State of the Championship: Assessing Newgarden’s Weak Spot

There are four races left in the IndyCar season. The finale at Laguna Seca has double points on offer, meaning there are at most 266 points available to any one driver. The Single Seater model currently has Newgarden in control of the championship with a 66.4% chance of winning the series title. Rossi has around a 30.9% chance of winning as he sits 16 points behind Newgarden, and Dixon and Pagenaud both hold a 1.3% chance of pulling off a late-season upset.

Newgarden holds the lead

Newgarden has led the points standings for most of the year thanks in no small part to his qualifying efforts. He has the second-best average starting position this year (5.8) just behind Rossi (5.5) and was the fifth most consistent qualifier as judged by average starting deviation. Newgarden qualifies for races incredibly well, but he doesn’t start races well at all. On average he loses -0.9 places in the first two laps of the race and has only retained his starting position on 54% of race starts. Ryan Hunter-Reay is the only driver in the top-10 of the points who retains his starting position at a worse rate. This could pose a threat in the final quarter of the season as two of the last four races are on road/street courses where passing is tougher. Giving up a good qualifying effort in the opening laps puts Newgarden at greater risk of getting involved in a crash or simply being unable to pass a championship rival back. Even on the ovals where it’s traditionally easier to overtake, giving up free track position obviously isn’t an ideal way to close out a tight championship battle.

Rossi’s advantage

Rossi has been an even better qualifier than Newgarden with two pole positions and retains his starting position at a much higher rate than Newgarden — doing so 85% of the time. Attacking Newgarden’s weakness on the start is going to be a solid approach for Rossi to claw back the 16 point deficit. Newgarden is not a driver that makes a ton of mistakes in the race — his overly optimistic dive to Hunter-Reay’s inside on the last lap at Mid Ohio is not a move you’ll see him go for again — so being in front of him early is so important. All drivers are aggressive at the start of the race, but Rossi can be more tactfully aggressive since he knows Newgarden struggles in the first two laps. And what might be an even bigger advantage for Rossi is if Newgarden knows he struggles on starts, leading to out-of-character driving in an effort to retain his position that could cause him to make a mistake. Winning a championship is as much a mental game of keeping your concentration high as it is a physical battle on track.

So what could Newgarden do to improve this weakness in his profile? I’m not a driver coach, but I would think that taking some time in practice to simulate the start and running on cold tires could only serve to benefit him. His teammates both retain their starting position more than 75% of the time, so maybe they have some advice for their fellow driver too. With only four races left, it would do more harm than good to try to do much more and risk psyching himself out at race starts. It’ll be a problem to deal with in the off-season.

Pagenaud, Dixon round out the top-four

Pagenaud and Dixon are both longshots to win the title as they sit 47 and 62 points out of the championship lead. Their success in the title hunt is going to come down more to what mistakes Newgarden and Rossi make more than anything they can do. Pagenaud has actually been the luckiest driver this season already according to Expected Points. He is outperforming his xPoints through Mid Ohio by +72. That means he’s scored 72 more points than we would have expected him to as judged by his average track position in races. For example, in the Indy GP Pagenaud had an ATP of 6.6, led only five laps, and was in the top-five for just 41% of the race. We would have expected him to score 28.5 points that race (about a sixth-place finish) but instead he scored 51. We see drivers who overperform compared to their expected points for a stretch of time eventually regress back to the mean. This could be over the next couple of races or next season, we don’t know exactly. But if Pagenaud is really riding a somewhat lucky sequence of races, it could mean Dixon has a good shot of at least overtaking him in the points in these last four races if Pagenaud’s results start to line up with how he has been driving. Right now, our model has Pagenaud with an expected championship finishing position of 3.3 compared to Dixon’s 3.4.

Pocono is up next

In the 50,000 simulations we did of the last races of the IndyCar season, no other driver won the championship besides these four. Newgarden and Rossi head into Pocono with a combined 97% chance of winning the title. There have been just three oval races so far this year, but Newgarden has the edge over Rossi in average starting (6) and finishing (2) position on these types of tracks. He also scores better in ATP (4.2) and ATP25 (1.9). A good weekend at Pocono could give him some breathing room in the points, but it won’t be easy. Rossi has had a good start to his career at Pocono with two podiums including a win in three races there. Newgarden has two podiums and no wins in six attempts.

These aren’t huge sample sizes, and I’d say these guys are about even. Newgarden with the advantage at ovals this season and Rossi with the advantage at Pocono the past few years. A DNF from either Rossi or Newgarden would probably flip the championship odds from “lean Newgarden” to “likely Newgarden” or to “lean Rossi” depending on who DNFs, so Rossi has more to lose than Newgarden does when it comes to a strategy gamble or risky overtake opportunities. I expect both of these guys to play it relatively safe (no high-risk-low-reward moves like we saw with Newgarden at Mid Ohio) at Pocono with three races still to go after. Pagenaud and Dixon might try to shake up the race a bit with alternative strategies given their longshot status too.

The current championship odds

Here’s the forecast for the four drivers that have a shot at the championship title:

To see the odds for every driver, visit the Championship Predictions page here. Although I prefer the probabilistic forecast shown on that page, the table below shows a one number “Expected Championship Position” for each driver. The Expected Championship Position is the average championship finishing position we would “expect” from a driver if the end of the season were repeated infinite times. It is useful to get a point estimate forecast for each driver.

See all 2019 driver statistics.

Header photo: Chris Owens/IndyCar

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