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Commentary Open Wheel

Grid Expansion Needed To Ensure IndyCar’s Future

Around the same time I was compiling my first draft for the 2018 edition of silly season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, I was stunned at the thoughts mentioned from a YouTube video post.

Well as you would expect, yours truly was quite dumbfounded at the comments. I have held firm that expansion of the number of championship runners is required to not only attract attention from fans, but it would also have a better swipe to bring in big money sponsors and perhaps the ultimate target: a contract with a national television network. While NBC Sports Network has been a phenomenal partner in covering IndyCar, things would be on the up if NBCSN, became say NBC?

While the days of a 30-car entry at races outside of the Indy 500 is definitely out of the question, if IndyCar could raise its current 21-car fleet, to 25 or more, it would return the circuit to the counts enjoyed before the split of North American open-wheel racing in 1996.

With Team Penske and possibly another powerhouse team lowering its full-tour squads by at least one car in 2018, the need for expansion is required. And this is not just to fill out the Leader’s Circle list; it’s necessary to put less strain on the car owners and series in the long haul, especially concerning filling a 33-car field at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a task which has become increasingly difficult. This season, for example, saw regular extra car providers Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing unable to allot help toward the magic 33 number.

Of course, while the Leader’s Circle program has been beneficial for the smaller operations, is it necessary for the bigger organizations? While money has reportedly been tight for Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing, the financial doom scenario I think is a bit overstated. Both AA and CGR in addition to IndyCar teams, also have operations in two other auto racing circuits. Team Penske has two of its own, plus a third in IMSA sports car racing set to go online at Daytona in January.

Consider if some of the Leader cash is rolled back from the big boys and reserved for the small fries. People like Trevor Carlin, Ricardo Juncos, and Michael Harding; who have hinted at joining the full slate in 2018, could be further persuaded to do so by the dangling of extra moolah. The additional incentive might even entice a few more from the lower levels of the Mazda Road to Indy to move to the top class.

While expansion does bring some risk, strength in numbers is a necessary course of action if IndyCar racing is to remain constant in say 20-25 years from now.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

POWER RANKINGS: Pocono

Indycar_Power_Rankings_logoThroughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

Josef Newgarden’s late surge to second-place in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway has further solidified his number one ranking as the Verizon IndyCar Series closes out the oval section of its season this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park in St. Louis.

Only minor changes this week in the driver and team rankings, with Pocono race champion, Will Power and third-place finisher Alexander Rossi among those on the move upward.

 

Team Rankings:

  1. Team Penske (Unchanged)

Four in the top-seven at a venue where on paper, the Captain’s quartet looked to be at a disadvantage regarding horsepower. So much for those thoughts, and if the last three rounds follow the recent trend, expect another car owner’s trophy in the case at team headquarters after the Sonoma finale.

  1. Chip Ganassi Racing (+1)

Top-six placements were decent for Dixon and Kanaan, but an inability to make most of Honda engine prowess on high-speed ovals, could be the final nail in the Iceman’s championship hopes. Max Chilton’s DNF was the big disappointment as the Englishman was unable to back up his fourth-place finish at the Indy 500.

  1. Andretti Autosport (-1)

Rossi led the Honda assault at the Tricky Triangle, but the other three in the Andretti camp left a lot of change on the table. Ryan Hunter-Reay rebounded well from his qualifying crash to finish eighth, but he appeared to have a better car than the result would lead you to believe. Marco Andretti never factored and settled for 11th, while Takuma Sato’s pole-winning effort on Saturday was wasted in the opening stint. 13th at the checkered flag makes it only one top-ten in his last five starts.

  1. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Unchanged)

The team was only able to salvage ninth at the flag, despite running up front early. Stays put at number four, but only because of everyone else in the rear view mirror is even more undesirable.

  1. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (-1)

James Hinchcliffe managed to save his No. 5 Arrow Honda on one occasion, but was later eliminated by J.R. Hildebrand. Before that turn one incident, Hinch was mired in traffic and like at Indy, could not use the extra power from his Honda powerplant to his benefit. Sebastian Saavedra’s day also ended with turn one wall contact.

  1. Dale Coyne Racing (Unchanged)

Tough day for Ed Jones, who came home in 17th. Esteban Gutierrez’s first high-speed oval race did not last long as he was the first retirement. The return of Sebastien Bourdais cannot come soon enough.

  1. Ed Carpenter Racing (Unchanged)

Ed Carpenter’s 12th-place finish was much below expectations for a squad that is more equipped to challenge on ovals as opposed to road courses. Hildebrand was credited with 19th after his collision with Hinchcliffe.

