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Commentary Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Honda Indy Toronto

Another week, another triumph. After placing sixth in my Firestone Fantasy Challenge League for the Iowa Corn 300, I am trending a little differently this week for Toronto.

While the target of winning is still well within reach, I have for once parted ways with my main cog for most this season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Although he still leads the championship points table, I have not selected Scott Dixon this week.

Sure, the Kiwi swept both legs of the Honda Indy Toronto when it was a doubleheader event in 2013; however, he has fared no better than eighth in his last two efforts. Considering he is one of the most expensive options for a driver selection, that kind of finish does not merit the cost.

Last year, Team Penske’s Will Power crossed the finish line first, and despite more hit or miss results from the Australian in 2017, the veteran has regained attention following a recent string of four runs of seventh or better. A second member of the Captain’s quartet is featured in my foursome as Simon Pagenaud joins the party for the first time since the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Toronto is not the best track for the Frenchman, yet if Penske continues its trend of Firestone Fast Six domination, the move may work out in the grand scheme of things. Helio Castroneves, who won this past weekend and placed second behind Power last year, would have also made sense, but like Dixon, the price was not right in this case.

With the cream of the crop in IndyCar in the top half, the bottom half sees a couple of new faces. Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones joins the fleet for the second time this season, while Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton makes his debut for me.

Jones has scored a pair top-tens in his last three road course outings, better than most pilots available with his price tag, while his Englishman counterpart has two top-tens in the past four battles of twist and turn-type racing. For now, I have pushed aside the services of Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot who has placed no better than eighth in any output in 2017, a number bested by both the Dubai rookie and the ex-Formula One regular.

While a consistent lineup seems to net the greatest amount of success in fantasy sports gaming based on experience, let’s see if this new squad can net a similar amount of points to what I have amassed in the past two rounds.

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: Penske Is Looking Toward The Future, Now.

There is a reason that Helio Castroneves may be leaving the full-time Verizon IndyCar Series fleet after this season.

It is not due to diminished skills, the Brazilian’s triumph Sunday at the Iowa Corn 300 and his high placing on the current championship points table disposes of that theory. Yours truly thinks this is a move to bolster not only a new entity (IMSA sports car team), but also maintain a solid foundation on the other (IndyCar).

Team Penske’s return to the prototype ranks for the first time in nine years with Acura and ORECA has the chance to show the same muscle flexed during a three-year run with Porsche from 2006 to 2008. Recall that span resulted in class titles and an overall win at the 12 Hours of Sebring in its final season.

The squad has one solid cog in the form of Juan Pablo Montoya, who in addition to winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, has done likewise at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Having already spent three years as a teammate to Castroneves, this increases the chances of a successful pairing in IMSA.

So what about the IndyCar operation? If Penske decreases its full season entry to just three cars, the organization enters 2018 still as a favorite. Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden are all well within their prime years and should continue to contend for wins and a series crown next season. However, if the team remains at a quartet of participants, there is a bigger reason why the Captain may be making a move now.

For comparison purposes for those familiar with the NFL, Roger Penske’s philosophy is very similar to that of former San Francisco 49ers head coach and general manager Bill Walsh. Walsh was not a guy that looked at the current scenario to influence his transactions. The Super Bowl-winning manager always glanced two to three years down the road, and that’s what I feel the Captain is doing with the future of his IndyCar team.

At this time, there are a couple of notable IndyCar prospects who could become hot property during the upcoming silly season, based first on the situation involving Castroneves at Penske, but also the future of Tony Kanaan at Chip Ganassi Racing. TK, like Helio, is on the other side of 40, and his ability and desire to continue another season is a question mark. If both Brazilians are out of full-time service, the timing of the Penske to IMSA announcement could give the Captain and Tim Cindric the first choice of a replacement.

The two big fish to snap up appear to be in the back half of the grid. One is Carlos Munoz, who has suffered through a horrendous year at A.J. Foyt Racing. Of course, the Colombian had success at Andretti Autosport, keeping his value high. The other target could be Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones, the likely winner of the 2017 Rookie of the Year award. The Dubai-based pilot finished third at this year’s Indianapolis 500, but has had a bit of a trial by fire period as the team leader following the month of May accident to teammate Sebastien Bourdais. Joining a bigger group could ease the pressure on the former Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion.

