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(Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR Media)

INDYCAR Preview: Control of the NTT IndyCar Series Championship On The Line in St. Louis

The first-lap incident during the NTT IndyCar Series’ visit to Pocono Raceway last weekend caused a lot of controversy, but regardless of who was at fault, the five-car pileup completely changed the complexion of the season-long championship fight.

Alexander Rossi, by virtue of his 18th-place finish at the Tricky Triangle, lost significant ground to Josef Newgarden in the points race and will be looking to track down the championship leader when the series hits World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway this Saturday night (Aug. 24). But if he wants to catch the man he’s been chasing all year, he’ll have to do it quickly.

With just three rounds left on the schedule, Rossi’s window is closing, and closing fast. Although the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca has double points up for grabs, last year’s championship runner-up will need a stellar outing on the short oval if he wants any shot at controlling his own destiny. Now 35 points back, an even wider deficit could leave him in need of a miracle when the series visits the Monterey Peninsula.

Although it’s not just Newgarden he has to worry about. Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud have been on a tear as of late and have themselves closed the gap to Newgarden to under 50 points. So on top of trying to chase down the points leader, he’ll also have to fend off the attacks from two of the hottest drivers in the series.

But heading into the last oval race of the season, it’s hard to say who has the advantage.

Newgarden is a past winner at Gateway, which should give him a slight edge. He famously muscled his way past his French teammate and championship rival in the closing laps of the 2017 edition of the race, which was the first of two Team Penske wins at the track since the series returned that year.

But his 2017 performance didn’t exactly translate to last year’s race with the then-new universal aerokits. In the 2018 edition of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500, the defending race-winner came home a lackluster seventh place, while Rossi and Dixon both cruised to podium finishes. Pagenaud, following up on his third-place finish the year prior, just missed out on the podium, following Dixon across the line in fourth.

While it’s hard to say who will be driving into victory lane tonight, it’s even harder to say who wants it more, so don’t be surprised if all four title contenders are battling it out for the win in the closing laps of this one.

How They’ll Line Up

When the cars rolled off the trucks on Friday, there were a few surprises on the charts. Rookies Santino Ferrucci and Marcus Ericsson clocked in as the fastest of the afternoon session, each with laps well over 184.5 mph, leaving a lengthy list of veterans in their dust.

Newgarden and Dixon ticked off a few quick laps, ending the session in third and fourth, while Sebastien Bourdais, Rossi and last year’s winner, Will Power, played catch up.

But when it came time to set the grid, it seemed the experience paid off. Newgarden, earning an ever-important extra point, grabbed his second NTT P1 Award of the year with a blistering two-lap average of 186.508 mph, beating outside row one qualifier Bourdais by over half a mile per hour.

Rossi, however, will have some catching up to do, as the Andretti Autosport pilot could only manage 11th quick, making him the slowest of the championship contenders.

Newgarden’s teammates showed similar speed, but couldn’t quite manage the Nashville-native’s pace. Power, coming off last week’s win in Pennsylvania, will line up third when the field gets rolling this evening, alongside Pagenaud, who will join him on the outside of row two.

While unable to replicate his speed in the afternoon, Ferrucci still put together a solid showing in qualifying, putting his Dale Coyne Racing machine in sixth, easily his best starting position of the season.

Takuma Sato, coming off last week’s dramatic first-lap crash and subsequent social media drama, bounced back nicely, securing the fifth spot on the grid.

Dixon, while eclipsing Rossi’s pace, didn’t fare much better, and will start the 248-lap race just inside the top 10 in eighth position.

The evening practice session, like the first of the day, also produced some surprises. When the checkered flag fell on the hour-long practice, Conor Daly, driving the No. 59 Carlin Chevy this week, found himself P1, just a tick ahead of the polesitter. Despite the practice speed, Daly will start the race back in 18th.

Zach Veach also showed some dramatic improvement once the lights came on, ending the second session third on the charts, a significant improvement from his 15th-place showing in qualifying.

Rossi, meanwhile, was able to pick up a few spots in the order in the evening session, ending the last session before the green flag in the eighth spot on the charts.

NTT INDYCAR SERIES BOMMARITO AUTOMOTIVE GROUP 500 STARTING GRID

Who to Watch

With Newgarden already primed to head up the field for most of the race, Rossi will be the one to watch as he tries to make his way through the field. As a notorious hard charger, a less-than-ideal starting position has never been one to hamper the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champ’s efforts. While he was still searching for speed in practice, the young American should be able to dial in his No. 27 Dallara and contend for the win–not that he has much of a choice.

But Rossi – and Newgarden, for that matter – will have to get through the Dale Coyne crew first. The small, Illinois-based team would love to spoil the night for the Andretti or Penske squads in their home state, and with both drivers starting inside the top 10, they very well could. Bourdais has his best starting spot of the year in second, while Ferrucci is coming off a fourth-place finish at Pocono that saw him running with the big boys. This year’s Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year has looked impressive on ovals, and seems to have the speed again, so an upset could be brewing.

Although it’d be hard to characterize it as an upset, another strong performance from the Iceman would put him one step closer to completing one of the greatest comebacks in auto racing history. Nearly 100 points clear of the championship lead entering the Mid-Ohio weekend, Dixon has cut his deficit nearly in half, finishing no worse than second, yes, second, since the series stopped at Road America. That was four rounds and two months ago.

How to Watch

Saturday’s pre-race coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with the green flag expected to drop around 8:45 ET. Live streaming is available on the NBC Sports App with a cable subscription.

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