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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

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

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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IndyCar Open Wheel

Honda Indy Toronto Notes: Saavedra Learning; RHR and Rahal Search for More

TORONTO, Ontario — While Team Penske continues to show speed this season, sweeping all three Honda Indy Toronto practices, their competitors are battling hard and trying to figure out the rough bumps of the street course.

Following the three sessions of practice, here are some storylines to keep an eye on leading into the event.

Saavedra The Substitute

Mikhail Aleshin, who typically drives the No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry, is instead on the sidelines this week watching as the Honda-team made a driver switch just before the event, stating “no further comment” on the situation.

Sebastian Saavedra will be behind the wheel, reuniting with race engineer Blair Perschbacher, for his 63rd career Verizon IndyCar Series start. Notably, the Columbian’s last appearance on the streets of Toronto came in 2015 with a 16th-place finish.

Saavedra was able to complete 78 laps across the three practices, posting the 15th-quickest lap in Saturday morning’s session. He told POPULAR SPEED afterward that the practices were “very productive.”

“I wouldn’t say good or bad because I was realistic,” he added. “These guys are good at what they do, that’s why they get the paychecks, so I came here with an open mind and here we are. We’re using every lap to get to know the team, the engine, the new aero kit – it’s been three years since my last time here, so it’s going to take awhile.”

Going into the event, he admits that he hasn’t set any goals in stone, but rather focused on helping teammate and hometown driver James Hinchcliffe do as well as possible, and bringing his own entry home cleanly. Notably, Hinchcliffe was fourth quickest in the Saturday session.

Hunting for Success

Following a third-place finish at Iowa Speedway, Ryan Hunter-Reay hopes to keep the momentum going this weekend in Toronto after starting off the year on a rough note. While known for being a front runner, the Andretti Autosport driver only posted two top-10’s in the first 10 races of 2017.

Hunter-Reay commented on Friday that he felt they were “decent,” but knew they had “a lot of work to do tomorrow to be more competitive.” It seems the homework paid off, though, as he was fifth-quickest on Saturday morning.

The American has been successful in Toronto in the past, visiting victory lane in 2012.

Rahal is Confident

After sweeping both events on the street of Detroit, Graham Rahal entered Toronto with confidence as he felt his single-car team could compete for the victory again. Those expectations have been on par so far, as he was sixth quickest on Saturday morning.

“We are pretty competitive here – obviously, we’d like to be a little stronger,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “But we’re in the hunt. Just gotta keep working hard, put our heads down and focus on the end goal which is to qualify and race up front.”

When it comes to catching Team Penske, he says they could be better “a little bit everywhere.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

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

ASHLEY ASKS……Graham Rahal

After a rough start to the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Graham Rahal has turned things around recently, riding a streak of four straight top-10 finishes, highlighted by a pair of wins on the streets of Detroit.

While helping to promote the upcoming Honda Indy Toronto in July, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver took some time to speak with Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin about his thoughts on the year so far.

 

POPULAR SPEED: How would you characterize your season so far?

GRAHAM RAHAL: I think it’s been good and bad. We’ve definitely performed very well at times, obviously picking up a couple wins and a handful of top-10’s. We’d like to finish this thing off strong, and a win in Toronto would be pretty special for us. We feel after Detroit it should be a really good race that we should excel at. It’s been good and bad – pleased with it, but still hoping for more.

PS: It seems since Indy in May, you guys have hit a solid stride. What’s been the reason behind the turnaround?

GH: Well, I think myself and the guys on the team have been motivated to succeed. I think we’re all working very hard to be where we’re at, and I think that the guys want to win races. We went to Detroit, we were eager to perform well, and strong. We knew after Indy that we felt like we lost a big one being the 500; we felt like it was a race that we were very competitive in, but just had a lot of problems with flat tires there at the end of the race.

We felt like – not that anything ever owes you, but felt we should be far more competitive than we were and ended up being. We just took that motivation and pushed on and brought that in Detroit. From there, it’s just all about strong results, trying to keep up the top-10’s, race smart, big good, and we’ve been fortunate to make that happen.

PS: Where do you feel your team needs to improve?

GH: Well, there’s a lot of areas that we can get stronger. But I would say the oval package and the road course package right now. Our street courses, like Toronto, I feel we’re really good at, but I think the road courses like Road America, as well as potentially the ovals, are a place of weakness. So we’re going to keep working on it.

We’re going to keep pushing hard to improve in those areas. Really, it’s all about every single week being at our best and scoring the maximum amount of points. 

PS: Prior to Toronto, there’s the race at Iowa Speedway. How are you feeling going into that event?

GH: Well, I do feel good. We tested there yesterday. We didn’t get to run the full day unfortunately, due to a problem, but I feel good.  I just want to perform at my best and the team perform at theirs, and I think that we can have a strong result. Iowa is a place of strength for us before, so hopefully we can find a way to keep that going.

