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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

FANTASY HOT TIP: Sonoma

The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma means one final decision is in the way of Firestone Fantasy Challenge players for 2017.

In the previous 16 events of the Verizon IndyCar Series, most of the drivers were on the same agenda to win outright. However, in the California Wine Country, the scenarios are mixed. The quartet from Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon are vying for a season championship. Others, such as J.R. Hildebrand and Carlos Munoz for instance, need a result to maintain employment for 2018. In the case of both, neither pilot has a ride in the cards for next year.

So while some in Sunday’s 22-car lineup may choose a more conservative tact, others will view the action as a nothing to lose offering and maybe take risks that one would otherwise opt against. With those matters at hand, picking a team capable of raking in a large sum of points to close out the fantasy year could be tough.

Yours truly has thrown caution to the wind for the 17th and final outing and features a quartet of participants who have each had their own moment in the sun during the current campaign. Heading the list is current championship leader Josef Newgarden, attempting to become the first American driver to win the title since Ryan Hunter-Reay did so in 2012. Although the Tennessean arrives at Sonoma Raceway off a bad race at Watkins Glen when he came home in 18th, his ability to top the speed charts in both sessions on Friday, shows to me that he is ready to fight all out for the required crown-earning result.

Also on a bit of a roll entering Northern California is home state native, Alexander Rossi. With a win in New York and four other top-six or better placements in the last five races, the NAPA Auto Parts Honda chauffeur has to be viewed as a legit challenger on Sunday. The second-year veteran finished fifth at Sonoma a season ago.

While he has yet to return to the form he presented before his horrific accident suffered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais is worth the risk of selecting this weekend, having finished sixth at this venue for the Windy City runners in 2011. Although the St. Petersburg, Florida street circuit he won upon to open this year, lacks the elevation changes present at Sonoma Raceway, the Frenchman’s talents on road courses are well documented in previous stints in both ChampCar and Formula One.

Rounding out my squad for race number seventeeen is Spencer Pigot for Ed Carpenter Racing. The 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion may have encountered the worst luck of any regular entrant in 2017. Mechanical failures have denied him chances at top-ten placements; however, the ECR group are in major need of a good result, in hopes of a significant boost in performance for 2018, when the American young gun will contest every event on the calendar.

Even though just one player in the hunt for a title is featured on Sunday’s lineup card, the group presented may take advantage of the overaggressive nature of others to close out 2017 with a better than expected climax.

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: 2018 Driver Change Analysis

Since the posting of my latest Ultimate Silly Season update last week, several suggested moves have turned heads.

If beliefs about other deals being inked are indeed on target, there could be as many as four new pilots joining the full-time Verizon IndyCar Series fleet in 2018. Interestingly, however, is the chance of two of the circuit’s most dominant teams being destinations.

The addition of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran Zach Veach at Andretti Autosport was a move that was a long time coming, for perhaps the most patient prospect in recent memory. Since the 2016 silly season, the Ohioan has been a realistic target for multiple rides, but was minus the funding and the experience desired to be able to sign on the dotted line.

While the inclusion at an organization that has won the last two Indianapolis 500s will provide a fair deal of expectations in the long term, the pressure to succeed will be a reduced rate next season. With Michael Andretti’s quartet featuring a pair of championship contenders in Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the goal for year one may be to at worst match the outputs from Marco Andretti, who has endured a difficult 2017 campaign.

Veach had two chances to gain IndyCar familiarity in 2017, and he fared well on short notice at Barber Motorsports Park, one of the series’ most demanding layouts. He also made his Indy 500 debut for A.J. Foyt, and while he suffered a crash before qualifying, he mostly kept his nose clean on race day, when mechanical failure sidelined him at the three-quarter mark.

Spencer Pigot’s promotion to full-time service at Ed Carpenter Racing in 2018 was based on the potential shown, if not by the results sheet. While the 23-year old showed solid pace in several road races in 2017, he was often plagued by car trouble or being in the wrong place at an inopportune moment. Still, if the former Indy Lights champion did not get the bump up at ECR, other suitors may have snapped up the Pasadena, California resident.

