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What Might Have Been

Published on Mon, Sep 23, 2019

By: Brian Kennedy

Underdog day. That’s what Sunday at the NTT IndyCar series finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca might have been. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but the story lines were rich nonetheless.

Put this into perspective: the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup after being dead last in the NHL in early  January, so the unlikely can happen, and who doesn’t like that?

In IndyCar, this would have taken the form of Alexander Rossi winning the season’s championship. He entered the day in second place, forty-one points behind the leader, Josef Newgarden, who has won it before (2017). Newgarden drives for Penske. They’ve got all the money and engineering talent in the world. Rossi drives for Andretti Autosport. They’re a close second, but Michael Andretti, for all his success on track and off, is not Penske.

Could Rossi do it? He would have to do as well as possible from his third starting position and hope Newgarden, who went off fourth, fell back through some disaster. That was unlikely to happen from the start, since Newgarden had his strategy set: not to win the race, but to win the championship. Here’s how he said it after the race: “I thought at one point, I don’t like this. I don’t like the way I’m running this race, but today’s a championship day. . . . It was an odd race. . . . I was doing one thing, and that was to shadow Rossi. I had to stick to the plan.”

His boss, Roger Penske, also commented that the strategy was not to rush to the win, but to pace Rossi. “We knew that Simon and Will were going to go for the win, and Tim [Cindric] had set it up so that we would run behind Rossi all day, three, four, five seconds at the most. It was just a matter of staying out of trouble. It worked out fine. You never know if you’ll have a lot of yellows, but .  . . execution and great reliability, and certainly we had a world-class guy behind the wheel today.” But that’s getting a bit ahead, isn’t it?

The race began with Rossi behind fellow championship challenger (but longshot) Scott Dixon and pole winner rookie Colton Herta. Herta pulled out front with Dixon on his rear wing. Behind them, Rossi and Newgarden paced along. Around lap ten, Newgarden got up to Rossi’s rear wing. Rossi kept pace, but he felt the pressure. He went wide on turn three around lap 12, and Newgarden pressed.

They shortly pitted together, and after emerging, Rossi went off track briefly and Newgarden got by him. The race was about a third finished, with 90 laps being the total distance.

While that was going on, another underdog story started to emerge. Felix Rosenqvist, who had qualified high but received a penalty and ended up starting 14th, was charging. He was first tenth, then eighth, then by lap 63, he was in fifth.

At one point, the running order was Herta, Dixon, Pagenaud, Rossi, and Rosenqvist. Newgarden sat seventh, which more than put him in the champion’s seat. A few laps later, Rossi found himself seventh. Then sixth, with Will Power having played pit strategy to break into the top group, lodging himself second, where he would eventually finish the race.

Power did so by sitting close to the rear wing of Herta, making the kid earn his win, the second one of his career and season (the earlier one being Circuit of the Americas in Texas in March). With about ten laps left, Power faded back into Dixon’s clutches, but he surged again, putting almost five seconds between them. The podium would eventually be Herta, Power, and Scott Dixon.

Rossi, meanwhile, lazed back to sixth. He was about 10 seconds behind the leader, and had nine seconds on Newgarden, who had adopted a failsafe strategy in the late going. The championship was going to be his. In securing it, he did not lead a lap. In trying to wrest it from him, neither did Rossi. The only three out front of the field were Herta (83 laps led), Power (6), and Pagenaud (1).

The finishing order, then, was Herta, Power, Dixon, Pagenaud, Rosenqvist, and Rosenqvist. Rossi was sixth. Sebastian Bourdais quietly moved into seventh, putting Newgarden back to eighth. The latter was good enough for the championship, with 25 points to spare. It was Newgarden’s second in three years, having previously won in 2017. (Dixon won last year.)

Underdog Rosenqvist had to be happy with his improvement of nine spots, especially at a track notorious for not allowing a lot of passing, something which was not so much in evidence on this day. He accomplished something even Herta did not—he won Rookie of the Year honors. This on consistency. His outstanding moment of the season was one pole. Herta, by contrast, had three to go along with his two victories.