PS: After that, Honda Indy Toronto, obviously. What are your thoughts on heading north of the border?

GH: Big race for us. A great race weekend for us. Important when you look at the schedule and the remaining races after that. It also leads us into Mid-Ohio, which is my home event. Yeah, definitely really important that we have a strong run there.

PS: With having picked up the win on Detroit, does that correlate to a confidence boost entering Toronto?

GH: 100%, because we know since we were very strong in Detroit, that we know that should carry over as the set-ups should be very similar. So yeah, it should help us a ton.

PS: Now, you haven’t had the best history in Toronto. What is it going to take to put that behind you?

GH: We’ve been okay; we just haven’t quite had the luck. So yeah, we’re going to have to fight through that. But again, as I look at Detroit, because we were so good there, that set-up should carry over. There shouldn’t really be any surprises so I feel we should be in a very good spot and give us a lot of confidence.

PS: Between your IndyCar schedule and Courtney Force’s NHRA schedule, it has to keep you both busy. How do you guys keep it balanced?

GH: You know, it’s very difficult. It requires a lot of hours on airplanes, a lot of travel time. It is difficult, for sure. But you just have to believe in yourselves and your relationship, and being together. So far, it’s been great, but these next couple of days off, we’re going to cherish that time, and enjoy it before it gets too busy. Fortunately, she will be able to go with me up to Toronto so I’m looking forward to having her there.

PS: When you guys are home, does racing come up as a topic of conversation?

GH: You try not. You try to keep racing separate to just enjoy that personal life aspect of it. It comes up. We’re both competitive people and we want the best.

Rahal will look to keep the momentum rolling next weekend at Iowa Speedway on July 9, after posting a track-best finish of fourth in 2015.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

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 Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Texas

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.

Will Power’s second career win at Texas Motor Speedway, leaves some questions to be answered. Was this a legitimate win? The Australian dominated, but was that due to a superior car or high attrition? Also, is this a reversal toward Chevrolet as opposed to Honda, who was ruled the recent winner’s circle appearances?

For now, Power gets the nod on our newest driver’s list, as last year’s surge for the Team Penske road course ace began at this point of the campaign.

Accordingly, the team rankings favor the Captain’s quartet likewise, a position they have held for several weeks, based largely on early season prowess on the non-oval layouts.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (No Change)

Along with Will Power controlling the proceedings, Simon Pagenaud also made the podium in third-place. Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves fell victim to the SAFER barriers on Saturday night, but that’s not the stuff to move them off the number one line.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (No Change)

Not a friend-making performance Saturday night from Tony Kanaan, but a runner-up finish is not diminished in terms of championship points. Scott Dixon was on the verge of joining TK at the checkered, but settled for ninth after getting swept up in the race-ending incident. Disappointing performances for both Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball. The Englishman was not the front-running force he was at the Indianapolis 500 and placed eighth. Kimball meanwhile, looked solid after taking the Verizon P1 Award on Friday, only to drop-out soon after the start due to mechanical maladies.

3. Andretti Autosport (No Change)

Takuma Sato’s late-race collision prevented another possible podium finish, yet outside of that Texas was a “what might have been” effort. Marco Andretti did come home in sixth, but never made a serious impact. Ryan Hunter-Reay was eliminated in the big one, while Alexander Rossi’s three-wide foray early on led to him being the first arrival at the post-race party.

4. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (No Change)

Graham Rahal found a way to avoid the attrition that removed many from the Rainguard 600 on Saturday night, securing a fourth-place finish. Not quite the stuff to jump past Andretti in the poll, but if Rahal shows the pace from Detroit at Road America, that will change.

5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1)

It is tough to say if James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin were contenders for the win on Saturday night, as of course the big mess ended the conversation. However, the glimpses of pace provides hope for the next few rounds.

6. Dale Coyne Racing (-1)

No matter who drives the No. 18 Honda, it seems to be a factor. Unfortunately, accidents at both Indy and Texas prevented Sebastien Bourdais, James Davison, and Tristan Vautier from getting the coveted result. Not a strong run though from Ed Jones; that’s the reason they drop a notch on the list.

7. Harding Racing (+1)

This organization is gaining confidence following a fifth-place result for Gabby Chaves at Texas. Two starts, two top-tens. Whether success continues at the team’s next race at Pocono is anyone’s guess, but they could be dangerous if they do go full-time in 2018.

8. Ed Carpenter Racing (-1)

Even before getting caught up in the eight-car pileup at Texas, neither Ed Carpenter or J.R. Hildebrand showed any signs of being able to win the race. Road America is not the place for a triumphant moment for this team, unless something bizarre happens, like the Earth falling out of orbit for instance.

