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IndyCar championship contenders Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon discuss their qualifying struggles

Indianapolis Star

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When you look past a St. Petersburg finale in October, attending by a maximum of 20,000 fans, Sunday’s 2020 IndyCar season running to completion should feel relatively normal. The combination of Will Power sitting on pole for the year’s first street course of the year, something the Team Penske driver has achieved eight times previously at the bayside course, and Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon dueling down to the wire for a championship feels familiar to cap a seven-month stretch that has been anything but.

And it should lead to an action-packed 100 laps of racing Sunday with storylines galore, with four of Saturday’s Fast Six qualifiers still looking for their first 2020 victory, an Australian star-powered rookie starting in the second-to-last row and the two title contenders starting mid-pack where days could be derailed after just the first turn.

For Newgarden, it’s not nearly the set of circumstances he needed to come away with, desperate for every point and advantage possible while trailing Dixon by 32 points in search of his third title in four years. Bowing out of the Fast Six qualifying procedures Saturday in the second round to earn an eighth starting spot, Newgarden can now only win as many as 53 points possible Sunday, needing to lead the most laps in a hopeful victory and have Dixon finish 10th (without leading a lap) or worse.

“We needed to be up front on a day like today,” the driver of the No. 1 Chevy said Saturday after qualifying. “I felt like we were capable of being up there. It’s disappointing. I think if we just had our form from (Round 1) in (Round 2), we would have been okay. We took a swing at it, and it was the wrong way to go. It’s just one of those deals where you try something sometimes, and sometimes you go the wrong way.”

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Newgarden will start Sunday in eighth, three spots ahead of the Chip Ganassi Racing front-runner, who struggled in his own way in qualifying, a theme that has prevailed throughout the 2020 season where Dixon hasn’t clinched a single pole. He starts Sunday in 11th after taking the grid in this month’s Harvest Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 12th and 15th, finishing ninth and eighth, respectively, to allow Newgarden to claw his way back from 117 points down with six races to go.

The 40-year-old Kiwi is in the midst of his worst four-race stretch (all finishes outside the top-seven) since 2005. Even still, the traditionally even-keel five-time series champ doesn’t appear to be sweating it too much entering Sunday’s title-deciding race. Twice in the last three years (both times by Sebastien Bourdais) has the race-winner in St. Pete started outside the top 10 (21st and 14th).

“Ultimately in St. Pete, if you guess the strategy right, you can win from anywhere,” Dixon said. “We’ve just got to stay clean and obviously try and move up a little bit, just on pace, and hopefully with good pit stops and things like that eliminate any kind of issues.

“And if we catch a lucky break, so be it.”

Newgarden said he’ll be in search of any lucky breaks he can find, after a season full of ill-timed yellow flags have cost him from being in contention three times, despite him also winning three times in 13 races.

But he doesn’t see his teammate starting on pole as one of them, needing an aggressive style and a little luck to pull off his epic comeback. Power, though, did say he’d provide some help if he can.

“If (he needs to pass me to win the title), I would let him go,” Power said Saturday.

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Otherwise, Power sees this potential race victory in front of him as his own title of sorts. Should he go wire-to-wire like IMS a few weeks ago or a more traditional win from pole like Mid-Ohio in September, the Team Penske driver would likely climb back into the top-three of the championship after a disastrous first half of the year that left him ninth with six races left.

As one of the three or four hottest drivers in the field since the start of September, Power hopes another win could carry over into this shortened offseason to help him start 2021 on the right foot and on-track for just his second championship of his highly-decorated career.

“(A win Sunday) would really make this year worthwhile,” he said. “I would feel very good about it. Get to go on vacation feeling good about the finish of the year. It’s been a trying season. We’ve been knocking on the door every weekend.”

But just behind him sit four drivers that made Saturday’s Fast Six that have yet to win in 2020, including Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe, Jack Harvey and Pato O’Ward. Further down the grid, Graham Rahal (who starts 17th) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (19th) hope for chances to snap lengthy winless streaks. Sprinkled throughout the field are two young rookies (Rinus VeeKay, ninth, and Oliver Askew, 10th) from whom a win could help shore up their unannounced 2021 plans.

Newgarden and Dixon’s title battle may be most high-profile storyline entering IndyCar’s 2020 swan song, but it’s by no means the only one. And the other 22 drivers in the field aren’t looking to play the supporting actors’ role.

“We’re here to win, ultimately,” Rossi said. “I think being a Honda driver, I’m always going to give a bit more room to (Dixon) because I wouldn’t want him to potentially lose (the championship) for the manufacturer, but beyond that, he’s not my teammate. None of them are. I just want to go out there and be pretty self-centered, to be honest.”

Added Herta: “Hopefully we don’t have to really race them and can get out into a lead and not worry about them, though it’s always in the back of your mind. Josef is going to be a bit more aggressive, but if Dixon can have his nose on him, he’s not going to do too much about it with the points gap. But you have to be a little more careful with Josef, cause I think he’s going to be a little more aggressive on defending his position and attacking.”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.