WATKINS GLEN, New York – Although Verizon IndyCar Series drivers out of the championship picture don't want to get in the middle of a title fight and influence its outcome, it certainly doesn't mean they'll play nice either.
Josef Newgarden leads the championship hunt heading into today’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen. But with just a 31-point advantage and more than 150 points available in the final two races, the Team Penske driver will literally be looking in his mirrors – as depicted above – to see who’s coming up from behind all the time.
In reality, some drivers out of the title battle might be more than willing to take advantage of the fact that they have nothing to lose. For the contenders, much more is at stake.
“I think it's more them who need to be worried about me,” laughed Conor Daly.
“I am on a mission to do as well as I can race by race, and those guys know that. When you are making moves on guys in the hunt for the title, you are thinking that they will probably be fairly cautious.”
Daly, driver of the No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, engaged in a pitched battle with championship contender Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) for fourth in the most recent race, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline at Gateway Motorsports Park on Aug. 26.
While he could not take the position, Daly insisted it wasn't for a lack of trying. Castroneves' status as a title contender didn't factor into Daly’s considerations at all.
“I was really trying to pass him but we were just short in sixth gear. I would have loved to pass him because we were definitely quick there at the end,” Daly said.
“Yes, there's a championship battle going on, but there are a bunch of guys racing for their jobs, too, so no matter what, we are all racing hard all the time.”
Even some of the title hopefuls might need to add aggression to ensure they have a shot at the title that will be determined at the season finale, the double-points GoPro of Sonoma on Sept. 17.
Going into the final two races 43 points down rather than 28 ahead as he was at this point last season, Simon Pagenaud won't be backing down for anyone. It may be a good thing that his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet is bright yellow.
“I have nothing to lose,” Pagenaud said with a grin.
“Last year, I was on offense to prevent someone from getting to me, but this year is a different story. At this point, others better not be in my way. I am going to go for wins because that's the only way I am going to win this championship, so everybody should be aware of that.”
In many cases, how a driver reacts depends on how a race plays out and the particular situation a driver is in at the time championship leaders come into the picture.
“There are a lot of things that come into play in these situations, but ultimately no driver wants to get in the middle of a championship fight and no one wants to influence the outcome of the title,” said Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe, 10th in points and officially eliminated from title contention. “But the guys who are in the fight have to make decisions and assess each situation with each driver he comes across and try to make the right call.
“That said, if you are battling for a win with someone in the championship picture, he has more to lose than you do, so you might even be a bit more aggressive with them and play that hand to try to force him to back out.”
Four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing has been there before. He feels finding glory or disaster is squarely in the hands of the drivers at the top of the point standings.
In addition, drivers typically become more aggressive as the season wears on, so the danger for those vying for the championship usually increases when the title is on the line.
“Everyone knows there's a fear factor because the championship contenders have everything to lose,” Bourdais said. “When I was leading the championship and I had a lot to lose by having an unfortunate contact with someone, for sure I was thinking: 'Man, I am not sure I want to get in there.'”
The INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen airs live at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.