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IndyCar Open Wheel

Pagenaud Falls Short In Defense Of Crown

The odds were not in his favor entering the final chapter of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series on Sunday; however, Simon Pagenaud fought hard to keep his No. 1 plate for another year.

Going off-sequence with an aggressive, four-stop pit strategy to move from the second row of the grid to the top spot by the end of the 85-lap GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the Frenchman did what he had to do to win his second title. But, the needed luck unfortunately never came about. Despite driving the wheels off his DXC Chevrolet, even going off course on back-to-back laps at the challenging turn nine chicane, the veteran never gave way. Pagenaud managed to reach the checkered flag first, but his Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden finished behind him in second, just enough to take his first series championship by 13 points.

“It was Kyle Moyer’s (race engineer) idea to go with four stops, it was a great call from and probably the only way we could win (today),” said Pagenaud to IndyCar Radio after the race. “We did everything we could do, but Josef did enough to hold us off, he deserves it.”

It is not that Pagenaud has had a bad season in 2017; it is just a step below what he achieved in 2016. In his championship-clinching campaign, the Chevrolet pilot opened the year with an astounding first five races where he either won the event or placed second. With the big surge, not even a two-race skid at Indy and Detroit, nor a similar dominant phase from Australia’s Will Power with six straight podiums could deny the French-based chauffeur from lifting the Astor Cup.

This year, the win count dropped from five a season ago, to just two including Sunday’s win at Sonoma; however, the Frenchman was much more consistent as a front-runner. After claiming 10 top-five’s in 2016, Pagenaud improved the count to 13 in 2017. Unfortunately, the same two rounds that hampered him a season ago, were prevalent in keeping his name off the championship trophy this time around. Despite having a goal to win the Indianapolis 500, the Frenchman struggled throughout May, only qualifying on the eighth row and settling for a 14th-place finish. The following weekend at The Raceway at Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan was equally challenging, and he was credited with a 16th in the first of two scheduled events.

While Newgarden also was a non-factor at the Brickyard, placing 19th after being collected in a late-race pile-up in llturn two, a similar run of wins and runner-ups in rounds 12 through 15 were enough to top Pagenaud’s results. The Frenchman was equally strong though, posting no finishes worse than ninth in Toronto.

“We won the race. It wasn’t enough,” explained Pagenaud after the race. “It’s a whole championship. You’ve got to be strong at every race and I guess Josef was a little stronger this year.”

Although the make-up of Team Penske next year is still in question with whether Helio Castroneves will return to contest the full season in 2018 or not, most of the key players are in place for Pagenaud, Newgarden, and Will Power should be back in full force. If the transition to a new look Dallara DW12 causes a few headaches, the experience should keep the Captain’s trio or quartet near the front of the proceedings, and if things work out, Simon Pagenaud may reclaim his title in 365 days time.

Still, when one looks back on his 2017 campaign, a runner-up placing is far from a failure.

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

Title Battle Thickens Following Watkins Glen

Following Josef Newgarden’s bad early strategic move and an overzealous move to exit pit road late in Sunday’s IndyCar Grand Prix at the Glen, the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship fight has changed drastically.

After starting on the inside of row two, he ran just outside the top-10 throughout the event. However, after the incident, the Tennessean’s 18th-place effort is the worst finish posted by the Team Penske pilot, since carding a 20th at the Indianapolis 500 in May.

With only the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma left on the slate, what seemed to be a comfortable 31-point lead when the green flag flew in upstate New York, is now reduced to only three. 

As Newgarden succumbed to adversity, four-time series champion Scott Dixon delivered the clutch performance Sunday that has earned him the nickname: the “Iceman.” After the New Zealander also lost ground early in the 60-lap distance at New York’s Thunder Road, Dixon recovered to secure runner-up honors at a venue where he has won on four previous occasions.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s team leader, however, was not the lone beneficiary on Sunday. Newgarden’s teammate Helio Castroneves moved to just 22 points out of first with a fourth-place finish. Simon Pagenaud, a victim of the winning pass completed by the Tennessee-prospect at St. Louis, also is back in play with the double points offering at Sonoma, after placing fourth.

