Josef Newgarden in control of title race at Sonoma

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2017, file photo, Scott Dixon sits in his car before a practice session for the IndyCar Series auto race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. When Josef Newgarden hit the wall at Watkins Glen, it blew the championship race wide open and gave Dixon a clear shot at the title. If there's one thing a driver should never do, it is give four-time champion Dixon an opening. ((AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Josef Newgarden led a Team Penske parade in qualifying for the IndyCar season finale with a blistering run that put him in control of the championship race

SONOMA, Calif. — Josef Newgarden moved a step closer to his first IndyCar title by leading a Penske parade into the IndyCar season finale.

Four of the five drivers still mathematically eligible to win the championship Sunday are from Team Penske. In qualifying, they showed they have the raw speed to grab this title.

But it's Newgarden, in his first season driving for Penske, who led the charge. He's the points leader and three times broke the track record in Saturday's qualifying session. His final run in his Chevrolet was at 1 minute, 15.5205 seconds and gave Newgarden just the second pole of his career.

The bonus point he earned for the pole gives him a four-point lead over Scott Dixon heading into Sunday's season finale. The race is worth double points.

"This is IndyCar racing, anything can happen. We checked one thing off the box this weekend and we have one big one to check off tomorrow," said Newgarden. "We've got to get through the race, we've got to have a good racecar - qualifying is one thing, having speed is one thing, but winning the race is a whole other deal."

Newgarden was ecstatic after the pole-winning run and celebrated with his Penske team. He's trying to become only the second U.S.-born driver in 11 years to win the championship.

His upgrade to Penske equipment this season has led to four victories and put him in control of the championship. If he finishes higher than all the other contenders Sunday, he wins the title.

Penske drivers Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves qualified second, third and fourth. Dixon was sixth and struggled through all three qualifying sessions.

The four-time series champion started the weekend just three points behind Newgarden and considered the favorite to win the title because of his ruthless attacking style, steely demeanor and experience. But his Ganassi Honda clearly lacked the speed of the Chevrolet's from Penske.

"The Penske group are fast here, and it's exactly what we expect, but the race is going to be interesting," said Dixon, who thinks he'll have to rely on strategy on Sunday to win the race.

"We can definitely make it work."

Team owner Chip Ganassi wasn't thrilled with the sixth-place starting spot for Dixon, but didn't seem concerned about his chances at another championship. Dixon started ninth in 2015 when he won the race, tied Juan Pablo Montoya in the standings and won the championship on a tie-breaker.

"It was not our best qualifying effort, we'd like to be a little further up there, but they don't hand out points until after the race," Ganassi said.

Penske really likes his chances with four drivers in contention — he believes Power at fifth in points in a longshot — but knows beating Dixon will be a difficult task. Should Dixon pull it off, would The Captain be crushed?

"I'm as level as I can be, when I am up and when I am down," Penske said. "I will be disappointed, but I'll move on. When you think about nine races you've won this year, I don't think it's been a bad year.

"I think Scott Dixon is one of the very best out here, and I respect him and the team. But Josef's got a great opportunity, and we've got three guys that can win this thing."

Castroneves had an anxious few moments after he only made one qualifying run in the first round. Although it was good enough to advance to the second round, he sat nervously on pit road hoping another driver would not bump him from elimination.

The idea to make only one qualifying run was strategic, so Castroneves could hang on to an additional set of tires, but it was risky. He pumped his fist from inside his cockpit when the session ended and he advanced.

The popular Brazilian is in his 20th, and possibly last, full season in IndyCar. Penske has hinted strongly at moving Castroneves to the sports car team he's launching next season. Castroneves would probably run only at the Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar.

Because there's been no formal announcement about 2018, there's constant speculation about Castroneves.

"The media has helped me create a real frenzy at this time," Penske said.

But, Penske sure sounded like a team owner about to move Castroneves out of IndyCar.

"He and I talked about his future 12 months ago, we were looking — do we have a sports car program?" Penske said. "We didn't know if we would or if we wouldn't. We have one now, and we want to get through this weekend and probably in the next 30 days we'll make a decision."

___

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

Related News

Waymo self-driving minivan will start test drives...

Jan 9, 2017

Waymo, Google's self-driving car division, will start testing its new fleet of minivans on public...

Second VW employee arrested over emissions scheme

Jan 10, 2017

The Volkswagen executive who once was in charge of complying with U.S. emissions regulations was...

Honda goes higher-tech with Odyssey. Try the...

Jan 9, 2017

A veteran player in the small but scrappy minivan segment is getting a major upgrade

Ford adding diesel engine, other features to F-150

Jan 10, 2017

For the first time, Ford is offering a diesel engine on its F-150 pickup

Renault F1 team rocked as Vasseur leaves before...

Jan 11, 2017

A few weeks away from proudly unveiling its new car for the 2017 Formula One season, French...

US gov't accuses Fiat Chrysler of cheating on...

Jan 13, 2017

The U.S. government is accusing Fiat Chrysler of failing to disclose software in some of its...

You may also like these

Waymo self-driving minivan will start test drives...

Jan 9, 2017

Waymo, Google's self-driving car division, will start testing its new fleet of minivans on public...

US gov't accuses Fiat Chrysler of cheating on...

Jan 13, 2017

The U.S. government is accusing Fiat Chrysler of failing to disclose software in some of its...

US ends probe of Tesla fatal crash without...

Jan 19, 2017

Tesla Motors won't face a recall or fine as a result of a fatal crash involving its Autopilot...

The Latest: Rising star Cindric ups racing resume...

Jan 29, 2017

Austin Cindric's meteoric rise in auto racing now includes a strong debut in the Rolex 24 at Daytona

US retail sales rise in January, led by gas and...

Feb 15, 2017

Americans increased their spending at restaurants and gasoline stations in January, pushing up...

Sign up now!

Action Swift is your fighting sports news site featuring boxing, fencing, martial arts, mixed martial arts and sumo. It’s time for some action!

Contact us: sales@actionswift.com