Strong Opening Tracks Could Propel Newgarden’s Title Chase

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Only a couple of NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers scored more points in the final six races of the 2020 season than Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who made a dramatic but unsuccessful late bid to overtake Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon for the series championship.

As for driver point totals as they currently stand: No one has scored any yet in 2021, and no one knows that better than Newgarden, who is in the prime of his career at age 30 beginning his 10th season in the series.

“I’ve tried to wipe last year from my memory as best I can,” he recently said.

Yes, everyone starts equally for the season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, set for Sunday, April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. But the past two series champions – Dixon and Newgarden, respectively – have kicked off the season with race victories.

INDYCAR champions typically start seasons strong. In the past 10 years, the driver hoisting the Astor Challenge Cup at year’s end has been on the podium at the first race six times, and four of them won the race. The average first-race finish by those champions was 4.3, and that figure is inflated by Dixon finishing 15th in 2015. Remove that and the average is 3.1, which speaks to the significance of quick starts.

Newgarden is a good bet to get off to a strong start this season – and therefore contend for his third season championship in five years – because the Barber race is first up. Newgarden has won at the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course three times in the past five trips, and when he hasn’t won he has finished in the top four.

The second race of the season, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, is set for Sunday, April 25, and past performances suggest Newgarden will be strong there, too. He has won the past two races on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit, and like Barber, it’s a track where Team Penske has excelled.

All of which bodes well for Newgarden.

“Obviously, I was hoping we were going to win our third (season) championship last year,” he said, alluding to winning three of the final six races to slice 101 points from Dixon’s seemingly insurmountable series lead. “We could be working on the fourth (title).

“We’re going to have to go back to square one and try to knock the third off this season.”

While Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport was the hottest driver in the late stages of 2020 – he led the series with 279 points scored over the final six races – Dixon is the annual target. The veteran of 19 INDYCAR seasons will be bidding to win record-tying seventh series championship, although winning the title in consecutive seasons would be a personal first.

Newgarden’s title bid could benefit from more points scored in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. While Newgarden finished only three positions behind Dixon in the Aug. 23 race, that was a 31-point difference in a double-points weekend. Newgarden lost the title by 16 points.

Of course, winning Indy isn’t about scoring points, it’s about scoring a place in the sport’s history. Newgarden is so far winless in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“Indy was probably one of our worst tracks (last year),” he said of qualifying 12th and finishing fifth. “There’s no doubt, we didn’t perform the way we wanted at the ‘500’ from a qualifying standpoint and a race standpoint.

“I think that’s why we’ve heavily learned to get that right in the offseason. We haven’t left anything else behind.”

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, which begins Sunday, April 18 with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park, is slated for 17 races, including the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 30. NBC will have the coverage of those two races, and all races can be heard on the INDYCAR Radio Network.

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