Preview: Pocono provides the penultimate challenge in IndyCar’s 2015 campaign

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This weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, the penultimate round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, carries arguably more weight than next weekend’s season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Even with double points at Sonoma, you say? Yes.

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The reasoning? You can position yourself as best as possible for Sonoma by way of banking a big result at Pocono this weekend. And you don’t want to lose more ground by virtue of a tough Pocono result that leaves you needing a double points-aided miracle in order to make things happen next week.

Heading in, Juan Pablo Montoya leads Graham Rahal by nine points (465-456), with Scott Dixon (431), Helio Castroneves (407) and Will Power (406) all in striking distance.

While Rahal has been on a roll of late in 2015, Pocono has been a bogey track for both he and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team the last two years since it has returned to the schedule.

A look at Rahal’s Pocono results in comparison to the other four main title contenders shows a clear disparity:

Driver 2013 2014 Average
Montoya 1 1.0
Rahal 18 19 18.5
Dixon 1 5 3.0
Castroneves 8 2 5.0
Power 4 10 7.0

So Rahal needs a turnaround at the 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” in order to keep his roll of results going. But given how he and the team have performed of late, and especially considering he won the most recent 500-mile oval race at Fontana, don’t put it past them.

On the subject of 500-mile races, here’s how the title contenders have done at Indianapolis and Fontana this year:

Driver Indianapolis Fontana Average
Montoya 1 4 2.5
Rahal 5 1 3.0
Dixon 4 6 5.0
Castroneves 7 23 15.0
Power 2 19 10.5

The poor results for Castroneves and Power at Fontana were due to accidents largely not of their own doing. Otherwise, the five championship contenders have been some of the strongest runners at the superspeedways.

Who else could play a major role at Pocono this weekend?

The easy pick is Tony Kanaan. Kanaan dominated last year’s race, also won the last 500-miler last year at Fontana, and has been well positioned on speed to win both of Indianapolis and Iowa. Neither event saw him finish though, Indy due to a crash and Iowa a mechanical failure. If the racing gods feel like it, Kanaan will get his this weekend, although his – and for that matter fellow Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Sage Karam and Charlie Kimball – must focus first on ensuring Dixon scores maximum points.

Josef Newgarden is another to watch, having finished fifth and eighth in two Pocono starts. Newgarden’s future is a hot topic of late but in the present, he’ll look to become the first of five possible drivers (along with Montoya, Dixon, Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais) to reach three wins on the season.

Both of their respective teammates – Sage Karam (Ganassi) and Ed Carpenter (CFH Racing) – enter Pocono with something to prove in their final scheduled starts of 2015, before handing their cars over to Sebastian Saavedra and Luca Filippi at Sonoma. Karam’s future is also unsettled and he’ll look to maximize a result on home soil, just 20 minutes outside Nazareth, while avoiding the controversy. Carpenter – his Iowa sparring partner – looks for one mega result in what’s been a tough year driving wise, at a track he should be in win or podium contention.

Race sponsor ABC Supply is more likely to see Takuma Sato in contention than his teammate Jack Hawksworth; in Hawksworth’s case, merely starting this year would be an improvement over 2014, when a practice crash sidelined him for the weekend.

The top sleepers in the field are Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti, respectively. Munoz has starred at Pocono with an Indy Lights win and a third place finish in the last two years; Andretti was desperately unlucky not to win two years ago at the race that also serves as his home race. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud have had less success at Pocono the last two years and look for a turnaround this weekend.

Others in the field – from Bourdais through the Dale Coyne teammates – have tended to struggle on the large ovals this year and are less likely to contend. Bourdais or Charlie Kimball could be drivers to watch depending on their qualifying. Another to keep an eye on is rookie leader Gabby Chaves, who won last year’s Indy Lights race at Pocono and has been quietly consistent for the single-car Bryan Herta Autosport all year.

The action begins with a one-hour practice for rookies Saturday morning before an all-skate, all-car 90-minute practice to follow immediately thereafter.

The drama will begin to build at that point as well, given the stakes of the championship chase entering its final two races.