Although the battle for the championship is essentially a four-man race, others a little further down the points table could also claim a top-three showing with a win or podium at Sonoma. One is perennial road course ace Will Power, who heads to Sonoma 72 out of first, but only 46 behind third. Another is Alexander Rossi, who returned the confidence shown by Andretti Autosport re-signing him for the 2018 campaign, by taking the checkered flag first at the Glen on Sunday.

As for what could happen at Sonoma, my views on Newgarden have changed considerably in seven days. The negative vibes that haunted Dixon in July and August are now squarely on his own shoulders. The No. 2 Chevrolet pilot, has finished no better than sixth in his any of his five attempts at the hilly, Wine Country-based layout, plus he has taken three placements of 20th or worse.

Dixon meanwhile, has shown the same muscle at Sonoma, that he has likewise at the Glen. Although he settled for 17th a season ago, the Iceman won the Go Pro Grand Prix in both 2015 and 2016. The former of those pair of triumphs earned him enough points to take his fourth series title.

While Newgarden looked like a sure-fire champion in the last few events, Dixon appears ready to take what would be a record fifth IndyCar championship.

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

POINTS OUTLOOK: Newgarden Continues Dominant Run At St. Louis

It was not without controversy, but Josef Newgarden has moved another step closer to securing his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

After taking the checkered flag first in Saturday night’s Bommarito Auto Group 500k at Gateway Motorsports Park, his third victory in the last four events, the Tennessee-native added another ten points to his lead in the standings. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, who placed second behind Newgarden, heads into Watkins Glen International in upstate New York trailing by 28 points. In this case, that’s the difference between a victory and a ninth-place finish.

While the New Zealander’s result on Saturday keeps him within shouting distance of the Team Penske pilot, the tide seems to be moving away from the four-time IndyCar champion. While Newgarden has outclassed the competition in recent weeks, the St. Louis output was the Iceman’s first top-five effort, since his victory at the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America two months ago.

Dixon continues to represent Honda’s case for the championship, and although it remains a solid one after 15 of 17 races, the chances for success still favor the quartet from Team Penske. Despite that reality, the potential for the title going toward one of the other three members of the Captain’s trio not named Josef certainly took a hit at Gateway.

After winning the pole position on Friday, Will Power entered the proceedings Saturday as a bonafide threat to possibly enter the final two acts of the 2017 season at the top of the standings. However, things were altered substantially in just two corners. After losing out to Newgarden on the start, the Australian suddenly lost control of his No. 12 Chevrolet exiting turn two and made contact with the outside wall. The incident was made even worse when Ed Carpenter also spun and then launched over the top of Power.

Neither driver suffered injuries in the shunt, but the resulting 20th-place effort all but ends the road course ace’s hopes for a second IndyCar crown. Now 74 points adrift heading to New York next week, the Australian may need to not only win the final two races, but also have problems strike the other contenders to have any shot at a championship celebration.

With Power’s chances on life support, his fellow teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud may each look back on Saturday’s race as one that featured missed opportunities. The Brazilian looked poised to back up his win at Iowa Speedway last month, building a three-second advantage on Newgarden just past half-distance.

The chance to aid his case for the title suffered a setback, however; when the three-time Indy 500 champion stalled his engine on his second to last pit stop, dropping him from first to the fourth position, where he would end up at the checkered flag.

Pagenaud meanwhile, had run in the top-three all evening and then vaulted to first during the final round of pit stops, which took place under the yellow flag. The Frenchman appeared stout following the restart, but could not hold off a surging Newgarden, who cleared the Menards Chevy entering turn one with 30 laps to go. The two drivers made contact, forcing Pagenaud to chase his car up the banking. The close call allowed Dixon to overtake the Penske chauffeur and despite attempts to regain the second spot, Pagenaud would settle for third.

