IndyCar racing has a lot of similarities with horse racing. They are both built on speed and elapsed time.
And let’s not forget the most obvious: horsepower.
So, it’s not too much of a stretch to look at the plight of current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud.
Like a jockey or a cowboy, Pagenaud was thrown from his mount this past Monday when he was involved in a solo wreck during the weather-delayed ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.
The wreck was Pagenaud’s first DNF of the season, a season that has had him in the points lead since the second race (Phoenix) and also compiled four wins and seven podium finishes in the first 13 races.
At the same time, Penske Racing teammate Will Power significantly closed what had been a 58-point lead by Pagenaud coming into Pocono to just a 20-point edge over Power, who not only won the race, but has won four of the last six (and finished runner-up in the other two).
But, once again like a jockey or cowboy who has been thrown from his horse, Pagenaud has picked himself up, dusted himself off and is prepared to do battle with his teammate and roughly a handful of others who are still mathematically eligible to win the 2016 IndyCar championship.
Pagenaud has built his career on looking forward and forgetting what’s in the past. And that’s exactly his philosophy about leaving Pocono and preparing for Saturday night’s resumed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Pocono didn’t go very well, but that happens,” Pagenaud says. “I wish it hadn’t, but we have to move on and put it behind us.
“The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy will (re)start 15th, but that’s not indicative of the car we had or will have.”
As for the tightened margin between himself and Power, Pagenaud has been in this kind of horserace plenty of times in his career.
He knows what to expect in the next three races. He saw how Juan Pablo Montoya topped the standings last season for 15 straight races, only to lose it in the season finale to Scott Dixon.
Pagenaud hasn’t come this far to let the lead slip through his reins. Whether it’s himself, Power or perhaps one of the others still in striking distance, Pagenaud is well aware that it’s anyone’s championship still to win.
Obviously, he hopes it will ultimately be his.
“There’s a lot of racing left,” Pagenaud said. “It’s going to be an exciting race. We don’t lose sight of the big picture, but that’s not the strategy.
“We got to where we are by attacking and being on the offensive. That’s not going to change. We’ll focus on winning races.”
Despite the relative lack of on-track activity besides the Verizon IndyCar Series at Pocono Raceway – there were some vintage IndyCars and kids in quarter midgets – there still seemed to be enough going on from the ABC Supply 500 weekend.
A few thoughts from the weekend, below:
Poor weather, but positive Pocono staff spirits: This was my first time to Pocono in my career and it’s always good to check another track off the box. I found the staff to be particularly pleasant, cheery and optimistic – not that other tracks don’t have staff quite like that, but I would have understood them being grumpy given the rain on Sunday and the logistical mess that followed. Track president Brandon Igdalsky deserves a round of applause for both his and his staff’s positivity in the face of a third challenging weekend in as many major events as they had this year.
Dodging a bullet. Helio Castroneves was gracious and candid in the wake of nearly getting hit by Alexander Rossi’s car on top of him, when Rossi’s car catapulted onto the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet in pit lane. “All of a sudden there was a car on top of me. It was a little strange to be honest. Inside the car, I was actually more protected than what it looked like. Sometime people don’t realize the Verizon IndyCar series are so much about safety and today is the proof of that. Very glad that nobody got hurt,” said the popular Brazilian driver. Rossi was thankful no one was hurt. Charlie Kimball was frustrated as he was trying to enter his pit and got hit by Rossi’s car. The accident very nearly produced a disastrous outcome, but ended up in a good way.
Four big names started towards the back. Three of them made it to the top 10. In the “What to Watch For” post I noted that Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay would be starting 14th, 15th, 19th and 22nd, and their progress would be important to monitor on race day. Montoya, Dixon and RHR ended eighth, sixth and third, all of whom tweaked on their cars to be dynamic on race day. Pagenaud? He picked a bad day to have a bad day. The otherwise faultless Frenchman made his first major mistake of the year when losing it in Turn 1. He can only hope this is a mere bump in the road as he pursues his first title and not the beginning of the end of it slipping away.
