Newgarden hit with grid penalty in tight IndyCar title fight

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PORTLAND, Ore. — As IndyCar races into the final two races of its season and the closest championship race in nearly two decades, one of the top contenders took an early hit.

Josef Newgarden was penalized six places on the starting grid on Friday because the Penske team changed its engine before the Portland Grand Prix. On a track that’s tough to get through, the penalty has put the two-time IndyCar champion into a quick deficit.

Newgarden remained optimistic he can overcome the setback and leave Sunday’s race still in contention for a third IndyCar title.

“I wouldn’t say it’s ideal, but I don’t know if it’s decisive,” Newgarden said Friday. “I hope it’s not a big negative and I don’t think it is.”

Will Power holds the IndyCar points lead with two races remaining: this Sunday at Portland and next Sunday at Laguna Seca in California. But his lead was cut to just three points by Team Penske teammate Newgarden, who raced to his fifth win of the season in the last IndyCar outing to stop in Power’s rearview mirror.

But there’s no breathing room in this title fight: Six-time champion Scott Dixon is 14 points behind Power as a trio of Chip Ganassi Racing drivers are challenging Penske teammates. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson has 17 points, while reigning IndyCar champion Alex Palou is fifth in the standings, 54 points behind.

The contenders actually include Scott McLaughlin and Pato O’Ward in sixth and seventh place in the standings because they are both still mathematically eligible to win the title. Any driver who is 54 points or more off the points leader after Sunday’s race will be eliminated and O’Ward is currently 58 points behind Power.

This intense championship fight has seen seven lead changes this season between Power, Newgarden, Palou, Ericsson and McLaughlin and the three points separating the Penske Power and Newgarden teammates is the closest margin with two races remaining since 2008. The 43 points separating the top five drivers in the championship is the closest title fight since 2003, when 41 points separated the top five.

Ganassi’s goal is clear: Chip Ganassi has told all three of his contenders that he wants them to finish 1-2-3 in the title race and that his drivers should race each other fairly through the checkered flag next weekend. week in Laguna Seca.

“Rule No. 1 is don’t take your teammate out,” Dixon said. “Obviously everyone is racing to win, but some respect is required when you’re competing with your teammates.”

Dixon also noted that Penske driver McLaughlin appeared to deliberately move out of Newgarden’s way two weeks ago at Gateway to help Newgarden win the race. McLaughlin was the leader on the final restart, he controlled it and took a good lead before he was easily caught by Newgarden and won his fifth race of the season.

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Asked by The Associated Press after the race at Gateway how Newgarden caught him so quickly, McLaughlin attributed “the wake effect.” I did everything I could to try to separate myself as much as I could.”

But when asked by the AP why McLaughlin appeared to be standing still as Newgarden rocketed past, he demurred.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know,” McLaughlin said.

Power said team owner Roger Penske gave his drivers a briefing before Gateway and warned them not to race each other unnecessarily and cost the team the overall effort. But Newgarden’s interpretation of the boss’s orders seemed to be that winning is the ultimate goal.

“I think the smart thing to do is not to be at each other’s throats the entire race,” Newgarden said. “You would probably have that opinion at any time of the year. But when it comes down to it, Roger has always taken the position that when it comes to the end of the race, it’s time to start.

“When it’s time to go, it’s time to go, and Roger understands that. But he wants us to do it in the best possible way. He races hard, but he races fair and doesn’t take each other out. But sometimes things happen. All you can do is try to make it as fair as possible.”

IndyCar rookie Callum Ilott has settled comfortably into the series with an active role at Juncos Hollinger Racing. He agreed to a contract extension in July to return next year to what Ilott hopes will be an expanded two-car team.

Although he has no control over who the team hires for a second seat, he has spoken with Ricardo Juncos about potential hires. At the top of your list? Felix Rosenqvist, current Arrow McLaren SP driver.

Rosenqvist will be kicked out of his IndyCar seat with McLaren if Palou is released from his contract with Ganassi, a process that is currently in arbitration and in court. McLaren wants to move Rosenqvist to its new Formula E team, but the Swede wants to stay in IndyCar.

“Felix, I would love to have him and I think he would be one of the best options we can have,” Ilott told the AP. “I would open my arms to him. Out of everything, I think it would be the best situation for who we could get because he has the most experience and he is a great guy as well.”

Ilott came from the European system and although he is technically still a member of the Ferrari Drivers’ Academy, he said that right now he is disconnected from the world of F1 and has no real responsibilities left. He has made IndyCar his entire focus, and he’s not sure if other young European drivers who have financial backing but can’t get into F1 will follow Ilott and his rookie teammate Christian Lundgaard to the United States.

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He said JHR is not actively looking for a budget driver to help with the expansion, but that the team would consider someone to make the jump from Europe.

“I know how difficult it was for my side as an F2 driver to get to IndyCar, I think it was challenging and they will have to learn a lot from me,” said Ilott. “Is he developing us as a team? Probably not as fast as Felix would.

Ilott then hinted that JHR might be interested in a current Indy Lights driver, Linus Lundqvist could finish the Lights title on Sunday, or even a veteran. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who did not participate in IndyCar this season, has a sportscar contract with Chip Ganassi Racing but has also been mentioned for several IndyCar starts in 2023.

“Do you take someone from Lights who knows the tracks but doesn’t necessarily know the Indy car? That’s probably easier than (an F2 driver) in some respects,” said Ilott. “Or do you pick someone who maybe has been in IndyCar but hasn’t been in the series in the last one or two years? There are a lot of possibilities out there.”

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said he is still in talks with sponsors for a third season of IndyCar and said Friday that Carvana is still on the list.

“I haven’t been told ‘No’ yet,” said Johnson, who remains focused on putting together a full IndyCar season for 2023.

But he also hopes to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans next season in NASCAR’s joint venture with Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet, and Johnson said he remains open to even running a Cup race next year.

Jeff Gordon, his former NASCAR teammate, will come out of retirement this weekend to compete in the IMSA-sanctioned Porsche Carrera Cup North America at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although it’s a specific project with former crew chief Ray Evernham, many believe it could be a test to see if Gordon wants to be part of the Le Mans effort and Johnson said “man, I’d love to do that race with him”.

“I feel like I’m on the short list to go there, but it’s really a matter of waiting for the IndyCar schedule and seeing if I’m available,” Johnson said. “I think IndyCar is tired of me asking them about next year’s schedule.”

More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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