Looking ahead to the penultimate round of the 2017 IndyCar season, the pressure to control one’s own destiny at the finale in Sonoma, California will be paramount. Despite maintaining his second-place classification, Scott Dixon may have the toughest road to victory. While the New Zealander-based driver has four wins in the ten editions of the Grand Prix at the Glen, he does not have the better car and engine option in 2017.

As for the Penske quartet, Power must match his 2010 triumph in New York to stay in the running, while his three teammates must avoid the bad finish. Momentum is critical at this point of a title chase, and for now, Josef Newgarden has it. Now the question staring ahead of the visor-shielded eyes is simple: can he maintain it?

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

Helio Castroneves on Future: “Not In My Hands”

TORONTO, Ontario — Each week when drivers from different teams come to the media center to speak about their weekend so far, among other topics, you typically get the standard quotes that sound the same. Then there was this past weekend at the Honda Indy Toronto on Saturday with Helio Castroneves.

After speaking about his weekend to date, he went on to introduce two of his three teammates – Josef Newgarden and Will Power – in his unique way.

“Let me introduce here José Nuevo Jardín. That’s Josef Newgarden. We’ll just start with the new times,” he said. “What can I say about the mumba power? As you can see — actually I never understood why they say Three Musketeers, but they have four guys. Have you seen that movie? They say Three Musketeers, but they have four guys. There’s always an odd man out.”

Of course, it begged the question – who is the odd man out? Castroneves answered, “It’s pretty obvious who’s the odd man out.”

Although you may want to assume that Castroneves’ lack of mentioning Simon Pagenaud makes him that person, there is another story at play here. Team Penske announced the formation of a sports car team, with intent to go racing in 2018.

Many have assumed Juan Pablo Montoya will be one of the four drivers, having remained with the team on a limited basis this season despite being replaced by Josef Newgarden at the end of 2016. Another name rumored last weekend at Iowa Speedway was Helio Castroneves, with a possibility of him leaving the Verizon IndyCar Series at season’s end despite not having won a championship to date in his luscious career.

“You shouldn’t ask me,” he said of his future. “There are people with more power than me actually to make things happen.”

Castroneves went on to say that the decision is “not in my hands” and will come down to common sense in what’s best for Team Penske moving forward.

“At this point, I feel that I’m going to do everything I can,” he added. “If we’re in that position to make it harder for everyone if there is a decision, in the end, to change or not.”

Right now, though, he is trying to remain focused on the goal at hand this season in winning the championship, currently sitting second in points, just three points behind Scott Dixon following Toronto.

“It’s difficult to assume, and right now there is a lot of speculation for sure, and even between when we have some conversations, we’re just still on the same page,” he said. “I mean, the team is going to make a sports car team, and we all here would love to drive. I mean, no question about it. We would like to drive whatever they have an opportunity like you have in the past.

“But at the moment, there is no commitment, no official decision, and I’m just focused — in my case, I’m just focusing on doing my best for the race here and the championship.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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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

What We Learned from Iowa Speedway 2017

The Big Picture:  Back in the long ago – that’s 2007 – when the Verizon IndyCar Series was more oriented toward short track ovals, the idea to have a race at a speedway 40 miles from Des Moines made lots of sense. Designed by NASCAR veteran Rusty Wallace, the .9-mile course was popular in Iowa for a time.

Event:  But now, attendance of less than 7500 including teams and workers is what we’re getting in Iowa. This is troubling in the extreme. We guess if the series is receiving its sanctioning fee, nothing more needs to be said.

Qualifying:  Short track oval qualifying is only marginally more exciting than watching paint dry, but in this race’s qualifications, Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud went out first, and the session was bookended by his teammate, Will Power, who took the pole at 1.5 MPH faster than second place qualifier JR Hildebrand.