  1. A.J. Foyt Racing (+1)

Carlos Munoz had a golden opportunity to challenge for a surprise victory due to the timing of the caution flags, but faded to tenth at the finish. Conor Daly also failed to feature, taking 14th.

  1. Harding Racing (-1)

Low attrition numbers made a top-ten result too tough to achieve for the newcomers. Still, a 15th-place finish as Gabby Chaves’ worst of 2017 is not a disaster for a relatively new operation.

  1. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (=)

Season’s over, but 2018 Indianapolis 500 could be promising if the team continues the same course with Sage Karam. The driver-squad pairing seems perfect for one-off outings.

 

Driver Rankings

  1. Josef Newgarden (Unchanged)

Sixth or better in the past five races, a fact made even more impressive that four of those were either first or second-place. If the Tennesseean can avoid the bad result at St. Louis, Watkins Glen and Sonoma return to his wheel house – the road courses.

  1. Simon Pagenaud (Unchanged)

The Frenchman also advanced in the final laps to take fourth-place at Pocono. Only fourth on the points table at present, but could be the biggest threat to Newgarden’s title pursuit.

  1. Will Power (+3)

Three wins, albeit two coming on oval tracks. Power must regain prowess on road courses if he is to claim his second series title. The Australian will look back at the first three rounds as the reason he does not raise the trophy at Sonoma.

  1. Helio Castroneves (-1)

Seventh-place for the second consecutive event. While top-tens are far from doomsday, the Brazilian continues to lose precious ground to teammate Newgarden.

  1. Scott Dixon (-1)

The Iceman held his own early at Pocono as was required to stay in the hunt for his fifth championship. However, he had to achieve more than sixth-place. The odds of success are now definitely against him in the final three races.

  1. Alexander Rossi (+1)

Third-place represents a solid performance from start to finish at Pocono. With his future at Andretti Autosport in question, he must finish the season with a flourish in case free agency run is necessary.

  1. Graham Rahal (-2)

Ninth as mentioned above was not where the Ohioan was trending in the opening 100 laps. Missed opportunity at Pocono.

  1. Ryan Hunter-Reay (Unchanged)

Recovered well from an ugly accident in Saturday’s qualifying session to take the lead at one point on Sunday. Still, considering how strong his high-speed oval rides have been since his 2014 Indy 500 win, eighth is still a bit of a letdown.

  1. Tony Kanaan (Unranked)

Fifth-place is not a bad finish, but again the No. 10 Honda showed much more potential in the first half of the 500-mile distance on race day.

  1. Takuma Sato (-1)

If not for a lackluster group of contenders in the bottom half of the full-time fleet at this point of the 2017 season, the Indy 500 champion would have dropped out this week. Faded badly from the pole and could do no better than 13th on Sunday.

Dropped Out: James Hinchcliffe (Was No. 10 after Mid-Ohio)

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

Newgarden Opens Path Toward First Championship At Pocono

Following an ill-timed caution flag with 85 laps to go in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, Josef Newgarden’s Verizon IndyCar Series title hopes were on life support.

After jumping from 14th at the green flag to the top-five in the opening 115 laps, the No. 2 Fitzgerald Chevrolet had dropped to 15th place, stuck behind those who already made pit stops prior to the yellow caused by Sebastian Saavedra’s accident in turn one. Unable to advance his position on the following restart, the diagnosis appeared headed for a massive reversal in the points table, with Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon being the potential benefactor.

A window of opportunity however, opened for the Tennessean when an accident in turn one on Lap 125 eliminated both James Hinchcliffe and J.R. Hildebrand. Electing to go off sequence, Newgarden and his Team Penske teammate Will Power pitted to top off their fuel tanks, allowing them the chance to take less ethanol than their rivals, meaning a faster final pit stop and the possibility to advance up the order.

The strategy play by Roger Penske’s squad proved to be the winning move as both drivers entered the top-five with ten laps to go. With the Australian leading, Newgarden with less gas on board zoomed past Tony Kanaan and Alexander Rossi to take second and began to close on his in-squad opposer. Although the Chevrolet pilot failed to overtake Power before the checkered flag, a runner-up effort further solidifies his case to win a series championship in his inaugural season of driving for the Captain.

As I mentioned in my recent look at the title picture before Pocono, the 2.5 mile triangle was perhaps the final hurdle where Newgarden could be vulnerable. Following Chevrolet’s struggles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, Honda appeared to have a wheel up on the bow-tie backers with Dixon benefiting the most. Entering Sunday’s action only 12 markers behind the American prospect, the Iceman looked poised to jump from third to first on the table headed to Gateway Motorsports Park next week.

