Madison, Ill – Currently, 15 of the 21 drivers entering in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (9 p.m. ET/NBCSN/INDYCAR Radio Network) are still eligible to win this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship. But, with the Gateway Motorsports Park shaping up to be a Team Penske battle for the win, that number could likely cut in half.
Leaving here this weekend, there’s going to be just two races left in the season (Sept. 3 Watkins Glen, Sept. 17 Sonoma). Those two races are no time to play catch up on the Penske foursome.
So, with that being said, the four Penske drivers have championship on their minds this weekend. They know they have a realistic shot to win and need to play it smart on Saturday night. But, how many of the other 17 drivers are points racing this weekend?
Gamesmanship is going to be key on this on this 1.025-mile track. Gateway has long straights and long sweeping corners. That means Turns 1 and 3 are great passing zones. With that being said, the Penske drivers can play nicely on those corners, the other drivers are going for it.
But, despite having the top four starting spots, the Penske drivers say that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll plan nicely on Saturday night.
All four drivers are competitive and all four don’t want to give an inch to either of their three other teammates.
“You can’t hide anything,” fourth place starter Simon Pagenaud told me among gamesmanship this weekend. “Everything is fully open. You can see everything what everybody does. It’s just a game you have to play. Honestly it’s the best way for the team to win races. It’s just the best driver and team that’s going to win between us that way.”
His teammate Josef Newgarden, the current points leader, says it’s game on and there’s holding nothing back.
“It’s game on,” Newgarden told me about the situation between teammates. “We’ve been game on all year and it’s going to be like that tomorrow night. We just have to be clean and take care of each other and the best car and best guy is going to win. It’s going to be tough be we have to take care of each other.”
The good thing about none of the four drivers qualifying near each other at Pocono last week is the fact that none of them will pit near each other this week. IndyCar sets pit stalls each race by the qualifying results of the previous race. At Pocono, Penske started second (Pagenaud) fifth (Will Power) 14th (Newgarden) and 20th (Helio Castroneves).
This weekend, that means they’re spread out on Gateway’s pit lane. That means all four could essentially pit on the same lap and none of them would affect the other.
“I think that’s a good thing that we’re not going to affect each other for sure,” Pagenaud told me on that subject. “I think my pit is a really good pit because I have a clean out.”
Newgarden agreed with him.
“Yeah we’re in different spots and we’re not going to be pitting around each other. But, it’s like you said it’s game on. We can all pit and race each other and not have to worry about it.”
Both AJ Foyt Racing cars are quick this weekend too and they know this is their chance to shine. But, do they play nicely on Saturday night and not try to take any one out, or do they throw that out the window and go for it.
“I think I go for it,” Carlos Munoz told me “I think you just have to go for it. The guys around have to be conscious of others but we always respect the others. I think we all respect each other and they know that. You have to run 100-percent though if you want to have a chance.”
Conor Daly agrees. Munoz will start eighth with Daly 11th. Both were extremely good here in the two test sessions and both have recently found new speed. They’re going to go for it on Saturday night no matter the situation and who they’re racing around.
“I have nothing to lose,” Daly said. “I don’t care what they’re doing. I’m just going to be trying to go forward the best I can. I think they’re at a really high level though. They have an unbelievable amount of pace over everyone else. It’s a little bit crazy. I don’t know what’s going on there. To be a full second ahead of everyone else on ovals is pretty unheard of. They actually shouldn’t be like that. If we’re all fighting for fifth place then we want to be fifth.”
Tony Kanaan says this race should be interesting for all those factors. He thinks it’s going to be dicey with how many different things each driver is trying to accomplish here this weekend.
“It’s interesting because you get into a point where you have five drivers worrying about one thing and you have 16 others worrying about a completely different thing. For us, it’s about going to win some races. I do not want to get into the middle to change the outcome for anybody. It’s a race within a race. They have everything to lose. We have nothing to lose.
It’s safe to say, everyone is going all out under the lights here at Gateway.