The move gives the Speedway, Indiana squad its most strong driving cast for non-oval track competition since when Mike Conway was at the controls in 2014. With several potent road racing prospects on the free agent market, pairing another talented shoe with Pigot will show a desire from Ed Carpenter to improve his product in all events, rather than banking on solely the high speed runs.

With the 2017 Indy Lights championship now in the bank, expect Kyle Kaiser to use the advancement scholarship money earned to compete in at least three events, if not a full-run for Juncos Racing. The title promotes not only the number one driver, but also the best Mazda Road to Indy entrant into the IndyCar Series. Ricardo Juncos made his top tier debut at this year’s Indy 500, fielding two Chevrolet-powered entries for Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra.

Kaiser was initially pointed toward taking one of the Indy rides this past May; however, Juncos elected to hold off on moving the 21-year old forward in favor of gaining further experience. The decision has returned positively as the Californian has won three times and placed in the top-three in six of 16 Indy Lights races this year.

The final newcomer is still in the yet to be confirmed at the time POPULAR SPEED went to press, however if reports are accurate, the addition of Brendon Hartley as a teammate to fellow New Zealander Scott Dixon at Chip Ganassi is the ultimate boom or bust scenario. The former Formula One test driver and Porsche LMP-1 Hybrid competitor has a boat load of experience and a ton of speed, but the 27-year old does come with a “buyer beware” message. Hartley also has shown a case of over-aggressiveness during his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship, and while he may show incredible pace in IndyCar, he also could run up a substantial accident bill for Ganassi if confirmed for next season.

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

Ultimate IndyCar 2018 Silly Season Guide (September Update)

One month into the 2018 silly season for the Verizon IndyCar Series and a couple of pieces of the puzzle have been connected.

First, Andretti Autosport will retain the services of 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi. At first, it was believed that a change to Chevrolet engines would signal a separation between parties as Honda was tagged as a key to the deal. However, unlike the complications involving Takuma Sato, the California ex-Formula One pilot has been confirmed. Rossi has shown his thanks to the renewal of faith from management by running up front in recent rounds, including his second career victory last weekend at Watkins Glen International.

The second domino to fall was the revelation that Tony Kanaan is on the move. After four seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing, the Brazilian appears ready to join A.J. Foyt Racing for 2018, as the former Texas-based operation gets fully acclimated to its new headquarters in Indianapolis. While it seems that Conor Daly’s future with Super Tex is safe, his current teammate Carlos Munoz might be looking for an out. After nearly winning at the Brickyard last year with Andretti Autosport, the Colombian has placed no higher than seventh in any of the 16 races run to date and sits 16th on the points table.

Here is the breakdown, team-by-team, so far.

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

Despite reports claiming Helio Castroneves is trying to convince Roger Penske to let him attempt another full season in 2018, the Brazilian seems set to join Juan Pablo Montoya to co-drive the Captain’s new Daytona Prototype International entry in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. If that holds true, expect to see both drivers get cars for the Indianapolis 500. Otherwise, no other changes are expected as Penske downsizes to three runners full-time.

CHIP GANASSI RACING: Scott Dixon (CONFIRMED), Max Chilton (Possible), Charlie Kimball (Unlikely)

Tony Kanaan is expected to leave Chip Ganassi Racing and team up with A.J. Foyt Racing. The move comes with NTT Data unwilling to support two entries for all 17 races in 2018. A downscaling of the CGR operation could become a reality as a replacement for Target department stores, who left the squad after 2016 has yet to occur.

Unless extra funding comes into play, it does not appear likely that Ganassi will enter four cars in 2018. The most likely scenario has the squad down to three; however, some have even hinted at only a two-car plan for the new year.

With Dixon set for next season, the question looms on the future for CGR’s current third and fourth pilots. Chilton and his backing from Gallagher Investments have been linked to a potential new team under the direction of Trevor Carlin, with whom the Englishman drove for in the Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires circuit. With Novo Nordisk reportedly also peeling back a little on its support of Kimball, the American could join up with both Carlin and Chilton likewise. With talks between Ganassi and Kimball believed to be in iffy mode, the Carlin possibility may start to gain more steam.