Race:   Helio Castroneves led 217 out of 300 laps in a dominating performance that left most of the paddock with often rueful smiles on their faces. JR Hildebrand started and finished second place, proving he can run at the front. Ryan Hunter-Reay had his best performance of the year while claiming the final step on the podium. There were only three single car accidents which took their drivers out of contention without anyone getting injured. Overall, a nice race day.

Biggest Surprise:  Castroneves’ win, his first since Detroit in 2014. It was his 30th IndyCar Series victory. Back in the day. Castroneves was brought to Team Penske after the sudden death of Greg Moore in 1999. He and Roger’s partnership is one of the longest among current IndyCar drivers and team owners.

Biggest Disappointment:  The poor attendance.

Best Team:  Team Penske took their first victory in Iowa. They took the pole, and their four drivers finished in the top seven.

Sponsor of the Weekend:  The Iowa Corn Promotions Board, the group who have promoted this event from the start.

What We Learned:  That nice 42-year-old Brazilians can finish first. That you can build a top-notch speedway facility and hardly anyone will come. That Chevy has the short ovals dialed in.

Schedule:  Next Sunday, July 16th, the circus goes to Toronto for the Honda Indy Toronto.

Quotes of the Weekend:

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Iowa Corn 300 winner): “That was great. I can’t thank enough Team Penske, Hitachi, Chevy car group and all our partners, and especially the people in the shop. They don’t get much credit, but without their work and effort, we wouldn’t be able to do what we did. And again, it’s a great team effort because we came here, we tried a lot of different setups between all four cars, and man, I picked the winning one, so it was really good. The car felt really good, and it was just great. In the beginning we missed a little bit on the setup, then we made some adjustments after the first stop or second stop, and the car was fantastic. It was really good. It was a long time (between wins), but you can never stop believing, and my team never stopped supporting me on that and today was great. Everything went great. We didn’t have a yellow at the wrong time, we didn’t have issues with the tire or anything else or mechanical. Everything was really, really good, and when you have a day like this, you’ve got to execute.

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I wish we could have gotten the Verizon Chevrolet to Victory Lane, but I don’t feel bad at all with where we ended up. It was a good day. Not unhappy at all. The car was pretty loose on that second to last stint, but very good on that final stint. We got another solid finish and scored some important points. But the story of today is Helio (Castroneves). I’m mega happy for him. It’s really kind of ridiculous that it has taken this long with how good they’ve been. Something always seemed to bite them, but not today. I couldn’t be happier.”

ESTEBAN GUTIERREZ (No. 18 UNIFIN Honda): “It was really, really fun. It was a very nice experience. Obviously being the first time on an oval, I didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the race and I struggled to get up to speed, but after a few laps, I got more and more comfortable and I was using my tools in the car to try to handle it in traffic, which is the trickiest part. I want to thank my competitors because they were very fair to me. It was fair racing, good racing and I really enjoyed it out there today. It wasn’t easy with the different lanes and traffic because once you get really close you have a completely different car so you need to anticipate a lot and for that you need a lot of experience. Every time with more and more experience I will be able to anticipate that better, but I think today was a really good start. I also want to thank the team because they were really good on giving me all the tools and the information on doing a good job today.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “That was a tough drive. We just made the car better and better through the whole race and I wasn’t really happy with the car at all. I have to give big credit to my team and my engineer, Ray Gosselin, for putting the right setup on the car. We finally got it to where I like it – some remnants of the past. A little more straight-line speed and we could’ve given these guys a run for their money. Congratulations to Helio (Castroneves) – it’s great to see him win again. He’s been right there knocking on the door for so long. Hats off to the No. 28 DHL team and thank you to all the Iowa fans, we love coming here. Hopefully we can come back here at night some time, because that is my favorite.”

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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Commentary Open Wheel

POWER RANKINGS: Iowa

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.