The early good fortune, unfortunately, was absent when it mattered at the finish as an inability to efficiently save fuel on Sunday may have cost Dixon extra time in the final pit shuffle. The New Zealander placed sixth, losing ground to the championship leader.

The same story held true likewise for another member of Team Penske on Sunday: Helio Castroneves. Despite starting at the back of the pack after issues during Saturday qualifying, the Brazilian was on a similar pit stop plan to Newgarden, but could not exploit it to the full. In what could be his final full season on the IndyCar circuit, Castroneves’ hopes to finally snag the championship trophy were hampered as he finished one spot behind Dixon in seventh-place.

The situation also is getting darker for Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Rahal was upfront at the midway mark, but also was handicapped by needing more gas on the last stop and settled for ninth. Sato meanwhile, looked primed to rejoin the title picture after taking the pole position on Saturday. The reigning Indy 500 champion would plummet toward the back of the order in the opening stint and never recovered. The Japanese veteran’s 13th-place output all but ends his hopes for a series crown and the same tag could be placed upon Rahal likewise.

Heading to St. Louis for its first IndyCar event since 2003, Josef Newgarden holds an 18-point edge on Scott Dixon, who may face the toughest route to the championship based in part on the dominant form Team Penske has showcased recently on road courses, which make up two of the final rounds of 2017. Castroneves drops to third, 22 out of first, with Simon Pagenaud, who charged late to finish fourth Sunday now within 26 points and race-winner Will Power 42 back in fifth.

With no other full-time competitors within 75 points of Newgarden at this point, smart thinking says that the above five names will provide the eventual champion, with the popular Tennessee chauffeur in a greater controlled placement regarding both position and momentum.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Fantasy Hot Tip: Pocono

The question surrounding players in the Firestone Fantasy Challenge looking ahead to the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway is simple – will the action at the 2.5-mile triangular layout play similar to what occurred this past May in the 101st Indianapolis 500? If it does, it may become a final opportunity for the Honda-powered teams to snatch a win away from the juggernaut known as Chevrolet and its key disciple: Team Penske.

Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing led the assault in qualifications and despite multiple Honda runners being eliminated in the race by either engine trouble or accidents, Takuma Sato outpaced Penske’s Helio Castroneves to take the win. If this is the scenario of choice, Honda should make up most of the four-driver roster this weekend. However, the Japanese aggressor might not be the best option.

Of course, if Pocono plays in step with the Texas 600 – a race marred by high attrition, Chevrolet may be able to level the playing field. There’s also the champinonship battle to watch, as Pennsylvania’s big oval may provide Sato and four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon their best shot to cut into the lead currently held by Josef Newgarden.

While I have included the Kiwi in my quartet for this Sunday’s action, let the buyer beware. Dixon took the checkered flag in the 2013 event and had top-ten placements in the following three races at the venue. Unfortunately, the Iceman failed to finish at both the Indianapolis 500 and the Texas 600 in 2017.

Based on the eye test, I had to include Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay this week. In my opinion, there has not been a consistently faster driver on the big ovals than the 36-year-old American. His only issue recently has been bad luck. RHR won at Pocono in 2015 and finished third here a season ago. However, he was removed from contention at the 2016 Indy 500 by a pit road incident, and in May, the engine concerns forced an early retirement. If the good vibes are in gear on Sunday, the No. 28 DHL Honda should be the rabbit in race trim.

Hunter-Reay’s teammate Alexander Rossi failed to finish last year in Pennsylvania; however, his win at Indy in 2016 and a strong run to seventh in May merit his inclusion.

As for the GM entries, there is one inclusion. The Brickyard showed that Ed Carpenter Racing was able to overcome a deficiency in top end grunt. Of course, taking a driver from that camp is not advised on road courses, but that view is squashed at Pocono. Usually, I would take the team owner Ed Carpenter in a heartbeat; but with the boss struggling to salvage results, I think it is time to get behind J.R. Hildebrand one more time. While the 2011 Indy 500 runner-up has never turned a wheel at the “Tricky Triangle,” his ability to make the checkered flag at 16th and Georgetown backs his selection.

After being fulfilled grandly in the first two high-speed oval rounds in 2017, the final course should be equally grand if not a bit better with championship considerations included.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Your Ultimate Verizon IndyCar Series Silly Season Guide

It always seems as if the landscape adjusts itself in the world of auto racing every single year and looking ahead to 2018, the Verizon IndyCar Series appears to be no different.

