In one of the most tumultuous years in recent history, when 2020 has seemingly altered everything, one thing in motorsports remains constant.
For the 15th consecutive year, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship will be decided in the final race of the season.
What makes this season unusual is that it will end where it was supposed to begin.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has traditionally kicked off the INDYCAR season. In fact, it has been the season-opening race each year since 2011. The street circuit event was set to kick off the 2020 season on March 15 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced race organizers to cancel the weekend and INDYCAR to reshape the season.
INDYCAR and event promoter Green Savoree Promotions continued to work with the City of St. Petersburg, and they were able to keep the race alive for this year by moving it to the end of the season. The race is set for Oct. 25, with live coverage on NBC at 2:30 p.m.
Instead of celebrating the start of the 2020 season, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will serve as the grand finale of a championship battle between the two best championship drivers of the current era.
Five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing has won three of his five titles in the past 10 years -- 2013, 2015 and 2018. Two-time and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske has won two of the past three titles.
Dixon opened this season by winning the first three races and appeared primed to clinch the title in September. He led Newgarden by 84 points after Dixon finished second to Takuma Sato in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Aug. 23. The following week at World Wide Technology Raceway, Dixon’s lead increased to 117 points after winning his fourth race of the season. But Newgarden countered the very next day with his first win of the season and cut Dixon’s lead to 96.
Dixon could have conceivably wrapped up the championship at what has historically been his best event – the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. This year there were two races at the road course in Lexington, Ohio, and it seemed possible that Dixon, with a record six wins there, could have built an insurmountable advantage.
Instead, it was the beginning of Newgarden’s charge back into contention. He finished second and Dixon was 10th in the first race. The following day, Newgarden finished eighth and Dixon was 10th.
Just one week ago, Dixon entered the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in charge of the championship with a 72-point lead with just three races to go. Newgarden, however, remained confident.
“If we win three in a row and things fall our way, who knows, we could still win the championship,” Newgarden said entering the weekend. “You need to be within 20 or 30 points to have anywhere of a strong shot at it for the championship.”
Newgarden won the first race of the doubleheader and Dixon finished ninth. The following day, Newgarden finished fourth and Dixon eighth, cutting the spread to 32 points heading to St. Petersburg.
Still, Dixon remains in control. If Newgarden scores every possible point at St. Petersburg – for winning the pole, leading the most laps and winning the race -- Dixon clinches the title if he finishes ninth or better.
“As always, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES comes down to the last race of the season even without double points and the lead we had over 100 points not long ago,” Dixon said. “It’s nice still to be on the leading side of the points. It’s still a good margin. It gives us a little bit of a window.
“Josef has to get most laps led, win the pole and win the race and get all 54 points and we have to finish ninth. Josef has been good at St. Pete, too. We’ll keep trying hard.”
Interestingly, Newgarden and Dixon finished first and second, respectively, in last year’s St. Petersburg race.
Dixon said it has been a “trying couple of race weekends” as he has seen his championship lead shrink dramatically. One of the causes was an uncharacteristic spin off Turn 1 at Mid-Ohio.
“I’m still kicking myself for making a mistake at Mid-Ohio,” he said. “Ganassi Racing and the PNC Bank Honda will be pushing hard when we get to St. Pete.”
Newgarden started second in winning the 2019 race in St. Petersburg, but that was his only top-five finish in the event held annually since 2005. Dixon has never won there in 15 previous starts, but he had finished on the podium five times.
“Look, we’re in it with a shot,” Newgarden said. “We’re going to go to St. Pete and try and win this championship. I just wish we were in a little closer position.”
The two best championship drivers in INDYCAR over the past 10 years squaring it off in a one-race battle to determine the championship. It will be a fantastic conclusion to what has been a difficult year in 2020.