This caps a year in which Newgarden won the most races, four. Pagenaud can’t be unhappy with his year, either. He won three races including sweeping the month of May (Indy Grand Prix and the big prize, the Indy 500). He was second in the season’s championship, bringing home the 1-2 for his owner, Roger Penske. He entered the final race a point behind Rossi and thus 42 behind his teammate, Rossi, in the championship.

The championship order ended like this: Newgarden, Pagenaud, Rossi, Dixon, and Power. Newgarden, as was said, won four races, Pagenaud the aforementioned three. The other three in the top five of the championship won two races apiece. The outliers on the season, winning without being amongst the top five, were Herta, as was said, and Takuma Sato, who pulled off two victories as well. No driver won just one race this season. Herta wins at this track in the shadow of his father, Bryan, who took two victories of his career total of four at Laguna Seca.

To Herta, this isn’t the finish of anything, but the start. He’s just 19, and has perhaps two decades in front of him to take the championship his father never won. He’s with a good young team to do it. His team, Harding-Steinbrenner Racing, just announced a partnership for next year with Michael Andretti’s Andretti Autosport. Herta’s team will be Harding Steinbrenner Andretti Racing.

He talked about his team, saying, “It was a perfect race. To win an IndyCar race, it has to be a perfect race. You can’t really make mistakes and get away with it. There’s always two or three other guys on a day that could win. There were a few other guys who could win today, and we outdid them. We had pace on them, and we were definitely the best today.”

Roger Penske, the owner of the championship-winning team, commented on Herta’s team, which has George Steinbrenner’s grandson involved and is a new investment: “To see what they’ve put together, a small team, and the quality of the people building it, Colton Herta, it’s amazing. . . . I think that they’ve got great momentum, and you’re going to hear a lot about them in the future. We need more owners, ones who understand how to win and want to win.”

To return to the Astor Cup, emblematic of this series’ title driver, Newgarden was in tears in the last lap of his championship race. He commented on the feeling after: “I don’t ever cry. Actually it infuriates my fiancé, because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbs her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry. I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.’”

He explained the feeling, “It was like a big weight, I mean, I still feel it when I think about it now. It’s just a big weight. Especially when I saw the guys.” It’s a team sport, remember.

His team owner, Roger Penske, perhaps put the cap on the day, and the year: “The season was great. Josef a great champion. You can see it in his eyes. I could see it the first time he won with us. Will [Power], Simon [Pagenaud] outstanding season, three wins, the Indy 500, the crown jewel of all, every year. The season as a whole was great, the competition. Certainly a lot of young drivers coming up. Colton Herta, outstanding. And the Dixons and the others we race every day. . . . The competition has never been better.”

He summed it up perfectly: “It’s important to go racing in IndyCar, which I think is key. Keep the rules the way they are. We need to come back to these same tracks at the same times every year to grow this fan base.”

Penske has won in sportscars this year, won the IndyCar championship, and could well win the NASCAR Cup as well, so if there’s anyone who should and can speak to this series’ viability, he’s the one. They don’t call him “The Captain” for nothing, after all.

Herta plays in a band that will be touring the West Coast in November. He was pretty direct about it in comments after, naming all the tour cities in order! They’re apparently called the Zibs.

Pagenaud was adamant about how Laguna Seca raced, saying after the contest that he would absolutely tell them not to repave. Colton Herta wasn’t so definite. He said qualifying would be faster for sure if they repaved. But the cost might be the way the track raced.

Here’s a glimpse of what it would be to work for Penske, a look into his head: “We start to get ready for next year’s Indy 500 Monday or Tuesday of next week.” Yikes! That’s eight months away!

Follow me @growinguphockey. I’ve written books about everything from Facing Wayne Gretzky to Mixing Memory and Desire: Why Literature Can’t Forget the Great War. Read one!

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