The bank opened during Mid-Ohio action last week when questions were raised about the future engine choice at Andretti Autosport. Team owner Michael Andretti admitted that talks between Chevrolet exist, but did not go further in detail. The situation at AA is iffy at best. While their relationship with Honda has netted them three Indianapolis 500 victories in the past four years, the four-car squad is low on funding. At this point, only two cars have secure sponsorships. DHL is paired with Ryan Hunter-Reay, while NAPA Auto Parts backs Alexander Rossi for a majority of the 17 events. Beyond that, support for the entries of Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato is sketchy.

While an infusion of money is always a plus in today’s cash happy state of the sport, there are consequences to such a move. While Marco Andretti and Hunter-Reay are secure for the foreseeable years ahead, the presence of Honda is part of the tie-in for both Sato and Rossi. If Chevy is the future course, one seat if not two suddenly become available.

Outside of Andretti, things elsewhere are also on the somewhat unstable ground. Here is a look at the potential scenarios.

 

TEAM PENSKE: Josef Newgarden (Probable), Simon Pagenaud (Probable), Will Power (Probable), Helio Castroneves (Indy 500 only, Probable), Juan Pablo Montoya (Indy 500 only, Probable)

No confirmations just yet on who will drive Penske’s IMSA program with Honda, but the pairing of Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya looks to be the ultimate climax at this point. With the Brazilian out of the picture, insider information suggests that the team will only enter three full-time entries for 2018, while still running five for the Indy 500, providing cars to both the Colombian and the popular veteran for as long as they wish.

 

CHIP GANASSI RACING: Scott Dixon (Probable), Max Chilton (Questionable), Charlie Kimball (Questionable), Tony Kanaan (Unlikely)

With NTT Data potentially scaling back its support for 2018, the severing of ties between Ganassi and Tony Kanaan may occur this off-season. Not only has the 2013 Indy 500 champion’s performance dropped off in 2017, but just managing to outpace Chilton and Kimball on a regular basis has also become a challenge.

With Dixon likely to continue, the question looms on the future for CGR’s third and fourth pilots. Chilton and his backing from Gallagher Investments have been linked to a potential new team under the direction of Trevor Carlin, with whom the Englishman drove for in the Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires circuit. With Novo Nordisk reportedly also peeling back a little on its support of Kimball, the American could join up with both Carlin and Chilton likewise.

If all these scenarios play out, Ganassi may scale back to three cars like his counterpart Penske likely will also. While options are few and far between at this point, keep in mind that Esteban Gutierrez is out there. The Mexican ex-Formula One chauffeur is bankrolled by Carlos Slim, whose Telcel brand sponsored Ganassi for several seasons in the former Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series. Could a possible rejoin be in play? Stay tuned.

 

ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT: Ryan Hunter-Reay (Probable), Marco Andretti (Probable), Alexander Rossi (Questionable), Takuma Sato (Questionable)

If the switch back to Chevrolet engines for 2018 is on, Takuma Sato is on the market looking ahead to the new season. Honda has provided backing to the reigning Indy 500 champion, dating back to his tenure in Formula One. The same story could also ring true for Alexander Rossi, who reportedly also enjoys some support from the manufacturer.

With both players out, Andretti could be forced to rely on financially backed drivers to fill the openings. Looking ahead to next year, only Ryan Hunter-Reay is fully sponsored via DHL. Marco Andretti has had a myriad of different names on his car in 2017, mainly forced by the collapse of original backer H-H Gregg.

Crazy rumors have hinted that the team might make a run at current McLaren F1 pilot Fernando Alonso for a full-time seat, but it would likely take a massive injection of money from GM to make that even within a breath of reality. Of course, no one expected the Spaniard to take a stab at this year’s Indy 500, so maybe, maybe not.

 

RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING: Graham Rahal (Probable), ?? (Possible)

Bobby Rahal and his son Graham have desired to expand to two cars full-time and ironically the Andretti engine change might allocate that opportunity. If Sato is out of luck, Honda will be quick to offer any of its other teams a shot at the Japanese veteran and RLLR might just step up. While Rahal personally has shown a preference for having Oriol Servia as a teammate, the addition of Taku to the fold offers more money in the till looking ahead for this operation.

 

SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS: James Hinchcliffe (Probable), Mikhail Aleshin (Unlikely)

With Hinch possibly in the mix for a possible ride with Ganassi or even a return to his former home at Andretti, Schmidt may be forced to play a waiting game looking ahead to 2018. Though if the Canadian stays put, then the focus shifts to the team’s second seat. Financial issues with backer SMP crept up on Mikhail Aleshin again in 2017, forcing him to miss the action at Toronto.