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

Sure, Conor Daly finished seventh, but based solely on survival. Once again, nothing positive shown by the Hoosier-native, nor from Carlos Munoz at Texas.

10. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (=)

Season’s over for DRR pending a surprise entry later this year. Still, its sister team Harding Racing is stealing the spotlight from some of the full-time regulars.

Dropped Out: None

Driver Rankings:

1. Will Power (+3)

Dixon has the better results to date, but intuition says the Aussie is ready to begin his championship challenge. Three of the next four events are road courses, and if Team Penske regains their muscle from a season ago, Power becomes a greater threat.

2. Scott Dixon (-1)

Time to temporarily drop the Kiwi down a rung this week. The momentum is not in the Iceman’s corner, at least not in Texas.

3. Josef Newgarden (No Change)

The big crashes have kept the Tennessean from snatching top-tens at both Indy and Texas, but the future projections put Newgarden ahead of both Castroneves and Pagenaud. Still, a ways to go reach Power, however.

4. Helio Castroneves (-2)

An early exit at Texas hurts, but the fact the Brazilian continues to squander front row starting positions on road circuits is a red flag. If he could not get the results consistently in the season’s first half, why would that change in the final eight? Based on that, Spider-Man loses two spots.

5. Takuma Sato (+2)

One false move near the finish at Texas cost the Japanese trailblazer a possible top-three effort. The big thing story though tells all; the Indy 500 victory was NOT a fluke. He goes up another two places on the list this week.

6. Simon Pagenaud (-1)

Third at Texas, second on the points table, but only sixth here? Pags has to improve his qualifying record on road courses to stay in the mix for back-to-back titles. Not only does the Frenchman give himself too much to do, but he puts himself in the line of fire in the mad mid-pack scrambles at the start. Sooner or later, smart money says an early exit based on that could result.

7. Graham Rahal (+2)

Rahal has an ability to finish the high-speed oval races in ways the rest of the IndyCar fleet cannot match, at least not over the past three seasons. If the No. 15 Honda matches the performance from Detroit, it could be a tough go for the field at Elkhart Lake.

8. Alexander Rossi (-2)

Rossi did not use good judgement going three-wide so early in the process at Texas, and was dealt a last-place finish as punishment. He should regain original placement if trouble does not follow to Wisconsin’s four-mile parkway.

9. Tony Kanaan (Unranked)

Far from a squeaky clean effort at Texas, yet TK made it to the finish and came away with a runner-up finish. The veteran though, is not a sign of strength on road courses and must re-invent himself next week to stay in the polls for more than one race.

10. James Hinchcliffe (No Change)

The Mayor showed glimpses of hope prior to his elimination at Texas; however, there are several candidates who could bump him out following Road America, including this week’s top-ten absentee Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Dropped Out: Ryan Hunter-Reay (Was No. 8 after Detroit)

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
IndyCar Open Wheel

Chaves Snatches Top-Five Result At Texas

For a team that only intended to compete in the 101st Indianapolis 500, Harding Racing is exceeding expectations.

After surviving a crash-influenced Rainguard 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, Gabby Chaves escaped with a fifth-place finish. The effort is notable considering the Colombian had to move up from 20th at the start of the 248-lap event and avoid the close quarters action that eliminated all but seven of the 22 starters.

Chaves was not immune from over-aggression on Saturday, as he was ordered by officials to give a position back to Graham Rahal on two occasions late in the event due to avoidable contact. Although things changed late, Chaves and the Harding Racing squad took a more careful approach to its second Verizon IndyCar Series start. Not having competed at the 1.5 mile Texas Motor Speedway before, the team only qualified 20th on Friday outrunning A.J. Foyt Racing teammates Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz.

However, Harding Racing has taken advantage of the consistent and steady approach, missing the major accidents last month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to move from 25th to place a respectable ninth after 500 miles. The plus-16 performance was the biggest improvement that any driver enjoyed in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. On Saturday night at Texas, Chaves gained 15 places from where he began the 600 kilometers, once again the largest advancement.

Despite featuring limited information on the 2017 version of the Dallara DW12, nor on the three circuits, it intends to compete at this season Harding Racing’s personnel are far from novices. 2017 is Gabby Chaves’ third season in IndyCar competition, after an advancement through the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. The 23-year old native of Bogota, Colombia ran the entire 2015 IndyCar circuit with Bryan Herta Autosport, earning two top-ten finishes at Detroit and Texas, whilst also placing 16th in his first Indy 500 start to pick up Rookie of the Race honors.

Chaves lost his ride at Herta in 2016, but still managed six appearances with Dale Coyne Racing, including a season’s best 12th-place result at Detroit. Unable to secure a full-time seat this year, Chaves joined forces with Harding and has already doubled his career top-tens output.