Helio Castroneves’ first win in 54 races could be taken in one of two ways. It could be viewed as a serious title contender effort, or it might be looked upon as a desperate attempt to win a championship in the autumn of a career. While yours truly will be taking attention away from the latest Big Board, one fact is on the table. The Brazilian is just one of three other drivers in the Captain’s camp who appear to have top of the points table potential.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (Unchanged)

Castroneves’ first fence climb was a pleasure to see; however, solid drives from Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud were not overlooked. Hence the reason they stay at the top for another week.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (Unchanged)

Scott Dixon salvaged what was a watered down effort at Iowa by placing eighth, surprisingly ahead of his teammate Tony Kanaan, who via the eye test had the stronger performance.

3. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Unchanged)

Traffic trouble dropped Graham Rahal down the list late in the going Sunday, but another top-five means RLLR stays put as best of the rest behind Penske and Ganassi.

4. Andretti Autosport (Unchanged)

Ryan Hunter-Reay was in contention for a fourth Iowa Corn 300 triumph but was too far back to threaten either Castroneves or second-place finisher, J.R. Hildebrand. Beyond that, however, Iowa was a nightmare for the rest of the quartet. Alexander Rossi (11th), Takuma Sato (16th), and Marco Andretti (17th) were in M.I.A. mode on Sunday.

5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsport (+1)

Another early exit from Mikhail Aleshin on an oval track, yet James Hinchcliffe did manage to place tenth. Compared to DCR, enough to trade places heading to the Mayor’s home race in Toronto.

6. Dale Coyne Racing (-1)

Esteban Gutierrez kept his nose clean and even managed to run among the top-ten in the latter stages before fading to 13th at the checkered flag. Ed Jones looked promising after qualifying fourth, but plummeted at the start and never recovered en route to settling for 18th. Judges dock the Windy City Boys one spot this week.

7. Ed Carpenter Racing (+2)

J.R. Hildebrand used on-track savvy and good pit luck to take runner-up honors on Sunday. While that’s the basis of ECR’s jump two rungs this week, the perils of team boss Ed Carpenter this season on ovals is a head scratcher. 12th at Iowa and only one top-ten in four tries have to be viewed as a major disappointment.

8. Harding Racing (-1)

Inactive until Pocono, but could not keep them at seven, based on what was achieved by Hildebrand at Iowa.

9. A.J. Foyt Racing (Unchanged)

Cannot say many good things after Iowa. Two cars in the fence and another large repair as the team makes its way to Canada.

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)

Overcame a sub-par effort in time trials Saturday, to escape with another top-ten finish. Reluctantly, the Kiwi remains on the number one line, but watch out for Spider-Man.

2. Helio Castroneves (+2)

If this is indeed his final campaign as a full-time IndyCar participant, he is going out with his best output in years, which is not a bad way to go out.

3. Josef Newgarden (-1)

Saturday’s sub-par outing in time trials put the squeeze on the Tennessee-native a bit, yet he still managed to make an impact, coming home in sixth. A former winner at Toronto, so he could be a major player next weekend.

5. Simon Pagenaud (-1)

Qualified well, but rarely made much progress toward the front at Iowa. As a result, seventh was the number at the finish.

4. Will Power (+1)

Another Verizon P1 Award, but was outclassed by his teammate Castroneves from the start of the 300-lap distance on Sunday. Still, a fourth is a good effort for a driver not known for oval track prowess.

6. Graham Rahal (Unchanged)

The Buckeye Blaster posts a top-five at Iowa. One more and he should turn up in the first five of the driver poll too.

7. Alexander Rossi (+1)

11th was the best Rossi could manage on Sunday as he was never happy with the handling at any point.

8. Ryan Hunter-Reay (Unranked)

RHR is NOT the 14th-best driver in IndyCar. Ignore the points standings placing and scratch the DNFs when comparing the DHL Honda pilot to the remainder of the IndyCar field. Third at Iowa is closer to what is the norm for this guy.

9. Tony Kanaan (Unranked)

Deserved better than a ninth-place finish at Iowa, so we made amends and placed him back in the top ten this week.

10. Max Chilton (Unchanged)

We have given the Englishman another chance after dropping back to 14th late at Iowa. Should bounce back in Toronto.