Assuming the Russian is not part of the plans for 2018, Arrow Electronics could be called upon to sponsor both entries. If that is in the cards, Indy Lights veteran Santiago Urrutia, who is also supported by Arrow, could become a target. As could Sato and/or Alexander Rossi with additional backing from Honda being added to the deal.

 

DALE COYNE RACING: Sebastien Bourdais (Probable), Ed Jones (Questionable)

With Bourdais back in the saddle testing a Coyne entry following the Mid-Ohio race weekend, all signs point to the Frenchman continuing on with the Chicago-based operation in 2018. The concern shifts to Jones, who’s had a decent rookie season with the team, but will be without the scholarship money he had in hand after the Indy Lights title in 2016. With his Dubai connections, however, money to cover the expenses might not be too hard to come by. Of course, it could be tough to match the financials that Carlos Slim-supported pilot Esteban Gutierrez could provide.

If Coyne reverts back to the ride goes to the highest bidder philosophy, he carried before this year, then Jones might be looking elsewhere for employment in 2018.

 

ED CARPENTER RACING: Ed Carpenter (Ovals Only, Probable), Spencer Pigot (Road Courses Only, Possible), J.R. Hildebrand (Probable)

It’s been a tough year for the Speedway, Indiana club, that is if you discount their performance on oval tracks. Driving duties are not expected to change for 2018 unless Pigot heads elsewhere looking for full-time service.

 

HARDING RACING: Gabby Chaves (Probable)

The Indianapolis-based newcomers are expected to join the full-time roster next season with Gabby Chaves at the controls. No other changes are expected, but the team could require more funding to make their dream a reality.

 

A.J. FOYT RACING: Carlos Munoz (Possible), Conor Daly (Possible)

2017 has been a frustrating season for both Munoz and Daly, who each were expected to provide a boost to Super Tex’s fortunes. With neither placing better than seventh in any event to date, the question of whether either driver stays is unknown. If anyone bolts, the most likely would be the Colombian who just missed out on an Indy 500 victory in 2016. With no other options in play, the Indiana resident may stick with Foyt as they fully relocate its operations to the Indianapolis area.

If Munoz leaves, Tony Kanaan could become a target if he is dropped by Ganassi.

 

JUNCOS RACING: ???

Ricardo Juncos’ Indy Lights operation moved up to IndyCar competition to field two cars at this year’s Indianapolis 500. The ultimate goal is to run full-time with at least one car next season. If Spencer Pigot is looking for a full-time ride in 2018, Juncos could be his lone opportunity. The American prospect drove for the squad in 2015, the same year he won the Indy Lights title. Juncos’ other Indy 500 pilot Sebastian Saavedra could also be sought here. 

Question now is  where will 2017 Indy Lights title contender Kyle Kaiser fits in? The young gun was a candidate for the Indy 500 seat as well until the team settled on Pigot and Saavedra. However, if Kaiser does win the Lights championship, the one million dollar advancement bonus that goes with it could shift momentum into his corner.

 

CARLIN RACING: ???

After backing out from possibly taking over the now defunct KV Racing team last year, Trevor Carlin is believed to be exploring entering the circuit on his own in 2018. The key cog here is Max Chilton and possibly a second driver with some money in hand.

 

DREYER & REINBOLD RACING: Sage Karam (Indy 500 Only, Possible)

Unless things are dramatically altered, expect Dennis Reinbold to field an Indy 500 entry, possibly for Sage Karam or another driver in 2018.

 

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar

Time Running Out For Honda Runners

While Team Penske has not dominated the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series as they did a year ago, things are starting to appear bleak for those in pursuit.

Despite being outclassed significantly on the high-speed ovals this season, the Captain’s quartet led by current championship leader Josef Newgarden, looks set to secure yet another No. 1 plate looking ahead to next season. The Tennessee-native has been stout in winning the last two events at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. However, any of his three teammates could jump in and snatch the crown from him.

For now, the biggest challenge could be from Helio Castroneves. Although the Brazilian has only one win in 2017 at Iowa Speedway, he has been the more consistent Firestone Fast Six qualifier among the super team. The incentives could also be higher for Castroneves, as rumors about a potential jump to a Honda-supported sports car program for 2018 continue to gain steam. It’s difficult to believe that since his debut in CART in 1998 and with his three Indianapolis 500 victories, the popular veteran has not won a series title.

