IndyCar: 2014 midterm progress report

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Technically, the Verizon IndyCar Series won’t reach the halfway point of the season until after the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend on Saturday. That will mark 9 of 18 races complete, and signal just two months left in the season.

But, with this having been a two-week break, the longest the series will have at any point this year, we take a look back at the stunners, spoilers and stragglers thus far in 2014:

BEST DRIVER: HELIO CASTRONEVES

So why am I picking the 39-year-old Brazilian over his Team Penske teammate and series points leader, Will Power, or the guy he lost out to for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay? Castroneves has shown the resilience and determination I didn’t think was possible after his near-title miss in 2013. His Detroit weekend was one of his out-and-out fastest weekends in years; he was revitalized at Indianapolis, just missing the 500 win to Hunter-Reay, and was frustrated with thirds at both St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. If he holds it together in the second half, he may well finally put together that elusive first series championship. Power and  Hunter-Reay, for as much as they’ve been the two drivers with the highest ceilings this year, have been in the headlines for controversy or mistakes as much as their highlights. And being the best driver on IndyCar’s biggest day does not necessarily mean he/she has been the best driver over the course of the season.

BEST ROOKIE: JACK HAWKSWORTH

It all comes down to circumstances, and Hawksworth is excelling most in his. A rookie on in the single-car No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda entry should not have three top-five starts and 32 laps led this year, but indeed he does. I was surprised when Bryan Herta brought him in instead of offseason favorite Luca Filippi, but Hawksworth has been nothing short of impressive this year. This is not to sell the other rookies short, but all of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing) have excellent teammates at their disposal to learn from; Hawksworth does not.

NEED A REBOUND IN SECOND HALF: SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, GRAHAM RAHAL

I don’t want to call either of the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Champ Car teammates “disappointing,” but thus far these two have been below my expectations. Bourdais has made way too many mistakes, especially for someone of his experience level, and incurred the wrath of several penalties. For whatever reason, despite having all the resources at his disposal at RLL, Rahal has struggled in qualifying and has had to rely on great starts and restarts to make up positions this year.

HARD-LUCK AWARD: JOSEF NEWGARDEN

I gave Josef my “most improved” driver award last year and his qualifying has been significantly better in 2014, especially impressive considering a change in engineers preseason and working as a single-car entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But man he can’t buy a break. Speared by RHR in Long Beach, Martin Plowman at the Indy 500 and Power at Detroit Race 2, plus a rare unforced error in Detroit Race 1, have left Newgarden’s results not at the level of his qualifying performances.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE: INDY 500

Hard not to give it to the race where Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged a thrilling six-lap bout for the win after the red flag, and the field kept it clean and green for the first 149 laps. It had just the right amount of passing, pacing and fuel strategy for my liking, with an excellent finish to boot.

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF

  • Power vs. the world: Points leader Will Power has made himself no friends with some of his on-track moves this season, but, as he said post-Texas, he’s still been earning a lot of penalties. How he handles himself and the pressure in the hunt for his first title will be fascinating over the coming weeks.
  • Pagenaud, RHR, Castroneves in with a shot? Figure these three – RHR, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – have the best shot to overtake Power for the championship. The top four are within 91 points heading into the final 10-race stretch. Pagenaud’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda team needs just slightly better qualifying efforts (no top-three starts this year… RHR has four), but otherwise is a title contender.
  • Can Ganassi pull second-half comeback encore? The pre-Pocono test at Sebring last year has entered the annals in recent IndyCar history for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But at 156 points back in eighth place, Scott Dixon has a higher mountain to climb if he wants to repeat his 2013 series championship. Teammates Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball seek the glory of wins, and not also-ran performances.
  • The double points lottery: Pocono and Fontana offer double points on their own, and with doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto, those four weekends of the remaining eight on the calendar have a greater determination towards the championship than the four other, standard points weekends of Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Sonoma. A driver like a Marco Andretti or Tony Kanaan, for instance, could bag the Pocono win and if the leaders hit problems, suddenly vault himself back into title contention as well.
  • Fatigue: There’s 10 races in the next 10 weekends… there’s six races in the next four. How drivers and crews hold up over what’s going to be a physically demanding and at times, exhausting schedule, will determine much of the championship chase.

See the rest of the season on NBCSN, and both of this weekend’s races from Houston at 3 p.m. ET each of Saturday and Sunday on NBCSN and Live Extra.

Josef Newgarden dominates from pole to win KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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There’s a reason why Josef Newgarden calls Road America his favorite racetrack – and he showed why Sunday, dominating to victory in the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

Newgarden led all but two laps from the pole and was in a class of his own throughout the 55-lap caution-free race on the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in central Wisconsin, defeating runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay by 3.3759 seconds.

“(I wanted this one) really bad,” Newgarden told NBCSN in victory lane. “I wanted to win here since last year. This car has been a rocket all weekend. It wasn’t easy. Ryan was very quick and I knew Dixon was right behind him, so we were working for it the entire race.

“I kind of knew what I had to do, but it was a lot of work. Ryan was really pushing me. It’s good to get a win. It doesn’t matter what car, as long as it’s Team Penske.”

It was Newgarden’s series-leading third win of the season in the first 10 races (also won at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama), pushing him past Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Will Power and Scott Dixon, who both have two wins in the 2018 campaign.

“I was hoping to make it more interesting for the fans here at Road American and on TV,” Hunter-Reay said. “The last two stints, when he put on used red and I had blacks, he was really hooked up. … I was pushing 110 percent, that’s for sure.

“Unfortunately, I just couldn’t catch up to Josef. I was able to close up the gap a little bit here and there, but not like I was early in the race. He found his own way for sure. Definitely, the clean air out front helps, but hats off to him: he had a great race and deserves the win.”

Dixon finished third, followed by Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot (his best finish of the season), Ed Jones and James Hinchcliffe.

Dixon (393 points) maintains the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead, Hunter-Reay (348) moved up two spots to second place, Alexander Rossi (tied with Hunter-Reay for second at 348) dropped one spot to third, Newgarden (343) climbed one spot to fourth and Will Power (328) dropped two spots to fifth in the standings.

“It’s so tight … so tough,” Dixon said. “The Verizon IndyCar Series, right now, the competition is through the roof. To get a podium these days is tough enough, yet to get a win. But we’ll keep pushing and see what we get.”

There was action right from the opening lap, including misfortune for Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power, who suffered engine issues that sent him to the pits after the opening lap.

After trying to work on his car in the pits, Power’s team pushed it back to the paddock to attempt further repairs, but those efforts failed and the car was retired.

Power was third in the IndyCar points standings coming into the race, 36 points behind series leader Scott Dixon. He finished last (23rd) in Sunday’s race and will likely drop to fifth in the standings.

“They replaced the exhaust, and it just blew straight back out,” Power told NBCSN’s Marty Snider. “So, there’s obviously something going on in there that’s gone wrong.

“I feel bad for all the guys. It’s just one of those things, you know – you’ll get that every now and then at some point. No good, but we’ll move on to the next one.”

Also, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi had an issue with what appeared to be brakes- or suspension-related that resulted in a lengthy pit stop after 38 laps. Rossi finished 16th in the 23-car field.

“Hugely disappointing,” Rossi told NBCSN. “It was good enough for fourth … but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

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