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IndyCar: 2014 midterm progress report

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Technically, the Verizon IndyCar Series won’t reach the halfway point of the season until after the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend on Saturday. That will mark 9 of 18 races complete, and signal just two months left in the season.

But, with this having been a two-week break, the longest the series will have at any point this year, we take a look back at the stunners, spoilers and stragglers thus far in 2014:

BEST DRIVER: HELIO CASTRONEVES

So why am I picking the 39-year-old Brazilian over his Team Penske teammate and series points leader, Will Power, or the guy he lost out to for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay? Castroneves has shown the resilience and determination I didn’t think was possible after his near-title miss in 2013. His Detroit weekend was one of his out-and-out fastest weekends in years; he was revitalized at Indianapolis, just missing the 500 win to Hunter-Reay, and was frustrated with thirds at both St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. If he holds it together in the second half, he may well finally put together that elusive first series championship. Power and  Hunter-Reay, for as much as they’ve been the two drivers with the highest ceilings this year, have been in the headlines for controversy or mistakes as much as their highlights. And being the best driver on IndyCar’s biggest day does not necessarily mean he/she has been the best driver over the course of the season.

BEST ROOKIE: JACK HAWKSWORTH

It all comes down to circumstances, and Hawksworth is excelling most in his. A rookie on in the single-car No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda entry should not have three top-five starts and 32 laps led this year, but indeed he does. I was surprised when Bryan Herta brought him in instead of offseason favorite Luca Filippi, but Hawksworth has been nothing short of impressive this year. This is not to sell the other rookies short, but all of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing) have excellent teammates at their disposal to learn from; Hawksworth does not.

NEED A REBOUND IN SECOND HALF: SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, GRAHAM RAHAL

I don’t want to call either of the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Champ Car teammates “disappointing,” but thus far these two have been below my expectations. Bourdais has made way too many mistakes, especially for someone of his experience level, and incurred the wrath of several penalties. For whatever reason, despite having all the resources at his disposal at RLL, Rahal has struggled in qualifying and has had to rely on great starts and restarts to make up positions this year.

HARD-LUCK AWARD: JOSEF NEWGARDEN

I gave Josef my “most improved” driver award last year and his qualifying has been significantly better in 2014, especially impressive considering a change in engineers preseason and working as a single-car entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But man he can’t buy a break. Speared by RHR in Long Beach, Martin Plowman at the Indy 500 and Power at Detroit Race 2, plus a rare unforced error in Detroit Race 1, have left Newgarden’s results not at the level of his qualifying performances.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE: INDY 500

Hard not to give it to the race where Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged a thrilling six-lap bout for the win after the red flag, and the field kept it clean and green for the first 149 laps. It had just the right amount of passing, pacing and fuel strategy for my liking, with an excellent finish to boot.

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF

  • Power vs. the world: Points leader Will Power has made himself no friends with some of his on-track moves this season, but, as he said post-Texas, he’s still been earning a lot of penalties. How he handles himself and the pressure in the hunt for his first title will be fascinating over the coming weeks.
  • Pagenaud, RHR, Castroneves in with a shot? Figure these three – RHR, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – have the best shot to overtake Power for the championship. The top four are within 91 points heading into the final 10-race stretch. Pagenaud’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda team needs just slightly better qualifying efforts (no top-three starts this year… RHR has four), but otherwise is a title contender.
  • Can Ganassi pull second-half comeback encore? The pre-Pocono test at Sebring last year has entered the annals in recent IndyCar history for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But at 156 points back in eighth place, Scott Dixon has a higher mountain to climb if he wants to repeat his 2013 series championship. Teammates Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball seek the glory of wins, and not also-ran performances.
  • The double points lottery: Pocono and Fontana offer double points on their own, and with doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto, those four weekends of the remaining eight on the calendar have a greater determination towards the championship than the four other, standard points weekends of Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Sonoma. A driver like a Marco Andretti or Tony Kanaan, for instance, could bag the Pocono win and if the leaders hit problems, suddenly vault himself back into title contention as well.
  • Fatigue: There’s 10 races in the next 10 weekends… there’s six races in the next four. How drivers and crews hold up over what’s going to be a physically demanding and at times, exhausting schedule, will determine much of the championship chase.

See the rest of the season on NBCSN, and both of this weekend’s races from Houston at 3 p.m. ET each of Saturday and Sunday on NBCSN and Live Extra.

