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INDYCAR contenders ready to settle championship fight

MONTEREY, California – The four drivers still in mathematical contention for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship shared a few laughs Wednesday night at a local establishment on the Monterey Peninsula. But Thursday morning, the serious business of the championship battle continues with an all-day test session at the 2.258-mile, 11-turn natural terrain road course.

It’s the first time an IndyCar race has been contested at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca since 2004.

Watch the IndyCar title decided on NBC Sports Sunday at 3 p.m Eastern Time.

Wednesday night was some friendly camaraderie between NTT IndyCar Series points leader Josef Newgarden, who takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi in the final race of the year, one that pays double-points. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner and 2016 IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud is 42 points behind.

Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon is mathematically alive, but at 85 points back, would need some unusual circumstances to happen to win the title.

As Rossi stated Wednesday night, let the excitement begin.

“Just race cars, man,” Rossi said. “That’s what we’re all here for, right?

“I’m thrilled, as you mentioned, the fact that we’re able to have two races in California, my home state, is amazing. Every time that we went to Sonoma, we went to Long Beach, I imagine coming here is going to be the same.

“Just the fan turnout, the excitement, passion, energy they have. It’s really you guys that keep us motivated to keep going each and every weekend. Sometimes in the middle of the season in those three-week stretches when we see your excitement level at the race track, it kind of reminds of how we all fell in love with this sport. A huge shout out to everyone here now, here this weekend.

“We’ll put a hell of a show on for you.”

All four drivers have put on a hell of a show this season at various times on the schedule. Each have experienced a bad race or two that have kept this group close.

That sets up a final race showdown featuring Newgarden, a driver who has led the points for every race this season except after the 103rd Indianapolis 500. He is the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

Newgarden is the one driver who controls his own destiny. If he finishes fourth or higher in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, he wins the championship no matter what the other three drivers do in the race.

“I think we feel good about it,” Newgarden said. “We feel confident, but not overly confident. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys on stage, really everybody.

“Someone asked me, ‘Are there any true rivalries in this series?’ I think you start the year with everybody. Then it whittles down to the real contenders at the end. I have a lot of respect for the talent these guys have. I know what they are all capable of. It makes our job, in my opinion, very difficult this weekend, especially with double points.

“It’s not going to be easy to come in here and take it simply. We’re going to have to work for it. We’ve done that all year. I feel confident we can do that again this weekend. We’re going to try to stay focused to get through this thing.”

For Rossi, the aggressive racing star who won the 100th Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, it’s the second straight season that he has entered the final race of the year second in points. He returns to the track where his father took him as a child to watch races and that is how he fell in love with the sport.

With double points, Rossi can win the title with many different scenarios. The easiest is to win the race and hope Newgarden finishes fifth or lower.

“Obviously we’re happy to be here as a part of this conversation,” Rossi said. “It’s a big honor as Josef said. It’s a big honor to be a part of this conversation.

“There are so many guys that are capable of winning races, as we see week in, week out. There’s always seemingly a new face, a new winner, new polesitters. That’s what this series is all about.

“To be here, unfortunately in a position that we’re not leading, but still here nonetheless, is very cool thing. Hopefully we can have a little bit better fortune than we did last year.”

Pagenaud is the 2016 champion and is 42 points out of the lead. It’s already been a big year for the driver from France, who won the 103rd Indy 500 on May 26 and has been part of the celebration ever since.

“That’s the fun of it really,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously for us on the 22 team, it’s been an incredible year. Obviously winning the Indianapolis 500 was the biggest dream of my life, such an accomplishment for myself, for my team. Also, for France. It hasn’t been done in 99 years, so it was very special to bring back the Borg-Warner there. I want to thank Borg-Warner and IndyCar for making that possible. We had a tremendous celebration in America and France.

“To cap it off, all you have to do is win the championship.”

What will it take for the popular driver from France to achieve that and add another title to the championship he earned with Team Penske in 2016?

“For me the situation is very, very simple -- I just got to go out there, bring my A game,” Pagenaud explained. “My team, myself, just work really hard to get the car ready tomorrow in practice and then just hit your marks and get it done at the end.

“At the end of the day I’ve got to do exactly what I did in 2017 in Sonoma, try to win the race. Whatever they do, I don’t care. It’s going to sort itself out. You just have to be focused on your job and do it. We’ll see.”

Then there is Dixon, an IndyCar racing legend with five titles and 46 victories. He remains the “Platinum Standard” of INDYCAR.

As NBC’s Leigh Diffey perfectly stated, Dixon needs the perfect “lottery numbers” to fall for him to win the title. He is 85 points out in a race that pays 100 points to win.

“I think you covered it all, man,” Dixon said. “Good job.

“It’s what we all strive to do, right? That’s why we’re in this series. Especially in the modern-day formula, it’s so tight. I think everyone has commented on that, just how competitive it is.

“For me, I look at like 2007, run out of fuel on the last corner of the last lap, lose the championship to Dario Franchitti. 2009... I kind of look at the near misses quite a bit.

“I think that’s good motivation for me, too.

“It’s great to be up here. We’ve still got a chance, a chance. It’s going to take a lot, but we’re definitely up for it.

“I’m excited to be in this position. I think the show come Sunday is going to be very, very exciting.”

What makes it more exciting is there are two races out of the 17 on the schedule that pay double points – the legendary Indianapolis 500 and the season’s final race at Laguna Seca.

That is the factor that keeps so many drivers in play for the championship.

“If it wasn’t double points, I think it would be a lot simpler, obviously,” Newgarden said. “With double points, it really changes the game. I kind of knew that at the beginning of the year. I think it doesn’t matter how big of a lead you build up; it’s going to be hard to build up a lead to make you comfortable enough on a hundred points. That’s where we find ourselves.

“We’re staying focused because I don’t think we can try and take it easy or play the smart route. If we try to play it too smart, finish fifth or sixth, that’s not enough. We’re very focused on trying to continue what we’ve done all year.

But, Newgarden’s path to the title remains simple – fourth place or better.

“I’ve told people it’s not easy to finish fourth in an IndyCar race,” Newgarden said. “That’s a really good day. Sure, you can have better days, you can win the race. But to be top five in this series consistently is not an easy thing to do.

“I think we have a big task ahead of us. We just have to honestly treat it like it’s any other weekend. I don’t know how we can do it differently.”