ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Josef Newgarden’s chances at winning a third NTT IndyCar Series championship remain slim entering Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
However, Newgarden will take his chances at becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy car titles since Dario Franchitti’s run of three straight from 2009 to 2011.
The defending NTT IndyCar Series champion is also attempting to win a third series championship in his career. It would be his third in the past four years, and he’s not yet 30 years old.
The Team Penske driver enters Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 32 points behind Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, who is attempting to win his sixth NTT IndyCar Series championship.
If Newgarden scores maximum points including the pole, leading the most laps and winning the race, Dixon has to finish ninth of better to clinch the title.
There are 19,872 different scoring scenarios for both title contentions. One percent of those scenarios has Newgarden winning the title.
“I like how the one percent looked better than the number you could have put up,” Newgarden quipped earlier this week.
On Friday, Newgarden was at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, placing his name on the winner plaque next to the Dan Wheldon Memorial inside turn five of the downtown street course.
Newgarden scored his only Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in this race last year. Dixon has never won the event, but he has finished in the top three five times in 15 races at St. Petersburg.
Newgarden has been in the IndyCar Series since 2012 and could win a third championship, putting him in some exclusive company. He would become the 12th driver in American open wheel racing history to win at least three championships in his career.
“I’m very proud of our achievements at Team Penske and what we’ve been able to put together,” Newgarden told SPEED SPORT Friday afternoon. “If we are able to pull it off, it would be a very memorable championship. But for me, just like Scott, I want to keep going and see how far we can get to as far as results and tallies. I love being a part of the series and have had great opportunities myself for many years now and have been very thankful for the team I have now to compete every weekend.
“This weekend, it’s still possible, but it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a very tough weekend to get right and a lot of things have to come our way. Hopefully, they do come our way. We’ve been on the bad end of luck this year and we are hoping some others can feel that this weekend like we have.”
Newgarden’s rookie season was 2012, which was Franchitti’s final season as a driver. He was also the last driver to score back-to-back championships.
“It’s been hard to go back-to-back,” Newgarden said. “We didn’t do it after the 2017 championship. We have an opportunity now, but it’s a slim chance. It’s been tough. We’ve been on a cycle of a good year, decent year, good year, decent year. We need to finish it off with a great year.”
Newgarden won his first championship in 2017, finished fifth in 2018, won the title again in 2019 and enters the final race second in the standings.
He has three victories this season; Dixon has four, including the first three races to open the season.
Dixon has led the points after each and every race this season and is attempting to join Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2001 and Sebastien Bourdais in Champ Car in 2006 as the only drivers in the last 20 years to lead the standings after every race of the season.
Newgarden led the points after every race except following the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in 2019, when he surrendered the lead to Simon Pagenaud for six days after Pagenaud won the Indy 500.
The last driver to lead every race entering the final race of the season was Team Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya, but he lost the championship in the final race to Dixon.
Newgarden is hoping to return the favor by wresting the championship away from Dixon in the final race.
“I remember that one; it was a wild event,” Newgarden recalled. “That’s IndyCar, though, anything can happen. It’s not over until it’s over. We’re going to try and do our thing this weekend, work as strong as possible on our car and have a good shot to challenge these guys.
“As far as my anxiety, it’s about the same. You are in a different position. For us, we don’t control our own destiny. The last two championship, we could control our own destiny knowing if we won, we would win the championship.
“But it’s a championship battle, a high-points day, a high-stakes day and you have to make it happen.”
So, the championship comes down to the two best drivers in the series fighting it out to determine the title in the final race of the season for the 15th straight year.
The best thing about this battle is the level of respect both drivers have for each other.
“The respect is absolutely mutual,” Dixon said of Newgarden. “We’ve had a lot of great years so far racing together. As we’ve already seen, as soon as Josef 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.
“I’m excited to race with him as we do every weekend. Hopefully he trips up a little bit this weekend and makes it a little bit easier (on us). We’ll see how that goes.”