IndyCar: Montoya a legitimate title contender heading into final seven races

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Perhaps the overlooked aspect of Juan Pablo Montoya’s win last Sunday at Pocono Raceway, his first upon his open-wheel return to the Verizon IndyCar Series, was how close it brought him into the championship picture.

He now sits fourth overall on 391 points, 55 back of Team Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who are tied with 446. His recent statistical surge has brought him to this point.

Montoya’s win in the double-points Pocono INDYCAR 500 fueled by Sunoco netted him 102 points. Along with 82 for the Indianapolis 500, is the second highest scoring driver in the two double-points races this year with 184, only behind Castroneves, who has accumulated 198.

The crazy thing is, had Montoya’s Saturday qualifying speed at Indianapolis been fast enough to get him into Sunday’s Fast Nine shootout, he could have gained enough points to be leading the double-points points standings. He lost 16 points to Castroneves as a result of his qualifying 10th, while Castroneves made it onto Row 2 and was able to bank points on both Saturday and Sunday.

On ovals in total, the gap is just two points between Castroneves (222) and JPM (220). Montoya’s obviously had more time on ovals than the rest of the IndyCar field combined with his NASCAR experience. Still, just because he’s still turning left doesn’t mean that it’s a totally natural transition from handling the beast of a stock car to a lighter, more aerodynamic, more nimble but lesser horsepower IndyCar.

Montoya has two remaining elements to conquer in his final seven races if he’s going to parlay this comeback into a potential surprise championship.

For one, he’s yet to drive a short oval, and with Iowa and Milwaukee still to go, it’s his last re-learning curve to master. Yet the way the points extrapolate, he can afford to have off weekends on one or either of those weekends because it’s not a double-points weekend (like Indianapolis, Pocono or Fontana) or a doubleheader weekend (Toronto still to go). With just standard points, a bad weekend is somewhat negated.

The other thing he has to improve, perhaps more crucially, is his road and street course qualifying. Montoya has yet to start better than sixth on a road or street course this year.

His starts thus far? 18, 16, 8, 8, 6, 15, 11, 14.

He’s turned those starts into these results: 15, 4, 21, 16, 12, 13, 2, 7. So in five of eight, he’s ended higher than he’s started.

Granted, Montoya now is in a much more comfortable place with Firestone’s red, alternate tires – and those who remember his propensity to lay down balls-to-the-wall fliers in CART qualifying in 1999 and 2000 will no doubt look forward to Montoya doing likewise once he gets a better grip (no pun intended).

That’s left him too much work to do on race days, and although he’s made the most of it – particularly at Houston two weeks ago – he’s not yet back to being ranked among the top five road and street course drivers in the series.

Again, the key is not yet. He has the equipment, he has the momentum, and most importantly, he has the least amount of pressure compared to teammates Castroneves and Power, whose careers have been overshadowed by that one element missing from their resumes: a series championship.

To close the 55-point gap, all Montoya needs is one or two more race wins and for a couple of slip-ups from his teammates. He’s already more than halved the gap since the Indianapolis 500, when Montoya sat 122 points behind then-series leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, and 82 behind Power.

Montoya has wins at Mid-Ohio (1999) and Milwaukee (2000) on his scorecard, and he’s also won at Sonoma in NASCAR (2007). So he’s coming to some tracks where he has had past success.

JPM can steal the title if he makes those couple improvements and closes this points. He may also have the mental edge to where he could leave his teammates asking come Fontana the last weekend of August, “how did we let this happen… again?”

Dakar Rally: Potential winners starting to come into focus after Stage 11

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Editor’s note: Check out expanded video highlights of Stage 11 Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Stage 11 of the 2018 Dakar Rally is history and things are really tightening up in the overall standings.

With three stages left – Thursday, Friday and Saturday – several competitors are either pulling away or the battle for the championship is getting tighter.

For example:

* In Trucks, we are seeing the tightest battle in the standings. Argentina’s Federico Villagra leads the overall rankings, but Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev is only one minute, 7 seconds behind. Belarus’s Siarhei Vlazovich is a distant third (3:07:22 behind) and likely won’t have enough time to recover in the final three stages to make a last-ditch bid for the championship.

* In Bikes, Austria’s Matthias Walkner has a 32 minute, 00 second lead over Argentina’s Kevin Benavides. In fact, second through fourth place in the overall standings are less than an hour behind Walkner, meaning anything can happen and there could still be a major shuffling in the final three stages.

* In UTVs, Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela holds a relatively slim 44 minute, 33 second lead over France’s Patricie Garroueste, with Peru’s Juan Uribe Ramos a distant third in the overall standings at 1:53:58 behind.

MORE: Dakar Rally Stage 11 video highlights: Cars, Bikes, Trucks, Quads

Wednesday’s Stage 11 went from Belen, Argentina to Chilecito, Argentina.

Three stages remain to be completed in the 14-stage event, all in Argentina.

Stage 12 kicks off this morning from Chilecito, Argentina and ends in San Juan, Argentina

Here’s recaps of the top three classes from Wednesday’s Stage 11 – Bikes, Cars and Trucks – as well as how the Quads and UTVs look with three more stages remaining.

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BIKES

Australia’s Toby Price avenged his terrible round on Tuesday – when he lost almost an hour’s time after getting lost in a river bed – to bounce back and win Wednesday’s Stage 11.

Price, the 2016 Rally Bikes champion, finished ahead of Argentina’s Kevin Benavides and France’s Antoine Meo in the stage, and the win also allowed Price to move up to third in the overall standings.

