After several close calls, consistency could earn Helio a title

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As the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship enters its next-to-last event of the season with this weekend’s Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, a pair of numbers stand out: 17 and 55.

For 17 years, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves has chased a series championship that has become the last hole for him to fill in an otherwise tremendous career in American open-wheel racing.

This weekend in Clutch City, he can claim the elusive prize at last – if he can increase his lead in the championship to a margin of 55 points or more by the end of Sunday’s second race.

Consistency has been his calling card all season. Outside of the Texas-sized whipping he delivered back in June at Texas Motor Speedway, Castroneves hasn’t really floored us with outright speed but has delivered the steady stream of results that is required of all champions.

Call it boring if you like. It doesn’t matter. It’s effective. And that’s all that counts to Castroneves and Team Penske, which hasn’t had an IndyCar crown to celebrate since 2006 and saw their other pilot, Will Power, endure gut-wrenching defeats for the championship in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Castroneves has had his near-misses as well.

In 2002, Castroneves, Gil De Ferran and Team Penske made their way into the then-Indy Racing League, which was still an all-oval entity at the time. Coming over from CART, the mighty Penske juggernaut was expected by many to annihilate the IRL contingent.

Instead, Castroneves found himself battling Sam Hornish Jr. and Panther Racing for the ’02 crown in a scintillating duel, which ended with Hornish shocking the Brazilian for the second of his eventual three series titles.

The next year saw Castroneves take part in what would be a five-way dance for the championship between himself, Hornish, De Ferran, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan in the last race of the season.

Castroneves finished 13th that day, and ended up third in the points behind champion Dixon and teammate De Ferran (the latter ending his own superb career with the race win).

In 2006, Castroneves faced his now-teammate Hornish, Dixon and Dan Wheldon in the race for the championship. He came up two points shy of Hornish and Wheldon, who tied at the top with 475 markers (Hornish got the title on a tie-breaker).

Then in 2008, it was him and Dixon yet again for all the marbles – and once more, Castroneves lost out, this time by 16 points.

Three Indianapolis 500 victories. 22 overall wins. 34 poles. But no championship – unless you want to count Season Five of “Dancing With The Stars.”

That last part could change soon. But it’s far from a done deal for Castroneves.

He may be up 49 points on Scott Dixon going into Houston, but all it takes is one small misstep and the door’s open for Dixon to smash through – especially if he’s as unstoppable as he was during his sweep of the Toronto doubleheader in July.

But if Castroneves keeps getting the most out of his equipment as he has all year long – he’s only finished outside the Top 10 in one race so far – it won’t be long before he finally reaches the top.

Rahal, Kanaan left wanting for more at Pocono

Photo: IndyCar
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LONG POND, Pa – In the second half of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan simply put on a show. Between laps 123 and 150, the two swapped the lead no fewer than 17 times, often doing so entering Turn 3.

It was a masterful display of overtaking from two of the sport’s best drivers, and helped define a day that saw the Verizon IndyCar Series set a record for lead changes at Pocono (42) and record more than 500 on-track passes for position.

However, despite battling for the lead and running strongly all race long, neither driver got the finishes they were looking for. Rahal in particular faded over the last two stints, with fuel strategy from others also dropping him down the order. Rahal could do no better than ninth at the checkered flag.

“We just fell back a bit there,” Rahal lamented while speaking with NBCSN’s Anders Krohn afterward. “We had a really good race car. A little too draggy on downforce. We never got (to take wing out) out at the pit stops. Unfortunately as people saw, we lost a bit of time, then we (pitted) in the middle of a group. It was all about trying to recover.”

Despite the disappointment, Rahal, who led nine laps on the day, remained upbeat and complimentary of the effort from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“Everyone did a great job on the (No. 15 team). Strategy, we’ll see if we could be better. It’s certainly capable of running in the top 3. I didn’t have (Alexander Rossi’s) pace. When we were up with (Tony Kanaan), if that train could’ve kept going, I would’ve been perfectly cool with that. That was a lot of fun.”

Kanaan, who led for 32 circuits, was able to fare better at the finish, coming home fifth. However, he also lamented that a broken wing hampered his efforts.

Tony Kanaan led 32 laps during the ABC Supply 500 before finishing fifth. Photo: IndyCar

“That battle with Graham (Rahal) was the highlight of my race – exchanging positions back and forth for the lead,” said Kanaan. “We found out after the race that we had a broken front wing that we didn’t know about. We don’t know how it happened or when it happened. We were so strong at the beginning of the race and I couldn’t understand why we were falling back, but now we know why. Regardless, it was a great battle.”

