LEXINGTON, Ohio – Providing nothing completely random happens in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (3 p.m. ET, CNBC) from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the top seven in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ championship will be dicing among themselves for the win from the top seven spots on the grid.
In points, the order is Scott Dixon on 423, then Helio Castroneves on 420, Simon Pagenaud on 404, Josef Newgarden on 400, Will Power and Graham Rahal both on 359, then Takuma Sato on 351.
With five races remaining and the last race of the season at Sonoma a double points race, there’s still a maximum 320 points on offer the rest of the way – so at 72 points separating the top seven, that’s a realistic situation where they could all be in the title frame these final five races.
Fittingly, they start in the top seven for Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio, but not in points order.
Power rolls off from his 49th career pole, while Newgarden has his first front row start not just of the season, but also with Team Penske.
Sato and Rahal turn in career-best Mid-Ohio starts from third and fourth, while Castroneves is fifth and Dixon sixth. Pagenaud was the only one of the top seven in points to miss the Firestone Fast Six, but from seventh, will start from the same position Newgarden has won twice this year at Barber and Toronto.
Quotes from six of the top seven drivers about their respective title situations are below, after they made the Firestone Fast Six:
Dixon: “I think you try to get as many points as you can during the season. We haven’t done a very good job of that with many tracks. I think we wish we had little more of a points cushion. Not really thinking about points right now. We’re in a good spot. The only time that leading the championship really counts is at the end of the year. We’ll see how we get through these next four races and see how Sonoma plays out.”
Newgarden: “I think I’m not thinking about what the gap is to Dixon. I think I’m more thinking about how can we have a consistent day. Ultimately that’s going to be the most important thing, is having a clean day with no incidences. Not necessarily points, but making sure we have a top five, hopefully a podium. If you’re really lucky, then you get a win. That’s all you have to work on. Generally the points take care of themselves as the year goes on.”
Sato: “Obviously we love to win as much as everyone does. Third place means a lot of opportunity. It’s not necessarily to win the race. But I think certainly aiming for the winning. But I think if we can get a podium finish tomorrow, that would be super result for the team. We do the best we can. We have to.”
Rahal: “We’ve got to go win this thing. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to try the best that we can. Hopefully the two of us can get through clean and go racing, all of us can, and we’ll go from there. For us, the only way we’re going to catch them, obviously the last race is double points, but the only way we’re going to catch Dix and these two over here, same for Will, we got to win races. I mean, that’s what it comes down to, so… Hopefully we’ll go out there tomorrow and have a strong one.”
Power: “Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, as a team, yes. But individually, a lot of competition in the team. Very good problem to have.”
Castroneves: “We’re battling for the championship ourselves. You can use a little bit your teammates in case something’s not going well. You can still take advantage of that and collect a bit more points.
“But that’s the name of the game. As Will mentioned, it’s a very good problem for our team to have. We’re going to obviously try to finish 1-2-3-4 in the championship.”
Scott Dixon would like to see Felix Rosenqvist get a full-time Verizon IndyCar Series drive in the future after enjoying a successful second test with Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course earlier this week.
Rosenqvist, 25, raced briefly in Indy Lights – among a number of other series – at the start of 2016 before shifting his focus to DTM and Formula E, sitting third in latter’s standings heading into the final round of the season.
“Hopefully he can make it to the IndyCar Series at some point.”
Rosenqvist’s current program sees him balance drives in both Formula E and the Japanese Super Formula series, as well as a variety of other ad-hoc appearances in events ranging from the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the Scandinavian Porsche Carrera Cup.
Dipping to Mid-Ohio between the Formula E rounds in New York and Montreal, Rosenqvist was happy with how the test went and the contribution he was able to make.
“I think we had a really good test last year where it was probably more easy to evaluate my performance because there were more cars on track and so on, and it went really well,” Rosenqvist said.
“This year they entrusted me to do the test with Scott to get the free test day that the team gets. I think it was probably more for the preparation of the Mid-Ohio race.
“What I wanted to do was to prepare physically to drive, which I think I was, and just give good data, good feedback and constant lap times. I think it worked really good.”
An accordion effect between Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and Will Power saw Dixon and Power sustain the heaviest collision on the run down to Turn 3 on the opening lap. While Rahal emerged unscathed, Dixon and Power collided, with Power poking his nose to the outside of Dixon on the run into Turn 3. He’d be out of the race as a result.
