IndyCar: A crucial weekend to commence at Mid-Ohio

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This weekend’s Honda Indy 200 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) will go a long ways to determining the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

With just four races remaining, the top four drivers in the standings are within 71 points. Helio Castroneves leads Will Power by 13 points, with Ryan Hunter-Reay third at 69 behind and Simon Pagenaud fourth, 71 back.

Interestingly, Castroneves is the only one of that quartet who has won at Mid-Ohio in an IndyCar. The Brazilian won back-to-back in 2000 and 2001.

The other three have Mid-Ohio podiums, but are yet to win. Power has been second in 2010 and 2012; Hunter-Reay third in 2003 and 2011 and Pagenaud third in 2012 and second a year ago.

If any of these four win, they’ll break the streak currently held by Chip Ganassi Racing – which has won the last five races running at Mid-Ohio.

CGR is in the unusual position at Mid-Ohio where none of its four drivers are in realistic championship contention. Scott Dixon ranks best of the quartet in sixth, but 146 points back of Castroneves.

So if CGR makes it a six-pack – with either Dixon, defending race winner Charlie Kimball, Tony Kanaan or Ryan Briscoe – they’ll be doing damage in the standings by taking points away from any of the key title contenders.

Realistically, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud need to make some headway in points this weekend before the final three races occur in weekly succession.

Hunter-Reay must be considered favorite at Milwaukee IndyFest in two weeks, where he has won the last two weeks in a row; that’s also traditionally been a Castroneves bogey track.

But for this weekend, seeing the ebb and flow between the title contenders and the Ganassi quartet will be the most interesting thing to watch.

It’s worth watching the progress of drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson and Josef Newgarden this weekend as well. None have won this year but this group of drivers tend to run stronger on the permanent road courses compared to the temporary street courses. Consider them your top sleepers this weekend.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

Follow @KyleMLavigne