Rahal remains sixth in the championship, but now trails leader Josef Newgarden by 76 points with three races remaining in a race that quite likely has ended his championship chances for 2017. Kanaan sits ninth in the points standings.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Hunter-Reay finishes eighth at Pocono after brutal qualifying crash

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LONG POND, Pa. – Ryan Hunter-Reay woke up this morning not 100 percent sure he would be driving today at Pocono Raceway after suffering a brutal crash in qualifying, registered at 138Gs.

Although he was treated and released from Lehigh Valley Hospital Cedar Crest on Saturday night, he remained very sore ahead of Sunday’s race and was not officially cleared to drive until Sunday morning.

He then made the race for fans and onlookers worth the price of admission nearly entire on his own.

Starting from 21st, Hunter-Reay was immediately on the move and a lightning fast pit stop from the No. 28 DHL Honda team put him in sixth, following a lap 21 caution for debris off of Esteban Gutierrez’s car.

Hunter-Reay remained a staple at the front of the field for much of the race, taking part in what was a thrilling battle for the lead throughout, leading 12 laps in the process.

However, jumbled pit strategy late in the race saw him fall back from the front of the field and deeper into the top ten. Hunter-Reay eventually salvaged eighth.

Though exhausted, Hunter-Reay told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt afterward that it was a good result given everything that happened.

“It was a great run. We started with a lot of downforce. Took a while to get (the) balance, no warmup. getting the right downforce level, we thought ‘Hey, we have something’ leading at halfway. Didn’t get enough downforce out of it,” he said of the effort on race day.

Hunter-Reay added that he was also just happy to be racing after sustaining such a heavy accident. “Really happy to get back in the car, get a good showing in. It was a test. A mental test no doubt… physical as well. Glad to roll it back in pit lane and move forward. All told a good showing to end the weekend.”

Though some may have been surprised to see Hunter-Reay excel the way he did, teammate Alexander Rossi was not one of them.

“It’s vintage Ryan Hunter-Reay,” Rossi said of his teammate’s effort. “We’ve seen him do it time and time again. In my opinion he’s one of the best drivers on the grid. It was no surprise to me. 40 laps in, to see him behind me, I was like ‘Damn, here we go again.’ But it’s to be expected. It really shouldn’t be a shock for anyone.”

Hunter-Reay now sits 11th in the championship, five points behind James Hinchcliffe for tenth.

Podium for Rossi caps all-around statement weekend in Pocono (VIDEO)

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The importance of Alexander Rossi to both his Andretti Autosport team and the Verizon IndyCar Series as a whole was properly on display this weekend at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, as the sophomore driver from California made his mark in several key ways.

Ending third today in what may have been his best drive this season – in a year filled with candidates – stands as a disappointment because of how good he was otherwise.

The driver of the No. 98 MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda for the Andretti-Herta Autosport outfit was unlucky to qualify only sixth. Rossi battled understeer on his opening lap, then turned in what would have been the fastest single lap of qualifying on his second before Takuma Sato eclipsed it as the last driver to run.

“A lot more understeer than this morning! It really took off,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt Saturday after his run. “I was fortunate it wasn’t a worse situation.

“We have the fastest single lap which is some sort of consolation prize, like the participation medal when you don’t win anything,” he deadpanned.

But Sato’s pole was made possible in part by Rossi’s sprint from pit in to pit out to give Sato an update on track conditions after his run (more here from Indianapolis Star reporter Jim Ayello). That the run occurred mere moments before Ryan Hunter-Reay tattooed the wall hard off Turn 3 and could have left Sato in a fragile mental state made it all the more impressive.

Sato couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Rossi.

“We see Ryan’s moment. Really made my nervous because he was just in front of me. We share a lot of parts and philosophy on the car. So it’s directly expecting what he has is what I have,” Sato said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“Alexander came me before the qualifying, he give me what he felt in Lap 1 to Lap 2, Turn 1 to Turn 3. Because here it’s a lot of downshift. We had to deal with the weight jackers, had to really work on that. Everything was proactive.

“I was able to put down a great lap, and I really have to say thank you to all my team.”

Photo: IndyCar

Sunday’s race for Rossi was, like others he’s had this year, excellent if not outright fulfilling from the overall standpoint.

Rossi led only 23 laps in 2016 including 14 in the Indianapolis 500, which he won, and then 23 laps this year, only at Indianapolis.

On Sunday, he led eight times for 44 laps, nearly doubling his career total of 46 in one race.

