Penske's Newgarden guarded about his IndyCar points lead
By JOHN KEKIS
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) Less than a week after his series-leading fourth win of the IndyCar season created a more comfortable lead in the points standings, Penske Racing's Josef Newgarden remains guarded about his title chances with two races remaining in the season.
"I'm thinking anything can happen," the 26-year-old Tennessee driver said Friday after the first practice at Watkins Glen International. "There's a lot of people in the fight. One mistake, one misfortune with reliability, it's pretty much wide open, in my opinion. The lead can slip away pretty easily."
In his first season driving for Roger Penske, Newgarden leads Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon by 31 points, with Penske teammates Helio Castroneves (42 behind) and Simon Pagenaud (43) also within striking distance and Penske's Will Power another 40 points behind in fifth.
Last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis, Newgarden stayed true to form by using an aggressive move to pull off an important victory. He darted inside of Pagenaud on a restart, glanced off the side of the Frenchman's No. 1, and he drifted up the track as Newgarden and Dixon slipped past.
Pagenaud, the reigning IndyCar champion in his third season driving for Penske, finished third.
Although Roger Penske saw nothing wrong with the pass, Pagenaud called it a "NASCAR move" afterward and suggested the outcome of the race might have been different if the two weren't teammates.
"There is no team orders there," Power said Friday. "We're able to race, which is a great, great situation. We've got four competitive cars, we learn a lot off each other, and then we race hard around the track."
Newgarden said any hard feelings have since dissipated.
"I don't think there's any animosity," he said. "We've already spoken. I know it seems like a show sometimes, but we work really well together as a team. We're good. Absolutely."
Added Power: "It's just a heated battle. They're good friends, still."
Two weeks ago, Power held off Newgarden at Pocono, making his No. 12 Chevy too wide for Newgarden to try one of those aggressive passes over the final 10 laps.
Don't expect Newgarden to change his tactics.
"I have an idea of how I want to approach it," said Newgarden, who finished second a year ago at Watkins Glen. "The safest thing is to keep doing what we've been doing. The way I look at it, it's not a very safe lead. You have to be trying to increase the lead with regards to the points. That's all you can do. At Pocono there was a time to be less aggressive and Gateway there was a time to be more aggressive. I'll continue to do that going forward.
"You've just got to analyze each situation individually and get the most out of yourself ... and the points should shake out," he said. "I don't think I'm going to go into safeguarding position at this point. I think you still have to keep pushing forward."
In Friday's first practice, Graham Rahal topped the speed charts, followed by Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton. Newgarden, Pagenaud and Castroneves were bunched from ninth to 11th. In the afternoon session, it was Dixon on top, followed by Power, Rahal and Pagenaud, with Castroneves sixth and Newgarden 10th. Qualifying is on Saturday afternoon and the race is Sunday. Rain is in the forecast for both days.
The margin that separates Newgarden and Dixon is far from daunting with Sonoma's tricky road course layout awaiting next week. Dixon trailed Juan Pablo Montoya by 34 points two years ago and won the final race at Sonoma and the title. A driver can score as many as 104 points in the finale.
That Dixon was oh-so-close in the second practice to eclipsing his track record was a good sign for the New Zealand native as he chases his fifth title. Watkins Glen International has been Dixon's playground since the open-wheel series started racing here in 2005. He won the first three races at The Glen and notched his fourth a year ago, winning from the pole in dominant fashion. That's four wins in seven starts, one victory behind the track's all-time leader, former NASCAR star Tony Stewart.
The drawback is that Dixon is stuck in the middle of Penske's entire four-team lineup.
"We'll have to see how it plays out," Dixon said. "The biggest thing we've got to do is just focus on our races, go out there and try to win. That takes care of a lot of situations."
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Updated September 1, 2017