Verizon IndyCar Series 2016 midseason report

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), here’s a quick primer on where we sit heading into the start of the second half of the season:

PAGENAUD’S ROLL OF FORM

As we’ve chronicled, Simon Pagenaud is off to the best start of his IndyCar career. With three wins and three second-place finishes in eight races, Pagenaud has built up an 80-point lead in the standings. His No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, which has seen Hewlett Packard Enterprise, DeVilbiss, PPG Automotive Refinish and Menards adorning it any point this season, has been the class of the field.

Provided he and the team keep their foot on the gas and don’t fall into the trap of “points racing” too much, Pagenaud is the favorite to secure his first IndyCar title.

ROSSI’S SURPRISE INDY 500 WIN

The question preseason was how late signing Alexander Rossi would adapt to IndyCar, as Michael Andretti’s team brought in the personnel and strategic expertise of his past teammate Bryan Herta into the group. Consider it the most pleasant surprise of the season thus far.

The 100th Indianapolis 500 win, obviously, will stand out as the marquee moment of the season for this group. But just as impressive has been quite how well the melding of people has occurred and the expectation shift in terms of results. Where top-10s would have been welcomed in April, they’re now considered simply not good enough in June. Rossi has a firm grasp on the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors and will only look to add to his accolades as the year rolls on.

DESPITE AERO WOES, STILL GOOD VARIETY

The racing with this year’s aero kits was admittedly subpar for the first three and a half races. St. Petersburg, Phoenix and Long Beach saw limited passing, while Barber wasn’t brilliant until the final stint of the race.

However the last four events have been better. The Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis had a good mix of passing and strategy played out, the Indianapolis 500 was typically exciting and Detroit had enough of a mix to keep things interesting.

And aside of Pagenaud, there’s still been good variety up front. With six winners and 13 total podium finishers in the first eight races – all teams except A.J. Foyt Enterprises have at least one podium finish – it hasn’t been a whitewash in form too much up front from any one team.

PENSKE’S OTHER THREE DRIVER ROLLER COASTER

Besides Pagenaud, the other three drivers for Team Penske have lacked consistency. Here’s the results in order for Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves and Will Power:

  • Montoya: 1, 9, 4, 5, 8, 33, 3, 20
  • Castroneves: 4, 11, 3, 7, 2, 11, 5, 14
  • Power: DNS, 3, 7, 4, 19, 10, 20, 1

Seems hard to believe that Montoya, of those three, is the only driver with back-to-back top-five finishes at any point this year. Castroneves is third, Power seventh and Montoya ninth in points thus far owing to that roller coaster ride. Power is on the verge of finding his form again after a tough few events – he’s prone to going on hot streaks and with realistically nothing to lose at this point, he can go for it. Same for Montoya. Castroneves is due a win though as it’s been now two-plus years since his most recent triumph.

GANASSI’S QUARTET ON VERGE OF BIGGER THINGS

You feel that in one of the next few events – maybe Texas, maybe Iowa, maybe Mid-Ohio – that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams will have a monster weekend. Scott Dixon has done his usual consistency and pace play with eight top-10s in as many races – the only driver to do so this year. Second place, 80 points back of Pagenaud, has him positioned once again for a typical second half Scott Dixon surge.

Tony Kanaan has seven top-10s but no podiums. Charlie Kimball has seven top-12s but no podiums. Rookie Max Chilton was decent early but endured a nightmare Detroit double DNF weekend. Kanaan ranks eighth, Kimball 10th in points.

THE “YOUR RESULTS AREN’T AS GOOD AS YOUR DRIVING AWARD” GOES TO…

Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport. Hunter-Reay enters the second half of the season 13th in points and that might be the most misleading stat of the year.

He made arguably the pass of the race at St. Petersburg to end third. He was the only Honda with even a remote chance in Phoenix having driven his tail off of the No. 28 DHL Honda, but was caught out by two ill-timed yellow flags. He got collected with his teammate in pit lane at the Indianapolis 500 and ended 24th.