While replacing Castroneves may not be a favorable move in the short term, it could allow Penske to continue to dominate the IndyCar circuit for many years to come.

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: Road America

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.

Whether Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America represented a shift in favor of the bigger, betterfunded organizations or not, one thing is for certain. Outside of two bad finishes on high-speed ovals, Scott Dixon has been the rabbit of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season to date. It is also apparent that our continued disrespect of Simon Pagenaud must end immediately. While the rankings committee has looked more at the end game scenarios, the Frenchman seems to be reverting to the form that bagged him the title in 2016.

Things are going smoothly for the above two options, but the same cannot be said for Will Power. There is no question that in a perfect world, the Australian is the best of the bunch on any road course one could face. The problem in 2017 is consistency. Team Penske swept the first two rows in qualifying; but in race trim, he suddenly found himself behind his three teammates.

So while the team rankings stay mostly untouched, the drivers top ten has seen some movement.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (Unchanged)

The Captain’s quartet did not grab the brass ring in Wisconsin, however placing four in the top-five is nothing to sneeze about. As noted earlier, Power’s hit or miss practices in 2017 is a head scratcher. If anything, Josef Newgarden should be the one doing that being in his first year with Penske, not the Aussie. As for Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, we are starting to get an idea that their title challenges are legit after all.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (Unchanged)

Difficult to fathom that Dixon was minus a victory before Sunday, yet his consistency put him on top of the points table. One has to be getting nervous that the Kiwi now is adding P1s to his long line of top-fives. The Iceman was not alone though in the laurels of success. Charlie Kimball enjoyed his best effort of 2017 with a sixth-place finish, while Indy 500 top lap leader Max Chilton scored a ninth.

3. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (+1)

Yes, one is the loneliest number – unless you are referring to RLLR and Graham Rahal. For the third straight year, the No. 15 Steak N’ Shake Honda is shaming most of the giant fish in the IndyCar pond and once again is joining the conversation for another top-five result at season’s end.

4. Andretti Autosport (-1)

The weekend started bad and ended worse. Marco Andretti was unable to make the most of a good grid position and placed 18th. Contact with Tony Kanaan may have hampered Alexander Rossi’s 13th-place effort, while Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato were mired in the bottom half of the order throughout the proceedings. They are no longer a 1-A to Ganassi’s number official number one placement in the Honda camp. Thanks to RLLR they may not be the second in the queue either.

5. Dale Coyne Racing (+1)

If Road America form continues onward to Iowa and beyond, Ed Jones looks set to lead DCR back into the victory conversation started by Sebastien Bourdais at St. Petersburg. While winning one of the remaining events is not a lock, it would be far from a shocker for more or less the 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Year.

6. Schmidt Peterson Motorsport (-1)

A top-ten finish for Mikhail Aleshin was well earned considering the Russian suffered from a lack of track time due to a visa snafu. James Hinchcliffe meanwhile, has undergone a complete reversal of fortune. After opening 2017 with three straight top-tens, the Canadian has just one of those placements since. With Honda starting to close in on trumping Chevrolet, Schmidt Peterson appears to have missed the depart time and has been left at the gate so far.

7. Harding Racing (Unchanged)

Inactive until Pocono, yet nothing from Carpenter or Foyt merits dropping them down the list.

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

Carlos Munoz deserved better than an eleventh-place output at Road America, but that pretty much explains the lack of competitive drive shown from this team and its pilots. 2018 cannot come soon enough.

9. Ed Carpenter Racing (-1)

Road course ace Spencer Pigot could not save the sinking ship and after multiple issues on Sunday, settling for 12th. Once again, J.R. Hildebrand made zero impact and came home 18th. If Iowa does not provide comfort, painful outcomes seem stuck to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s home team for the remainder of 2017.

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. Scott Dixon (+1)

People of New Zealand, we sincerely apologize. If there were any questions about the Kiwi’s ability to maintain his solid pace, those worries were silenced on Sunday. On to Iowa.

2. Josef Newgarden (+1)

Right now the pronunciation should be NEW-GUARD. The Tennessee-native has fit in well with Team Penske and appears capable of challenging for a championship in year one, much like Al Unser, Jr. did with success in 1994. Another Iowa tour de force will make his effort official.

