IndyCar’s Dual in Detroit features another wide-open pair of races

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At this weekend’s Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans, part of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series points championship is likely to swing once more.

While the points standings didn’t change that dramatically coming out of the Indianapolis 500, despite the huge number of points on offer, what did change were the gaps.

Heading into the weekend, the top five were separated by only 47 points. Coming out, there’s now 63 covering the top four exiting with the top six now spread by 114.

The 500 champion, Ryan Hunter-Reay, has a 40-point lead over Will Power. Hunter-Reay secured his first Detroit podium with second last year in Race 1, behind Mike Conway, and also has a sixth and seventh place on his scorecard.

Power, meanwhile, has never finished on the podium in Detroit. Fourth in 2012 is best result on Belle Isle; a year ago, he was all of eighth and 20th, the latter after being caught up in an accident triggered by Sebastien Bourdais.

Bourdais and fellow-ex open-wheel champion Juan Pablo Montoya are two you could potentially see breaking out this weekend. Bourdais showed his first signs of life in the new DW12 chassis here in 2012, then driving for Dragon Racing, with a top-10 qualifying effort in his first race with a Chevrolet engine. He seeks to take the No. 11 Mistic KVSH Racing Chevrolet to his first podium of the year this weekend.

Same story applies for Montoya, who scored pole in both his trips to this circuit in 1999 and 2000. If Power can’t do it, you’d expect either of “JPM” or Helio Castroneves to want to deliver the Captain, Roger Penske, a win or two at the event he promotes.

The guy needing a big bounce back weekend is Scott Dixon, who enters the weekend ninth in points and already 142 points behind Hunter-Reay. These were weekends where Dixon and the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing team excelled more than anyone else in the field in 2013; armed with Chevrolet power in 2014, we’ll see if the Mike Hull-led team can finally threaten the lead, not just the top five.

As for the 2013 Detroit winners? Mike Conway and Simon Pagenaud were two unlikely victors a year ago and yet both are already in the win column in 2014, Conway having tasted victory on the series’ last street race in Long Beach and Pagenaud with a fuel-saving gamble to win the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Pagenaud has two Firestone Fast Six appearances in the first four races but no front row starts, while Conway has yet to better 12th on the grid thus far this year. Both likeluy will need just a tick better performance in qualifying if they want to defend their turf.

Both Pagenaud and Tony Kanaan have new liveries this weekend, with Pagenaud having Oculus signage adorning the orange No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda and Kanaan in black and silver Energizer colors in the usual No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

Others to watch? Expect Justin Wilson to figure into play in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, as he’s a past Detroit winner and finished on the podium in Race 1 last year. The remaining Andretti Autosport drivers of Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz are both in the top-10 in points, and James Hinchcliffe made points strides after his great Indy qualifying effort.

Drivers needing big weekends are the pair from NTT Data and Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball respectively. So too does Graham Rahal, last in the points, and no doubt looking for something to showcase in the No. 15 National Guard RLL Honda. He finished in the top-10 in both Detroit races a year ago and needs a result close to that to kickstart what’s been a frustrating season.

The two wild cards are rookies Jack Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin, who’ve never been to this circuit before.

Both races go green at 3:50 p.m. ET on Saturday and Sunday (check local listings).

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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