IndyCar title chase may shape up as a battle of mental chess match

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Some years, luck determines the Verizon IndyCar Series championship outcome. Some years, it’s runs of success over a certain period.

This year, it might be who can keep their head in check best after overcoming adversity.

For all of the series top drivers and presumptive title contenders – Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – managing both their own expectations and their view of their competitors could determine who emerges ahead once this season is over.

The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans weekend kicked off a stretch of 13 races over three months, and begun the crucial “summer stretch” between now and the last doubleheader weekend, the Honda Indy Two in Toronto July 18-20, that will go a long way towards determining this year’s championship.

From Detroit to Toronto, the series will race nine times in eight weekends. There’s a two-week gap in-between Texas next Saturday night and the Houston doubleheader June 27-29, which is many weeks off as the series will have the rest of the season after Houston (the Sundays of July 27 and August 10 represent the remaining off weekends).

This stretch includes all three doubleheader weekends (Detroit, Houston, Toronto) plus Pocono, which is a double points, 500-mile race. Only Texas next weekend and Iowa the second weekend of July will be one qualifying, one race weekends with the standard points structure.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen how drivers are starting to handle themselves as we head into this mental stretch of races.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis to kick off the month of May saw Pagenaud and the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team at the forefront, quickest car on the weekend and smartest too, in terms of nailing their fuel strategy to make it home over Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.

Then RHR and Castroneves engaged in an epic scrap for the win at the Indianapolis 500… neither giving an inch and RHR ultimately making two brilliant passes for the win. He was elated; Castroneves did well to hide his frustration publicly, but you know he was gutted to finish second by that little a gap, and lose out on his fourth ‘500 win.

This weekend saw Power take on the role of the villain, the masked avenger who made contact with Pagenaud on Saturday (no penalty, just as he also did not receive one in Long Beach) but did make contact with Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal on Sunday (which did trigger a penalty).

Meanwhile Castroneves came out revitalized with arguably his best weekend in the series in years. He’s won races with the DW12 before, yes, but not with as much “he’s still got it” pace and gusto as he delivered both races this weekend, particularly Sunday. It was a seriously impressive mental bounce back after losing out in Indy.

Power’s mind has long been hard to decipher. He’s consistently been IndyCar’s out-and-out fastest driver since he joined Team Penske, but he’s never been fully able to keep it all together over the course of the season, and hasn’t yet captured an elusive championship. This year, he’s not making any friends, and he’s not focusing on points – only on driving the best he can every race. It remains to be seen whether that mindset will ultimately pay dividends.

Hunter-Reay is arguably IndyCar’s most versatile driver, as he excels on any of road courses, short ovals and big ovals. If he has even the tiniest of weak points, it’s on street courses, where he’s been plagued either by mechanical issues or slight mistakes the last year and a half. After Indy, RHR had a weekend nearly as bad as AJ Allmendinger’s last year in Detroit, and now must find a way to recover in Texas.

Pagenaud and Dixon are similar in that they both have a seriously steely resolve and exterior, and haven’t let issues get to them this year, at least publicly. Dixon’s Sunday drive from 22nd and last to fourth was one of those classic “don’t forget how good the Iceman/defending champion is” type-performances. Pagenaud, too, came back on Sunday following a rough Friday and Saturday.

What about Castroneves? He might have the best mindset going forward. At 39, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He nails the game outside of the cockpit; he’s still IndyCar’s most recognizable star on a national level and he’s won everything he’s ever needed to in IndyCar. Except, of course, that elusive first championship.

The Brazilian is basically IndyCar’s walking, talking version of Pharrell’s “Happy!” but there’s still a burning desire to be the best when he straps his helmet on. He’s driving so much calmer, cooler and consistently than he was three years ago.

If Power and/or Hunter-Reay self-destruct around him, Dixon can’t make up the 140-plus point deficit (he’s 142 back now, and we’ll know likely by Pocono whether he still has a shot) and Pagenaud isn’t consistent enough to match the “big teams,” Castroneves may well samba into this year’s title.

Marco Andretti’s the remaining driver in the top five still with a shot at the title, but he’s at the point where he has to win – particularly at Pocono, given double points there – before you can really begin to factor him into title contention. Given his results consistency level though, you can’t rule him out of it, either.

How drivers and teams manage this summer stretch, both on-track and in their heads, will be fascinating to watch.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”