DiZinno: Top 10 IndyCar Drivers of 2013

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It’s that time of year again when all the pundits rank the season just passed. With some time to reflect on the 2013 IndyCar Series season, my top-10 drivers are below, and my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada’s will follow. Without further adieu:

1. Scott Dixon

If the rest of the top 10 and beyond is hard to separate – and really, from second through about 12th, it is – Scott Dixon stands alone at the top of my 2013 IndyCar Top 10 list. In a year where drivers and others were great in some areas but lacking in others, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing were really the only complete package.

With four wins in total, dominance at the three doubleheader weekends and a resiliency to bounce back from both a rough first half of the year and back-to-back gut punches at Sonoma and Baltimore, Dixon embodied team principal Ganassi’s mantra that the No. 9 crew “never gave up.”

source: Reuters2. Will Power

Power in second may be a surprise choice but if we’re looking at drivers, not purely results, we have to take the Australian’s season into consideration. His results were erratic but consider his luck was abysmal for most of the year. He was speared at St. Petersburg under yellow, his engine grenaded in Brazil, he was taken out of Detroit Race 2, and saw other results go begging at both Toronto races and Baltimore after contact with the Target twins.

His wins were just reward for pace and persistence throughout the year, and apart from the actual results, Power’s stats were still otherwise phenomenal despite this being a year he didn’t contend for the title. He had the best starting average in the field by a full position, 4.31, led the most laps in the field, 351, and most notably upped his oval game as he finished all six oval races and scored a dominant, pivotal victory at the season finale at Fontana.

source: Getty Images3. Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud’s qualifying left something to be desired (11.5 average, with a rough first five races) but other than that, the Frenchman was firmly best outside the established “power teams” of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Frankly if he and/or Justin Wilson had that level machinery, it would be hard for most of the rest bar Dixon and Power to keep up.

Outside of a DNF in the season opener at St. Petersburg that almost knocked him off the radar, Pagenaud blended consistency and brilliance in the remaining 18 races. He won twice, surviving both attrition-filled debacles in Detroit Race 2 and Baltimore, and added seven other results of sixth or better. He was no worse than 13th in any other race outside St. Pete. Consider him a championship contender – probably Honda’s best shot – in 2014.

source: Getty Images4. Justin Wilson

Wilson was the same way in maximizing his equipment, exceeding his car’s potential on a near-regular basis and hassling the regular front runners on a consistent basis. The chemistry of having a second straight season with engineer Bill Pappas at the Dale Coyne Racing team was obvious from the get-go and Wilson quietly hung around and got the results the first half of the season.

Team and driver were even better in the second half and were unfortunate not to bag a victory – same as his three-weekend teammate Mike Conway did in Detroit. Justin was also unlucky to have been hit and injured at Fontana, but hopefully it’s not a setback and we’ll see the lanky Englishman back to his winning ways in 2014.

source: AP5. Helio Castroneves

Considering he nearly won the title, you might be surprised to see Castroneves so far down this list in fifth. Why, perhaps? The epitome of consistent but never truly great, in the sense others ahead of him either blitzed the field on one or more occasions or regularly outperformed their machinery. Or did both.

Where Power always seems to extract the max and then some, Castroneves has become a more methodical driver in letting the results come to him, rather than pushing for them. He’s needed to throttle back after an erratic 2011 season where he seemed to hit everything but the pace car, and went winless for the first time since he joined Team Penske.

And until Houston, that strategy worked perfectly. He led the points for 10 straight races on the strength of that consistency and finishing every lap. But the mechanical woes struck him in back-to-back races and that proved his undoing. The other thing that hurt? Of his six top-five finishes, five came in the first nine races, with only one in the last 10.

When he had nothing to lose, as was the case at Fontana or early in the year at Texas, he was brilliant; sadly, those great performances were all-too-few in a year where “very good” simply wasn’t good enough. Even had he won the title, I still would have probably only placed him third or fourth on this list.

source: Getty Images6. Marco Andretti

7. Ryan Hunter-Reay

There was little to separate either of the next two on my list, Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Consider if the top 10 was done after the first half, they may well have been 1 and 2.