Tony Kanaan had a blast despite finishing 100th Indy 500 in fourth

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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He wasn’t in winning contention until late after starting 18th, but after back-to-back DNFs from accidents the last two years, fourth was almost a welcome tonic for Tony Kanaan and the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I had a blast,” he said post-race. “I had the time of my life.”

Kanaan was one of the favorites to win, after setting the fastest lap in final practice for the race with a speed of 226.280 mph. It was clear the Ganassi team had made enough strides to his car on race setup to pull it off.

“When you have a good car all day and you’re fighting for the lead you cannot say it wasn’t fun,” Kanaan added.

Kanaan was still running fast at the end of the race, but rookie winner Alexander Rossi’s fuel mileage strategy made the difference in victory.

Among the top five drivers, Kanaan posted the fastest last lap with a speed of 220.294 mph. On fumes, Rossi was running 179.784 mph. Kanaan pitted with eight laps remaining in the race.

“Obviously toward the end there it got a little messy with where we were going to finish. We had to pit; this is racing.”

Hinchcliffe ends Indy 500 seventh, doubts victory was possible

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe felt content with his run to seventh in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil despite starting from pole and remaining in the lead group of cars for much of the race.

Hinchcliffe spent much of the first stint of the race exchanging the lead back and forth with Ryan Hunter-Reay, but a fuel issue cost him time at the opening round of pit stops in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver battled his way back into contention for the win, only to suffer a loss in grip in the closing stages as temperatures rose at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A late splash-and-dash for fuel with four laps to go ended Hinchcliffe’s hopes of a famous victory, just over one year on from his devastating accident, leaving him to settle for P7 at the checkered flag.

“I have to give everybody on the Arrow crew a ton of credit for the effort the entire month,” Hinchcliffe said after the race.

“Coming in third at the GP of Indy, qualifying on the pole and the race here, it was a solid effort.

“We were super strong the first half and definitely had one of the cars to beat. It was really just track temperatures that caught us out there.

“We started losing grip as the temperatures came up late in the afternoon and the last two stints were a real struggle when we tried to make the tires last. Well, more than a stint because we came in for that splash of fuel at the end.

“A couple guys out there took a punt on fuel – congrats to Alex [Rossi, race winner] and great to see Honda back on top.

“Realistically, I think we had a third or fourth place effort today, which is nothing to turn your nose up at.”

Combined with the points for pole position, the ‘500 has seen Hinchcliffe rise from eighth to fifth in the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ championship, ranking as the lead Honda driver on 205 points.

Third in Indy 500 a bitter pill to swallow for Newgarden, ECR

during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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INDIANAPOLIS – This month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was generally accepted that Josef Newgarden and the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing was best of the “Bowtie brigade.”

And the 25-year-old American was ready to unleash a full serving of awesome sauce on the field in Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil starting from second on the grid.

But despite running in the top three to five all day and leading 14 total laps – including Laps 179 to 181, 184 to 190 and 192 to 193 – Newgarden was one of most of the field who needed a late-race splash for fuel inside the final 10 laps.

It meant that Newgarden, along with runner-up Carlos Munoz, fell back behind rookie Alexander Rossi once Rossi’s Bryan Herta/Michael Andretti combo pack pulled off a strategic stunner to perfection and ran 36 laps on the final stint.

For Newgarden, third was his best career Indianapolis 500 result in five starts.

Yet in many ways, it was the worst feeling: a crushing disappointment knowing his first best chance to win this most prestigious of races had slipped away.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really heartbreaking, to be honest,” he said in the post-race press conference. “The reason is because I think we had a car to win. I’m not saying we should have won the race definitely because we had the best car, I just think we had a car that could have won.

“What I wanted was an opportunity to try to race those guys at the end. We didn’t get that. That’s no fault to my guys. I think that’s just how the race fell. Sometimes it doesn’t fall your way. Today was a day it didn’t fall our way.”

Newgarden admitted that he was underwhelmed by the fuel conservation finish that allowed Rossi to pull it off. That being said, he said had he been in Rossi’s shoes, he’d have been OK with the outcome.

“I think if I was in Alex’s position, I’d be the happiest man in the world right now. I wouldn’t care how we won the damn race. We won the damn race. So that’s one part of it,” he acknowledged.

The thing was though, a Newgarden and Munoz shootout likely would have been a better show for the fans rather than the somewhat anticlimactic final lap. And again, that’s with no disrespect to what the No. 98 team achieved.

“Congratulations to Rossi and Honda. It’s a huge achievement to win around here,” he said, graciously, in defeat. “I just wish we had an opportunity to race those guys straight up at the end. I really think we would have had something for them if we could have gone flat out there at the end and tried to beat them straight up.