The key to Harding’s early success also points to the presence of Larry Curry, who serves as team manager. With 40 years of IndyCar experience under his belt, Curry has stood atop the pit box for several teams since the current sanctioning body’s debut in 1996, most notably Team Menard. The veteran’s most notable driver success story is Indiana-native Tony Stewart, who won the IndyCar championship in 1997 before moving to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 1999.

Harding Racing plans on making one final start in 2017 at the Pocono 500 on August 20th, before trying to run the full 2018 slate, pending on sponsorship.

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
IndyCar Open Wheel

What We Learned from the Detroit Grand Prix 2017

The Big Picture:  A race in the automotive capital of the United States makes sense. An event promoted by Roger Penske, arguably the most important team owner in the Verizon IndyCar Series, probably a good idea. Despite these two excellent reasons, the Detroit Grand Prix has been irregular in appearing on the schedule. In its current form, it has only taken place this way since 2012.

Event:  This unique “doubleheader” weekend now happens to start six days after the Indianapolis 500, creating something of a marathon of competition. Belle Isle, as the name says, is a beautiful island in the middle of the Detroit River, and the park that covers it is the largest city-owned island park in the nation. A temporary street course makes up the racing circuit of 2.35 miles.

Qualifying:  Race One had Graham Rahal on pole followed by Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato. In Race Two, Sato took pole, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal.

Race:   Race One was the Graham Rahal show from start to finish, with the Ohioan leading all but 15 of 70 laps, and those only for cycling through Rahal’s two pit stops. Points leader Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe also recorded podium results, and Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five. The second event  was slightly more competitive than the first at least at the front, with Sato leading 22  circuits, but Rahal took command on Lap 23 and never looked back. Team Penske had a resurgence with Newgarden finishing second, followed by teammate Will Power, Sato in fourth and Simon Pagenaud in fifth.

Biggest Surprise: The utter dominance of Graham Rahal in winning both races after having a rather mediocre start of the season.

Biggest Disappointment: The absolute dominance of Honda over Chevrolet in the latter’s hometown had to be disappointing for both Chevrolet and Roger Penske.

Best Team:  Rahal Letterman Lanigan is yet another small team that has managed to win more races so far than any other team, including the larger and better-funded organizations.

Sponsor of the Weekend:  The sponsors such as Steak N’ Shake who have stayed with RLL despite less than stellar finishes.

What We Learned:  IndyCar is one of the few racing series where a small team can contend for a victory. At every race, more than half the field can win depending on circumstances. And, it appears that Honda has the advantage over Chevy right now.

Schedule:  Next Saturday, June 10th, under the lights, at Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth.

Quotes of the Weekend:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’ll be honest, I think we were all just trying to get to the end. There were just two laps to go and we had marbles all over the tires. In that type situation, there’s not much you can do. You want to say you’d be able to go race this guy and try to beat him. And I would have done that if he messed up; if he made a mistake, I would try to capitalize. But if everyone stays steady, we are just trying to hold on to the race car. It’s very difficult to do that at the end. When it’s your weekend, it’s your weekend. (Race-winner Graham) Rahal did a great job. It’s a good bounce back for us at Team Penske in the hum by Verizon Chevrolet. It’s good to be in Detroit. Thanks to all the fans that came out and Chevrolet for all they do. It’s fun to be in this city. I was trying to get Chevrolet that win but just didn’t have enough today.”

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): 
“The Hitachi Chevy was great again today. We had a little bit of bad luck there with Ryan (Hunter-Reay) and getting a tire cut down. It was early enough that I thought we might be able to overcome it, but we didn’t get a caution until the very end. I wish we could have done better with our finish, but our car was strong. We’ll head to Texas which is always a lot of fun.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Yesterday was just unlucky when the yellow came. We kind of went halfway between a two-stop and a three-stop. We went longer than the three-stop guys. I was saving so much fuel yesterday that I was too slow. The guys did a great job with the strategy today. I’m very happy with third. Today was much more representative of the car we had this weekend. Thanks to all of the guys, Verizon and Chevrolet.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Soldier Strong / TurnsForTroops.com Honda): “Buckeyes like to win up in this state. It was just a good weekend – thanks to the crowd, thanks to Roger Penske, Bud Denker and everybody for putting this on. It’s a tremendous event. And thank mother nature – we’ve never had this kind of luck around here. It was a great day, I’m really proud to get another win for the United Rentals guys, Turns For Troops, PennGrade, Steak n’ Shake, Hyatt, Fifth Third Bank, Honda – everybody that makes this possible. It’s a special day for us. We’re the first one to win the double (in Detroit) means a lot. It feels great, trust me. Any day you can beat a Penske driver it means a lot.”

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.