But an absolutely abysmal second half plagued the entire Andretti team; it’s as if a lightning bolt struck the team after its front row lockout at Pocono and sent them into an irreversible tail spin of bad luck.

source: Getty Images

Andretti’s luck was much the same, except his bad luck struck on ovals. He reassessed his priorities in the offseason, working with a driver coach and altering his driving for road and street courses, moves that paid dividends. He should have won Milwaukee and Pocono but the races he did finish, he finished well. He ended with 15 top-10s and fifth in points. It was a career year, yet one that could have been even better if a few breaks went his way.

Hunter-Reay drove superbly in his two wins at Barber and Milwaukee and was due a third at Iowa after one of the drives of the season from the rear of the field. Street course results proved his undoing with only two results better than 18th in the nine street races. Those hurt and negated what was the second-best starting average all season, 5.3.

source: Getty Images8. James Hinchcliffe

Hinchcliffe I’ll place eighth because he was rarely as outright fast as Hunter-Reay or Andretti on most occasions, but he also bore the team’s bad luck in the first half of the season. It was a yo-yo of a year – win at St. Pete, followed by consecutive early race DNFs in Barber and Long Beach, dramatic win at Brazil, invisible at Indy, dominant at Iowa, wrecked first corner at Pocono – you get the point.

The second half brought at least a modicum of consistency with six top-10s in the final eight races, and the only two he didn’t was when adverse mechanical issues struck him on the grid at Toronto Race 2, and Houston Race 1. Additionally, it was commendable how well he managed to keep his cool on track while dealing with the pressure of being one of IndyCar’s two marquee free agents, before deciding to re-sign with Andretti. Make no mistake this was a better season for him than in 2012, and he can only get better for 2014.

source: Getty Images9. Sebastien Bourdais

10. Charlie Kimball

There was little to separate Bourdais and Kimball, as well, who I’ve placed in the last two spots ahead of Franchitti and Kanaan. You presume big things from Franchitti and Kanaan and relatively speaking, you expect less from these two given their equipment or experience level at their disposal.

Bourdais was excellent the second half of the year, and like Wilson desperately unlucky not to have secured a win, which would have been Dragon Racing’s maiden victory. The engineering switch to Tom Brown from Neil Fife paid immediate dividends both in qualifying and in the races. Yeah, we remember his podium trophy drop at Toronto, but my word it was great to see the Bourdais of old back. Three podiums included his near miss at Baltimore, and the outstanding ride at Fontana for his Dragon swan song. He had the best car in Champ Car with Newman/Haas but this was the best case of anyone in the field exceeding their machinery level – look at teammate Sebastian Saavedra’s season for a comparison.

source: Getty ImagesKimball finished just behind Bourdais in second half points (237 to 234, fifth and sixth most in the field the last nine races) and was arguably one of the year’s most consistent performers. Indeed he finished the most laps – 2,397 of a possible 2,433 – in the field. His methodical development included trips to the Firestone Fast Six on all three road courses, 10 top-10 finishes, and dynamic drives on four occasions: Barber, Pocono, Mid-Ohio and Fontana. Too often Kimball has just been known as “that driver with diabetes” but his talents beyond the advertising and marketing were on full display this year. It was a welcome sight.

Honorable Mentions: Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Mike Conway

Of the rest, Franchitti and Kanaan probably merited a spot if they had maybe one or two more ­­­great drives. Kanaan’s Indianapolis 500 win aside, he only had six other top-10 finishes, four of which were on ovals. He remains one of IndyCar’s oval aces but his team’s erratic performance on road and street courses, often in qualifying, left a lot to be desired.

source: Getty ImagesMeanwhile Franchitti went winless for only the fifth time in his illustrious 16-year career. He had the pace with four Verizon P1 pole awards, but for some reason or another couldn’t finish the deal on Sundays. His best stretch was a run of five straight top-fours from Pocono through Sonoma, but he didn’t look like winning any of them. He’s never felt entirely comfortable with the new DW12 chassis and for the first time since he came back to IndyCar in 2009, was further in Dixon’s rear view mirror than ever before.

