Racing
Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer 62d

Josef Newgarden trying to plant flag for next generation

IndyCar, AutoRacing

The layout of 12-turn Sonoma Raceway includes righthanders, lefties, climbs and falls. It doesn't include a crossroads. Well, not normally.

But on Sunday, when the 2.385-mile road course hosts the IndyCar Series finale, there will be a big fork in the road sitting right there in the middle of it all.

Don't worry, race fans. I'm speaking metaphorically. This isn't a demolition derby. It's a good old-fashioned generational shift. Maybe.

When the green flag drops Sunday afternoon, no less than five drivers will fly by it with a chance at winning the IndyCar championship. Four cagey veterans vs. one kid.

The four veterans -- Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power -- average out at 37 years old, 233 career big-league open-wheel starts and 28 wins each. They have six championships between them. I say "big-league open-wheel" because their careers all began in Champ Car, a series that no longer exists.

The kid -- Josef Newgarden -- is 26 years old, with 99 IndyCar starts and seven wins, four coming this year, his sixth. His big-league open-wheel career started five seasons after CART had vanished.

On Sunday, the kid will start the race as the series points leader, with the old dudes in his rearview mirror.

"I'm not going to tell them you called them old dudes," Newgarden said earlier this week. "I have the most incredible respect for them all. They have all been mentors to me. But yes, the goal is to keep them in that rearview mirror. The dream has always been to win an Indy 500 and win an IndyCar championship.

"To be this close to one of those dreams, fighting with legends to get it done, that's amazing, isn't it?"

A title by any of the other four would make for a great story.

Dixon's fifth championship would only further galvanize the title he already holds as the greatest open-wheel racer of his time.

It was only two years ago that he pulled off one of the most dramatic afternoons in IndyCar history. The New Zealander started the Sonoma finale ranked third in the championship standings, then racing into the lead late to take the victory and -- thanks to the series paying double points for this event -- ending the day tied for the points lead, winning via a tiebreaker because of the win.

Entering Sunday, he will be stalking from only three points behind the series leader, Newgarden.

Castroneves owns a resume that is perhaps second only to Dixon during the past decade and a half. His three Indy 500 wins are only one-tenth of his career trophy haul, but that collection does not include an IndyCar championship. The Brazilian finished as the runner-up four times and among the top five an unlucky 13 times.

His victory at Iowa Speedway in July was his first race win since 2014. Longtime employer Penske Racing will be downsizing in 2018 and all signs say he will be the man left without a chair when the music stops.

Pagenaud, the immensely likeable defending champion, is seeking to become the first back-to-back titlist since 2010. Sitting fourth, 34 points behind Newgarden, his title hopes need help from the three ahead of him, given a chance to reel them in thanks to the double points payout. The Frenchman has overcome early season struggles with a new braking system to be in this position and promises "our celebration party will be much larger than last year if I can pull this off!"

Power, the long shot, has been a vocal critic of the double points system for Sonoma and Indianapolis, but has begrudgingly embraced it as his opportunity for a second IndyCar title, added to his 2014 championship.

The cruelest outcome for the Aussie would be to finish second, as it would be his excruciating fifth runner-up effort. But if Sunday's long shot (he's 68 points back) were to actually pull this off, the stunning comeback would go a long way toward erasing the pain of all those near-misses.

See? Great stories, right?

But if the people whose lives depend on the future of American open-wheel racing are willing to be completely honest with you, perhaps after consuming a couple of bottles of Napa Valley grape juice, then they would tell you who among the five they'll be rooting for on Sunday.

It'll be the good-looking blonde millennial kid from Nashville.

In May, on the eve of the 101st Indy 500, I wrote a column about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing closing the book on a tremendous years-long centennial celebration and turning its eyes toward the future. The same can now be said for the series itself.

For so long, racing's Gen-X group has carried IndyCar through a tough mudder run of a decade and a half that has navigated civil wars, series splits, uneasy truces, eventual mergers, and all manners of racing machines, some gorgeous, some ugly.

That generation worked tirelessly, often against the efforts of series executives, to keep the flame of open-wheel racing alive in youngsters who might one day want to become racers themselves.

Now those youngsters have arrived. The IndyCar grid is increasingly full of them and Josef Newgarden has emerged as their leader. But that title won't truly become his until he also carries the title of champion.

If Castroneves is indeed moving to sports cars (Newgarden is his Penske teammate) and fellow 40-something legend Tony Kanaan is indeed done at Ganassi Racing (he indicated so earlier this weekend) then the inevitable paddock generational shift is already upon us. Just as we're seeing in the NHRA and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garages.

"We're not done yet. I know I'm certainly not done yet," Dixon said following the series' previous event, at Watkins Glen.

He noted that Newgarden, the points leader, had won three of the previous four races and another young American, 2016 Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi, had just won at The Glen. Rossi is sixth in the standings, just outside the group of contenders.

"When my time does come to do something else, it helps to look around and see guys like Josef and Rossi running fast and handling their business right," Dixon said. "That's good for IndyCar. But if it's OK with you, I'm going to try and hold the future off a little bit longer. At least one more weekend, right?"

Dixon knows what all racers know, certainly what the people who run his series know. The arrival of the future is never a question of if. It's always a question of when. For IndyCar, the answer might be Sunday afternoon at Sonoma.

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