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.