Settle in for championship battle; it's going to be good

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Ninety-five points are all that separate first and eighth in the standings with four races remaining in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Let those numbers marinate for a moment.

Eight drivers are within range of the championship as we approach the final quarter of the season. Four racetracks – Pocono, Gateway, Watkins Glen and Sonoma – will determine which driver takes the Astor Cup and $1 million prize. Fasten your belts, everyone. Theatrics are in your future.

Josef Newgarden leads Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves by just seven points as the final stretch of the season gets underway next week at Pocono Raceway. Once again, we’ve discovered drama in mathematics, and that drama is likely to go down to the final lap of the final race at Sonoma Raceway.

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We’ve gotten used to them over the years, these intriguing, numbers-fueled battles for the championship. For whatever reason, INDYCAR has managed to turn final-race buzz into an art form.

Remember 2012, when Ryan Hunter-Reay won the title by three points over Will Power while Scott Dixon finished third, a point behind Power? That’s not necessarily an anomaly. The previous 10 years have produced seven championships in which first and second were separated by fewer than 20 points. Four of those were won by Dario Franchitti in down-to-the-wire points battles, including his five-point margin over Power in 2010.

And now we’ve got another one. With his third victory in his first season with Penske at Mid-Ohio, Newgarden moved into the lead. But Castroneves is immediately behind him. Throw in Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, and the top four in the standings have just 17 points of daylight between them.

In other words, it’s on.

“We've got to keep building the gap hopefully,” Newgarden said after winning at Mid-Ohio. “And maintaining it is certainly the No. 1 key, but if we can keep building the gap and increase it, that's going to only help for Sonoma. I think that will be our goal not to have any bad races, try to build the gap, and it's going to come down to Sonoma regardless of what happens. It's always going to be the case with double points.

“We've just got to be as strong and as steady as we can and make sure that we can decide our own destiny going into Sonoma. It's tough when you're like 50 points behind and you have to have someone else finishing a certain position. I would like to be in a position where the winner of Sonoma wins the championship. You know, that's a good position to be in, so if we can do that, I'll be pretty happy.”

What else can be added to this developing story to make it even more interesting? How about a silly season that’s gone full-on goofy? How about a continuation of the Penske-Ganassi rivalry? That said, what about the reheating of the duel between Chevrolet and Honda?

You’ve got a 26-year-old from Nashville (Newgarden) who’s tearing it up in an entirely positive way. You’ve got a 42-year-old veteran (Castroneves), amid whispers that this could be the end of his full-time Indy car career, who wants nothing more than to claim his first championship.

You’ve got another driver (Dixon) – the most prolific in the field in terms of statistical prowess – going for a fifth championship. You’ve got nine different winners in 13 races this season, and no idea what’s about to happen next.

Yep, it all adds up. As much as we’ve gotten used to late-season drama, we’re preparing to witness it again. That’s always a good thing.

From the fans