3. Simon Pagenaud (+3)

We continued to doubt the staying power of the reigning IndyCar king and the Frenchman has continued to admonish us for doing so. Second in points and deservedly so.

4. Helio Castroneves (Unchanged)

The Brazilian squandered yet another front row start and settled for third at the checkered flag. While the results continue to keep him in the conversation, SpiderMan must find a way to end a 53-race losing skid.

5. Will Power (-4)

Well, our crystal ball premonition did not mean all that much. A fifth-place result is alright, but iffy when all his Penske counterparts finished ahead of him. Iowa on paper is not the place for a bounce back.

6. Graham Rahal (+1)

The Ohioan proves that a single-car team can still prosper, even when this same performer questioned whether that was still possible earlier this season. Four top-tens in a row headed to Corn City.

7. Takuma Sato (-2)

Just when the Japanese hero looked set to be a mainstay at the front of the IndyCar lineup, along came Elkhart Lake. The Kohler Grand Prix was a complete clunker for Sato, who never made a positive impact in qualifying or the race. Skeptics are returning to this conversation.

8. Alexander Rossi (Unchanged)

Unlike his Andretti compatriots, Rossi showed promise until his meeting with Tony Kanaan. While TK found the fence, the 2016 Indy 500 champion must have damaged his car as he faded outside the top ten in the final laps. Only a sub-par bottom half of the rankings keeps him in the top ten this week.

9. Ed Jones (Unranked)

The on the list, off the list syndrome for the Dubai-based entrant would come to a head if more consistency were present. Just a friendly suggestion while looking ahead to Iowa Speedway.

10. Max Chilton (Unranked)

We have a new customer! While the ex-Formula One racer has not set the IndyCar world on fire in 2017, he does have four top-tens in the past seven races. That’s something most in the full-time fleet cannot claim.

Dropped Out: Tony Kanaan (Was No. 9 after Texas), James Hinchcliffe (Was No. 10 after Texas)

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

Jones, Rahal Manage Top-Tens At Road America

While the two biggest teams controlled the roost during Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America, a couple of the smaller squads did steal some of the thunder.

A group that has overcome the underdog tag for decades has been the Chicago-based Dale Coyne Racing group. Honoring former Chicago Bears running back the late Walter Payton on Sunday, the team’s lead entry with Dubai’s Ed Jones at the controls improved four places from the green flag to finish seventh.

In addition to his exploits on the football field, Payton was a part of auto racing, spending several years as a driver in the rough and tumble SCCA Trans-Am Series. Also from 1994 to his passing in 1999, he was a co-owner of the Coyne Racing team.

As for Jones, Sunday’s output is the highest placing for the Verizon IndyCar Series rookie, since he placed third at the 101st Indianapolis 500 last month. In both the event at the Brickyard and on Sunday, Jones advanced from the 11th starting position. The result is also the former Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion’s third top-ten finish since his teammate Sebastien Bourdais was injured in a qualifying crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month.

According to the newcomer, today’s race was far from a joyride.

“It was a really tough race, the car was really loose,” said Jones. “I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops, and we were able to move up.”

Another team/driver duo that has taken on that tag with much success over the past three seasons has been the D-A Lubricants Honda team for Ohio’s Graham Rahal. Although teams such as Andretti Autosport have the most potential among the Honda-powered rides on paper, it has been Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing who have produced the strongest outputs.

With Andretti’s quartet non-existent in the first twelve places on Sunday, it was the popular No. 15 Honda chauffeur who made an appearance in the top half of the order in eighth-place at the checkered flag.

“Eighth is about as good as we could do today,” admitted Rahal. “We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem.”

After making it into the Firestone Fast Six shootout in qualifying on Saturday, Rahal slid backwards at the start after being penalized for blocking by IndyCar officials. Falling back to 13th in the initial fuel stint, the Ohioan upped his pace in the remaining phases of the 55-lap event to capture his sixth top-ten result of 2017, including a two-race sweep of the Detroit event weekend.

