State of the Championship: Looking Past the Champion We Can Still Find Excitement

Usually these posts are almost exclusively centered on the battle to win the IndyCar championship, but Scott Dixon has made that a lot less exciting to write about this season. Assuming the Mid Ohio doubleheader gets scheduled for September like is planned, we will have five more races this season to enjoy. Dixon currently has a 96 point lead in the points standings and our projections give him a 99.9% chance of winning the 2020 IndyCar Championship. The only other driver with a slim chance of winning is Josef Newgarden, who has about a 1 in 1000 chance of pulling off a miraculous late season challenge to Dixon.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting things going on, they’re just not happening at the very front of the field — although I’d argue that seeing Dixon perform at this level is entertainment enough each and every weekend. In terms of the points race, here are a few interesting things from our latest model run and story lines that should be fun to watch play out in the next few races.

Can Pato O’Ward Lock Down a Top Three Finish in the Championship?

O’Ward has been one of most fun drivers to watch this season. He has been on the cusp of winning a few times now and with three podiums in 2020 he sits a strong third in the championship just behind Newgarden. Driving for Arrow McLaren SP, a top-three finish in the points would be a huge result for the team and the young driver. But can he do it? Assuming a doubleheader at Mid Ohio will be run in September, we are looking at five races left this season. He has an expected finishing position of 3.9 in the points championship, and has been on an absolute tear this season in changing his Elo rating. Here is his career-long Elo rating:

After the first race of 2020 (6/6 on the graph), O’Ward’s Elo rating sat at 1507, just above average. After the second race at WWT Raceway, O’Ward’s rating was 1646 for a total gain of 139 points! That’s a massive change this season and the graph above really puts that climb into perspective. He now sits #8 in Elo rating out of full-time 2020 drivers. The Single Seater’s model thinks O’Ward’s most likely finishing position in the points championship is third, with a 41.7% chance of that happening. He also has a 2.2% chance of taking second in the championship for a total probability of finishing in the top-three of 43.9%. Right now he has a semi-comfortable buffer to Takuma Sato as he leads him by 26 points, but there are still enough races for his third place to be challenged by a few people below him. The battle for O’Ward to stay in the top three is something that everyone should have their eyes on as Dixon essentially has the championship locked up, and with a 43.9% chance of staying in the top three and a 56.1% chance of falling out of the top three, this story line is likely to go down to the last race of the season.

Will Rossi at Least Be Able to Get Top-10 in the Points?

This has been a really tough season for Alexander Rossi so far. Looking at the difference between actual points and expected points, Rossi has been the unluckiest driver this season with a -55 point difference between his actual and expected points. Between penalties and DNFs, this was not the season anyone would have expected out of Rossi and the fact that the question above is asking whether or not he can finish in the top half of the championship really points to just how tough 2020 has been for him. Rossi currently sits 18th in the championship surrounded by Oliver Askew above him and Charlie Kimball below him – not his usual company. The Single Seater’s model expects a championship finishing position of 12.5 in the final standings for Rossi, but his distribution of outcomes is really wide. Here is that distribution:

Unlike the pretty precise probabilities for O’Ward, the model is basically throwing its hands up for which position Rossi will finish in. The reason for this is that Rossi is an extremely strong driver (1711 in Elo rating, #4 in 2020 full time drivers) who has had a difficult season. The points standings are pretty tight as you move farther down the field, so scoring 10 or 20 more points in a race than those around you can jump you up a huge number of places. That’s another reason his distribution is so wide. Right now our model gives Rossi about a 24% chance of finishing the season in the top ten in the points, so it’s possible but definitely not probable. The single most likely position for him to finish the season in is 12th, with a 16.4% chance of doing so.

Have any championship questions/hypotheticals you would like tackled in the next State of the Championship? Let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them next time!

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