The fog rolled off the water in Monterey Sunday morning, but at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, all was clear as fans arrived for the final IndyCar race of the season. It would decide the championship, contested between four drivers: leader Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, and Scott Dixon.
Pagenaud was spotted taking pictures with fans and talking with friends (speaking French) in the driveway next to the building where the drivers’ meeting was to be held at 10am. Cool? Maybe. Or maybe he was churning inside, his potential second IndyCar championship within sight, if not grasp. He sat third in the championship, behind Rossi by a point and behind Newgarden by 42. Of the four contenders, only Rossi has not won the season’s title previously. Pagenaud won it in 2016. Newgarden got it in 2017, and Dixon won last year, but has five titles in all.
They would line up in this order, behind Pole Sitter Colton Herta, a rookie: Dixon, Rossi, Newgarden, and Pagenaud, but he was sixth, one behind non-contender James Hinchcliffe.
The numbers crunch out to say that Newgarden has to finish only fourth or better to take the title, no matter what anyone else does. Starting in that very spot, he would pencil out to succeed at becoming two-time champ, because this is the type of track where not a ton of passing happens. But who knows? There was “the Pass” by Alex Zanardi in 1996 to take down Colton’s dad, Bryan Herta, and win the race. (Herta got revenge with two victories in later years). And sometimes, stuff happens.
Things break. Transmissions get balky. Batteries quit. Mostly, mechanical issues can be controlled by preparation, and Newgarden’s team seemed cool in making their final tweaks to the car in the garage around 9:45 am, thus minimizing the risk of a mechanical snafu. They certainly had a lot of observers—guests from sponsor Hitachi were abundant. Outside, their pit space was ready to go, tires laid out and pressures checked. It was go time. Or it would be ‘round about 12:15. In the meantime, there were support series races to be run on the 11-turn 2.238-mile natural road course.
The temperature Sunday aimed for 76 degrees. It had been 86 on Saturday, unusual heat according to local people. Grip is at a premium in racing, obviously, so one question was whether teams had made adjustments for a potentially cooler track.
The race would start with all but three teams on the so-called “alternate” tire, the red sidewall tire which is more grippy but less durable. The three who would be on “blacks,” which are less sticky but give a greater number of laps, were Will Power, in seventh, Takuma Sato in 16th, and Charlie Kimball in 20th. Why does this matter? If the reds fall off early in the race, those three would logically stand to have a better chance at getting to the lead on their better rubber. Then, pit stop strategy being what it is, they could jump the queue and stay up front-all are drivers capable of leading, even winning. Pushing the four title contenders out of the top three spots would change the picture for the title. Still, Newgarden has one primary job—keep the other three in the rearview mirrors.
Fans wandered to their favorite corner, found shade under a tree, watched while Indy Lights and USF 2000 ran, and waited. They would soon know who was to be the champ.