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: Texas

This week’s Firestone Fantasy Challenge battle plan takes us back to the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Many of the key pieces to the puzzle are back for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 this Saturday night. Despite going airborne in an accident, not of his own doing, Scott Dixon returns as the main cog this weekend. Although the Kiwi faded back to eighth after starting from pole position, the effort posted by teammate Max Chilton showed what could have happened had Dixon been in play at the finish.

The same view can be taken for Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi. Both were fixing to get in the mix during the final 50 laps at the Brickyard, only to each hit trouble. Hunter-Reay was the first domino to fall, suffering the first of three engine failures suffered by Honda pilots on May 28th. Rossi was much more of a threat based on pace as opposed to strategy when he won in 2016. One poor pit stop, however, ruined any hopes of a repeat win, despite a desperate charge to salvage a top-ten output.

While the numbers favor a Honda-powered winner on Saturday night, some Chevrolet drivers still merit a selection. One that stands out is Ed Carpenter, a former winner at Texas Motor Speedway. The Speedway, Indiana-native must show more consistency and aggression if he is to repeat his 2014 triumph.

Among other solid picks, Graham Rahal makes sense. The winner of both legs of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix took the checkered flag first last year in Fort Worth. Of course, Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato is also a natural selection, along with runner-up Helio Castroneves who won at Texas in 2013.

Three more risky draftees are Ed Jones, Max Chilton, and Gabby Chaves. Jones placed third at Indianapolis, a result that could have been higher if not for the Dubai-resident running with a broken front nosecone during the final stint. Chilton led more laps than anyone at the Brickyard, but needed an off-sequence pit strategy to get into the picture. Chaves managed to claim a ninth-place effort for the brand new Harding Racing organization last month, and if attrition influences things on Saturday, the Colombian could pick up the pieces.

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: Indianapolis 500

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.

Takuma Sato just won the Indianapolis 500, and with double points handed out, he is now second in the Verizon IndyCar Series points table heading to Detroit this weekend.

Of course, Helio Castroneves also made progress with another near-miss and now leads the championship. But remember, neither driver has been that impressive outside of the Brickyard. So yours truly has them in the driver rankings list this week, yet they have a lot more to prove before moving up.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (No Change)

Top-six runs from both Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya were enough to see them stay atop the big board, however not in the dominant form garnered after the IndyCar Grand Prix. They are vulnerable following a lackluster Indy 500 qualifying and race output – that is until you look at the calendar. Yeah, two road courses in one sitting, who knew?

2. Andretti Autosport (+1)

Taku stole the trophy and the kisses, yet four of his cohorts at Andretti were in the hunt for a good portion of the big dance Sunday. Blown motors knocked Ryan Hunter-Reay and Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Fernando Alonso out of the picture, while miscues erased Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti’s hopes. Another blockbuster performance in Motown and hello number one.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing (-1)

Everything went haywire for Scott Dixon following his pole day romp, ending with a flight into the catch fence on Sunday. Another top-five for Tony Kanaan was alright, but give credit to Max Chilton who has strung together the two best showings of his IndyCar career to date. One or two more bank deposits in first ten land and there is a place in the driver’s poll with the Englishman’s name on it. Too bad teammate Charlie Kimball’s engine did not last the distance. His DNF ended a three-race tenth or better streak at IMS.

4. Ed Carpenter Racing (+1)

Late errors ruined solid outings from both Ed Carpenter and J.R. Hildebrand on Sunday, but qualifying efforts from previous weekend merit jumping one spot forward. Will benefit from the return of Spencer Pigot heading to Belle Isle.

5. Dale Coyne Racing (+2)

Sebastien Bourdais’ qualifying crash may have further motivated the “Windy City Warriors” to achieve a result. Ed Jones had an outstanding showing to salvage third-place, while James Davison charged from last on the grid to contention before a collision with Oriol Servia extinguished the chance for an upset.

6. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (+1)

Oriol Servia looked like a victory threat late, but never had the true pace required to get there. Multiple issues denied a realistic shot to win for Graham Rahal likewise. Both parties though get a redemption shot this week in Michigan.

7. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (-3)

How SPM did not feature upfront as several other Honda-powered squads did in the Indy 500 is puzzling. Late pileup aside, James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin were in also-ran category in both time trials and the race itself. Rankings judge is not happy either.