“I went down the outside, and someone went down the inside of me,” Power told NBCSN’s Robin Miller. “It surprised me. I should have known better than to take any sort of risk on the first lap. Just not worth it.
“It really makes it tough in the championship. All the guys I’m fighting are at the front. I just feel bad for my guys. Didn’t even complete the first lap.”
Dixon’s race went belly-up, as well. He needed to pit for a flat left rear tire, then after the race restarted, received a drive-through penalty for performing more than required work in a closed pit (22.214.171.124.3.5).
It put Dixon off the boil on strategy and despite rebounding from 20th to run as high as fourth, he was left to finish in 10th. After six top-five finishes in the first seven races – his only miss that infamous 32nd in the Indianapolis 500 after his aerial accident – he’s now finished outside the top-five in four of the last five races, albeit still in the top-10 in all of them. It’s just that suddenly sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th are off, slightly, by comparison to wins and podiums wracked up by Team Penske.
“It was a rough day in the NTT Data car. I had a good start in Turn 1, and it looked like (Graham) Rahal decided to shift lanes and I had to avoid him. Then (Will) Power and I got together and ended up cutting down our tire and doing some damage to the suspension on the car. Then we had to fix the car and INDYCAR gave us a drive-through penalty, which was kind of odd. And then that kind of hosed our best efforts for the day and we ended up 10th,” Dixon said.
With two of the best drivers in the current generation sidelined for the day, the next key moment came when Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, nosed in at Turn 1 at Lap 23 and brought out a full-course caution.
This cost three more championship contenders, in Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, a potential podium lockout. The three fastest drivers and cars of the weekend were, like Dixon and Pagenaud in this race last year, caught out by the yellow timing by being at the front of the field. None was satisfied and Pagenaud (fifth), Castroneves (eighth) and Rahal (ninth) were all unlucky to finish lower than they probably deserved.
“We played it right but we got unlucky. But the three best cars didn’t win the race,” Rahal surmised to NBCSN. “It’s a shame. Sometimes luck plays a role in this things. You could see in the first stint, Helio, Simon and myself were taking off. Congrats to Newgarden, but we should have gained a lot of points on Dixon, Newgarden and more. The way the officials decide to close the pits these days, luck plays a factor in these things.”
All the while the one championship contender who benefited the most was Josef Newgarden – who courtesy of Team Penske president and his race strategist Tim Cindric managed to pit just before the yellow – promptly leapfrogged the field by pitting right before the yellow came out.
Newgarden admittedly got lucky but did have to bring it home from there, which he did on a banner day of closing down the gap in the championship. Newgarden was 56 back of Dixon seven days ago in the cornfields of Iowa. He’s now just 23 back of him after winning in the land of “Timbits” and poutine in Toronto on Sunday.
On the same day, Newgarden gained 21 (Pagenaud), 28 (Castroneves), 31 (Rahal) and 44 (Power) points over four other title contenders.
At 23 points back, Newgarden pinpointed the one race where he lost the most points – the double points Indianapolis 500 – as a place where his championship has been affected the most.
“The big thing for us is we can’t get into many more incidents like we have the first half of the year. I think month of May is really what killed us in the points championship,” he said. “We had a bad GP with a pit lane speed limiter issue, and a bad Indy 500 wrecking out with 20 to go, getting caught up in something. We’ve had some races that we’ve had to pick up from a deficit, and I think if those weren’t there, we’d probably be leading the championship.
“But other guys can say the same thing. They’ll say, We had races like this, too. It kind of yo-yos back and forth for everybody. Everyone is going to have good races and bad races. We have to prioritize having solid finishes from here to the end. I think if we’re the most consistent, we absolutely can win the championship. It’s going to be the guy who does that the best.”
Newgarden’s words there about consistency provide an interesting setup to the final five races of the year, and how the championship in this year where it seems anyone can win it, consistency over this stretch will come into play.
The five races left feature one short oval (Gateway), one big oval (Pocono), and three permanent road courses (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, Sonoma). Even so, there’s been no rhyme or reason to who’s won at the earlier portion of those tracks this year.
Road courses? We’ve had Newgarden (Penske Chevrolet, Barber), Power (Penske Chevrolet, Indy GP) and Dixon (Ganassi Honda, Road America) win the three permanent road course races. One could argue Power should have won Barber and Newgarden – or any Penske member – should have won at Road America, but they didn’t after getting usurped. Alas, Team Penske has 10 top-fives out of a possible 13 top-fives in those three races, so it’s hard to bet against any of their quartet in those races.
