Points leader Newgarden sees 'close fight' for championship

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The top six drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings are separated by just 58 points heading into Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. At this time last year, 58 was the margin between first and second places.

None of that changes Josef Newgarden’s strategy heading into the final four races of the 2017 season.

“If (the 58-point margin) is between first and second or first and sixth, I think you approach it the same way,” Newgarden said today during a media teleconference. “You still have to have solid race weekends without any errors or problems to have solid points finishes. If we can capitalize on more wins, we’ll do that.”

Newgarden leads Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves by seven points and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon by eight points. Two other Penske drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, trail by 17 and 52 points, respectively, while Graham Rahal is sixth, 58 points behind Newgarden.

“I don't really approach it differently regardless of the situation," Newgarden said. "But for sure it is a very close fight."

Newgarden has won the last two races – the Honda Indy Toronto and Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – to assume the points lead for the first time in his six-year career. The 26-year-old native of Hendersonville, Tennessee, expects the championship battle to come down to the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, where drivers can earn double points.

“You never really know what you're going to have (at Sonoma),” he said. “It can always get mixed up. We've got to try and capitalize everywhere, but I think Pocono will be our toughest challenge.”

That assessment doesn’t reflect Newgarden’s record on Pocono’s three-turn, 2.5-mile circuit. In four races, Newgarden has never finished worse than eighth, including a runner-up finish in 2015 and a fourth-place effort last year. Pocono's layout is most closely associated with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Newgarden finished third in 2016 and ninth in 2015 but struggled in four other races.

“I don’t know what it is,” Newgarden said. “I wish I had more consistent finishes at Indianapolis. It’s definitely different than Indianapolis, but there are some characteristics that are very similar.”

Sunday’s race is the first of three consecutive weekends of races – Pocono on Sunday, Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, on Aug. 26 and Watkins Glen International on Sept. 3 – that will set the championship scene for the season finale at Sonoma Raceway in California on Sept. 17.

“I see it as an opportunity,” Newgarden said. “I always think whenever we have something that can appear to be a difficulty within the calendar, whether you're back and forth between three different types of circuits in a row, some I think look at it as a difficult thing to do, but I always see it as an opportunity to try and be better at getting on top of those challenges and switching back and forth better than everyone, because it is a challenge.”

As he carries the lead into Pocono, Newgarden does so as the first American driver to lead the Verizon IndyCar Series standings since Ryan Hunter-Reay in May 2014, a week after the Floridian won the Indianapolis 500. Newgarden hopes to become the first American to win the championship since Hunter-Reay in 2012, but he puts more stock into the international competition than in his own nationality.

“I've always loved about INDYCAR that we have some of the best talent from around the world, whether that's from the driving side or the team side with all our engineers, mechanics, ownership,” Newgarden said. “I love that diversity and think that that's what makes INDYCAR so great, is we have the best of the best from around the world.”

Pocono Raceway heats up with Verizon IndyCar Series practice at 9 a.m. ET Saturday (live stream on RaceControl.IndyCar.com), followed by single-car qualifying to determine the Verizon P1 Award winner at 1 p.m. (live on NBCSN). A final practice is set for 5 p.m. Saturday (RaceControl.IndyCar.com).

Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 will be the 24th Indy car race at Pocono dating to 1971. Live coverage begins at 2 p.m. on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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