8. Harding Racing (Unranked)

New entity kept goals within range, stayed out of trouble, and managed to score a brilliant ninth-place at the Brickyard, via Colombian chauffeur Gabby Chaves. The team hopes to run again in 2017 and they have proven an excellent addition to the IndyCar club.

9. A.J. Foyt Racing (-1)

Drop in car potential made Carlos Munoz a non-factor throughout the month, while an over-zealous move by Conor Daly ended his Indy 500 earlier than planned. The hope for a turnaround has yet to manifest and may remain dormant for the rest of 2017.

10. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (-1)

Sage Karam could not capitalize on his impressive qualifying performance in the main course Sunday.  Electrical problems even before the start of the race derailed his efforts, eventually forcing retirement before the three-quarter mark.

Dropped Out: Juncos Racing (was No. 10 after IndyCar Grand Prix)

Driver Rankings:

1. Scott Dixon (No Change)

Low-downforce plan of attack may have doomed the Kiwi and placed him in the position to suffer his wild ride. Stays number one as several of his fellow road course aces stumbled home on Sunday.

2. Helio Castroneves (+3)

Spider-Man fell short yet again in his quest for win number four, but can he ride the momentum wave into Detroit? If so, add him to the title contenders list alongside his three teammates.

3. Will Power (-1)

Team Penske speedster was making the most of a tough month and could have snagged a top-10 if not for getting swallowed up in late race mash-up in turn two. Opportunity knocks though this weekend in Detroit.

4. Simon Pagenaud (-1)

Great run in the IndyCar Grand Prix, followed by a clunker in the Indy 500. Immediate reversal is the expectation in the Wolverine State.

5. Ryan Hunter-Reay (+3)

RHR had another taste of the misfortune soup on Sunday, as an engine detonation ended his shot at his second facial appearance on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Despite this, he is still making progress upwards on the list.

6. Josef Newgarden (-2)

It was a rough first month of May with Team Penske for the Tennessee-native. Efforts in Motown will indicate his realistic or mirage-like outlook toward a title run.

7. Tony Kanaan (+3)

The first fuel run Sunday was the peak of TK’s 2017 Indy 500. A fifth-place was solid, but had to be a disappointment, considering the day lesser-experienced teammate Max Chilton enjoyed.

8. Alexander Rossi (+1)

Was an Indy 500 contender due to pace as opposed to strategy in last year’s improbable victory. Fueling gaffe prevented a more serious effort to defend his crown.

9. Takuma Sato (Unranked)

Recovered successfully from early adversity to score an incredible victory on Sunday, avenging painful defeat in 2012. Now can he revert his road course form back to the season-opener in St. Petersburg? If so, his stay on this tote board could be an extended one.

10. Ed Jones (Unranked)

Third-place finish earned even after suffering damage on two occasions Sunday, the latter possibly preventing a real shot at getting involved in Sato and Castroneves’ final duel. Curious to see how he fares being DCR’s new number one pilot, following Sebastien Bourdais’ devastating qualifying crash.

Dropped Out: Sebastien Bourdais (Was No. 6 after IndyCar GP), James Hinchcliffe (Was No. 7 after IndyCar GP).

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

EMBURY: Career Days For Chilton, Jones In 101st Indianapolis 500

Every so often the Indianapolis 500 produces a day to remember for one or more drivers who have yet to make an impact on the Verizon IndyCar Series trail.

In a race marred by ten caution flags and only 19 cars running at the conclusion, Dale Coyne Racing newcomer Ed Jones and Chip Ganassi sophomore Max Chilton were each within range at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of putting on the winner’s wreath and taking a sip of milk.

Jones’ Sunday output at the Brickyard was the continuation of a brilliant IndyCar Series debut year after earning a full-time ride following a championship-clinching effort in the Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires series a year ago. The Dubai-based pilot overcame early adversity to secure a third-place finish.

“It was a great race for us,” said Jones following the checkered flag. “The race was so up and down for us. Solid start. We were running in the top 10, 11, for most of the first half.”