On Ryan Hunter-Reay’s drive that was simply amazeballs. Rare is the day you get a car as hooked up as Ryan Hunter-Reay’s was on Monday. Rarer still is the day you get that out of a backup car because your 2014 Indianapolis 500-winning primary car got tubbed in your practice accident on Saturday. Hunter-Reay’s aggression this year has been nothing short of mesmerizing to watch, and the American was at it again Monday from his start on the opening lap, to his methodical picking off of the rest of the field as the day went on. And then, there was that charge back in the final 25 laps after getting back on the lead lap to unleash the beast – nearly getting back to the front but instead settling for a hard-luck third. It’s going to be one of those drives, if you’re an IndyCar fan at all, where you’ll think back to where you were when it happened and think “Damn, what a performance.” Hunter-Reay’s stats are misleading because even though he ranks 11th in points this year, he’s been one of the top two or three drivers in the field.
Power’s good “Case of the Mondays.” “I must say every time we race on Monday, I win, seems to be. If you go back and look at the last six years, I’ll bet you I’ve won every Monday race. I can think of today, Brazil, St. Pete, all run on Mondays and I won them. So I don’t mind Mondays,” said Will Power, who added Pocono to that list of rain-delayed victories in his career. A funky fact, but an interesting one. He’s come on so strongly but he’s also grown into a much more complete, methodical driver rather than the old “win from the front, drive away” Power in his earlier years at Team Penske.
Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson on a roll. Fifth in Iowa, sixth in Toronto, a would-be first win at Mid-Ohio and now pole and second in Pocono – Mikhail Aleshin and the SMP Racing team with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are clicking. Consider too that teammate James Hinchcliffe has reeled off a ninth, third, fifth and 10th in the same time frame and you’ve got the results of the best performing Honda team in the field.
Honda’s dominated the two big ovals, but misses an important win. The interesting stat of the day: Hondas in the two 500-mile races have led 251 of 400 laps, for 62.75 percent. In the remaining 11 races completed thus far, they’ve been out front just 108 of 1277 laps, or 8.45 percent. With Honda missing its best win opportunity since the Indianapolis 500, there’s a concerning and realistic possibility they could win Indy, and go 0-for-the-rest-of-the-season otherwise.
Other nuggets/thoughts. Glad to see both Dale Coyne Racing drivers Conor Daly and Pippa Mann bring their cars (neither one particularly quick or well-handling) home to the finish in 16th and 17th, more than could be said for others. Mann joins Carlos Munoz and Scott Dixon in finishing the last three 500-miler races (tweet via Trackside Online), and Mann has finished her last six overall dating to 2014. … Josef Newgarden’s fourth place finish after starting second follows finishes of third (Indianapolis 500) and winning (Iowa) after also starting second. … Graham Rahal can’t seem to catch a break and started/finished 11th owing a lack of top-end speed. … Like at the Indianapolis 500, Max Chilton and Jack Hawksworth posted needed clean finishes in 13th and 14th (15th and 16th at Indy) and on the lead lap.
In Major League Baseball, the 4-5-6 batters are typically the meat of the batting order. It’s those three players that play one of the biggest parts in determining which team becomes the ultimate champion each season.
Now, 4-5-6 in the standings of the Verizon IndyCar Series is a bit of a different matter.
Sure, fourth-ranked Scott Dixon is a four-time IndyCar champ and Indianapolis 500 winner, fifth-ranked Helio Castroneves is a three-time Indy 500 winner, and sixth-ranked Tony Kanaan is both a series champion and Indy 500 winner.
That sounds like an IndyCar equivalent of baseball’s Murderer’s Row, right?
But following Monday’s weather-rescheduled ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, the 4-5-6 drivers in the IndyCar Series rankings have three races left to hit nothing but home runs if they hope to throw a curveball into Simon Pagenaud’s and Will Power’s championship plans.
