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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

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.