Preview: Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio critical in IndyCar title chase

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – The middle of Ohio is smack-dab in the heart of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase.

Traditionally a mid-to-late race in the schedule, Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (LIVE, 1:30 p.m. ET, CNBC and NBC Sports Live Extra) actually marks the 14th of 16 races this season, so it takes on a more important role in the championship picture.

Mistakes will be magnified and multiplied this weekend. If you miss your mark this weekend, it will be very difficult to claw back the lost points.

It’s also an important strategy race. Over 90 laps, three stops are likely but two is possible.

This weekend’s race marks the first on a road course since the hybrid oval/infield road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, and the first on a permanent road course since Barber Motorsports Park in April.

“The Penskes flew to the front at the Indy road course; it was them and only them,” said KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, a two-time winner this year and the defending Mid-Ohio polesitter. “It was a bad surprise for us.

“For our program, we do understand a lot of things much better now. We hope to give a run to the Penskes, who have been so dominant on that type of track.”

Penskes have been dominant in qualifying this year but at Mid-Ohio, the first task the majority of the field has is stopping the freight train that is Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Dixon has five wins in eight years at the circuit dating to 2007, and Ganassi’s team has won six straight at the track dating to 2007. In fact, since IndyCar’s return in 2007, only Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske has broken up the Ganassi string of dominance in 2008.

Briscoe could again play spoiler this year driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having been quick but with nothing to lose as he seeks to become the 10th different winner this season.

It’s Penske, though, Briscoe’s former team, that has held the upper hand in qualifying. With eight poles on all eight road and street course races this year, all of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and points leader Juan Pablo Montoya have been forces to be reckoned with on Saturday.

Qualifying is especially crucial at Mid-Ohio and any of those three, plus Simon Pagenaud, who traditionally runs well at Mid-Ohio, will be ones to watch.

The other Ganassi drivers – Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam – all have their own points to prove this weekend. Kanaan has struggled in qualifying at Mid-Ohio in recent years, until last year when he started third. Kimball has yet to recapture the magic he found when he won his first and thus far only IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio in 2013, and Karam looks to carry the momentum from Iowa onto a completely different type of circuit.

The career year for Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team rolls into both driver and team’s home race, outside Columbus at the Lexington, Ohio road course. They need a good qualifying run because the run of Harry Houdini recover-from-disaster type performances on race day can’t go on forever.

Andretti Autosport is yet to win at Mid-Ohio since IndyCar’s return. It’s been a tougher track for the team in the past; Ryan Hunter-Reay finally got on the board in Iowa but given Honda’s qualifying struggles on road or street courses this year, it’s hard to see RHR, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz or even Justin Wilson making too big a dent in the leaderboard this weekend. Munoz, to his credit, did make his first career Firestone Fast Six this race last year, but has yet to provide an encore.

Other Chevy teams – KVSH/KV Racing Technology and CFH Racing – should be good. Bourdais must be considered a Fast Six if not podium contender once again, while Josef Newgarden looks to capture the win that got away from him last year. New father Luca Filippi makes his return to the cockpit after a near two-month hiatus in the second car; Stefano Coletti needs any result of sort.

Of note elsewhere, Takuma Sato makes his 100th career IndyCar start this weekend, and the always exciting-to-watch Japanese driver will look to impress in one of the Honda-sponsored races.

The remaining runners – rookie leader Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, James Jakes, Tristan Vautier and Rodolfo Gonzalez – likely will need help of some sort to produce a result of note.