Then came the potential roadblock. While trying to avoid Scott Dixon and Jay Howard’s massive accident on Lap 52, the Boy Scouts of America Honda pilot suffered damage, forcing his pit crew to replace the entire rear-wing assembly. Seemingly out of contention entering the second phase of the event, the DCR team used a clever strategy call to flip the order in their favor.

“We actually pitted right before (the eighth caution flag), so it put us near the front,” explained Jones. “I actually damaged my front wing (in the latter stages), had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. Also created a lot of drag.”

The one thing that saved the effort despite the new personal demon was the Honda power behind him. Even with fellow runners suffering from reliability woes late on Sunday, the rookie was able to avoid the same maladies to secure the podium performance. The result represents the third top-ten in 2017 for Jones, vaulting him to ninth on the current IndyCar points table.

For Chilton, he took on the role of potential winner at CGR that before the battle began seem destined for his Indy 500-winning teammates Dixon and Tony Kanaan. With the Iceman wrecked and TK unable to take the lead at any point during the 200 laps, a similar plan B tact taken by his former Indy Lights co-pilot at Carlin Racing. The decision suddenly propelled the second-year Indy starter into the conversation.

Taking advantage of the same caution flag that Jones utilized, the Gallagher Investments Honda chauffeur turned an improbable 40-lap fuel stint; into a pathway to the finish without a late-race splash for gas.

Thrust into the number one position for the next 30 laps, Chiton’s stay on top of the scoring pylon finally came to a halt, just seven laps from the end when three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves overtook him. Losing out also to eventual race winner Takuma Sato and Jones, the ex-Midland F1 team member settled for fourth at the conclusion.

“You don’t win this race without luck,” admitted Chilton. “I led (several) laps today, once my car was in front I was so unstoppable. But you don’t want to be leading with five or six laps to go because they can draft past (as Castroneves) did.”

The outcome is the best outing in 22 efforts for the 26-year old, improving on a seventh-place score earlier this month in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

While most spectators may forget their achievements on this day, the showings by both Jones and Chilton prove the Indianapolis 500 has a become a race capable of putting an unknown name into the spotlight.

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: Indianapolis 500

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is primed for its cornerstone event the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented By PennGrade Motor Oil, the Firestone Fantasy Challenge has gone super-sized.

The race budget has jumped from the standard one hundred dollars to five hundred bucks and instead of drafting only four drivers, one must take a colossal ten for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

While going for the superstar caliber pilots would make the most sense, the values for all drivers has increased likewise. For example, Verizon P1 Award winner Scott Dixon costs 75 dollars to play, while Buddy Lazier is among the least expensive options at only twenty bucks. Looking ahead to how Sunday’s race could play out, the 2015 edition is primarily influencing my selection pattern. On that afternoon, Chevrolet-powered cars had the advantage, and the Hondas failed to get among them. My gut tells me the 2017 running at the Brickyard will see a complete reversal of fortune.

To the above concern, I have totaled ignored the five bow-tie backed cars from Team Penske. I know Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden each have impressive resumes at Indy. However, driving ability is negated if the car beneath one is not at an equal level. So far this month of May, the Captain’s vehicles have not been up to snuff.

Now I have not entirely abandoned the GM camp. Three chefs-de-race were worth drafting against the seven Honda chauffeurs yours truly completed his ten-man squad with. Two come from perhaps the strongest team in the 15-car Chevy roster: Ed Carpenter Racing. The team boss may draw the biggest cheers from the 250,000 strong crowd, and that may motivate a result out of the 36-year old hometown hero. Equally strong is his secondin-command J.R. Hildebrand. The Californian had a great effort at Phoenix last month and has hovered around the top-ten often at IMS. With Chevrolet possibly at a power shortage on the long straightaways, it may take bravery to mix it with the Hondas. One guy that meets that qualification is ex-high school wrestler Sage Karam. The Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has a reputation of overly reckless steering, but such a tactic could be a requirement.

Now onto the meat in my foot-long sandwich. I feel are three drivers who are the favorites entering race day. One is the Iceman mentioned above in Scott Dixon, the second is his partner-in-crime Tony Kanaan, and the third is the rabbit in last year’s event Ryan Hunter-Reay. With all three car-wranglers in the first four rows, none should have any issues getting to the point early. Using the same throw caution to the wind tag mentioned above with Karam, I am taking a chance on Takuma Sato. The Japanese driver has had trouble making the finish; however, he could be more willing to hold his fire with a stronger car and a better grid position.

