State of the Championship: Can Rossi Recover?

Pocono’s race produced a big reaction. Should Pocono be on the schedule in future years? Is the track too dangerous? What kind of penalty (if any) should be assessed to Sato? While these are all valid questions, I’m not going to be addressing those in this post. There’s lots of reaction to read elsewhere on some of these topics. After Sunday’s race, though rain-shortened, the usual points were handed out with Power taking home the race win. How did that affect the championship odds?

In short, it was beneficial to Newgarden — in a big way. Pre-race, The Single Seater’s model had Newgarden at about a 66 percent chance of winning the IndyCar championship. After a fifth place drive and Rossi’s 18th place finish after being collected in the first lap mayhem, Newgarden’s odds increased 20 points to 86 percent. This puts him clearly in the driver’s seat with three races to go. I wrote before the race about Newgarden’s lackluster race starts, and that weak spot showed its ugly head again for Newgarden on Sunday. Without qualifying, Newgarden started on pole thanks to the current points standings, but then promptly handed that spot over to his teammate almost instantaneously. Newgarden is now only retaining his starting position on 50 percent of race starts. That’s terrible. What’s worse is that it’s not just on the race start where he struggles. It’s caution restarts too. There were three cautions at Pocono, and Newgarden lost his position within two laps of every restart after them.

I don’t mean to harp on Newgarden, but the rate at which he loses positions on race starts and caution restarts is concerning to say the least. Only Hunter-Reay is less likely to retain his starting position than Newgarden. Here’s the full breakdown of start retention as a percentage, the total number of places each driver has gained or lost on race starts for the full season (+/-), and the average positions gained or lost per each race start:

This isn’t to say poor starts and restarts will prevent Newgarden from winning the championship (our model still has him as a big favorite remember) but he isn’t doing himself any favors by having such a prominent weak spot in his toolkit. He makes up for it by running in the top-5 more than anyone else with close to 68 percent of laps being run up at the front end of the grid. He also continues to hold the highest ATP25 rank with an average track position of 5.1 in the last quarter of races and dominates average finishing position with a 5.4 on the season.

Yes, Newgarden is driving fantastic this year and continues to dominate the championship and most of our advanced stats — he tops the charts in xPoints, AFP, ATP25, Top5Perc, and AEP — but the inability to start races and restart after cautions is a trend that’s yet to reverse.

Rossi went from a 31 percent chance of winning the title down to just a 9 percent chance after getting caught up in the accident. This was a major blow to his title hopes and it also really opened the door for Pagenaud and Dixon to fight for second place as well. Before the race Pagenaud and Dixon had an 8 and 7 percent chance of finishing second in the points respectively, but now they have a 24 and 21 percent chance. This makes the fight for positions 2-4 in the championship a lot more open then they were before, with Rossi still having the edge on second place with a 43 percent chance of finishing there.

The Team Andretti driver is still the most likely to be able to take the fight to Newgarden as the season winds down. Pagenaud and Dixon both improved their chances of winning to around 3 and 2 percent, but most of Rossi’s loss went to improving Newgarden’s chances of winning as opposed to helping either Pagenaud and Dixon.

Rounding out the top-5 in the title battle is Power who probably has the most interesting of all distributions. TSS’s model has Power with a whopping 99 percent chance of finishing fifth in the championship. With three races left he is 76 points behind fourth place and 63 points ahead of seventh place. That puts him in a bit of a holding pattern with not much of a chance to move up or down in the points. This could give him even more leeway to help out Newgarden if needed since he won’t be risking his own points position.

The next race up is Gateway, the final oval race of the season. As we saw this weekend, ovals can be pretty unpredictable when it comes to DNFs as big crashes can take out a quarter of the field in one turn. Newgarden has a nice buffer to second place right now, so staying out of trouble should be the name of the game as opposed to going all out for a race win. With that said, he won at Gateway in 2017, so he knows how to be quick there and has been absolutely fantastic on ovals in 2019. In the four oval races so far, he’s had two wins and never finished out of the top-5.

Header photo: Chris Owens/IndyCar

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