(WATKINS GLEN, NY) – It’s hard to believe that we are already nearing the end of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Walking in to the track down in St. Petersburg, FL is still really fresh in my mind – and that’s saying a lot given how busy the past 5 months have been for not only the series and drivers, but for me personally.
Nonetheless, here we are, as the track wakes up in upstate New York, and Watkins Glen International slowly comes into focus, breathing life into the race fans that will return that energy tenfold, over the next three days.
Today, we prepare for two practice sessions on the 3.37-mile road course, one at 10:15 a.m. and then another at 3:05 p.m. The third practice will run at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday Sept 2nd, with qualifying in Firestone Fast 6 knockout rounds format, at 3:00 p.m. All of those sessions will be livestreamed by the series. NBCSN will air qualifying on tape delay at 7:00 p.m. Saturday. Raceday is Sunday Sept 3rd with final practice & warm-up at 9:00 a.m. and the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Glen going green at 1:47 p.m. NBCSN coverage starts a bit earlier at 1:00 p.m.
So who should you be keeping an eye on, throughout this lovely brisk early-September Friday? Well, grab your hoodie and possibly gloves (temperatures won’t exceed mid-60’s today) and watch for that No. 9 NTT Data Ganassi Honda of Scott Dixon to fly around the track just a smidgen faster than everyone else. Obvious of course, but his domination at this track can not be ignored.
Dixon only has one win under his belt this season (Road America) but this is the most likely venue to see him earn another one. He crushed the competition last year, leading all 3 practice sessions, winning the Verizon P1 Award, and of course the race itself. Dixon was really just shaking the rust off, seeing as how he won this race back in 2005, 2006, and 2007. The series return to Watkins Glen last year after a 5 season absence, was relatively last minute. It was an added event after the Boston Grand Prix fell through the holes and right off the schedule.
Everything happens for a reason.
This is a track the series should be racing at, and frankly, that they never should have left. It is prime for the speed of the DW-12’s, and produces insane visuals for fans watching from places like ‘the bus stop’. No doubt this event came back into reality pretty much by accident, but the general consensus is, “Thank goodness it did.”
Dixon’s dominance is not by accident, but it’s also not guaranteed to continue. He won last year with Chevy-power and the entirety of Team Penske is doing everything in their power to make sure he remembers that.
Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevy, Team Penske), another winner at Watkins Glen (2010), who has claimed victory 3 times this year (IndyCar Grand Prix, Texas Motor Speedway, Pocono) is in the Championship battle, running 83 points behind teammate Josef Newgarden, and fighting for his second title.
Newgarden, who has led the points race since his win at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July, stands with 547 points and a total of 4 wins – Barber Motorsports Park, the Streets of Toronto, and Gateway Motorsports Park being the other 3. If he produces solid results this weekend and at the finale in Mid-Sept at Sonoma Raceway, he could be going home with his first Series Championship in his ‘rookie year’ at Team Penske. He is 31 points ahead of Dixon and 42 in front of teammate Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevy) who sits third.
Castroneves was able to put an end to a three-year winless streak when he climbed the fence at Iowa Speedway in early July. The streak he is focused on the most though, is the championship-less one… this is the 20th year of Indy car racing for the Brazilian and he’s yet to claim that ultimate prize. With rumors circulating that he may be headed to sportscar racing with Team Penske’s new effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship in 2018, he is feeling the pressure to perform. This could be his last chance to hoist the Astor Cup over his head.
Someone who knows exactly how that feels, is teammate Simon Pagenaud (No. 1 Menard’s Team Penske Chevy), who got to celebrate his new role as Champion with friends, crew, and family on stage in Sonoma last year. Pagenaud is hoping to repeat that in a mere two weeks, but he’s going to need a win at least one of, if not both of these final two races to bring that plan to fruition. He is 43 points behind Newgarden, has one win from Phoenix International Raceway this year, and has finished in the Top 5 for 12 of the 15 contests in 2017.
The scuffle between he and Newgarden at Gateway last weekend has been smoothed over. His ‘French emotion’ came out after a hard-racing pass was executed by Newgarden after the last round of pit stops under yellow. Pagenaud’s crew got him out of the pits inches ahead of Newgarden, giving him the advantage and lead when going back to green. Pagenaud was unable to create a gap between him and his teammate in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevy. Newgarden saw an opening heading into Turn 1 a handful of laps after the green flag and he took it. He explained his trust for Pagenaud being the reason he felt confident taking that line. The cars made contact resulting in Newgarden getting the lead back and Pagenaud saving the car from careening into the outside wall, losing 2 positions in the meantime.
The initial response from Pagenaud was composed anger and frustration, and the statement that the move made him lose trust and respect for his teammate. Thankfully, a conversation was had over the past 5 days and things are peaceful with all four team members focused on the goal of a Championship and placing all four cars as high on the results list as possible.
The peace-making does not mean we won’t be treated to more battles though. Quite the contrary in my opinion. The Penske’s and Mr. Dixon are the most likely candidates for the Championship even though mathematically, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi, and Takuma Sato are still in the running. To give you perspective on the spread, Newgarden would need to finish P12 or worse at Watkins Glen to lose the lead. That’s unlikely given that he’s only finished that low at the Indianapolis 500 (P19) and Texas (P13 due to contact). Those are both ovals, so it’s only fair to note that his worst finish at Road/Street course this year was P11 at the IndyCar Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Buckle up kids, things are about to get interesting.
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Photo credit: Chris Jones/IndyCar & Chris Owens/IndyCar