While options are few and far between at this point, keep in mind that Esteban Gutierrez is out there. The Mexican ex-Formula One chauffeur is bankrolled by Carlos Slim, whose Telcel brand sponsored Ganassi for several seasons in the former Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series. Could a possible rejoin be in play? Stay tuned.

ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT: Ryan Hunter-Reay (CONFIRMED), Marco Andretti (CONFIRMED), Alexander Rossi (CONFIRMED), Fernando Alonso (Possible)

Announcements have already begun to come in regards to 2018 as Michael Andretti confirmed they will stick with Honda. Then before his successful weekend at Watkins Glen International, the 2016 Indy 500 champion was re-signed, placing him alongside both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti who are on multi-year deals.

With Takuma Sato likely out, Andretti could be forced to rely on a financially-backed pilot to fill the fourth seat. Looking ahead to next year, only Hunter-Reay is fully sponsored via DHL. Andretti has had a myriad of different names on his car in 2017, mainly forced by the collapse of original backer H-H Gregg.

The rumors linking Fernando Alonso to the ride, however, have also gained momentum over the last month. With the Spaniard languishing in Formula One with an uncompetitive McLaren ride, a move to the U.S. and IndyCar could make sense following a solid performance this past May in the Indy 500.

RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING: Graham Rahal (CONFIRMED), Takuma Sato (Possible)

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

Indy Lights veteran Zachary Claman de Melo will handle a second car for Rahal at the season finale next weekend at Sonoma; however, he does not appear to have the money required to take this seat in 2018.

SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS: James Hinchcliffe (Probable), Santiago Urrutia (Possible)

With Hinch possibly in the mix for a ride with Ganassi or even a return to his former home at Andretti, Schmidt may be forced to play a waiting game looking ahead to 2018. Though if the Canadian stays put, then the focus shifts to the team’s second seat. Financial issues have prevented Mikhail Aleshin from retaining the ride for next season.

With the Russian out of play, Arrow Electronics could sponsor both entries. If that is in the cards, Indy Lights veteran Santiago Urrutia, who is also supported by Arrow, could become a target. As could Takuma Sato as Honda has reportedly increased its support for the squad in 2018, with a multi-year deal announced on Friday that extends to 2020.

DALE COYNE RACING: Sebastien Bourdais (CONFIRMED), Ed Jones (Possible), Pippa Mann (Probable, Indy 500 only)

Although Bourdais has struggled in his first two races back from serious injuries suffered in May at Indianapolis, all signs point to the Frenchman continuing with the Chicago-based operation in 2018. The concern shifts to Jones, who’s had a decent rookie season with the team, but will be without the scholarship money he had in hand after the Indy Lights title in 2016. With his Dubai connections, however, funds to cover the expenses might not be too hard to come by. Of course, it could be tough to match the financials that Carlos Slim-supported pilot Esteban Gutierrez could provide.

If Coyne reverts to the ride goes to the highest bidder philosophy, he carried before this year, then Jones might be looking elsewhere for employment in 2018. Expect the team to once again have Pippa Mann at the Indianapolis 500. The English veteran and the Windy City runners have been attached at the hip for Indy since 2013.

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

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

HARDING RACING: Gabby Chaves (Probable)

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

A.J. FOYT RACING: Tony Kanaan (Probable), Conor Daly (Possible)

Tony Kanaan is all but a lock to join Super Tex’s operation, which will be fully online in Indianapolis by the start of the new year. With Foyt expected to remain at two cars in 2018, the question now is which 2017 returnee stays put.

The current campaign has been a frustrating one for both Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly, who each were expected to provide a boost. With neither placing better than fifth in any event to date, the question of which either driver stays is unknown. If anyone bolts, the most likely would be the Colombian, who just missed out on an Indy 500 victory in 2016. With no other options in play, the Indiana resident may stick with Foyt.

JUNCOS RACING: Kyle Kaiser (Possible), ???

Ricardo Juncos’ Indy Lights operation moved up to IndyCar competition to field two cars at this year’s Indianapolis 500. The ultimate goal is to run full-time with at least one car next season. Kyle Kaiser having wrapped up the 2017 Indy Lights championship last weekend, provides the scholarship advancement money needed to take one of those seats.