Also of note, Spain’s Joan Barreda Bort, who came into Stage 11 ranked second in the overall rankings behind Austria’s Mathias Walkner, withdrew from the Rally. It’s unclear if the reason for Barreda Bort’s decision was mechanical or medical.

Here’s the Stage 11 results, as well as updated overall rankings:

  1. Australia’s Toby Price, KTM, 4:01:33
  2. Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, Honda, 4:03:11
  3. France’s Antoine Meo, KTM, 4:08:04
  4. S.’s Ricky Brabec, Honda, 4:09:07
  5. Austria’s Matthias Walkner, KTM, 4:12:34

AMERICAN RIDERS

4th: Ricky Brabec, Honda, 4:09:07

13th: Andrew Short, Husqvarna, 4:37:55

14th: Mark Samuels, Honda, 4:38:00

23rd: Shane Esposito, KTM, 4:58:49

68th: Bill Conger, Husqvarna, 7:25:28

OVERALL 

  1. Austria’s Matthias Walkner
  2. Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, 32:00 behind
  3. Australia’s Toby Price, 39:17 behind
  4. Spain’s Gerard Farres, 49:17 behind
  5. France’s Antoine Meo, 59:05 behind

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CARS

The Netherlands’ Bernhard ten Brinke, who has been doing some strong racing and high finishing in recent stages, was the top finisher in Stage 11.

It was ten Brinke’s second career stage win in the Rally, having done so the first time in 2016.

France’s Cyril Despres finished second, followed by Spain’s Carlos Sainz in third.

Here’s the Stage 11 results, as well as updated overall rankings:

  1. The Netherlands’ Bernhard ten Brinke, Toyota, 4:10:54
  2. France’s Cyril Despres, Peugeot, 4:15:29
  3. Spain’s Carlos Sainz, Peugeot, 4:15:34
  4. France’s Stephane Peterhansel, Peugeot, 4:15:44
  5. Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, Toyota, 4:16:50

OVERALL 

  1. Spain’s Carlos Sainz
  2. France’s Stephane Peterhansel, 1:00:45 behind
  3. Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, 1:24:02 behind
  4. The Netherlands’ Bernhard ten Brinke, 1:27:35 behind
  5. South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, 1:40:05 behind

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TRUCKS

Belarus’s Siarhei Vlazovich won his first career stage in the Rally, and maintained his third-place ranking in overall standings with three more stages to go.

Argentina’s Federico Villagra finished second while Russia’s Dmitry Sotnikov was third.

But perhaps the biggest news in the class is the overall rankings, with Argentina’s Federico Villagra holding the lead, but Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev is just one minute, seven seconds behind.

Here’s the Stage 11 results, as well as updated overall rankings:

  1. Belarus’s Siarhei Vlazovich, Maz, 5:14:10
  2. Argentina’s Federico Villagra, Iveco, 5:15:34
  3. Russia’s Dmitry Sotnikov, Kamaz, 5:43:01
  4. Czech Republic’s Martin Kolomy, Tatra, 5:44:34
  5. Netherlands’ Gert Huznik, Renault, 5:48:23

OVERALL 

  1. Argentina’s Federico Villagra
  2. Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev, 0:01:07 behind
  3. Belarus’s Siarhei Vlazovich, 3:07:22 behind
  4. Russia’s Airat Mardeev, 4:40:00 behind
  5. Kazakhstan’s Artur Ardavichus, 5:28:39 behind

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QUADS

  1. Argentina’s Nicolas Cavigliasso, Yamaha, 5:20:45
  2. Chile’s Ignacia Casale, Yamaha, 5:35:59
  3. Kazakhstan’s Dmitry Shilov, Yamaha, 5:55:34
  4. Argentina’s Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, Yamaha, 5:57:40
  5. France’s Alex Dutrie, Yamaha, 5:28:24

OVERALL

  1. Chile’s Ignacio Casale
  2. Argentina’s Nicolas Cavigliasso, 1:34:13 behind
  3. Argentina’s Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, 2:09:15 behind
  4. France’s Alex Dutrie, 3:56:48 behind
  5. Brazil’s Marcelo Medeiros, 4:22:22 behind

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SxS UTV

  1. France’s Patricie Garrouste, Polaris, 6:02:44
  2. Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela, Can-Am, 6:06:23
  3. Argentina’s Leonel Larrauri, Can-Am, 6:13:54
  4. France’s Claude Fournier, Polaris, 6:52:15
  5. Spain’s Jose Pena Campos, Polaris, 6:54:13

OVERALL 

  1. Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela
  2. France’s Patricie Garroueste, 44:33 behind
  3. Peru’s Juan Uribe Ramos, 1:53:58 behind
  4. Spain’s Jose Pena Campos, 8:46:25 behind
  5. France’s Claude Fournier, 8:56:52 behind

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THURSDAY’S SCHEDULE:

Stage 12 takes place Thursday, going from Chilecito, Argentina to San Juan, Argentina

After Thursday, only two stages remain in the 2018 Rally on Friday and Saturday.

MORE: Dakar Rally daily stages schedule, NBCSN broadcast schedule, list of all competitors.

MORE: Stage 10 wrapup

MORE: Stage 9 cancelled due to weather, impassible course conditions

MORE: Stage 8 wrapup

MORE: Stage 7 wrapup

MORE: Stage 6 wrapup

MORE: Stage 5 wrapup

MORE: Stage 4 wrapup

MORE: Stage 3 wrapup

MORE: Stage 2 wrapup

MORE: Stage 1 wrapup