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IndyCar points tighten as halfway point approaches

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The Verizon IndyCar Series crosses the halfway point of its season this weekend at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway (June 10, 8:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

As always, the series is widely recognized as one of the toughest, most competitive championships on the planet, and one of the indicators that onlookers use to justify that sentiment is the championship picture, which is notoriously close year in and year out.

Graham Rahal was the seventh winner in as many races this year at Detroit race one, before doubling up in the second race.

For example, last year’s standings looked like this following Detroit:

  1. Simon Pagenaud 357
  2. Scott Dixon 277
  3. Helio Castroneves 271
  4. Josef Newgarden 259
  5. Alexander Rossi 242
  6. Carlos Munoz 242
  7. Will Power 240
  8. Tony Kanaan 240
  9. Juan Pablo Montoya 233
  10. Charlie Kimball 227

Simon Pagenaud led the championship at that time on 357 points, with tenth-place Charlie Kimball sitting on 227, 130 points adrift of Pagenaud. While that appears close, it actually pales in comparison to the 2017 title picture. This year’s standings look like this:

  1. Scott Dixon 303
  2. Helio Castroneves 295
  3. Takuma Sato 292
  4. Simon Pagenaud 278
  5. Josef Newgarden 259
  6. Graham Rahal 251
  7. Alexander Rossi 246
  8. Will Power 233
  9. Tony Kanaan 223
  10. James Hinchcliffe 216

Scott Dixon leads the way, but with 303 points, he has scored 54 fewer than Pagenaud had scored at this time last year. And, the gap to tenth-place James Hinchcliffe is 87 points, considerably smaller than last year.

The lead gap to second was 80 points last year coming out of Detroit. This year, it’s 8!

As it stands, the top three (Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, and Takuma Sato) could all leave Texas with the points lead by scoring a victory. Simon Pagenaud, too, could leave with the points lead with a win and a little misfortune hitting those ahead of them.

And even though everyone from fifth-place Josef Newgarden on down can’t mathematically assume the championship lead after Texas, strong finishes or a even a victory for any of them would result in a further dent in the championship gap to the leaders.

And with a second double-points event still looming (the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma), the 2017 championship picture remains anyone’s for the taking.

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Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.