A big pickup in time trials Sunday encouraged me to snap up Oriol Servia, a solid veteran who placed fourth in 2012. Spots nine and ten will be taken by two impressive rookies. Defending Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion Ed Jones takes one, while the aura of former World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso takes the final place. The Spaniard is having the kind of month that Nigel Mansell had in 1993 when he came within 15 laps of winning. He and his McLaren-Andretti Honda team have exceeded all expectations this month and should continue the trend to the point where a place on the train has my name on it.

Indeed one super team is missing in action, however as witnessed by my roster, two megagroups will fill the vacancy without issue.

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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.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Phoenix

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Throughout 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.

Is Simon Pagenaud returning to his role as the rabbit of the Verizon IndyCar Series? Following his first win of 2017 at Phoenix, the Frenchman is headed toward recasting a sequel. However, coming into the fourth round sixth in the driver rankings, it is impossible to move all the way to the top.

Looking ahead to the 101st Indianapolis 500, POPULAR SPEED has extended our IndyCar team rankings to reflect those who will make their lone appearance at the Brickyard.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (No Change)

Phoenix showed the remainder of the IndyCar grid what a five-car Team Penske could do when the transporters reach Gasoline Alley. Pagenaud won at Phoenix and any of his four teammates, including two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, are capable of adding their face to the Borg-Warner Trophy on May 28th.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (+1)

Honda’s failure to figure out Phoenix derailed Ganassi’s performance in Arizona; however, if the pace the Japanese manufacturer showed last year at Indy can be replicated, good finishes from Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and Charlie Kimball are possible. It is probably too early to add Max Chilton as a serious challenger though.

3. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1)

12th was the best SPM could manage from James Hinchcliffe; but, Mikhail Aleshin’s elimination on the lap puts a question mark on the table. It is tough to move them ahead of DCR based on last weekend, but on potential looking ahead to Indy, Schmidt in the words of former Price is Right host Bob Barker, “is the bigger bargain.”

4. Dale Coyne Racing (-1)

Craig Hampson was right – DCR is not a serious contender on the ovals. Sebastien Bourdais was another victim of the lap one pileup but struggled for pace in practice. Ed Jones also failed to feature, managing an 11th-place finish based on attrition. Not the news Indy 500-only pilot Pippa Mann was hoping to hear.

5. Andretti Autosport (No Change)

Another quadruple retirement for Andretti at Phoenix. The good news is with six cars track side at IMS at least one car should make the finish in the 500. How the rest of the six-pack handles the attention that Fernando Alonso is guaranteed to get this month will guide them to their climax.

6. Ed Carpenter Racing (+1)

Ed Carpenter never made the impact that was hoped for at Phoenix, although J.R. Hildebrand certainly did. A solid qualifying run, coupled with a clean showing in the race netted a third-place finish for the Californian. While it is premature to tag the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Chevrolet as an Indy 500 favorite, the car and its occupant should not be overlooked.

7. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (-1)

Confidence is dropping fast at RLLR, and Graham Rahal is not hiding that things look bleak. A good Indy 500 finish may depend on Oriol Servia at this point.

8. A.J. Foyt Racing (No Change)

The offseason signings Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly continue to be mired among the rear guard. The addition of Zach Veach at the Indy 500 should help, but just when Foyt could not fall any further down the list, here comes the Indy-only invaders.

9. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Unranked)

The combination of DRR and Sage Karam can cut it against the big boys. 31st to ninth in 2014 and a brief surge into the top-ten last year justifies their placement as the group most likely to rattle the full-timers club this month.

10. Harding Racing (Unranked)

Team boss Larry Curry is the perfect choice to lead a new operation, and you cannot do much better than hiring Gabby Chaves as the wheelman. Alliance with DRR means perhaps an equal level of performance.

Driver Rankings:

1. Scott Dixon (+1)

Four top-fives in four starts to open 2017. No doubt about it, the Iceman appears ready to challenge for a second Indianapolis 500 win.