If Spencer Pigot is looking for a full-time ride in 2018, Juncos could be his lone opportunity. The American prospect drove for the squad in 2015, the same year he won the Indy Lights title. Juncos’ other Indy 500 pilot Sebastian Saavedra could also be sought here.

CARLIN RACING: Max Chilton (Possible), Charlie Kimball (Possible)

After backing out from possibly taking over the now defunct KV Racing team last year, Trevor Carlin is believed to be exploring entering the circuit on his own in 2018. The key cog here is Max Chilton and possibly a second driver with some money in hand. The number two pilot could be Charlie Kimball, who is reportedly not faring well in negotiations with Chip Ganassi Racing about a contract extension for next season. Although his support from sponsor Novo Nordisk is likely to be reduced, when coupled with the cash from Gallagher Investments that Chilton carries, it might be enough to tip the apple cart in his favor.

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

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

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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

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IndyCar Open Wheel

POWER RANKINGS: Watkins Glen

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.

Wrong time to have a clunker. Josef Newgarden has allowed at least three rivals to have a good chance to win the championship, with double points at stake in the GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway. While rain should not be a factor in the Wine Country, the momentum generated by the previous podium finishes could be non-existent.

A couple of notable drivers have moved up the list this week, including Scott Dixon. Before Newgarden jumped to the top last month, the Iceman had been a consistent number one for the first two-thirds of the season.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (Unchanged)
Only Helio Castroneves made the top-five at Watkins Glen, as the strategy calls backfired on other pilots in the Captain’s camp not named Josef Newgarden. Still, the complete body of work for 2017 merits their stay at the top of the heap.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (Unchanged)
Scott Dixon’s second-straight runner-up placing has him in control of his own destiny behind Josef Newgarden by only three points. Top-tens earned by Charlie Kimball (seventh) and Max Chilton (eighth) merit praise likewise.

3. Andretti Autosport (Unchanged)
Not only is Alexander Rossi’s future secured at Andretti in 2018, but he also returned the favor by crushing the competition at Watkins Glen. A solid drive, minus the bad luck that has plagued him throughout 2017, netted Ryan Hunter-Reay a strong third-place result.

4. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (+1)
Graham Rahal moves RLLR back to the number four spot on the list, thanks to a trouble-free, fifth-place output in upstate New York.

5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (-1)
Respectable run from Jack Harvey earned 14th at the checkered flag. However, a second bad effort in the last three rounds by James Hinchcliffe drops SPM down a rung this week.

6. Dale Coyne Racing (Unchanged)
If not for sub par resumes from the Foyt and Carpenter squads, Coyne’s duo of Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones would have dropped a notch this week. A warning shot if season closes poorly at Sonoma, though.

7. A.J. Foyt Racing (Unchanged)
Difficult to overlook poor showings for most of the 2017 campaign, but Carlos Munoz (tenth) and Conor Daly (eleventh) have each netted two consecutive good results. A third to close out 2017 could jump them ahead of Coyne entering the off-season.

8. Ed Carpenter Racing (Unchanged)
2017 has been a year of missed opportunities for road-course specialist Spencer Pigot. The former Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion should have garnered better than a 12th-place effort at Watkins Glen. J.R. Hildebrand never made an impact and came home in 15th.

9. Harding Racing (=)
Assuming Harding does indeed go full-time in 2018, Gabby Chaves and company will face a steep learning curve. Still, the Larry Curry-managed squad could be a threat on the ovals at least.

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

Driver Rankings:

1. Josef Newgarden (Unchanged)
Praying for rain that never came, the Tennessee-native faces a tougher task to win the title entering the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. We will learn quickly how short a memory the Penske pilot has.

2. Scott Dixon (+3)
Back-to-back runner-up placings have the New Zealander well within the range of a fifth IndyCar championship. The results before Gateway were not so great, but unlike Newgarden he has, for the most part, avoided the DNFs.

3. Helio Castroneves (+2)
The Brazilian still has a chance at claiming his first title in what likely will be the last shot. While that scenario could bring about a big result, it could also lead to an ill-timed maneuver. He will need to do better than fourth-place at Watkins Glen when the circuit heads to Sonoma.