Only at Long Beach, a track he usually thrives, was Hunter-Reay truly off pace after starting 11th and ending 18th. But put more of that down to Andretti Autosport’s then-mechanical grip issues as to why the team struggled so badly.

He won at Iowa and Pocono last year and he’s also done well in Toronto and Mid-Ohio before. I’d be shocked if “RHR” isn’t in top-five contention in points from here; consider just 67 points separate second from 14th.

HONORABLE MENTION GOES TO RLL RACING HERE

Like Hunter-Reay, fellow American Graham Rahal has been similarly unlucky from a results standpoint thus far. It’s strange that with four top-fives he’s 12th in points. But getting speared at St. Petersburg, then losing a grid spot at the Indy GP, then having to avoid multiple accidents at the Indianapolis 500, then brake line issues and an ill-timed yellow in Detroit, means that Rahal has been far better than 12th best this year.

NEWGARDEN’S IN TITLE CONTENTION

Fourth thus far for Josef Newgarden and the Ed Carpenter Racing team have positioned the likable young American, like points leader Simon Pagenaud, up for what is truly his first run at an IndyCar title. Like last year, the question may be how well can they carry the momentum while also worrying about Newgarden’s future with the team – his contract with ECR expires at the end of the year.

OTHER NOTES OF THE FIELD THUS FAR

  • It was cool to see Sebastien Bourdais and KVSH Racing win in Detroit. Few know how close that team came to not even making the grid this year, but after the team’s reshuffling in the offseason, they’re now poised for a big second half.
  • Carlos Munoz remains IndyCar’s enigma at Andretti Autosport. He’s driving incredibly well at the moment, but made those notable mistakes in the early races. Can he package the consistency to balance his undoubted and improving speed?
  • The improvement from James Hinchcliffe and the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda has been evident. Now it’s time to see whether the popular Canadian can keep it up through his first tour of duty with SPM in the second half of the year, since he was injured last year.
  • Conor Daly has overachieved more often than not at Dale Coyne Racing and combined with newish teammate Gabby Chaves, can IndyCar’s perennial underdog continue to punch above their weight?
  • The two “MAs” couldn’t be more polar opposites. Mikhail Aleshin has been exciting to watch but erratic and inconsistent in his IndyCar return. Marco Andretti meanwhile has flown under the radar nearly all year. He’s finished each of the eight races, yet none higher than ninth.
  • Can either Takuma Sato or Jack Hawksworth deliver a result for the likable Larry Foyt-led A.J. Foyt Enterprises team?

STATS OF NOTE

  • Six winners, seven other podium finishers thus far. Total of 17 drivers with one top-five, 20 with one top-10.
  • First to second in points gap: 80 points. Second to 14th: 67 points.
  • DNFs: 8 in the Indianapolis 500. The remaining seven races? 14 total.
  • 14 different drivers have made at least one Firestone Fast Six (Montoya, Castroneves, Power, Pagenaud, Hinchcliffe, Dixon, Kanaan, Kimball, Bourdais, Rahal, Newgarden, Munoz, Hunter-Reay, Hawksworth) and Pagenaud is the only driver to have made all five Fast Six sessions.
  • Laps Led: Pagenaud 292, Dixon 158, Castroneves 127 and Montoya 113 – 690 of 952 total laps (72.48 percent).
  • Laps Led by Manufacturers: Chevrolet 777, Honda 175.

REMAINING SCHEDULE

  • June 11, Texas, NBCSN 8pm
  • June 26, Road America, NBCSN 12:30pm
  • July 10, Iowa, NBCSN 5pm
  • July 17, Toronto, CNBC 3pm
  • July 31, Mid-Ohio, CNBC 2pm
  • August 21, Pocono, NBCSN 3pm
  • Sept. 4, Watkins Glen, NBCSN TBD
  • Sept. 18, Sonoma, NBCSN 7pm