Six points separate the trio: Dixon has 386 points, 111 points short of Pagenaud (497 points, with Power a close second at 477 points). Castroneves has 384 (-113) and Kanaan has 380 (-117).
And let’s not forget about Josef Newgarden, sitting third at 397 points, exactly 100 markers behind Pagenaud and 80 points in arrears to Power. But Newgarden will almost certainly drop out of realistic contention with a last-place finish looming at Texas Motor Speedway after he crashed out in June, and won’t be able to restart.
The respective finishes of Dixon (sixth), Kanaan (ninth) and Castroneves (19th) at Pocono also didn’t help their championship chances, because Power won. Pagenaud failed to finish but still looms far ahead.
Right now, a maximum of 211 points is up for grabs in the remaining three races. That breaks down to 50 points each to the winner at Texas and Watkins Glen, and double points (100) to the winner of the season finale at Sonoma.
There’s also one point for the pole winner in each of the final three races, although Carlos Munoz will get that point at Texas since he got the pole there back in June.
In addition, each of the three remaining races – as all others – awards one point if a driver leads at least one lap and two points to the driver who leads the most laps.
Dixon climbed one position, from fifth to fourth, with his Pocono finish. But he knows time is running to defend last year’s championship – particularly with this being the last year for him with Target sponsorship.
Here’s what Dixon had to say after Pocono:
“We started in the rear of the field and that didn’t help our cause with the Target team. We got held up in the second to last restart and some lapped cars didn’t go when they should have and that really cost us in terms of track position for sure. We clawed our way back into the mix but with so many good cars out there it was hard to get all the way to the front to contend.”
Kanaan slipped slightly in the standings from fifth to sixth after his Pocono finish.
Here’s what Kanaan had to say afterwards:
“We just couldn’t catch a break during the race. Every time we’d make a run toward the front, something would go wrong. We had a mechanical issue that was affecting the fuel system and that caused a lot of problems for us. Then we lost a piece of our rear bumper pod that caused that last yellow. It just wasn’t our day.”
Lastly, Castroneves had a performance Monday that he’d rather forget. While he started strong (fourth), he was involved in a scary pit road crash not of his doing when Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball made contact.
Rossi, this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, bounced off Kimball’s car and ran over the top of Castroneves’ car as he was trying to leave his pit stall.
The tires on Rossi’s car made visible marks on the top of the cockpit of Castroneves’ car and then the car continued until it had climbed over and landed back on the pavement on all four wheels. Castroneves suffered a slight bruise to his right hand but was otherwise uninjured in the scary mishap.
But his hand isn’t the thing that really hurt. Castroneves’ resulting 19th place finish saw him drop from third to fifth in the standings. Given that he’s 117 points behind Pagenaud and 97 behind Power, his Team Penske teammate, Castroneves’ hopes for his elusive first career IndyCar championship are slim, indeed – unless perhaps he wins each of the next three races.
And that still may not be enough to win it all if Pagenaud and/or Power have strong finishes in at least two of those last three.
One thing’s for certain: neither Castroneves nor Dixon or Kanaan are giving up.
Here’s what Castroneves had to say about Monday’s race, the pit road incident, as well as moving on to Texas:
“Inside the car, I was actually more protected than what it looked like. Sometime people don’t realize the Verizon IndyCar Series are so much about safety and today is the proof of that.
“Very glad that nobody got hurt. It’s just a shame. The Hitachi Chevy was really having a good day and we just had another good pit stop when I was coming out of the pits.
“All of a sudden there was a car on top of me. It was a little strange to be honest. The Team Penske guys worked really hard to try and fix the car but there was a lot of damage.
“It’s certainly unfortunate because this will hurt us in the championship battle but our team will never give up. We’ll move on to Texas where, fortunately, we’ve had a lot of success.”
Since returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series part-time in 2011 and full-time in 2013, French driver Sebastien Bourdais has four wins in 87 starts and eight podium finishes.
