Josef Newgarden was just a couple of positions away from losing the title he controlled all year Josef Newgarden only spent one race outside of the IndyCar Series championship lead this season.
The best team won the IndyCar championship on Sunday at Laguna Seca, but it came really close to giving it away.
Josef Newgarden captured the honors, his second in three years, but it was much closer than anyone really anticipated. Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud were presented the exact scenario they needed as the race unfolded, but neither capitalized.
At a minimum, both challengers needed to win and have Newgarden finish sixth or worse.
He finished eighth.
For the sake of reference, that had only happened three other times in a season in which he finished with a 5.6 average.
Newgarden’s team, spearheaded by strategist and Team Penske president Tim Cindric, made the decision to simply stay within eyesight of Rossi, its closest pursuer, and it nearly suckered the team into a black hole in which it never would have recovered.
Rossi, who had struggled with various issues throughout the week, just didn’t have the speed he needed to race in the top five.
As he fell outside of the top five and nearly outside of the top 10, it continually backed both of them further and further away from Simon Pagenaud, who was threatening to win the race — and thus, the championship.
“During the race I was like, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like the way I’m running this race,'” Newgarden said.
“I felt like we were going down a rabbit hole, and it was just the wrong place to be going because I could see the writing on the wall where it was headed.”
Where it was headed was a Simon Pagenaud championship.
“My goal was to shadow Rossi, and that’s either going to be in my favor or it’s not,” Newgarden said. “And it looked like it was coming out of that favor, that sort of strategy. But I had to stick to the plan. Our goose was kind of cooked after the first stint. It was like, look, you’ve made your bed, this is what it is.”
The decisive moment of the race was when Pagenaud came out ahead of third-place Scott Dixon on colder tires. Pagenaud just couldn’t get heat into his new tires in time to fend off the five-time champion.
If he had, based on the pace he showed racing Dixon, he likely would have set sail toward second-place Will Power — teammate to both himself and Newgarden.
Power would not have surrendered the position, but he wouldn’t have objected to the degree Dixon had.
If Pagenaud gets second place with 20 laps to go or so, maybe he makes a race out of it.
“I could see it right there on the scoring pylon,” Pagenaud said. “I saw that he fell to sixth, and then seventh and eighth. I asked, ‘Do we have to win? But I knew.’ It doesn’t make it sting extra hard because we were in a bit of a long shot, but I gave it all we had.”
That’s how perilously close Newgarden, stuck in the fringes of the top 10, was to losing a championship he had pretty much controlled from Day 1.
Rossi, for his part, was diplomatic about how it all played out.
“You can’t take away from the fact that Josef led all but one race this season,” Rossi said. “And from a sporting perspective, probably the right guy won. He came into this thing with a pretty big lead, and if it had gone away on double points, I would have loved it, but ultimately it probably wouldn’t have been the outcome that should have happened.
“Josef did a great job, Simon did a good job there at the end and we just were a couple points short.”
But it was much closer than what the champion, so dominant all year, probably needed to make it.