Josef Newgarden, clad head-to-toe in solid black, was the last championship contender to arrive at an IndyCar event already underway. He climbed the stairs, saw challenger Alexander Rossi bogged down in interviews and spread his arms wide as he made his entrance.
"Good evening," Newgarden bellowed, pausing just long enough to pat Rossi on the back.
It was a paradoxical moment for the IndyCar points leader, who controls his own fate in Sunday's season finale on the historic Laguna Seca road course. A finish of fourth or better gives the Tennessee native his second championship in three years.
As Newgarden has grown from a wide-eyed rookie in 2012 to an elite IndyCar driver, he has found the spotlight to be contradictory to his introverted personality. He also believes Team Penske is viewed by many as the "Death Star" of motorsports, a race team so dominant fans liken it to the galactic superweapon from "Star Wars."
Newgarden is a willing participant in facilitating that image, but he actually prefers to keep his head down and retreat into privacy. He briefly relocated to North Carolina when he was hired by Penske in 2017 but has since returned to Nashville with his fiancée.
"I mean, I don't feel like we're the Death Star, but I've heard people call it that," Newgarden said. "I think what everyone has for Team Penske is a deep amount of respect. But I just see a lot of people hate them because they think they've won so much and in so many different series, specifically IndyCar, they've just dominated so much over the years that I don't think people like it.
"But that's also sport, right?" he added. "You want to see the underdogs win or the mid-dogs. It's kind of tough to be in that position because I think if people maybe liked you before joining that team, they don't like you now because you're part of that group."
The IndyCar championship will be decided in the finale for the 14th consecutive season, with Newgarden holding a 41-point lead over Rossi, a California native. Also in the mix is Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden's teammate, at 42 points out and reigning series champion Scott Dixon, who trails Newgarden by 85 points.
The race is worth double points, a quirk Dixon used to his advantage to snatch the title away from Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 when he overcame a 47-point deficit by winning the race.
Dixon's comeback is the model Rossi has focused on as he tries to avoid a second consecutive season finishing second in the standings. For Rossi or Pagenaud to win the championship, Newgarden must finish sixth or worse and they must win.
That strategy fits Rossi just fine because in his mind, "a lot of people say winning isn't everything. I completely disagree."
"Every time you go on the track, you have to go out there and try to win the race and be better than everyone else and that doesn't change whether it's the first race of the season, the Indy 500 or the season finale," he said.
Since winning is the only thing that matters to Rossi, he's earned the moniker "Angry Alex" for his scowl and short temper following defeat. Rossi said those reactions are in the moment, only happen after disappointment in racing and that he really isn't an angry person by nature.
"I was pretty (angry) during the (Indianapolis) 500 but I don't think globally outside of that," Rossi said. "It's never anything personally related to anyone."
Rossi badly wants to win an IndyCar championship, and winning it at Laguna Seca would be fitting for his family. His father brought Rossi to his first race at the picturesque, 2.258-mile permanent road course as a child and the venue became an annual outing for the aspiring racer.
Laguna Seca last hosted Indy cars in 2004 and only four current drivers — Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay — have raced the circuit in elite cars. Of the three other title contenders, Newgarden has never raced at Laguna Seca, Pagenaud has only done it in a sports car and Rossi competed in the Skip Barber Driving School program.
But Rossi, from Auburn, California, has a unique familiarity with the circuit from his many years as a spectator and will have a large contingent of family and friends at the track all weekend. He's trying to remove himself from the party atmosphere and focus on taking the title away from Newgarden.
"Just the subconscious confidence that comes along with it being a familiar place is a good thing," Rossi said. "Whether it translates to anything is impossible to say, but you know, it's not a completely foreign environment for me and it's a place I love coming to. So we'll see what happens."
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Hamilton looking to extend lead: Lewis Hamilton aims to turn up the heat in his bid for a sixth Formula One championship at this weekend's Singapore Grand Prix. The Mercedes driver heads into Sunday's race with a 63-point lead over teammate Valtteri Bottas.
As with last year's race, drivers can expect sweltering heat and humidity. In addition to the heat, a thick haze has set in over the city-state with advisories issued from the national government over "unhealthy" air conditions.
Hamilton will be hoping for a repeat of the 2018 race here when he won comfortably from pole position to extend his championship lead.
He was on a major roll entering last year's GP, having won four of the past five races. While he already has eight wins this season, the British driver last won at the Hungarian GP in early August.
"The offset schedule and the climate make it a demanding weekend for the team," Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said of the night race. "Temperatures in the garage can easily reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) or more with high humidity levels as well. It's a tough environment to work in and it's equally challenging for the drivers and the car itself."
Hamilton has won here the last two years. A win on Sunday would move him a step closer to his third straight championship and sixth overall, moving him just one away from equaling Michael Schumacher's all-time record of seven titles.
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc heads into Singapore having won the previous two races this season. After his first-ever F1 victory in Spa at the Belgian GP, the 21-year-old Leclerc became the first Ferrari driver to win the Italian GP since Fernando Alonso in 2010.
Leclerc, who is now fourth in the standings, finished ninth for Sauber here last year.
"Singapore is maybe the toughest track for us drivers physically, just because of the heat and the humidity," Leclerc said. "After two positive weekends in Belgium and Italy, the race in Singapore doesn't look as good on paper for us, because of the very different circuit layout, featuring lots of slow corners and fewer straights ... but we will give our all to have a good result."
The 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) Marina Bay Street circuit is one of the hardest tracks for overtaking in F1, so whoever takes pole on Saturday will have the upper hand. The driver leading the field has won eight times in the past 10 years.
Max Verstappen, third in the drivers' standings, has been on the front row at Marina Bay the past two years while Bottas has never started in the top three.
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton are the only two drivers on the grid with victories at Singapore — with four wins each.
But Vettel, whose contract ends in 2020, is now 22 races without a win. He has dropped down to fifth in the championship, 115 points behind Hamilton.
"We have seen before that anything can happen in this race, so the final result is hard to predict," Vettel said. "Off the track, there will also be a lot of pressure on the teams as this race is back to back with Russia."
Haas retains drivers Grosjean, Magnussen: Formula One drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen have been retained by Haas for the 2020 season, the American team announced on Thursday. Grosjean and Magnussen will be partnered together for a fourth straight year as the team prepares for its fifth season competing in F1.
Grosjean joined Haas for its inaugural season in 2016 with Magnussen signing in 2017. Grosjean and Magnussen have combined to earn a total of 166 points since 2017. Haas finished fifth overall in the constructors' championship last season with 93 points for its best showing so far.
"We continue to have a driver lineup that offers us a solid platform to continue our growth," said Haas team principal Guenther Steiner.
Grosjean and Magnussen have just 26 points this season between them heading into the weekend's Singapore Grand Prix. The team is currently ninth in the constructors' standings with seven races remaining.