IndyCar: Penske pair edge ahead in points at end of Toronto weekend

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TORONTO – Neither Helio Castroneves nor Will Power won either of the Honda Indy Toronto races this weekend. But with a pair of podiums and their title rivals Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya all having at least one issue in one of the two races, Castroneves and Power have taken the momentum out of Toronto heading to the final four races of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Castroneves ended second and 12th; the former result increased his points lead as Power was only ninth. But the Australian’s third place finish in race two caught him back up.

Of course, Power’s weekend can’t be discussed without mentioning his race one spin on Saturday, when he looped it at Turn 11 and damaged the left rear suspension. A rapid effort by the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet crew got the car back together in less than a half hour and even gave him the chance to race, although he was eventually moved to the rear of the grid for race one when it eventually did race on Sunday.

Castroneves now leads Power by 13 points, 533-520, as the series heads for an off weekend before the final stretch of four races in five weekends in August.

It’s an intriguing situation for “The Captain,” Roger Penske, who could well see two of his own fight to win the 2014 title. Both drivers still seek their first championship while Penske seeks his first as an owner since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.).

Both drivers continue to focus on maximizing their own races, rather than worrying about their competitors.

“I don’t drive looking to the other guys.  I drive when I can push and make it happen, you know?” Castroneves said after his runner-up finish in race one.

Added Power following race two, “At the end of the day you’re always reminded about the championship by the media and your team on the radio.  I’ve been so many times in a massive points lead halfway through the season, you get into a points race, and it’s just no good.  You have to think of the task at hand.”

While these two now hold the edge leaving Toronto, it was a tough Sunday for the other three that needed good Sundays to get back within striking distance.

Hunter-Reay’s passing attempt on Tony Kanaan in race one ended in tears and left the three-time winner this year 21st. It didn’t get much better in race two with a 14th place finish. Hunter-Reay is still third in points, but after leaving Iowa down 32 to Castroneves, he’s now 69 back after Sunday.

Pagenaud rebounded to fourth in race one after he was contacted by rookie Luca Filippi on the opening lap, which blocked the track exiting Turn 4. But the driver of the No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda ended 22nd in race two, retiring due to an ill-timed electronic issue. Pagenaud is fourth in points and a further two behind “RHR.”

JPM’s day was highlighted – unfortunately – by his nosing into the Turn 8 barrier in race two, then being wedged on top of Mikhail Aleshin who had nowhere to go on the slick surface. Finishes of 18th and 19th made for a miserable Sunday, and leaves Montoya 105 points behind Castroneves in fifth.

Sixth through 10th is a crapshoot, with only 29 points separating new sixth-place man Scott Dixon, defending series champion, from Sebastien Bourdais in 10th.

Although double points are on offer for the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on August 30, it’s still likely going to require drivers being within the 25-30 point range of the leaders to have a shot.

“It will be fun to have people up there at the end,” Power said. “The last race, double points, there will be – I’m going to say there will be four people in contention, I reckon.  A lot can happen … and man, it can turn so quickly, I don’t know.”

Here’s the top 10 following race two:

1.  Helio Castroneves, 533
2.  Will Power, 520
3.  Ryan Hunter-Reay, 464
4.  Simon Pagenaud, 462
5.  Juan Pablo Montoya, 428
6.  Scott Dixon, 387
7.  Carlos Munoz, 384
8.  Tony Kanaan, 380
9.  Marco Andretti, 375
10. Sebastien Bourdais, 358

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.