Who Will Win The IndyCar Championship?

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After six months and sixteen races already completed, the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship is down to one race. Technically, there are seven drivers still mathematically alive for the championship. But it would take nothing short of a miracle for sixth-place Alexander Rossi or seventh-place Graham Rahal to walk away Sunday holding the Astor Cup.

For one thing, some of the drivers in contention would have to not even show up at Sonoma on Sunday. By simply starting the race, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon could probably knock Rossi and Rahal out of contention. No disrespect to those two drivers that have accounted for three wins between them this season, but I’m not really going to focus on them.

Quite honestly, I don’t give Will Power much of a chance either. At sixty-eight points out, Power’s chances of winning the championship are not much better than me getting a ride for next year’s Indianapolis 500. I know on Trackside last night, they described a couple of scenarios where Power could win, But I’m not buying it. With so much that would have to happen for Power to win this year’s championship – it’s not happening.

But among the top-four drivers in the standings – any of them could wind up being crowned champion on Sunday. Points leader Josef Newgarden and second-place Scott Dixon are separated by only three points. Twenty-two points separate Helio Castroneves from his first-ever championship, while defending champion Simon Pagenaud sits only thirty-four points back. With the double points being awarded at Sonoma, any of the four of them could snatch the trophy from the other.

I’ve made my stance known on double-points very clearly. I’m against them. I think the whole idea is an unneeded gimmick. But for right now they exist. So double-points will be deciding this year’s champion. It is my hope that the powers-that-be will do away with double points in the offseason – both at Sonoma and the Indianapolis 500. But for now, we’ll have to deal with them.

I have mixed emotions on this championship and which contender I want to win. My sentimental favorite is Helio Castroneves. As mentioned earlier, he’s never won a championship and this is most likely his last full season in IndyCar. So if it’s going to ever happen, it needs to happen Sunday. Since he drove for Tony Bettenhausen in 1998, I’ve been an Helio Castroneves fan. There was just something I saw in that eager rookie that struck me as something special. Three Indianapolis 500 wins later, nothing has changed my mind about him. He has always been one of my favorite current drivers and has now crept into the territory of one of my all-time personal favorites. That puts Helio Castroneves into an elite category in my book.

Josef Newgarden is from Nashville and a genuinely good guy. Although I don’t mean to name drop, it probably sounds like I am. I first met Josef in 2011, when IndyCar sent me a last-minute e-mail on a work day, asking me if I could interview Josef, who was in town, later that day. He was still in Indy Lights, but I certainly knew who he was. I arranged to leave work early that day and met him at a Cheesecake Factory at a mall about two miles from my house.

He and I sat in the restaurant for two and a half hours, just talking about racing in general (since I really don’t do interviews). He paid me the ultimate compliment that I’ve carried with me since that day. He said that he had been on a Nashville media blitz all day; on TV, radio and being interviewed by local excuse for a paper. He said I was the first person he had talked to all day that knew what they were talking about regarding IndyCar (and Indy Lights). Newgarden is two years younger than my own son, yet he impressed me with his maturity and his passion for racing. I suspected I was sitting across the table from a future star of IndyCar. Six years later, that “kid” is on the verge of winning his first IndyCar championship.

With that background, I’m certainly cheering for Newgarden. But I also think he has multiple championships in his future. This is Helio’s last shot. I’m conflicted between those two.

Then there is Scott Dixon. I’m not a fan of parity, I like dynasties. I’m a firm believer that greatness should be recognized and appreciated. Some think that Dixon is boring. Don’t count me in that group. I have never been a Chip Ganassi fan and for many years, that dislike transferred over to Dixon. Guilt by association does that, unfairly. But by about the time he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2008, I had learned to appreciate Scott Dixon, both on and off the track.

Those that find Dixon boring perplex me. What do they want, someone that acts like Kyle Busch who destroys trophies when he wins and gets in brawls when he loses? Sorry, I prefer someone like Dixon – who is as fiery as anyone, but usually has the ability to keep it contained when he needs to. He wins with class and keeps his mouth shut when he loses.

But it’s on the track where Dixon shines. He reminds me of Rick Mears, who was also never flashy. He is calculating and is patient enough to let the other driver make the mistake, but can force the issue when he needs to. If he wins, this will be Dixon’s fifth IndyCar championship. He won his first in 2003 and his second in 2008. But winning the 2017 championship would give Dixon his third championship since 2013. No matter what series or era you’re talking about, that’s my definition of greatness.

Scott Dixon is now thirty-seven years old. I have seen enough racing careers come and go in my lifetime to know how to appreciate greatness when I see it. Last night on Trackside, Kevin Lee was comparing Dixon to AJ Foyt and his seven championships. If I was going to compare Scott Dixon to a driver from the past, instead of results and championships – I would look at driving style. Instead of Foyt, I would compare Dixon to the late Jim Clark. They have the same personality off the track and the same driving style on the track. For those too young to remember Jim Clark, take a long look at Scott Dixon. Learn to appreciate him. He won’t be driving forever. When he decides to hang up his helmet for good, it will leave a huge void in motor racing – not just IndyCar.

