Top championship contenders have Astor Cup in sights

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There’s a multitude of scenarios and intriguing subplots for seven drivers who can win the Verizon IndyCar Series championship with a desired outcome in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17.

But the mindset couldn’t be more simple for points leader Josef Newgarden.

“We can control our own destiny,” the Team Penske driver said today on a national media teleconference. “It’s in our hands to make it happen.”

2017 Championship Points StandingsWin the race and the 26-year-old Tennessean would celebrate a first championship in his inaugural year driving for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske. Despite a pit-exit mistake and an 18th-place finish in Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen, Newgarden is still in the ideal position because of a series-best four wins, including three of the last five starts.

He’s ever mindful that accomplishing the objective won’t be easy considering his closest pursuers are four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing as well as Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and defending champion Simon Pagenaud. 

The other three have won at Sonoma before. Newgarden’s best finish in five starts at Sonoma Raceway is a pair of sixths, including last year.

“There's a lot of good guys that you're going up against, so I don't think it's just limited to Scott, but for sure trying to beat all those guys, and hopefully if we're able to do it, it's going to feel great,” Newgarden said.

Dixon clinched his fourth series crown with a win at Sonoma two years ago and is just three points behind Newgarden. The 37-year-old New Zealander also can claim the title with a win.

“It's a better position than what we were in 2015, but that guarantees you pretty much nothing,” Dixon said. “It's good to be in the hunt and have a tight gap right there, but we’re still going to have to do our best to beat four of the closest competitors right there.”

Pagenaud locked up his first championship with a victory on Sonoma’s 2.2385-mile road course last year. That race was a showdown between him and teammate Will Power, the only drivers in position for the title.

This time, the 33-year-old Frenchman is sitting in fourth place, 34 points behind the leader. The 2014 series champion Power is in fifth place, 34 points behind Pagenaud and 68 behind Newgarden.

“Actually, my points deficit on Josef is less than Will’s deficit on me last year, and quite frankly, all it took last year was for Will to have the (mechanical) problem he had for me to win the championship,” Pagenaud said. “I understand how possible this is, and right now I'm sitting here thinking I've got all the chances in the world to make it happen.

“I don't see the points deficit being such an issue. I think the most important thing is to go into Sonoma very confident and just simply try to score maximum points. The rest you can't control. I can't control what Dixon is going to do, what my teammates are going to do. All I can control is me … That's when I do my best. I'm very excited for it. This is exactly why I go racing, and it's going to be a lot of fun.”

Then there’s Castroneves, whose extensive 30-win racing resume is highlighted by three career-defining victories in the Indianapolis 500. But as much as the 42-year-old Brazilian has been one of the best drivers in his era, a series title has eluded him. The four-time series runner-up is 22 points back in third place. He won at Sonoma in 2008.

“We're going to have to take the opportunity to strike,” Castroneves said. “But we don't forget that Team Penske still — the goal is to have this championship with Team Penske.”

He dismissed the notion that speculation about his uncertain future – he has been rumored to be part of a Penske sports-car program next year – has been any kind of distraction.

“Whatever future happens,” Castroneves said, “I’m ready to go.”

The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, offering double the normal race points to the winner, airs live at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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