LONG POND, Pa. – Josef Newgarden gets a kick out of anyone who considers the IndyCar championship race limited to two or three drivers. The 2017 series champion counts a field four or five deep all chasing him for first as the season winds down.
Newgarden, first in the standings, took the pole at Pocono Raceway after rain washed out qualifying and set the field on points. Newgarden holds a 16-point lead over Alexander Rossi, who also starts Sunday’s race on the front row. With four races left in the season, Indianapolis 500 champion Simon Pagenaud is 47 points back while reigning series champion Scott Dixon trails the leader by 62 points.
The championship race is tight, the margin for error is thin and the stretch run starts at the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval track that has courted danger in recent seasons.
Pressure? Bring it on.
“I prefer to be in front,” Newgarden said. “I think it’s always better to be in the lead because then you can control it more so than chasing.”
Newgarden has his No. 2 Chevrolet on the right kind of track. Pocono will be the fourth of five oval races in IndyCar this season. Team Penske has held the edge on ovals, with Newgarden winning at Texas and Iowa and Pagenaud winning the Indianapolis 500.
Newgarden has two runner-up finishes at Pocono and has scored five top-fives overall since IndyCar returned to the track in 2013.
“People will be like, `the championship is wide open now’ because it got close,” Newgarden said. “And then it would open up again and people would be like, these are the two front-runners. It just yo-yos all year.”
Newgarden led the points in the final five weeks of his championship season, proof he can handle the grind of the title hunt. The series follows Pocono with races at Gateway, Portland and the season wraps at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
Like the Indy 500, the finale is worth double points.
“It’s going to change over these next four events, one way or the other,” Newgarden said. “Maybe someone will rip a gap and it won’t be close or maybe it will just stay tight.”
Rain also limited practice to a single two-hour session: Tony Kanaan posted the top speed at 216.354 mph, followed by Dixon, and Rossi was fourth. Pagenaud was fifth and Newgarden lagged well behind in 17th.
Pagenaud is the only driver among the contenders to not score a podium finish at Pocono. Rossi won last year in race marred by the wreck that paralyzed Robert Wickens from the waist down . Dixon won in 2013.
Will Power, a two-time Pocono winner, preached caution early to avoid another kind of accident similar to the one involving Wickens.
“Take your time. As we saw last year, you don’t want to take too big of a risk on that first lap,” Power said. “You’ve got to make smart decisions on superspeedways.”
Pocono could be on the way out of IndyCar after the 2019 season, with the two sides yet to reach a deal on a return.
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