But in all of those starts, Bourdais had never scored a top-five on a superspeedway.
His best finish at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was seventh in 2014. His best finish on Fontana’s 2-miler was 12th in 2013.
And prior to Monday, his best finish at Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “tricky triangle” was 16th (2013 and 2014).
But in Monday’s weather-delayed ABC Supply 500, Bourdais achieved a career-best performance on a superspeedway, as his No. 11 Team Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet finished fifth.
Bourdais qualified 18th but was fourth-quickest in race trim in the final practice before Monday’s rescheduled race. While he started slow, he methodically worked his way up through the field until he cracked the top-10 on Lap 91 of the 200-lap, 500-mile event.
On Lap 177, Bourdais and his team gambled on their final pit stop. Instead of a full service stop, the team went with only fuel and not tires.
That moved Bourdais up to second place from seventh and his second win of 2016 (first was Belle Isle 1) appeared a strong possibility.
While the gamble worked in theory, it was foiled by a glitch in the computer blend line software, which erroneously placed Bourdais in third on the ensuing restart.
When the green flag fell, Bourdais had a slow restart and fell back two more spots to fifth. He briefly climbed back to forth, but eventual third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay passed him, relegating Bourdais to where he’d ultimately finish: in fifth.
“It was a pretty good day for the Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Team,” Bourdais said after the race. “We took some penalties with long pit stops to set the car up early on, but even though we were marginal on front grip we were running a pretty solid race.
“We passed Dixie (Scott Dixon), passed Kanaan (Tony), passed some Penskes, not the top one, but when you do that, things are going pretty good. Then you end up finishing fifth after there was some computer confusion about our position on the restart.”
Bourdais remains 14th in the IndyCar point standings, but Monday’s finish was his eighth top-10 showing in the first 13 races of the season.
“Overall, you have to consider that it was a great day,” Bourdais said of Pocono. “It was definitely our strongest showing on a super speedway.
“We learned something this weekend, something we have been missing. The crew did a really good job and the Hydroxycut Chevy machine was really strong. So I am really happy with the result.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay has been so hungry for a win this season that he was ready to devour it in Monday’s weather-delayed ABC Supply 500 Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway.
He overcame considerable adversity during the course of the race, including starting from the rear of the 22-car field, and then his engine mysteriously shut off while he was in the lead.
He fell way back in the pack twice, but roared back both times to challenge for the lead again and again.
All told, Hunter-Reay led a total of 33 laps and, perhaps next to early leader Mikhail Aleshin, who led a race-high 87 laps (of the scheduled 200-lap event), had arguably the best car in the field.
He appeared headed to repeat his last series win, at Pocono last year.
Unfortunately for him, Hunter-Reay’s achievements were somewhat bittersweet: he failed to win once again, although he did equal his best finish of the season for the third time.
“It was really hard, it almost brings you to tears,” Hunter-Reay told NBCSN after the race. “Leading the race and the engine shuts off: what more can happen?
“But, I had a lot of fun out there today, if it’s any consolation, driving through the field twice. This 28 DHL Honda deserved to be in the fight for the win at the end. It was certainly the fastest car out there.”
His third-place finish helped snap a dismal run over the previous three races: he finished 22nd at Iowa, 12th at Toronto and 18th at Mid-Ohio. During that stretch, he dropped from 11th to 13th in the standings.
He rebounded back to 11th in the points after Monday’s run and finds himself just three points out of 10th place (Charlie Kimball), 54 points out of fifth place (Helio Castroneves) and 67 points out of third place (Josef Newgarden).
Hunter-Reay knows he and his team deserves better.
“It’s just been one of those seasons, I guess, right?” he said. “You just have to smile and keep pushing.
“Certainly, DHL deserved this today. I had the car under me to do it, I had everything I needed to, Firestone was excellent; the tires were so consistent through the whole run.
“I was so in the zone in the car today and then to have the engine shut off while leading it. This one’s going to be hard to put behind me, but you just have to do it, I guess.”