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IndyCar’s final four races: A stat primer on title contenders

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Since Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) has returned to the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar in 2013, there hasn’t been a consistent theme yet.

So far there have been four different winners and four different polesitters, only one of whom has gone onto win:

  • 2013: Win: Scott Dixon (started 17th), Pole: Marco Andretti (finished 10th)
  • 2014: Win/Pole: Juan Pablo Montoya
  • 2015: Win: Ryan Hunter-Reay (started 8th), Pole: Helio Castroneves (finished 16th)
  • 2016: Win: Will Power (started 8th), Pole: Mikhail Aleshin (finished 2nd)

With four races remaining in the 2017 season, there’s seven drivers still within realistic title contention, although the top four hold a distinctly better chance given they’re only covered by 17 points.

Here’s how the top-10 in points sits going into Pocono:

  1. Josef Newgarden, 453
  2. Helio Castroneves, 446
  3. Scott Dixon, 445
  4. Simon Pagenaud, 436
  5. Will Power, 401
  6. Graham Rahal, 395
  7. Takuma Sato, 381
  8. Alexander Rossi, 358
  9. Tony Kanaan, 320
  10. James Hinchcliffe, 316

Of the top seven, who are covered within 72 points, here’s their records at the final four tracks in recent years, since the current chassis was introduced in 2012:

POCONO

  • Newgarden: 2013: Started 15th/Finished 5th, 2014: Started 21st/Finished 8th, 2015: Started 4th/Finished 2nd, 2016: Started 2nd/Finished 4th
  • Castroneves: 2013: Started 6th/Finished 8th, 2014: Started 7th/Finished 2nd, 2015: Started 1st/Finished 16th, 2016: Started 4th/Finished 19th
  • Dixon: 2013: Started 17th/Finished 1st, 2014: Started 15th/Finished 5th, 2015: Started 11th/Finished 9th, 2016: Started 19th/Finished 6th
  • Pagenaud: 2013: Started 8th/Finished 6th, 2014: Started 11th/Finished 6th, 2015: Started 2nd/Finished 7th, 2016: Started 14th/Finished 18th
  • Power: 2013: Started 4th/Finished 4th, 2014: Started 2nd/Finished 10th, 2015: Started 3rd/Finished 4th, 2016: Started 8th/Finished 1st
  • Rahal: 2013: Started 16th/Finished 18th, 2014: Started 14th/Finished 19th, 2015: Started 5th/Finished 20th, 2016: Started 11th/Finished 11th
  • Sato: 2013: Started 7th/Finished 22nd, 2014: Started 4th/Finished 21st, 2015: Started 9th/Finished 6th, 2016: Started 3rd/Finished 22nd

GATEWAY

Only Castroneves and Dixon, among the top-seven in points, have past starts there and it was on the old surface. Castroneves scored his second career IndyCar podium finish there in 1999 driving for Hogan Racing, finishing second to Michael Andretti, and he won the series’ most recent race there in 2003. In five Gateway starts, Castroneves has finished seventh, second, ninth, second and first.

WATKINS GLEN

  • Newgarden: 2016: Started 12th/Finished 2nd
  • Castroneves: 2016: Started 4th/Finished 3rd
  • Dixon: 2016: Started 1st/Finished 1st
  • Pagenaud: 2016: Started 7th/Finished 7th
  • Power: 2016: Started 2nd/Finished 20th
  • Rahal: 2016: Started 20th/Finished 21st
  • Sato: 2016: Started 22nd/Finished 17th

SONOMA

  • Newgarden: 2012: Started 22nd/Finished 23rd, 2013: Started 17th/Finished 24th, 2014: Started 2nd/Finished 6th, 2015: Started 2nd/Finished 21st, 2016: Started 10th/Finished 6th
  • Castroneves: 2012: Started 4th/Finished 6th, 2013: Started 5th/Finished 7th, 2014: Started 6th/Finished 18th, 2015: Started 15th/Finished 15th, 2016: Started 2nd/Finished 7th
  • Dixon: 2012: Started 5th/Finished 13th, 2013: Started 2nd/Finished 15th, 2014: Started 3rd/Finished 1st, 2015: Started 9th/Finished 1st, 2016: Started 7th/Finished 17th
  • Pagenaud: 2012: Started 9th/Finished 7th, 2013: Started 10th/Finished 5th, 2014: Started 15th/Finished 3rd, 2015: Started 4th/Finished 16th, 2016: Started 1st/Finished 1st
  • Power: 2012: Started 1st/Finished 2nd, 2013: Started 3rd/Finished 1st, 2014: Started 1st/Finished 10th, 2015: Started 1st/Finished 7th, 2016: Started 4th/Finished 20th
  • Rahal: 2012: Started 13th/Finished 5th, 2013: Started 8th/Finished 11th, 2014: Started 14th/Finished 20th, 2015: Started 6th/Finished 18th, 2016: Started 5th/Finished 2nd
  • Sato: 2012: Started 26th/Finished 27th, 2013: Started 13th/Finished 23rd, 2014: Started 20th/Finished 4th, 2015: Started 18th/Finished 8th, 2016: Started 15th/Finished 14th

