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With IndyCar 2016’s first half complete, it’s Pagenaud’s title to lose

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After his third successive Verizon IndyCar Series victory at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Simon Pagenaud completed something he hadn’t done in six years – the in-season three-peat.

Then after the three races since that point to kick off May, Pagenaud has also built his points lead, despite missing two big opportunities in back-to-back races at the Indianapolis 500 (double points) and the first race at Detroit.

Pagenaud left the Angie’s List Grand Prix with a 76-point lead over Scott Dixon.

Three races later, despite finishes of 19th and 13th occurring before a runner-up on Sunday, that lead is now 80 points at the halfway point of the season.

“We leave here with an 80-points lead. We were strong everywhere,” Pagenaud said after finishing second on Sunday. “We were strong in Indy, just couldn’t finish the way we wanted it. Hopefully we can be strong in Texas and it will be okay.

“But, yeah, I’m very happy. I think we salvaged a pretty good weekend. Helio had a pretty bad day today. Dixon is behind. Those are the main contenders. So 80 points lead is big.”

Three golden opportunities to make up points and bring the field back to him have passed.

For a comparison of just how big Pagenaud’s lead is compared to the rest of the field, here are the respective gaps in positions down to 14th-placed Sebastien Bourdais, who was the highest-scoring driver in the field in the Detroit doubleheader weekend:

  • First (Pagenaud, 357) to second (Dixon, 277): 80 points
  • Second (Dixon, 277) to 14th (Bourdais, 210): 67 points

In simplest terms, that means there is a heck of a lot of shuffling that can go on for most of the field, but none of it will matter from a championship standpoint if Pagenaud doesn’t come back to the field with one or two more sub-15th place finishes to lower the gap.

He dodged two major bullets with the fact no one made up too much ground on him at either the ‘500 or Detroit race one.

And with only 67 points separating that next group of 13 drivers, it’s going to be difficult for any one driver to make too much headway from here unless someone gets on a roll of about two or three win/second-place finishes in a row.

The challenge from here for Pagenaud and Team Penske is to maintain enough calculated aggression to ensure he never settles the rest of the way.

Without that aggression, it can bite you and cost a championship. To be honest, that more or less undid Juan Pablo Montoya last year. He starred through his win at the Indianapolis 500, but then went nine more races before scoring his next podium at Pocono, the second-to-last race of the year.

This is also Pagenaud’s first true opportunity at being the “lead title contender” and will be a great test of his mental fortitude and resolve these final eight races.

Ryan Briscoe and Will Power in their first respective shots in 2009 and 2010 both failed to deliver the title in their first shot at it.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, pulled it off in 2012 – albeit with a bit of help when Power crashed out at Auto Club Speedway.

It was only after losing a title, and three of them in a row, that Power was able to pull through and deliver his first and thus far only championship in 2014.

After his phenomenal first half of the year – three wins, three runner-ups and four poles – it’s now time to see if Pagenaud has what it takes to secure his.

Otherwise, it could set up for another year for Chip Ganassi Racing to steal it away. Scott Dixon cleaned up Helio Castroneves’ lost chance in 2013, courtesy of a legendary second half comeback (then in a 19-race schedule), while he also famously capitalized on Montoya’s demise last year. Dario Franchitti took the 2009 and 2010 titles after Briscoe and Power faded late.

You can see the quest to catch Pagenaud in the final eight races of the year starting this Saturday night, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, from Texas Motor Speedway.

Here’s the points breakdown after the Indianapolis 500 on the left, and then after Detroit on the right, with positions gained:

1 22 Pagenaud 292 1 22 Pagenaud 357
2 9 Dixon 235 2 9 Dixon 277
3 3 Castroneves 224 3 3 Castroneves 271
4 21 Newgarden 211 4 21 Newgarden 259
5 5 Hinchcliffe 205 5 98 Rossi 242 +1
6 98 Rossi 203 6 26 Munoz 242 +1
7 26 Munoz 199 7 10 Kanaan 240 +1
8 10 Kanaan 192 8 12 Power 240 +3
9 83 Kimball 189 9 2 Montoya 233 +1
10 2 Montoya 187 10 83 Kimball 227 -1
11 12 Power 178 11 5 Hinchcliffe 226 -6
12 15 Rahal 173 12 15 Rahal 225
13 28 Hunter-Reay 162 13 28 Hunter-Reay 224
14 11 Bourdais 134 14 11 Bourdais 210
15 14 Sato 134 15 18 Daly 177 +4
16 27 Andretti 130 16 14 Sato 173 -1
17 7 Aleshin 127 17 27 Andretti 166 -1
18 8 Chilton 122 18 7 Aleshin 155 -1
19 18 Daly 108 19 8 Chilton 139 -1
20 41 Hawksworth 91 20 41 Hawksworth 110

Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: