Josef Newgarden was not to be denied pole position at Sonoma Raceway for the IndyCar 2017 season finale that will decide the championship. This is Newgarden's first pole of 2017, and arguably the most important given that five drivers are serious contenders to win the championship.
Newgarden first topped the times in Group One with a track record lap of 1:15.792. He set a pace that dared his championship rivals to beat. Newgarden set that time on the red side-walled soft tires. Title rival Scott Dixon also advanced out of Group 1 with Newgarden but was significantly off the pace.
In Group Two, Helio Castroneves gambled by only putting in one timed lap on the black side-walled hard tires. As the other drivers in his group managed to improve their times with a second run, Castroneves sat in the pits. The gamble was that if he makes it through to next round of qualifying, he'll have an extra set of red tires to use. The gamble paid off as his time was just good enough to advance. The other contenders, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, each only used the black tires in their Group Two runs, thus saving a set of the red tires also.
All five serious title contenders advanced out of their groups to Round Two of qualifying.
Going into the Round Two 12 car shoot-out for the Fast Six pole run, Newgarden was down a set of red tires on his rivals all but one of his rivals. He set a decent time on the black tires, but as the other went to reds, Newgarden was in danger of elimination. He and his team opted to throw on a new set red tires to give him the best shot at advancing to the Fast Six, which he did. In Round Two, it was Pagenaud who set the fastest time with a 1:15.712, resetting the fast lap record at Sonoma.
All five title contenders advanced from Round Two and onto the Fast Six. 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato advanced to the Fast Six with them.
The Fast Six is where things got serious. Newgarden had used one more set of the red tires than everyone but Scott Dixon. Unfortunately for Dixon, he was just a hair slower than the other four contenders and was not an issue for Newgarden. Newgarden's only option was to do his pole run on a used set of red tires, the same tires that he set his fast time on in Group One.
Castroneves, Power, and Pagenaud all had fresh red tires. Power and Pagenaud both set times fast than Pagenaud's record time in Round Two, 1:15.556 and 1:15.636 respectively. Castroneves was just a tenth of a second slower. The moment of truth came as Newgarden took to the track on his used red tires. Would they still have enough life in them to take pole?
Newgarden somehow got his used tires to take his car around Sonoma Raceway in just 1:15.521, which now stands as the new track record. In theory, the red tires should be good for one very fast lap, dropping off a few tenths each lap after. Newgarden took pole and the much-needed bonus point with a strategy that shouldn't have worked.
On Sunday afternoon, the race is his to lose. He will lead the field and more importantly his title rivals, three of which are Penske teammates with him, to the green flag. What happens after that is anyone's guess. There are so many ways the title race could play out, but Newgarden holds the advantage on points, speed, and tie-breakers. There are finishing scenarios that could lead to a three-way tie on points at the end of the race. If Newgarden is tied with anyone, he has more first and second place finishes to win the championship should it come down to that.
With the title contenders starting in five of the top six positions, it's going to be a fantastic race. Television coverage starts at 6:00 pm ET on NBCSN.
Please note that Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal are still mathematically in contention for the title. If Newgarden and Dixon so much as get their cars on track for the formation lap and take the green flag, Rossi and Rahal are then knocked out of the title fight. Unless Rossi and Rahal take Newgarden and Dixon out for a sushi dinner of questionable origins tonight, they are not really true contenders on Sunday afternoon.