By: Tanner Watkins, Spencer Neff, and Phil Mathew
September 20, 2019 | 8:00 AM
Later today, the NTT IndyCar Series will begin official practice for the final race weekend of the 2019 season. With the historic WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca serving as the backdrop, a championship will be decided on Sunday.
Ahead of the momentous 17th race of this championship, Open-Wheels brought together three of its contributors to have a roundtable discussion on a handful of hot topics heading into Laguna Seca race weekend.
Tanner Watkins (Owner and Editor of Open-Wheels.com) will be joined by Spencer Neff (Assistant Editor and Contributor) and Phil Mathew (Contributor) on today’s roundtable to talk IndyCar for the final race of the year. The topics will be focused mainly on this weekend’s race and the headlines surrounding the championship.
Let the debates begin!
What will be more important: Qualifications, or surviving the first lap of the race at Laguna Seca?
Spencer: Although Laguna Seca has seen a handful of Lap 1 incidents, I think qualifying will have a bigger say in who wins the race and championship this weekend.
In 22 races, only once has the winner started outside Row 3. In the previous 16 races of 2019, no race winner has started further back than eighth. Couple those two stats together, this could be the most exciting qualifying outside of the Indianapolis 500 this year.
Phil: Qualifying will determine what happens on the first lap of the race considering how narrow and tight the front straight and the Andretti Hairpin are.
Tanner: I think this is one of the few times we will all be in agreement here – qualifying will be king this weekend. This is something that (Alexander) Rossi has been mentioning for a few weeks now (even before Laguna was the next race up) and he knows that last year’s final race was doomed from the start when he qualified behind Dixon.
Barring any unusual circumstances, the driver in the championship four that qualifies ahead of the other three will likely finish the race ahead of the other three.
What impact, if any, does having a potential American champion have on the series and its popularity?
Phil: When Josef won the title a couple of years ago, I said that it’s a great opportunity to market an American champion. Just like Ryan Hunter-Reay previously, the series and media relations group didn’t jump on that opportunity. Whether Josef or Alexander win the title, I doubt it’s going to move the needle, sadly. It’s definitely a lost opportunity.
Spencer: Ultimately, it will depend on how much those in the series are able to do. Having a young, marketable two-time series champion like Newgarden could help make him the face of IndyCar. If Rossi were to win, having a young American driver with an Indy 500 win and a championship before he turns 30, all with one of the most recognizable names in motorsport (Andretti) could also be the proverbial “shot in the arm” for IndyCar’s popularity.
With the NBC TV contract, NTT sponsorship and more, it will be up to IndyCar and its partners to make the most of any potential avenues for growth.
Tanner: To me, having an American champion is just a feather in the hat for fans that find that important. Otherwise, it isn’t really a big deal. We are so far removed from the “all-American” identity and allegiance found in the sport’s earlier generations that I just don’t think that headline makes as much of a difference to fans or marketers as some think.
Honestly, one-off American drivers in the Indianapolis 500 are more intriguing than an American winning the series championship.
What would it mean for Rossi to indeed come back and win the title in a “home” race at Laguna Seca?
Spencer: If Rossi were able to come back and win the title, it would serve as redemption following the struggles in the 2018 finale. As far as the bigger picture, this would be a chance for Rossi to elevate himself not only among the ranks of IndyCar, but as well as the current sports landscape at large. Winning at home would be an added incentive: He would join Jimmy Vasser (1997) as the only California-born Laguna Seca winners.
Phil: Rossi is going to be aggressive all weekend and is going for the win at home. Whether that results in a title is really based on what Josef does. Rossi wins the race Sunday but falls short of the title again.
Tanner: It has been mentioned in the media over the last couple of weeks, but Rossi sees Laguna Seca as more of a “home” track than he did Sonoma – which was also marketed as a home race for the California driver. I think he would be happy to win the race this weekend, but if it doesn’t come with the championship then there will certainly be disappointment.
Rossi has won the two biggest races in IndyCar already – the only thing that matters now is winning the title. That is what will move his career into another echelon, but until that happens, he will still be looking up to guys like Newgarden, Dixon, and Pagenaud.
Will a driver outside of the “championship four” win the race?
Phil: I figure Rossi wins Sunday, but with this being a new track for a few of these drivers, the opportunity is there. I’d also say full-course yellows and fuel-saving could lead to a non-title contender winning, as Max Papis did years ago while driving for Bobby Rahal.
Spencer: I’m tempted to say that a driver outside of Newgarden, Rossi, Pagenaud and Dixon will win this weekend. However, I think there is just too much at stake for these drivers and ultimately, one of the four will take the checkered flag on Sunday. Although, stranger things have happened.
Tanner: I agree with you guys here – whether it is Rossi or one of the three other title contenders, I don’t see a scenario where all four of them get beat. The cream always rises in these sort of situations (particularly Team Penske) so I really think it will come down to Rossi or either Newgarden/Pagenaud for the race victory.
Who is your 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship winner?
Phil: Josef Newgarden becomes a two-time NTT IndyCar Series Champion with a solid run on Sunday.
Spencer: Before this year, I jotted down predictions for all 17 races this year. For Laguna Seca, I pegged Josef Newgarden to win the race. For the championship, I picked Alexander Rossi. Although I hate changing my predictions, I think ultimately 41 points is too much for Rossi to make up.
For Newgarden, I do think he will run well enough to keep the championship. On Sunday, I foresee Rossi dominating the 90-lap race, with Newgarden staying close behind en route to his second title in three years.
Tanner: At the start of the season, I had Newgarden as our 2019 title winner by virtue of cleaning up some mistakes that team made in 2018. I am sticking with that prediction at this point – the gap for Rossi is simply too large, and he will be relying on Newgarden and his team to make a mistake at some point.
The No. 2 Team Penske unit has been solid all year, and they have one more test to pass. At this point, though, they have done their homework and should be in a pretty good mood by Sunday evening.
Header image by Stephen King/INDYCAR.