Looking at past results from the last few years, here’s a few things that immediately stick out:

  • Newgarden and Dixon have made something out of nothing at Pocono, turning often poor qualifying results into great race finishes. At a 500-mile race, it’s fair to say qualifying means less here than at any of the other final four races.
  • Pagenaud has been good but not great at Pocono. As a superspeedway win is the only thing missing from his resume – he got his first short oval win earlier this year at Phoenix – it is the last thing he needs to complete the full versatility checklist.
  • Castroneves can rely on the most Gateway experience among the title contenders, plus his dominance in Iowa, to bolster his championship hopes.
  • Power, last year’s Pocono winner, could parlay himself back into title contention with an encore. He got the gap to Pagenaud down to 20 points after his win and Pagenaud’s accident here last year
  • Rahal and Sato have struggled for results at Pocono. At 58 and 72 points back of Newgarden, respectively, another year where they fail to achieve a needed result will likely knock them from the fringes of title contention out of it entirely.
  • As the series gets closer to the final two road course races, it’ll put a premium on qualifying. Within those above stats at Sonoma, only Rahal in 2012, Pagenaud and Sato in 2014 and Sato again in 2015 have delivered a top-10 finish from outside the top-10 on the grid. Newgarden was able to pull off a 12th-to-second run at Watkins Glen last year but expecting an encore would be difficult; he’ll need to qualify better on this occasion.

Starting this weekend, expect some fireworks as the series begins a three-in-a-row stretch of races in as many weekends before a one-week breather, then the Sonoma finale on September 17.

Al Unser Jr. back in IndyCar after a decade away: ‘Life is very good’

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There’s been somewhat of a hole in Al Unser Jr.’s heart ever since he retired from racing in 2007.

It was a void, something was missing.

But now, after a decade away from racing, Unser has found the right medicine to fill that hole in his heart: he’s back in the racing game again.

No, he’s not driving again (although he does participate occasionally in vintage races), but the two-time Indianapolis 500 (1992 and 1994) winner is definitely back in the IndyCar world.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “Since I stepped out of the race car and retired from racing, there’s been something missing from my life, and it’s racing.”

Unser has hooked up with Harding Racing. The team competed in three races last season as a ramp-up for a full 17-race effort this season. While Unser’s official title with the team is “consultant,” he’s involved in so much more.

His main role is as a driving coach to 2015 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves. But he’s also involved in so many other areas, including helping the team obtain sponsorships and much more.

He then added, “I’m involved in every sense of the word except actually driving the car. And I’m happy about that because I’m too old to drive the car.”

Unser, who won CART championships in 1990 and 1994, is now 55. He’s so involved with his new job that he even moved from his native New Mexico and has relocated to suburban Indianapolis.

Not only is it a new start for Unser, it also is for Chaves. After running all 16 races in 2015 for Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, he competed in just seven races for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016 and only three races for Harding Racing last season.

But he definitely impressed the team, with a fifth- (Texas) and ninth-place (Indianapolis 500) finish in the first two races and 15th (Pocono) in the team’s final run of the season.

That’s why when Harding Racing decided to go fulltime in 2018, Chaves was their pick for behind the wheel. And Unser was their pick to help guide him to potential stardom in the series.

“(Team owner) Mike Harding is definitely a person that when he decides to do something, he does it right,” Unser told IndyCar.com. “The potential for this organization is through the sky. We’re all working really hard here and we see the potential.”

And as for Unser?

“Life is good, life is very good,” he told IndyCar.com. “We’re back full force, eager and better than ever.”

Click here for the full story about Unser from IndyCar.com.