Dropped Out: Takuma Sato (Was No. 7 after Road America), Ed Jones (Was No. 9 after Road America)

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Castroneves Ends Victory Drought, Climbs Fence at Iowa

NEWTON, Iowa (Sunday, July 9, 2017) – The victory drought is finally over for Helio Castroneves. Now his chase toward a first Verizon IndyCar Series championship is in high gear.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner ended a three-year, 54-race streak without a win by taking the checkered flag today in the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway. In the process, the driver of the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet closed within eight points of the championship lead after 11 of 17 races.

“We’ve been close (to winning) so many times, and finally luck was on our side,” the typically exuberant Castroneves said. “We’ve been working so hard together, but the Hitachi Chevy was on rails. We had a little bit of an issue in the beginning, but after we set up the car it was great. What a great finish. It’s just like the first time.”

IOWA CORN 300: Box score

Castroneves led 217 of the 300 laps on the high-speed, 0.894-mile Iowa oval, winning by 3.9647 seconds over JR Hildebrand. As anticipated, Castroneves celebrated the occasion by hopping out his car at the start/finish line after the race and performing his trademark climbing of the catch fence to the delight of Iowa Speedway fans.

It is Castroneves’ first triumph since the opener of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on June 1, 2014. It also gave the 42-year-old Brazilian, celebrating his 20th season in Indy cars, career win No. 30 to move him into sole possession of 12th place on the all-time victory list. Castroneves had been tied with retired Team Penske great Rick Mears, who now serves as Castroneves’ spotter on ovals.

“Finally, everything came together,” said Castroneves, who also overtook Al Unser for fourth all time in laps led and now has 5,947. “And 30 wins, we just passed Rick Mears, which is my hero. … I’m honored to be part of this organization, and I can only thank Roger (Penske, team owner), (team president Tim) Cindric and the entire team for supporting me. It’s easy to be behind you in good times, but they’ve always been there no matter the time, so for me that’s priceless. I’m going to continue focusing on this season, and there’s more to come.”

The decisive pass of the race came on Lap 268, when Castroneves darted past Hildebrand and leader Marco Andretti into first place. He steadily pulled away to give Team Penske its 192nd Indy car win – most all time – and its first at Iowa Speedway. Castroneves is the ninth different driver to win a race this season, a list that now includes all four Team Penske drivers.

“To see that run that Helio made all day long, I think he controlled the race,” said Penske, who calls Castroneves’ race strategy. “We had very good pit stops, you could see that, but you’ve got to have reliability and you’ve got to have a guy behind the wheel who knows how to climb the fence.”

Hildebrand, in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, equaled his career-best finish first accomplished when he was runner-up at the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Hildebrand was driving the same car that Josef Newgarden raced to victory at Iowa in 2016 for Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It feels good,” said Hildebrand, who qualified a career-best second on Saturday and led 38 laps in the race. “I definitely think that, under some slightly different circumstances, we had a car to win out there. The guys made a great call to pit early and get out into the lead at the end and try to hustle all the way.

“I think if we’d been on equal tires with Helio, we’d have had something for him there at the end. But all in all, really excited for the Fuzzy’s Vodka crew to get on the podium here again.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, a three-time winner at Iowa, equaled his season-best finish of third place for Andretti Autosport. Pole sitter Will Power led 23 laps before finishing fourth for Team Penske.

Points leader Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing finished eighth and has collected 403 points through 11 races. Team Penske drivers hold the next four positions in the standings, with Castroneves second (395 points), reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud third (372), Power fourth (350) and Newgarden fifth (347).

Three drivers – Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly – were each eliminated in single-car crashes, though none was injured. The race was also red-flagged for eight minutes after 208 laps for light rain.

The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action July 16 with the Honda Indy Toronto on the streets of Exhibition Place. The race airs live at 3 p.m. ET on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with an encore presentation at 7 p.m. on NBCSN.