I’d have to give Mike Conway the “part-time driver of the year” award, unofficial though that may be. The Englishman jeopardized his own career, resigning himself to criticism after deciding the risk of racing on ovals was simply too much for him. But RLL Racing gave him a shot at Long Beach – Conway promptly stuck a third, previously unraced car in the Firestone Fast Six – and we immediately remembered what a silent ninja assassin this guy is on a street circuit.

Dale Coyne snapped him up for the three doubleheader weekends as it turned out. Conway was simply sublime at Detroit. He did things with that previously unloved, geriatric second DCR Honda that didn’t seem humanly possible around the 2.3-mile street course. The win and third-place were deserved results. He added three other top-10s from his other four starts, and when all was said and done had the second-highest point total in the field on doubleheaders. His 180 trailed only Scott Dixon’s 263. There should be a bidding war to secure his services for the entire 12 road and street race schedule in 2014.

NHRA Brainerd winners: Leah Pritchett, Alexis DeJoria, Tanner Gray, Jerry Savoie

Photo/vidoes courtesy NHRA
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Things got a lot tighter points-wise in all four NHRA pro classes Sunday at the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd (Minnesota) International Raceway.

Just one race remains for teams to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs: the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis from Aug. 30 – Sept. 4, the biggest race of the season.

It was definitely Ladies Day in Sunday’s final eliminations, as Leah Pritchett won Top Fuel and Alexis DeJoria captured Funny Car.

Also winning in the 17th of 24 NHRA national events this season were Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Here’s how things played out in the Land of 10,000 Lakes:

TOP FUEL: Pritchett recorded the quickest pass in Top Fuel history (3.640 seconds at 330.63 mph) Friday night to become the No. 1 qualifier.

She then capped off the outstanding weekend by earning her fourth win of the season (3.682 seconds at 328.06 mph), defeating defending Top Fuel champ and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown (4.001 seconds, 246.35 mph).

“I really like that these numbers and (the team’s) work ethic and consistency really backs it up when I say we have the best team because we have the best hot rod,” Pruett said. “We’re going to enjoy this win.”

All was not lost for Brown, who reached his fifth consecutive final round and regained the lead in the Top Fuel point standings from Steve Torrence.

FUNNY CAR: DeJoria, who missed several races both last season and also earlier this season, earned her first win of 2017 and the fifth of her career.

DeJoria (3.906 seconds at 330.06 mph) defeated Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.933 seconds at 324.44 mph).

She also earned the 250th national event race win by a female driver in NHRA history.

“The last two years have been really difficult,” DeJoria said. “Lots of ups and downs, injuries, no wins, we just couldn’t get up to speed with everybody else.

“We were fighting so hard out there and you start to lose yourself in it. You start to forget the love that you had in the beginning. It’s times like those that make this so much better. You really appreciate every moment. This is a huge win for us.”

PRO STOCK: Gray continues to impress in his rookie season, earning his fourth win of 2017.

The third-generation racer (6.610 seconds at 208.04 mph) defeated points leader Bo Butner (6.629 seconds at 207.85 mph) to grab the close victory.

Despite the loss, Butner has already locked himself into the No. 1 seed for the upcoming Countdown.

“I’m not sure what my team has done but they’ve got a handle on this car the last few races,” Gray said. “They got something going right for them over there. They’re making my job a whole lot easier and I’m just blessed to be able to sit in the driver’s seat.”

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: In a final round battle of teammates, reigning PSM champ Jerry Savoie earned his second win of the season (6.846 seconds at 194.80 mph) over LE Tonglet (6.910 seconds at 194.02 mph).

“The season has been really good,” Savoie said. “I’ve had some misfortune a couple times and my riding hasn’t been like it should be.

