IndyCar: Helio, Pagenaud see points deficits grow with 2 races left

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Down a mere five points to teammate Will Power in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship going into today’s ABC Supply Wisconsin 250, Helio Castroneves surely wanted to thrive.

Instead, on the tough old Milwaukee Mile, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion could only survive.

Starting eighth on the grid, Castroneves rose as high as the Top 5 but handling problems on his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet eventually had him fade to an 11th place finish.

And with Power coming through with a big win, Castroneves took a 34-point hit and fell 39 points behind his intra-team rival with two races to go.

“The Hitachi car was consistent, but unfortunately Turns 3 and 4 was where we had most of our problems,” the Brazilian told NBCSN. “If I finished without crashing today – it was a good day. Every time the car pushed, I couldn’t turn, and I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on, boy!’

“Turns 3 and 4 were very difficult for me. [Turns] 1 and 2 actually wasn’t bad but unfortunately, you have two more corners.”

Despite the setback, Castroneves recognized that with double points on offer for the season finale on Aug. 30 at Auto Club Speedway, his hopes of finally capturing a series championship were not extinguished.

It also bears noting that Castroneves is a past winner at Sonoma Raceway, where the IndyCars will set up shop next weekend for the penultimate race of the year – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Next Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

“Remember, it’s 100 points [for the finale] and we’re 39 behind,” he said. “Still a lot of racing to go. Yes, [today] hurts a little bit. But we can come back.”

Also taking a hit today were the other title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud.

Hunter-Reay just about conceded the championship when an apparent suspension failure on his No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda at Lap 168 knocked him out. He’s now fourth in the standings at 108 points back.

Pagenaud had better luck, jumping from 16th starting position to seventh at the checkered flag. However, Power’s victory did him no favors championship-wise; the Frenchman was down 65 points going in, but is leaving Milwaukee at 92 points back in third place.

But Pagenaud was still pleased with the afternoon, saying that a different approach taken with the set-up of his No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda paid off.

“I think we had a really good car, but it was just a matter of being up front, to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who was also saving fuel during his final stint of the race. “It took good pit stops – the guys were awesome in the pits – and we climbed our way forward.

“I’m really happy with this. I think we’ve done our hardest. I’m very confident with Sonoma and Fontana.”

Altogether, the top six drivers in the standings remain mathematically alive in the championship. That group also includes today’s runner-up, Juan Pablo Montoya (fifth, -114), and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (sixth, -130).

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.