Crunching the numbers: The Verizon IndyCar Series championship

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In the last few days, news about the Verizon IndyCar series has mostly been about the tragic and untimely death of Justin Wilson.  While he wasn’t “my” driver, he was one I always watched, and I think it’s a shame he never got the opportunities he deserved.  His loss is a tremendous one to IndyCar and the racing community as a whole.

With that said, there is still a pretty tight battle going on for the IndyCar championship.  For the last few years it has come down to the last race of the season, and this year is no exception.  Juan Pablo Montoya has led all season thanks to wins at the St. Petersburg season opener and the Indianapolis 500, plus consistently strong performances all season, while Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon have enjoyed late-season surges that have put them into the thick of the competition as the season winds down.indycar-logo1

What does all this mean going into Sonoma?  Well, I was really interested to see how it plays out myself, so I sat down and did the math.  There are a total of six drivers who are mathematically eligible (Montoya, Rahal, Dixon, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden), and here is what each of them needs to be crowned as this year’s champion.  Remember that the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma counts for double points.

Montoya:  As the points leader, he is the only driver of the bunch who is in control of his own destiny as it were.  Regardless of who wins or whether they score the bonus points for most laps led, he can win the championship with a finish of third or better.  While this sounds pretty clear-cut, it has to be said that passing at Sonoma is difficult, so he will obviously have to be on top of his game in qualifying.  His crew will also have to make the right calls on race strategy, which bit him at Mid-Ohio (and benefitted Rahal, who won that weekend).

Rahal:  As former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, just win, baby!  And hope Montoya doesn’t have a really good day.  Even with a win, Rahal won’t be hoisting the trophy unless Montoya finishes no better than fourth.  A second place might get him there, but only if Montoya finishes 9th or worse and Dixon finishes behind him.  For him to clinch the championship with a third, Montoya would have to be down in 19th, and neither Dixon nor Power finishing better than second.

Dixon:  He’s won championships before, and he’s taken two wins at Sonoma, the most recent of which was last year.  And with that win, he’ll need Montoya coming in no better than sixth if he wants to notch another IndyCar championship, assuming Dixon leads the most laps.  Failing that, he needs Montoya to come in seventh or lower.  With a second place finish he’d need Montoya down in 14th and Rahal no higher than fourth.  Third place and a championship is a real long shot – that takes Montoya finishing 19th, Rahal finishing sixth, and neither Power nor Castroneves winning the race.

Power:  The defending series champ has always run well here and taken a win.  While Will has been strong in qualifying this year, he’s only won at the Indy GP.  With a win, his championship hinges upon Montoya finishing 10th or worse and Rahal doing no better than 3rd, but that’s only if he leads the most laps.  Otherwise, he needs Montoya in 11th.  With a second place finish, he’ll need Montoya in 21st (unlikely barring some major misfortune), Rahal in 7th, Dixon in 4th and Castroneves anywhere behind him.  With a third place finish – forget it, he won’t be repeating as champ.

Castroneves:  Among drivers with no wins, he’s the highest-ranking driver in the points – but he NEEDS a win to take the championship.  Plus he’ll need help from everyone ahead of him in the standings – Montoya 18th, Rahal 6th, Dixon 3rd, assuming he leads the most laps in the race.  Otherwise he needs Montoya in 19th.  Forget Helio taking the championship with a second place finish; it ain’t happening.

Newgarden:  Josef has won twice this year, but he’s also suffered some bad luck.  Like Helio, his only hope of scoring his first championship is to take the win at Sonoma.  Unlike Helio, he will need the full complement of bonus points that comes from leading the most laps.  Even then, that only happens when Montoya finishes 22nd, Rahal comes in 8th, Dixon scores 6th, and Power comes in third.

So there it is.  Aren’t you glad I did all this work for you?  😉  Anyway, if you’re a fan, go ahead and enjoy the race this weekend.  That’s what I’m going to do, and I’ll even be there in person!