4. Alexander Rossi (+2)
Celebrated his short run on the free agent market, by blowing away the competition at New York’s Thunder Road. While he is too far back in points to challenge for a series crown, he could play the role of spoiler in the Wine Country.

5. Will Power (-2)
Sixth-place was nice at the Glen, but damage suffered early in the 2017 season appears to be too much to overcome.

6. Simon Pagenaud (-4)
Might of had a better shot to post a better showing if strategy did not go belly up. Inconsistency has plagued the Frenchman in his title defense.

7. Graham Rahal (+1)
Not been a bad year for Rahal and RLLR; the fifth-place effort was a good one in New York. The Ohioan however, will need a huge finish at Sonoma if he is to be in consideration for a higher end of year ranking.

8. Ryan Hunter-Reay (+1)
Another good performance at Watkins Glen continues to move the 2012 series champion up the list. Not the season we have come to expect from RHR in recent campaigns, but he should be a bigger threat in the new year.

9. James Hinchcliffe (-2)
Back to the drawing board for Hinch and the SPM squad after a rough go of it at Watkins Glen. Not having a consistent teammate may be a potential reason for the recent run of iffy showings.

10. Max Chilton (Unranked)
Time to re-insert the Englishman back into the rankings after a good top-ten at Watkins Glen. While teammate Charlie Kimball outran him by one position, Chilton has a more impressive resume, topped off with a career run to fourth at the Indy 500.

Dropped Out: Tony Kanaan (Was No. 10 after St. Louis)

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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

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

Fantasy Hot Tip: Watkins Glen

Two chances are left for Firestone Fantasy Challenge combatants to improve their placement in the 2017 edition of the IndyCar.com fan game.

Yours truly has not had much luck lately, but I still have a decent chance to secure a top-ten finish after Sonoma, assuming the points output is solid. For the Grand Prix at the Glen on Sunday, I have loaded my roster with road course warriors and championship contenders.

While a $33 price tag on championship leader Josef Newgarden is more than I care to spend for a four-member group that is capped at $100, the quartet chosen is still strong. At the head of the list is Scott Dixon, currently second in the title chase, trailing the Team Penske driver by only 31 points. The New Zealander has struggled to earn top-five results in recent weeks, yet the record book rates him highly in upstate New York. The Iceman has won at this venue four times and placed outside the first ten only once.

Even if Honda is a step or two behind the Penske Chevrolets concerning outright pace over a fuel stint, the talent should be able to override the handicap enough to remain in a role among the frontrunners.

Newgarden’s teammate Will Power has also been selected for this round. The Australian took the checkered flag first at New York’s Thunder Road in 2010; however, let the buyer beware when taking him. He has also placed 15th and 20th in his other two attempts. Despite the disclaimer, the No. 12 Chevrolet chauffeur has bounced back well from a bad result and will need to back-up that reality as a crash on Lap 1 last week in St. Louis cost him precious ground to his Tennessee-based colleague in the championship.

Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi has had a good track record in his last four efforts on the IndyCar circuit. He has taken two podium finishes and was sixth in the other two rounds, including last week at Gateway. Despite a dry spell in the second half of last year’s slate, the NAPA Honda driver did manage to come home in eighth in New York in 2016.

To compensate for the heavy hitters in the first three seats this week, I have taken a flyer on Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran Jack Harvey, who makes his series debut on a road course on Sunday. Although the British prospect has yet to run at Watkins Glen in his open-wheel career, five of his six wins on the second tier of the Mazda Road to Indy pyramid were on the twisty layouts, as opposed to ovals.

While selecting Dixon is a must, you can afford to get creative to score big points. Good luck players!

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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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Commentary Open Wheel Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: St. Louis

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.

He’s not there yet, but Josef Newgarden’s victory in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500k at Gateway Motorsports Park puts him another step closer to the ultimate destination. Two tough tests remain though; this weekend at Watkins Glen and then at Sonoma.

 

Team Rankings:

  1. Team Penske (Unchanged)

The Captain’s quartet owned last weekend’s proceedings. Although things ended with a little controversy between Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, it will take something catastrophic to dethrone the big dogs from securing the top team honors for 2017.