Defending series champion Simon Pagenaud has offered a solid defense through 13 of 17 rounds, trading in many victories from 2016 for his trademark consistency. Amazingly, 2015 title holder Will Power is still in contention, despite six placements of 13th or worse in 2017. After an ugly open, the Australian has righted the ship placing fifth or better in six of the last seven. If Power can survive the two oval events at Pocono and St. Louis, his potential to secure a second title increases considerably on the two road courses to close out the campaign at Watkins Glen and Sonoma respectively. The latter of those two outings, of course, offering double points.

As witnessed above, the grip for Penske and Chevrolet is getting stronger; however, at the same time, Honda’s challenge since winning the Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato is slipping. Although some would view the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as a bigger prize than the national title, the pursuit of a single target as opposed to the full slate, could be a roadblock for Sato, Scott Dixon, and Graham Rahal’s hopes to claim the No. 1 for next year.

For the Japanese star, the next two events at Pocono and St. Louis have almost entered the must-win territory. Outside of the 500, Sato has only four other top-fives, plus seven runs of tenth or worse. If Honda Performance Development still holds the trump card on Chevrolet in the power department, it is time for Taku to play it.

The same scenario holds true for Dixon and Rahal. While Rahal has been one of the hottest drivers since Indy, finishing ninth or higher in the events since the Brickyard, the Ohioan is not yet in control of his destiny being 58 points out of first heading to the Pocono
500. Dixon, meanwhile, was regularly at the head of the standings for much of the year until his slip backwards began at Iowa. Since then, the Kiwi has placed eighth, tenth, and ninth since. Not overly disastrous, but costly considering Newgarden, Castroneves, and Pagenaud outran him in each of those same three races.

In summary, Pocono and St. Louis may be the last chance for a non-Penske pilot to take a significant stake in the hunt for the crown. Unless Honda’s big three can make a move, two of the three realities for the 2017 championship will be set in stone –  Roger Penske driver will win driving a Chevrolet. The only question then will be which one?

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Mid-Ohio

Indycar_Power_Rankings_logoThroughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

Josef Newgarden was moved up to number one following victory in the Honda Indy Toronto and closed out the month of July with an equally stout performance to win at Mid-Ohio. While the Tennessean is far from securing his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship, he appears to have the momentum in his corner as the circuit is off until the third weekend of August for the Pocono 500.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (Unchanged)

Four drivers in the top-seven places at Mid-Ohio, with all four in the first five of the championship standings. Not as dominant as the Captain’s reign of terror last year, but boy it is just as solid.

2. Andretti Autosport (+1)

A strong outing from Michael’s quartet in the Buckeye State. Three of the four pilots on the squad placed in the first ten, and with a high-speed oval next on the docket, the chances for a race win should increase.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing (-1)

It is time to drop CGR down the list. With Scott Dixon continuing to be mired in the back half of the top ten, his three teammates have not picked up the slack to merit a number two ranking. May not be able to justify a top-three spot if the trend continues in Pennsylvania.

4. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (+1)

Home-court advantage or not, Graham Rahal was in contention from the start on Sunday and was rewarded with a podium finish. Can manage a good result at Pocono, but may need the same attrition levels as seen at Texas to get there.

5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (-1)

There was nothing special from either James Hinchcliffe or Mikhail Aleshin at Mid-Ohio. If the team can revert to its 2016 oval track muscle at Pocono, they could be a contender. They at least have the stronger power plant to boast about.

6. Dale Coyne Racing (Unchanged)

Whether Coyne hustles Sebastien Bourdais back into action or not, the momentum gained to open the 2017 campaign is just a memory now. 18th or worse in the last three starts for Ed Jones and Esteban Gutierrez’s trial by fire continued at Mid-Ohio.

7. Ed Carpenter Racing (Unchanged)

The teeth pulling for ECR is momentarily on hiatus. J.R. Hildebrand and team boss Ed Carpenter are back on an oval. Speed is not an issue, but getting to the finish might be.

8. Harding Racing (Unchanged)

Gabby Chaves and company return to action at Pocono. So far the new entity has yet to suffer a significant adversity and will continue to play its cards close to the vest at the Tricky Triangle.

9. A.J. Foyt Racing (Unchanged)

If Conor Daly can build on his first legit top-ten of 2017 at Mid-Ohio, that might be enough to jump at least Harding Racing by season’s end. Not much positive to say about Carlos Munoz’s effort, however.

10. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (=)

Season’s over, but 2018 Indianapolis 500 could be promising if the team continues the same course with Sage Karam. The driver-squad pairing seems perfect for one-off outings.

Driver Rankings

1. Josef Newgarden (Unchanged)

Back-to-back wins and the points lead is now his, but not firmly. Considering Chevrolet is at a disadvantage on super speedways, Pocono could be the last major road block between the No. 2 Chevrolet and a possible title.

