indy Grand Prix with a stunning move in the rain around the outside of Dixon in the final laps, claimed pole position for the Indy 500, followed up by a strong victory in the famous race a week later, leading 116 laps of the race as he fended off Rossi in the latter stages.
Another strong win in Toronto, where he led all but five laps of the race, ensured he was in the title hunt but in order to overturn a 42-point deficit to his team-mate as well outscore Rossi will be a very tricky task in order to claim a second series title.
Dixon is also mathematically in the title hunt being 85 points back with 104 on offer in the double-points finale. The reigning five-time champion led the way this time 12 months ago, but now is in a situation where he requires his title rivals to all retire and himself to win the race – so lets just say Dixon needs luck on his side!
His situation looked far better going into the round at Gateway as the Kiwi built a late-season charge, a string of finishes inside the top two with a narrow nail-biting win at Mid-Ohio saw Dixon get to within 30 points of Newgarden, but a tough night at Gateway, which saw him finish 20th after suffering a radiator problem, then a battery failure whilst leading in Portland has left him on the outside looking in heading to Laguna Seca.
Rookie Of The Year
With four full-time rookies entering the fray for 2019, the rookie championship has been hotly contested between Rosenqvist, Ferrucci, Herta and Ericsson as all have shone brightly in their debut seasons.
Rosenqvist currently leads the way over Ferrucci by 26 points, his year has been one of growth as he has adapted to the championship. The Swede took his first podium at Mid-Ohio and nearly took his first win in the process as he hounded Chip Ganassi team-mate Scott Dixon in the final laps, losing out by just 0.07s at the line.
Ferrucci has also impressed in the series as he moved across from racing in Europe following some controversy. He has scored a best result of fourth place on three occasions in Texas, Pocono and Gateway, evidently the youngster has adapted to ovals like a duck to water.
Herta is the only rookie to have taken a victory in the campaign as he continued his strong form from 'Spring Training' into the race at the Circuit Of The Americas. He was able to run with the leaders all race long and after a technical issue with Penske's Will Power and a well-timed caution period, Herta was able to take a well deserved victory, also taking the record for the youngest ever IndyCar winner.
A hugely impressive qualifying performance at the Indy 500 where he put his #88 HSR car onto the second row in fifth-place only for all his hard work to be undone by a mechanical failure in the warm-up laps to the race.
Two further pole positions at Road America and Portland have ensured the 19-year old has established himself in the series for many years to come. However, to take the ROTY title, he would have to outscore Ericsson by 51 points and Ferrucci by 23 points.
Marcus Ericsson has fallen out of contention for the ROTY honours, but his debut IndyCar season has been rock solid after moving across from Formula 1. His highlight of the campaign came at the second race in Detroit where scored a strong second place.
With 104 points on offer in the double-points season finale, four drivers have a shot at the title, though Josef Newgarden is favourite with his points advantage.
Josef Newgarden: A top six finish will guarantee the Texan a second IndyCar title, adding to his 2017 success.
Alexander Rossi: Must win with Newgarden seventh or lower.
Simon Pagenaud: must win with Newgarden eight or lower.
Scott Dixon: After two tough races which have left him 85 points behind going into the final race, for Dixon to claim a sixth title it would require the other three contenders to fail to finish and Dixon must finish in the top two.