“Just proud to be here, though. Shoot, just having an opportunity to be here with as good of a car as I did, not many people experience that. Today was something new to me.”

Newgarden described his would-have-been strategy had it come down to a he-and-Munoz shootout.

Sort of.

“To be honest, I was going to wing it at the end,” he explained. “My priority was staying up front, going flat out, trying to get as much speed out of the car at the end of the race as possible. I thought we had to trim this thing to win it. We had a lot of downforce at the beginning. We tried to trim and trim and trim. My sole focus was, Let’s get to the last three, five laps and be up front, then I’ll do whatever I got to do at the end to win the thing.

“That kind of sounds silly. Well, didn’t you have a plan? Weren’t you thinking of a plan the whole race? I was. I was sticking to my priority of ‘Let’s get this car up front, the keep it there for the last five laps’. When we’re up there, we’re going to have a great shot at winning the thing.

“Really, you can’t predict what’s going to happen at the end of the race. I could see how Carlos was, I could see where he was good, where he was bad. I think he had a little bit more straight speed than us, which was going to be difficult to overcome. I was going to wing it on those last three to five laps and kind of feel out what I had to do to try to beat him, if he was the guy I had to actually race at the end.”

For Newgarden though, long regarded as America’s brightest IndyCar hope the last five years and on the heels of his best month ever at the Speedway, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

He’s had some heartaches in his IndyCar career before – Long Beach and Mid-Ohio losses in 2014 come immediately to mind – but nothing like this.

“I don’t think I have a pity card to play. You could probably go through the list of guys that have nearly won this thing or that should have won the thing,” he said.

“This is really the first time I’ve ever felt like I could have won that race and it just didn’t happen. It’s really the first time I’ve ever felt that way.

“So it’s tough. I hope I have more opportunities to try to win it. You kind of feel special when you have a car that you think you can win and you got a shot to win the thing at the end. That’s kind of rare to get that opportunity and be in that spot.

“I’m thankful for that. I can’t be sour about it, like I said. There’s been a lot of guys that have had near misses around this place. It’s going to suck, but…

“The good thing is we race again next weekend. That kind of helps. I don’t have to go on the media tour, which I guess is a positive. I would have loved to do it if I won the race. I can rest a little bit now and go to Detroit and try to kick everyone’s ass again. That’s positive.”

Until he pit for fuel, Carlos Munoz ‘knew’ he had Indy 500 won

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Carlos Munoz was sure of three things throughout Sunday.

The first – the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 was going to be his.

“I knew I had this won,” Munoz told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl after the race.

But the 24-year-old Colombian didn’t make this declaration as the 70th winner of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Andretti Herta Autosport driver was lamenting the second runner-up finish of his career in the race.

“My car was flying,” Munoz said of his No. 26 United Fiber & Data Honda that had started fifth and was leading on Lap 195 of the race. “I was so good emotionally, physically, mentally. The car was flying.”

The second?

“I knew I didn’t have enough fuel.”

Munoz was a half-lap short on fuel and on Lap 196 pitted in order to rectify his situation. That move created the 54th and final lead change of the race, allowing rookie Alexander Rossi, and Munoz’ teammate, to assume the lead.

Rossi hadn’t pitted since Lap 164 and he wouldn’t in the last four laps.

When Munoz got back up to pace two laps later, he was in second, 16.68 seconds behind Rossi. A lap later, with the white flag displayed over the first sold-out crowd in the “500’s” history, Munoz had only gained three seconds.

“I was just cruising around flat out, saying ‘I’m not going to lift, this is my race,'” Munoz told ABC, later recalling in his post-race press conference, “‘I’m going to keep it flat. If I crash, I crash. I don’t want second; I want to win.'”

When Rossi entered Turn 3 for the final time, with his No. 98 NAPA Honda running on fumes and hope, Munoz was still a straightaway behind him.

Munoz was within 4.5 seconds of Rossi when he saw the American become the 70th different winner of the Indianapolis 500.

And he was still bemused by the fact it happened.

“I don’t know how my teammate did it without stopping. If I’m honest, I want to know what he did. I will look. I am second, why he’s not stopping? He’s supposed to stop. I have to look and see what he did. I don’t know what he did,” Munoz admitted.

“This is the 500, everything can happen. Now we’re second,” he said

The third thing Munoz was sure of Sunday is that won’t be the case in the future.

“One thing is clear, that I will win the 500 one day.”