2. Simon Pagenaud (+2)

The Frenchman is not winning races, but he continues to compile high placings more often than not. Whether that’s enough to defend his title from a year ago successfully is now the major issue. 

3. Helio Castroneves (-1)

Seventh-place run at Mid-Ohio cost him the points lead, but his oval track savvy could jump back to the one or two maybe after Pocono.

4. Scott Dixon (-1)

The Iceman is still well within the range of his fifth championship; but, the last three races have been a fight to salvage decent results. It will be curious to see how he fares at Pocono, after suffering accidents in his last two showings on 200 miles per hour plus layouts.

5. Graham Rahal (+1)

Third-place at Mid-Ohio and now the Honda chauffeur seeks his second-straight win on a major oval. While he has done well in Texas, it has not translated to Indy or Pocono.

6. Will Power (+2)

We are continuing the give the former series champion the benefit of the doubt. Assuming luck is on his side, he is capable of earning high finishes on a consistent basis.

7. Alexander Rossi (-2)

Good run for Rossi at Mid-Ohio. Only drops down the list based on the efforts of both Rahal and Power  nothing more, nothing less.

8. Ryan Hunter-Reay (-1)

Have to like RHR’s chances at Pocono, assuming the engine blow-up that occurred at the Indy 500 avoids an encore in the Keystone State.

9. Takuma Sato (Unranked)

Top-five at Mid-Ohio is a plus, but that was preceded by a hollow period of three finishes of 16th or further down the list. Needs to finish the year off strong to be able to claim year a success, even with triumph at the Indy 500 included.

10. James Hinchcliffe (-1)

11th-place finish was a ho-hum outing for the Mayor. Despite only six top-ten efforts in 2017, the Canadian is still on the verge of his best points placing since 2013.

Dropped Out: Max Chilton (Was No. 10 after Toronto)

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Newgarden: The 2010s Version of Al Unser Jr.?

Josef Newgarden has officially entered territory that not many Team Penske Verizon IndyCar Series drivers of the past have reached.

Following his victory in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, his third of the season, he is threatening to become the first pilot to win a series championship in his debut year with the Captain, since the legendary Al Unser, Jr. did so in 1994.

“I don’t know what we were going to get this year,” said Newgarden to the IndyCar Radio Network after the race. “It makes me emotional thinking about it, it’s awesome getting to drive for this team, and three wins is amazing.”

With the Tennessee-native now holding the points lead for the first time in his career, it is not too early to look at the comparisons between two American pilots who eventually joined IndyCar’s super team after several years of adversity, triumph, and struggle.

The second-generation member of the Unser family had to wait until his 12th year on the circuit to earn a ride for Penske. Before that, the New Mexico veteran won 19 races, the 1990 CART Series championship, and the 1992 Indianapolis 500 before the phone call was made to Albuquerque.

For Newgarden, the trials and tribulations were just as brutal. Although he has five years of IndyCar experience under his belt, his career nearly came to a halt following the removal of the financial backing from former driver Sarah Fisher and her business partner Wink Hartman after the 2015 campaign, when the Chevrolet chauffeur collected his first two event wins. Picked up by Ed Carpenter Racing for 2016, the 2011 Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion finished a career-high fourth on the final table and quickly became the focus of Silly Season, as several top squads sought out new drivers.

Looking for a winning hand to replace two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya on his full-time roster, Roger Penske snapped up Newgarden soon after 2016 concluded and the rest is history.

If indeed Josef Newgarden can claim the series title after IndyCar’s final four rounds, a further look at comparing the achievements from now to 1994, will be tough. Although Little Al’s eight-win in 16 races performance in his inaugural with the Captain was outstanding, one could say Newgarden’s task to match it is a bit tougher.

For instance, in 1994, Penske was still running his own cars in CART, which were the dominant force that year, with the three-car unit of Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Paul Tracy winning all but four races. The record also includes a performance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that was aided by a Mercedes-Benz engine that blew the competition into the weeds. While Unser, Jr.’s career outputs have earned him a place in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, was the 1994 run better when compared to what Newgarden has amassed in 2017?

Unlike 23 years ago, the car that Newgarden drives is being utilized by every other driver on the IndyCar circuit. So while Little Al had an edge at the Brickyard, the Tennessean was at a disadvantage at this year’s Indy 500 and most of the other oval tracks, running a Chevrolet V-6 motor that appeared to be a step behind the rival Honda power plant.

