Next 3 weeks could shake up IndyCar’s points before Sonoma finale

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After a two-week break from racing, albeit not from testing, the Verizon IndyCar Series resumes with three races in three weekends starting this Sunday.

The series runs a 500-miler at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway this Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the resumption of the Texas race at the 1.5-miler next Saturday night, then marks its return at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, Sept. 4.

The unpredictability of those three races could shake up the points standings before the season finale at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 18.

There’s four distinct tiers in points at the moment: the top two, positions three to 11, and then 12 to 14, before those from 15 on back need three dramatically good races to make any headway.

TWO-WAY TITLE BOUT

1. Simon Pagenaud, 484
2. Will Power, 426

Pagenaud and Power are separated by 58 points with four races to go and are the two most likely title contenders – it would take both of them having for sure one and possibly two “off” races to bring the field back to them. Pagenaud also made a huge pass of Power at Mid-Ohio; the net 20-point swing that came with him winning and Power being second could be the title-deciding moment of 2016.

Starting with Pocono first, neither driver has won there. Pagenaud has finished sixth, sixth and seventh in three starts while Power has gone fourth, 10th and fourth. Team Penske, for whatever reason, was not as dynamite at the Indianapolis 500 this year as you’d have expected and if either finishes in the lower top-10 range it could bring the field back to them.

Texas is next. Power has one win in the second half of the same night Texas doubleheader in 2011, and Pagenaud is also yet to win there.

Pagenaud has raced smart this year and so long as he minimizes potential damage from the two oval races that lie ahead – even though he’s raced and finished better on ovals thus far this year at Phoenix and Iowa – will keep him atop the heap of the points standings with just the two more permanent road course races remaining after Texas.

P3 TO P11 SEPARATED BY LESS THAN P1 TO P2

3. Helio Castroneves, 373
4. Josef Newgarden, 364
5. Scott Dixon, 357
6. Tony Kanaan, 357
7. James Hinchcliffe, 329
8. Carlos Munoz, 328
9. Graham Rahal, 324
10. Charlie Kimball, 318
11. Alexander Rossi, 316

The 57-point gap between third-placed Castroneves and 11th-placed Rossi is one less, covering nine drivers, than the 58-point margin from Pagenaud to Power.

Castroneves would need his first win in two-plus years and a bit of help to re-enter the title fray, but you can’t put it past him entirely. Like Kanaan, he’s been dependably solid if not the outright fastest driver this year, once again.

Newgarden figures to lose the most ground here by way of his enforced DNF looming at Texas, but if he can maximize his points at Pocono, where he was second last year, and at Watkins Glen, he can still secure his first top-five finish in the championship.

Dixon, who’s finished in the top three in points every year since 2006 (last time out was 2005), has endured a rough go of races lately with his mechanical gremlins at Road America, his pit mistiming at Toronto and his clash with Castroneves at Mid-Ohio. You almost never see the four-time and defending series champion pressing this much, but considering Dixon has won previously at each of the final four tracks, he must be poised to get back on form. He enters this weekend tied with Kanaan in points. Kanaan could easily win one of the last four himself; he’s been on form most of the year and has been particularly strong on the permanent road course.

The unofficial “best in class” battle among Honda drivers sees Hinchcliffe, Munoz, Rahal and Rossi all separated by only 13 points, so that figures to fluctuate over the coming weeks. It’s Rossi who’s the surprise among that group; the Californian has taken well to ovals this year and could add a second win to his famous Indianapolis 500 triumph if Andretti Autosport’s Pocono pace matches what it did at Indy.

Kimball’s the stealth member of that group because his results would ordinarily have placed him higher than 10th in points. Needs one more standout run and a first podium of the year to climb higher in the standings.

ON THE FRINGE OF TOP 10

12. Juan Pablo Montoya, 299
13. Ryan Hunter-Reay, 294
14. Sebastien Bourdais, 283

These three 30-plus-year-old veterans have had frustrating campaigns. Montoya and Bourdais have a win apiece and RHR has come close but no cigar. On talent these are not your 12th, 13th and 14th place drivers in the field and for various reasons, their seasons haven’t panned out the way they hoped.

Hunter-Reay, a year ago, went from 14th to sixth in the final four races of the year courtesy of a pair of wins at Iowa and Pocono and a podium in Sonoma.

I’d bet you’ll see at least one if not two or three of this trio break into the top-10 in points by year’s end.

NEED A FINISH WITH A FLOURISH

15. Takuma Sato, 257
16. Mikhail Aleshin, 243
17. Conor Daly, 240
18. Marco Andretti, 238
19. Max Chilton, 187
20. Jack Hawksworth, 162

Frustrating campaigns for each of these six drivers will see them looking to end their years with any sort of momentum. Sato and Daly have had a handful of decent results; Aleshin was unlucky not to win Mid-Ohio; Andretti’s endured a nightmare 2016 season while Englishmen Chilton and Hawksworth have shown the occasional flashes but not been able to hold it together fully over a weekend.

It’s doubtful any of these six will make major headway in points, and Daly will probably lose at least one spot as like Newgarden, he’s out at Texas. Still, a good result at the double points Sonoma finale could help any of these drivers.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)