The short oval also should feature Penske dominance – it’s been Pagenaud (Phoenix) and Castroneves (Iowa) who’ve won there this year. But, again, there’s a question mark. Gateway will be repaved before its August 26 race with a test to come next month, so while the field did test there in May, it’ll be a completely new track to everyone, and that in theory levels the playing field. Dixon is good on tracks that are new or added, and he, Castroneves and a couple others do have some past Gateway race experience from many years ago.
Pocono though? That could be – probably should be – a Honda track. Yet Power won there last year and Pagenaud crashed out. Takuma Sato, who remains on the fringe of title contention but having fallen back in the last month with four tough results, of course has the year’s biggest 500-mile win on his resume and could well spoil the Penske and Ganassi party there for Andretti Autosport.
With five races to go, it’s going to be between those seven drivers for the title, with four in more realistic contention down the stretch. Dixon (423) has to hold off the first three of the Penske quartet of Castroneves (420), Pagenaud (404) and Newgarden (400), all close. Power and Rahal (359) and Sato (351) are also close-ish, still within a 72-point margin, but right on the border of falling out.
It’s a barnburner of a finish since no one has more than two wins yet this year, but as ever, the combination of wins and consistency will deliver this year’s IndyCar title.
A chaotic start to the Honda Indy Toronto saw championship contenders Will Power and Scott Dixon come together on lap one. Power darted outside to avoid Dixon entering turn three after Dixon appeared to go sideways. Power then bounced off the wall and back into the left rear of Dixon.
The incident broke the front wing and left front suspension on Power’s car, while Dixon suffered brake damage and a punctured tire on the left rear corner.
Dixon, the championship leader by eight points over Castroneves entering the weekend, pitted for repairs and rejoined the fight, but was quickly issued a penalty after the No. 9 NTT Data team did more work than was allowed in the closed pits.
Still, Dixon rejoined the fight without losing a lap, while Power’s No. 12 Verizon Penske team pushed his car behind the wall for repairs.
Practice speeds indicated that Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud would fight for the pole for Sunday’s Iowa Corn Indy 300 (5:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), with Newgarden going fastest and Pagenaud ending up third.
However, early qualifying draws saw them go out first (Pagenaud) and third (Newgarden), which ultimately put paid to their chances for the pole. Pagenaud ended up qualifying 11th, while Newgarden qualified 16th.
Pagenaud referenced his early draw in a press conference prior to qualifying, and acknowledged it might be problematic. “I’m first in line, so I’m going to be the guinea pig for everybody. Anyway, but that’s the luck of the draw,” Pagenaud said of qualifying early.
After his run, Pagenaud described it as one of the wildest runs he’s ever made. “That was a bit of a scary ride. I don’t know if it was the different kind of rubber laid down by the other series or what, but the Menards Chevy was a little loose,” he detailed.
However, Pagenaud is no less confident heading into the race. “I’m not worried about anything though. I know the car is strong. My teammates that went out later in the session had good runs, so we’ll just need to work through some traffic to get to the front,” he finished.
Newgarden, too, expressed confidence, despite the qualifying struggles. “With the order, Simon (Pagenaud) and I were guinea pigs. The track was a little slick and the Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet was loose, but I’m really confident we’ll be good for the race. This was all about timing and having to go out third,” he explained.
Scott Dixon, too, was bitten by an early qualifying draw that saw him make the second run of the session, and he could do not better than 17th. This made a tough day all the more challenging, as a penalty from Road America for entering the track after the checkered flag waved on a practice session cost he and the No. 9 NTT Data team 20 minutes of time in the morning practice.
“Definitely a tough day when you lose that much running time in one day,” Dixon said of the penalty. “We didn’t have any testing here, and I think we expected the track to not degrade as much with the track temps and ambient coming up a bit. But it was just all over the place on my run. Not a whole lot of grip and we were all over the place in the No. 9 NTT Data car unfortunately.”
The points leader entering Iowa, the door is already open for his title rivals to make big gains, with all of them qualifying ahead of Dixon. Pagenaud starts 11th, with Helio Castroneves third, Takuma Sato fifth, Josef Newgarden 16th, Will Power first, and Graham Rahal tenth on the grid.