Of course, not everyone will agree 100 percent either way, but one thing is clear. At just 26 years of age, Roger Penske has a driver who should be a race-winning threat for at least the next decade of North American open-wheel racing, if not longer. If that’s the case, not only the marks of Al Unser, Jr. will be comparable, but also the marks set by the other legends to pilot a Penske entry, the Rick Mears, Unsers, Fittipaldis, etcetera.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Fantasy Hot Tip: Mid-Ohio

Well, things did not go as planned at Toronto for yours truly.

Following Will Power’s first lap exit and a did not finish from Ed Jones, not even decent showings from Simon Pagenaud and Max Chilton were enough to save me from dropping in the standings. Now tenth on the table heading to the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, another bounce back is required to keep the chances for a high placing following the season finale at Sonoma in play.

With several drivers enjoying breakthroughs at Toronto that were not part of my team, the roster for Lexington, Ohio has been altered. Only the services of Chilton, who has fared well since his solid performance at the Indianapolis 500 is back from the Canadian experiment that went awry.

I have not completely abandoned Team Penske’s options. The fact that Helio Castroneves has yet to disappear from the championship chase is very appealing. While the Brazilian has not fared great the past three years in this event (15th or worse), he has reached the podium on three of his previous voyages in the Buckeye State.

Of course, the home court advantage factor comes into play here. Mid-Ohio is the Rahal family’s territory. The first generation Bobby Rahal has won here in multiple disciplines (sports cars, IROC, and IndyCar), while his son Graham took the checkered flag here in 2015. In addition to the victory lap, the son of the 1986 Indy 500 champion has placed no worse than fifth at Lexington since 2013.

With Rahal and Chilton’s inclusion giving me an extra room with the salary cap, I was able to use my final pick to grab Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. While the 2012 IndyCar Series champion has endured a painful 2017 year (he enters Mid-Ohio 13th on the points list), the Californian has only suffered two bad results at this venue in 11 starts. Outside of those, he has earned a top-ten or better, more than acceptable assuming the other members of my trio hold their own.

Before you select your team for Mid-Ohio, keep in mind how things have not followed the script so far in 2017. What may have worked in seasons past, may not be successful as odd as this campaign has played out to date.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY’S OUTLOOK: Schmidt’s Russia Experiment Over?

Things may be in alteration mode at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports looking towards the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

While the future of the popular Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe appears set, events last weekend before the Honda Indy Toronto have created question marks about who may drive the second entry next year.

Based on the success enjoyed in the second half of 2016, including a pole position and near victory at the Pocono 500, the future appeared to be a lock regarding the services of third-year Russian pilot Mikhail Aleshin. Things though, look to have changed as the 2017 campaign has rolled on.

After earning four top-six finishes last season, the 30-year old from Moscow has only one this year, coming in the first race at Detroit. Adding to that is concerns regarding sponsorship cropping up this past week. After finishing 21st at Iowa Speedway, Aleshin was replaced in the No. 7 SPM Honda for Toronto by Colombian Sebastian Saavedra.

Funding is believed to be the primary cause for the driver change. For the Russian, this is not the first time money has a red flag concerning main backer SMP. Problems related to the supporter prevented Aleshin from competing in the 2015 season, up until the season finale at Sonoma, California. So the question in this edition of Embury’s Outlook is now where does team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson proceed from here?

Assuming the funding malady can be cured, the team could elect to continue with Aleshin, yet performance numbers indicate an increasingly downward trend since his rookie effort in 2014. In year one, the Moscow-native earned seven top-tens. Following his absence in 2015, that number slipped to only four such placements in 2016, and is down again to only three in 11 appearances this season.

If the down arrow is too much of a deterrent, there are other options such as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires regular Santiago Urrutia. Reportedly, the current Belardi Racing driver was considered by SPM for a possible third entry for 2017; however, the deal never came about. The 20-year old competed for SPM’s former Indy Lights operation in 2016, winning four races and finishing second in the final championship standings. While the Uruguayan has failed to win an event this season, he has earned four runner-up efforts to date. Also in his corner, the ex-GP3 pilot is backed by Arrow Electronics, who sponsor Hinchcliffe in IndyCar.

Another possible is Saavedra, who has bounced around several different teams since making his IndyCar debut in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. While the Colombian came home with an 11th-place effort last Sunday in Toronto, the veteran has only amassed four top-tens in 60 starts, a resume plagued by DNFs.

Several other relatively new prospects in IndyCar mentioned last week in Embury’s Outlook, including Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones, could also be in the mix if indeed Aleshin does not return. No matter the direction SPM goes in, the team needs to change its fortunes. Despite winning earlier this year at Long Beach, Hinchcliffe ranks tenth on the current points table, while Aleshin was in 16th before Toronto.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.