Finally, there’s Simon Pagenaud. This will probably ruffle a few feathers, but I have yet to warm up to Simon Pagenaud. I’ve met him briefly a couple of times and he’s always been super nice to me, without knowing who in the world the elderly blogger was that was talking to him. I’ve also seen him go the extra mile to take more time than usual with fans. So off the track, I have no problems with him.

On the track is where I’ve never been a fan of Pagenaud. Do I have any tangible reasons? No. Should I? Well, if I’m going to publicly criticize him – I should probably have a reason; but I don’t. His post-race demeanor three weeks ago at Gateway didn’t score any points with me either. I liked Pagenaud OK in the semi-underdog role with Sam Schmidt, but once he became a Penske driver – he fell out of favor with me. He went winless and struggled in his first season with Penske and won the championship last year in his second season. This year he won at Phoenix, but has been mostly finishing in the Top-Five the rest of the way which has been good enough to put him thirty-four points away from his second consecutive championship.

So having said all of that, it’s probably safe to say that I’m not pulling for Pagenaud to win this championship. But that doesn’t mean I would be surprised if he won it.

So when I’m talking about who I want to win it and in what order; I’m probably slightly pulling for Castroneves over Newgarden, but I’ll still be ecstatic if Newgarden pulls it off – especially after his brain fade two weeks ago at Watkins Glen. Just behind those two, I’ll be pulling for Dixon. He has made several impressive drives this season and certainly deserves it. Plus, I think he is the best driver in the paddock and has been for quite a while.

But who I want to win and who I think will win are two different things. I think Josef Newgarden left the door too wide-open when he made his gaffe at Watkins Glen to a driver that is probably more dangerous when he’s in second place than when he’s leading. Greatness always rises to the occasion when the stakes are the highest. Scott Dixon will be your 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “Who Will Win The IndyCar Championship?”

  1. Brian McKay Says:

    first to ‘vote’ again
    I’ve been a fan of Newgarden, Pagenaud, and Dixon for years. I would not be unhappy if Castroneves won after paying his dues for years. I’d rather see Newgarden redeem himself after his pitlane flub.
    I’ll agree with anyone that Newgarden has been a good, polished interviewee, sounding more advanced or mature than you’d expect for years… He’s definitely a good fit in Team Penske.
    Thanks for blogging.

  2. I am sure Penske will flub it up again to Dixon. It’s funny about Pagenaud, I kinda view him as boring also, so we may get rid of Dixon in the next few years but we get his replacement in personality in Simon. Dixon, this year I don’t even know how he is in contention, 1 win and that 30+ finish at Indy where the points are setup for the summer run. I don’t know how he does it.

    Sorry to say, I am over Helio, he isn’t clutch and can’t get it done.

    With Ganassi in such a state, this may be the last one for Dixon, so I guess I will enjoy it.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Not that I wanted to see Josef’s flub at Watkins Glen, but man does it set up a fascinating scenario for the final race. Not simply tightening the championship up, but setting up the ultimate test of Newgarden’s mettle… can he beat Scott Dixon? Yes, there are others he must beat, but Josef can win the title even finishing behind them. He must best Dixon in a single race with the title on the line, a tall order even for Dario Franchitti (who was able to do it).

    Unrelated, but here’s how wacky the old USAC points system would be with the current season: if we were using it, Pagenaud would be leading the championship by 220 points over Newgarden and Dixon would fall to 5th in the standings, though would still have a chance to win the title at Sonoma.

  4. I’m pulling 100% for Helio, but it sets up so well for Dixon. What an accomplishment it would be. To beat all those Penskes. Would just be continued proof that this guy is and has been the very best driver in the series for quite some time now. Dixon is amazing.

  5. Iam really looking forward to this race. It will avtually be a bunch of seperate races being run at the same time on the same track. There will be other drivers will realistic chances to win the race, if they qualify well, and who I expect will drive with that mindset.
    There are others who are driving for a ride next year and who could place well, even win with the right circumstances. How they handle themselves in close racing could mean more for their futures than actual finishing position.
    The unexpected is always a big wild card. The contenders will probably be running close together. A freak mechanical failure, or a mistake by any one of them, or another driver could take all of them out or put them at the back of the field and force the guys in the pits to pull out calculators as well as mechanics tools to try to get ehough points to finish ahead of whoeven they have to beat in yet another race scenario.
    Someone who just happens to tune in or go to the race will see a race. Those of us who are really following the whole season will see a whole library of stories play out.

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