2. Josef Newgarden (+1)

The Tennessee-native was not the best of the Penske bunch at Phoenix, but he should be effective when he sets foot at the corner of 16th and Georgetown in one week from now.

3. Sebastien Bourdais (-2)

Perhaps Dale Coyne Racing can salvage their month of May with a big push in the IndyCar Grand Prix. Once the scenery moves back to the 2.5-mile oval, the odds are not in the Frenchman’s favor.

4. Will Power (+1)

Power finally reached the finish of an 2017 IndyCar race without issue. A second-place finish behind Pagenaud was well earned and should make the Aussie a challenger in both May events.

5. Simon Pagenaud (+1)

Even without the yellow flag, Pagenaud was looming as a potential winner. Although a third IndyCar GP win in four tries is signficant; the 2016 IndyCar champion has made it clear that the Indy 500 is the one he wants the most.

6. James Hinchcliffe (-2)

Last year’s Indy 500 pole winner should bounce back to play a role in the drama on May 28; however, based on his Long Beach victory, his best shot at Brickyard glory could be in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

7. Helio Castroneves (+1)

Castroneves has been more effective in qualifying than on race day. The pressure to make history as a four-time Indy 500 champion exists, but expect the Brazilian to dig deep in his quest to get there.

8. Tony Kanaan (Unranked)

A quiet sixth-place last week sets the stage for TK’s best chances for victory this season. If Honda regains its muscle from 2016, watch out.

9. Alexander Rossi (-1)

Rossi and his Andretti teammates floundered at Phoenix, leaving their month of May prospects in doubt. Probably faces a higher mountain than any defending Indy 500 champion in history.

10. J.R. Hildebrand (Unranked)

Indy’s hard luck hero added his name to the contenders’ list with a podium finish at Phoenix. He was in the mix late in last year’s Indy 500 until he made contact with Helio Castroneves.

Dropped Out: Ryan Hunter-Reay (9th last week), Spencer Pigot (10th last week)

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.

Categories
Commentary Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Alabama

The Firestone IndyCar Fantasy Challenge for round two at Long Beach was not a memorable for yours truly.

While Sebastien Bourdais earned the Verizon IndyCar Series’ points lead with a solid second-place finish, elsewhere things were far from perfect. As was the case at St. Petersburg as Team Penske’s Will Power struggled, creating a path to where he stood midway through 2016. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot provided decent support with a top-ten effort; however, Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato failed to factor and was out of contention from the start.

With the shortcomings at Long Beach, I have had to go counterattack mode for Barber Motorsports Park. My only returnee from Long Beach is Bourdais, who has exceeded all predictions before the 2017 IndyCar season began. As predicted, his value has increased forcing a change in strategy.

Although Will Power is always capable of a strong outing on a road course, the lack of pace from Chevrolet is cause for concern. So in his place for round three is another Honda driver: Ryan Hunter-Reay. Yes, RHR was part of the Andretti Autosport meltdown at Long Beach. Before the mechanical problems, however, he was in position to challenge for a top-three finish. The target for fantasy games is to look for drivers with upside. For now RHR shows signs of it while Power does not.

I admit guilt in believing that Takuma Sato had somehow been tamed by Andretti Autosport after opening with a top-five at St. Pete. Unfortunately, a return to a hit or miss habit that has prevented him from reaching his potential showed itself at Long Beach. While the Japanese veteran disappointed, one driver that has returned to his former race contending form is James Hinchcliffe. If not for a questionable caution flag in round one, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver could be two for two entering Alabama. What looked to be more of a feelgood story when he won the 100th Indianapolis 500 pole appears to have some staying power and is enough to reel me in for now.

As for Spencer Pigot, it is not that he has done anything wrong in 2017. A freak suspension failure ended his day at St. Pete and Long Beach showed what is possible if he makes the finish. Of course, there is another pilot who has a little more successful track record.  Like his teammate at Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Jones has been a pleasant surprise among the top finishers in 2017, posting back-to-back top-tens. With the reigning Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion achieving success, it backs up improvement by the Chicago-based team is legit.

While yours truly is likely to revamp the roster again when IndyCar confronts its first oval race of 2017, the quartet of Hunter-Reay, Bourdais, Hinchcliffe, and Jones should produce a solid output this weekend.

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.