“LE is solid as a rock so when you beat him it’s pretty rewarding. He’s taught me a lot and I’ve taught him some things and we thrive off each other. We bring out the best in each other and that’s what it takes to win races.”

Despite the loss, Tonglet, who has five wins this season, remains No. 1 in the PSM standings.

The NHRA enjoys next weekend off before heading to the U.S. Nationals.

Here’s the final statistics from Brainerd:

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Antron Brown; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Clay Millican; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Tony Schumacher; 8. Scott Palmer; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Chris Karamesines; 11. Terry Haddock; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Rob Passey; 14. Steven Chrisman; 15. Luigi Novelli; 16. Troy Coughlin Jr.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Alexis DeJoria; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Ron Capps; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Courtney Force; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Brian Stewart; 11. Dale Creasy Jr.; 12. Tim Wilkerson; 13. Del Worsham; 14. Jonnie Lindberg; 15. Matt Hagan; 16. Jim Campbell.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Greg Anderson; 4. Jason Line; 5. Drew Skillman; 6. Allen Johnson; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Shane Gray; 9. Jeg Coughlin; 10. Deric Kramer; 11. John Gaydosh Jr; 12. Alan Prusiensky; 13. Vincent Nobile; 14. Dave River; 15. Mark Hogan.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. LE Tonglet; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Matt Smith; 5. Eddie Krawiec; 6. Hector Arana Jr; 7. Cory Reed; 8. Angie Smith; 9. Joey Gladstone; 10. Karen Stoffer; 11. Scotty Pollacheck; 12. Mike Berry; 13. Jim Underdahl; 14. Freddie Camarena; 15. Angelle Sampey; 16. Steve Johnson.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.682 seconds, 328.06 mph def. Antron Brown, 4.001 seconds, 246.35 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, 3.906, 330.96 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.933, 324.44.

PRO STOCK: Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.610, 208.04 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.629, 207.85.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.846, 194.80 def. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.910, 194.02.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Antron Brown, 3.695, 331.77 def. Shawn Langdon, 3.734, 318.62; Clay Millican, 3.655, 330.23 def. Chris Karamesines, 4.261, 221.67; Leah Pritchett, 3.709, 325.30 def. Rob Passey, 4.321, 247.75; Brittany Force, 3.728, 327.03 def. Steven Chrisman, Foul – Red Light; Doug Kalitta, 3.697, 328.54 def. Terry Haddock, 4.267, 226.92; Tony Schumacher, 3.711, 324.67 def. Troy Coughlin Jr., 16.216, 22.28; Steve Torrence, 3.726, 328.62 def. Luigi Novelli, 6.418, 98.82; Scott Palmer, 3.787, 327.90 def. Terry McMillen, 4.302, 194.69;

QUARTERFINALS — Pritchett, 3.715, 330.63 def. Palmer, 3.906, 257.48; Millican, 3.658, 330.47 def. Schumacher, 3.718, 327.66; Brown, 3.681, 332.43 def. Force, 3.675, 332.75; Torrence, 3.723, 328.30 def. Kalitta, 3.709, 332.10;

SEMIFINALS — Brown, 3.706, 331.61 def. Torrence, 3.726, 323.19; Pritchett, 3.666, 330.88 def. Millican, 3.792, 263.00;

FINAL — Pritchett, 3.682, 328.06 def. Brown, 4.001, 246.35.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.862, 334.90 def. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.808, 195.11; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.850, 331.45 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Dodge Charger, 4.168, 258.32; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 5.714, 128.92 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, Broke; John Force, Camaro, 3.901, 333.25 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, Broke; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.922, 328.86 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 7.147, 106.26; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.290, 207.56 def. Brian Stewart, Ford Mustang, Foul – Red Light; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.416, 210.05 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.650, 271.13; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.894, 330.96 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.973, 323.35;

QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.932, 326.48 def. C. Force, 8.099, 84.74; Hight, 3.828, 336.23 def. Capps, 3.938, 304.80; J. Force, 3.896, 335.48 def. Beckman, 9.505, 72.67; DeJoria, 3.883, 330.96 def. Pedregon, 4.505, 192.47;