He was rarely outside the top five, battling any of Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe for the lead more often than not throughout the race. But he wasn’t able to maintain full pace in the final stint owing to a weird issue – his fuel mixture knob came off.

He described the struggle at the end after an otherwise banner day to Hargitt.

“Nothing changed; but the fuel mixture knob came off about two-thirds of the way through, so we didn’t have full power at the end,” Rossi told NBCSN. “We know these Honda engines have something for the competition.

“The car was stellar all day. It’s a really good result. When you come so close to the win it’s difficult to swallow. But looking back at Pocono where we were last year, we didn’t finish. To be on podium is a testament to Andretti Autosport and the entire team and the work they’ve done all year.”

With Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti as teammates, Rossi said they’ve been instrumental to his growth in 500-mile races.

“I’m getting more comfortable. A lot of it that is because of the team. Amazing to work with. My teammates are fantastic. I can’t go on enough about how much they’ve gotten me up to speed on these tracks, that are very daunting for first-comers. Very fortunate to drive for this team.”

Photo: IndyCar

Rossi expanded on the final stint of the race in the post-race press conference, as he wasn’t quite able to make enough of a run on Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who finished first and second.

“I don’t want to take away from what Team Penske did and Will and Josef,” he said. “They were very strong at the end, and I don’t think we could have trimmed as much as they were. We just didn’t have the balance to take that.

“I was trying, but like Josef didn’t have the speed for Will, I didn’t really have the speed for Josef. I thought we were pretty strong in Turn 3 at times, but I didn’t have enough to really pull alongside, and I think that was truly down to the mixture. But it’s racing. That’s the way it goes.

“Like I said before, those two cars were pretty strong, and it was easy to make a mistake behind them, and I knew I had to push really hard to stay in their tire tracks. That’s part of what makes IndyCar racing so great. To win here, you have to be perfect for an entire race, and Will did that today.”

Even though Rossi admitted leading – and thus burning more fuel – wasn’t an ideal scenario, it was hard to wipe the smile off his face after his second podium of the year (was second in Toronto) as he sits eighth in points.

“I had a smile on my face the whole race. It’s rare that you don’t driving IndyCars, especially at a track as awesome as this. I had fun for the entire race, and any time you’re leading, there’s some satisfaction that goes with it.”

Newgarden extends IndyCar points lead as Power shrinks top-5 gap

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Entering the day 52 points back of Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden in fifth place in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, Will Power was actually six points closer to the lead than he was at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway last year compared to when he was second in points behind Simon Pagenaud, 58 points back.

Power won, Pagenaud crashed, and the gap was 20 points after this race last year between the two of them.

Fast forward 12 months and Power won again, but this time, his Penske teammate that was leading the points didn’t have a nightmare day and instead nailed down a critical result for his own title hopes.

Courtesy of a rally from several early race issues, Power leapfrogged to a surprise second straight Pocono win while Newgarden finished second.

What was a seven-point lead for Newgarden over the fourth Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, turned into an 18-point lead over new second place man Scott Dixon in today’s race.

Newgarden was understandably disappointed to lose his third straight win, but very happy with the result in the big picture standpoint.

“Will deserves the win. He had the car to beat. He was the class of the field the second half of the race,” Newgarden told NBCSN’s Robin Miller post-race.

“I did everything I could to beat him. But I’m second, Dixon’s behind us, Helio’s behind us, Simon… you don’t want to wreck your teammate or give up where you’re at. It’s a 1-2 for all of us. I’m disappointed for all of us but I can’t be disappointed for where we are.”

Power’s win, meanwhile, saw him close the gap down to just 42 points behind Newgarden, albeit still fifth in points.

Dixon moved into second with a sixth place finish and is now 18 points back. He started the day eight behind Newgarden.

Castroneves advanced from 20th on the grid up to seventh and is third in points, 22 back, yet still lost 15 points to Newgarden.

The incredibly consistent Pagenaud nailed down his 11th top-five finish of the season in 14 starts, yet somehow still ranks fourth in points, 26 back, having lost nine points on the day.

With ninth, Graham Rahal saw his slim title hopes fade – he’s not mathematically out of it but at 76 points back he’s in a tough spot after starting 58 behind. Similarly Takuma Sato, who started 71 out after winning the pole position, fell to 95 back in seventh – just five points ahead of Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi, who finished third.

Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe remain ninth and 10th in points.

With three races to play, after Pocono, it is now clearly a five-horse race for the championship with each of the top five within one race’s worth of maximum points (54).