IndyCar has two races, two weeks more of glory in a fascinating 2015 season

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It’s been a roller coaster season for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And there’s two more final weeks of twists and turns to come.

What seemed unfathomable at the start of the year, that you’d have five drivers in realistic title contention with two races to go including the single-car effort of Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in his much-discussed career year, is now fully in play heading into 500 miles at Pocono and the sinewy, twisty turns of Sonoma.

Oddly, it’s Sonoma, the season finale, and not Pocono, the 500-miler, which sees double points in play. It’s a variable that could definitely swing the championship and has kept more drivers in play.

The potential storylines then, to follow, out of the next two weeks:

MONTOYA, PENSKE’S LOOSENING GRIP ON THE TITLE

Just two races ago at Milwaukee, Juan Pablo Montoya led Scott Dixon by 54 points, and Graham Rahal was tied for third, some 69 points back.

Two races later, Rahal has cut 60 of those 69 points back.

Montoya – and for that matter Team Penske – has not been delivering the results needed the last couple months.

Montoya has not finished on the podium since his thrilling win at this year’s Indianapolis 500, some eight races ago. His best finish is fourth on three occasions.

On the whole, Team Penske has only five podium finishes in the last eight races. A good number for most teams, but consider this is a four-car Chevrolet-powered mega lineup and out of a combined 32 races the only podium results are one second place by Helio Castroneves and four thirds – split two apiece between Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – and Penske is far from the Penske Perfect it needs to be at this point in the season. Contrast that to the nine podiums the team achieved in the first six races and it’s clear the early season advantage is long gone.

In recent years, Penske’s title drought from 2007 through 2013 was the storyline at this time of year. It does not want to lose another title in a year where it has already captured the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s, and is also well-positioned ahead of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

CAN RAHAL, RLL, HONDA REALLY PULL IT OFF?

Anyone who bet Rahal and RLL would be in IndyCar title contention at this stage of the year, at the beginning of the year, is likely a very rich man or woman at the moment.

Odds were low that after 18th and 19th place finishes in the standings the last two years, Rahal would even win a race this year, let alone head into the last two races with a shot at the championship.

But you know the story by now. The latest reorganization of the team and Bobby Rahal’s stepping back, letting Ricardo Nault run the program and the collective gelling between Graham and the trio of Eddie Jones, Martin Pare and Mike Talbott has produced incredible results.

The No. 15 Honda-powered team is on a hot streak, with five top-four finishes in the last seven races, to propel Graham from fifth at Detroit race one, 81 points back of Montoya, to only nine back now.

source: Getty ImagesTEN OR ELEVEN RACE WINNERS?

Ryan Hunter-Reay took the season up to nine winners with his win at Iowa. A tenth different winner in either of the next two races keeps IndyCar’s streak of double-digit race winners alive and increases it to three years. A tenth and eleventh different winner in the next two ties the record set on three different occasions (2000, 2001, 2014). Potential new winners are linked here.

OTHER POINTS JOCKEYING

Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Will Power still have outside title hopes but are more likely to shuffle between third and fifth, currently separated by 25 points. Dixon has a streak of finishing in the top three points for nine straight years, from 2006 through 2014, and looks to extend that to 10 years straight.

The gap from sixth-placed Sebastien Bourdais to ninth-placed Tony Kanaan is also only 25 points, with Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden sandwiched in-between.

It’s likely to come down to Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz for the 10th and final place in the top-10 in the year-end standings.

OFF-TRACK LOOMING ISSUES

There remain a number of off-track items to sort as well. More to follow in the next couple weeks – hopefully this doesn’t cloud the on-track agendas the next two weeks – but these are all items to pay attention to:

  • 2016 schedule talk
  • Derrick Walker’s potential replacement(s)
  • Driver and/or manufacturer silly season movement
  • Honda’s ongoing extension talks

All told, plenty to play for the next two weeks at Pocono and Sonoma.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.