SEMIFINALS — DeJoria, 3.892, 329.02 def. J. Force, 3.909, 331.94; Johnson Jr., 6.875, 128.60 def. Hight, 9.806, 78.40;

FINAL — DeJoria, 3.906, 330.96 def. Johnson Jr., 3.933, 324.44.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.659, 207.78 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.657, 207.66; Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.634, 207.05 def. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.965, 165.42; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.588, 209.20 def. Deric Kramer, Dodge Dart, 6.691, 206.48; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.614, 208.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.855, 198.79; Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.641, 207.11 def. Mark Hogan, Pontiac GXP, Broke; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.601, 207.69 was unopposed; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.623, 207.43 def. Dave River, Chevy Cobalt, 6.976, 196.90; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.621, 207.75 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.704, 205.51;

QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.619, 207.50 def. S. Gray, 6.665, 207.11; Line, 6.624, 207.27 def. Skillman, 6.628, 208.20; T. Gray, 6.620, 207.46 def. Enders, 6.648, 207.66; Anderson, 6.594, 208.30 def. Johnson, 6.628, 207.21;

SEMIFINALS — T. Gray, 6.620, 207.56 def. Line, 7.140, 159.89; Butner, 6.642, 207.37 def. Anderson, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — T. Gray, 6.610, 208.04 def. Butner, 6.629, 207.85.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.881, 192.85 def. Mike Berry, Buell, 7.026, 190.48; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.929, 195.90 def. Angelle Sampey, 8.326, 107.91; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.864, 194.66 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light; Angie Smith, Buell, 6.935, 193.29 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.942, 192.58; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.883, 194.91 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.939, 193.60; Cory Reed, 6.944, 190.03 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.960, 191.54; Matt Smith, 6.859, 194.55 def. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 7.104, 189.98; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.893, 194.49 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.079, 190.46;

QUARTERFINALS — Savoie, 6.845, 192.77 def. A. Smith, 7.001, 190.62; Hines, 6.918, 195.31 def. Arana Jr, 6.919, 194.24; Tonglet, 6.850, 194.77 def. Reed, 6.961, 190.00; M. Smith, 6.884, 194.21 def. Krawiec, 6.894, 194.18;

SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 6.869, 194.66 def. M. Smith, 9.011, 97.00; Tonglet, 6.869, 194.63 def. Hines, 6.952, 195.79;

FINAL — Savoie, 6.846, 194.80 def. Tonglet, 6.910, 194.02.

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UPDATED DRIVER STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Antron Brown, 1,513; 2. Steve Torrence, 1,482; 3. Leah Pritchett, 1,453; 4. Tony Schumacher, 1,121; 5. Brittany Force, 1,052; 6. Doug Kalitta, 1,038; 7. Clay Millican, 1,014; 8. Terry McMillen, 722; 9. Scott Palmer, 649; 10. Troy Coughlin Jr., 576.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps, 1,383; 2. Robert Hight, 1,247; 3. Matt Hagan, 1,214; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 1,180; 5. Jack Beckman, 1,160; 6. Courtney Force, 1,012; 7. John Force, 954; 8. Tim Wilkerson, 792; 9. J.R. Todd, 788; 10. Alexis DeJoria, 664.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner, 1,526; 2. Tanner Gray, 1,300; 3. Greg Anderson, 1,263; 4. Jason Line, 1,123; 5. Drew Skillman, 1,089; 6. Erica Enders, 1,044; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 1,006; 8. Vincent Nobile, 899; 9. Allen Johnson, 657; 10. Chris McGaha, 645.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. LE Tonglet, 874; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 690; 3. Jerry Savoie, 655; 4. Hector Arana Jr, 632; 5. Matt Smith, 581; 6. Andrew Hines, 529; 7. Scotty Pollacheck, 528; 8. Joey Gladstone, 427; 9. Karen Stoffer, 408; 10. Angie Smith, 394.

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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.

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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.”