  1. Chip Ganassi Racing (Unchanged)

Scott Dixon took runner-up honors in St. Louis, but never showed the potential for snatching the win from any of the Penske pilots. He was there late to take advantage of Pagenaud’s misfortune, however. Decent showing from Charlie Kimball to take seventh at the flag, a rare sunny moment for what’s been a painful year for the American.

  1. Andretti Autosport (Unchanged)

If Alexander Rossi is fighting to stay on the IndyCar grid in 2018, he is making a positive impression, at least in the last four races. Sixth-place was a well-earned finish and a rare thumbs up moment for the Andretti effort at St. Louis. Marco Andretti was never a threat on Saturday night, and DNFs fell upon both Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

  1. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1)

Solid recovery after the double retirement suffered at Pocono. James Hinchcliffe takes eighth at St. Louis, while Sebastian Saavedra closes out his 2017 slate with a quiet, but effective 11th-place run.

  1. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (-1)

No fireworks from Graham Rahal on Saturday as he settled for 12th at the finish. Returning to the road courses could regain number four placement by the end of the season.

  1. Dale Coyne Racing (Unchanged)

Strong comeback race for Sebastien Bourdais, who managed to reach the lead at one point on his way to reaching tenth at the climax. No challenge from Ed Jones at St. Louis; 13th was the result for the Dubai-based rookie.

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

Finally, this is what we expected for Super Tex’s squad at the start of 2017. Outstanding effort from Conor Daly to run with the lead pack late, taking fifth at the conclusion. Carlos Munoz also handled things well in St. Louis, coming home in ninth. The focus in the final two rounds is building momentum for 2018.

  1. Ed Carpenter Racing (-1)

A substantial repair bill was dropped upon ECR in what was likely their last chance to make an impact in 2018. Wild ride on the opening lap eliminated team boss Ed Carpenter, while a crash at the other end of the Gateway Motorsports Park circuit removed J.R. Hildebrand from the action.

  1. Harding Racing (=)

Assuming Harding does indeed go full-time in 2018, Gabby Chaves and company will face a steep learning curve. Still, the Larry Curry-managed squad could be a threat on the ovals at least.

  1. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (=)

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

 

Driver Rankings

  1. Josef Newgarden (Unchanged)

Three wins in the last four events is stout. Even if one were to discount the St. Louis triumph with the contact to Simon Pagenaud, a runner-up showing would not have ruined the recent dominant form. There is work to be done to lock up his first IndyCar championship, but as long as he does not defeat himself, this is the favorite with two to run.

  1. Simon Pagenaud (Unchanged)

Only Newgarden has been more impressive than the reigning champion. While a successful defense of the crown is a long shot, he still could reach second on the points table before the year closes out.

  1. Will Power (-2)   

The pole position on Friday was lost by a first lap crash on race day. Road course ace still with an outside chance, but surrendered any momentum gained in previous showings.

  1. Helio Castroneves (+1)

Bad pit stop relegated the Brazilian to fourth-place last Saturday. He has not had a poor result since Texas retirement; however, he may have too much to do to win championship in possibly his final full year.

  1. Scott Dixon (+1)

Second-place at St. Louis stopped a four-race skid without a top-five. Honda has been a few steps behind at the recent road course efforts compared to the Penske Chevrolets. That trend must change if the Iceman is to stay in the battle for a fifth title.

  1. Alexander Rossi (Unchanged)

Sixth-place at St. Louis continues a recent move forward for the 2016 Indy 500 champion. Could reach the top-five on the standings list with two more good runs, coupled with some bad luck from those ahead of him.

  1. James Hinchcliffe (Unranked)

Canadian absorbed the bad effort at Pocono, with a clean run from start to finish in St. Louis. The eighth-place result puts the Mayor back into the rankings this week.

  1. Graham Rahal (-1)

Rahal hung around the top-ten for most of the first three-quarters of Saturday night’s proceedings. However, the story repeated itself from Pocono as the Ohioan fell to 12th in the final moments.

  1. Ryan Hunter-Reay (Unchanged)

Five DNFs have derailed the 2012 series champion, who is better on paper than his 11th-place spot in the points would lead you to believe.

  1. Tony Kanaan (Unranked)

Four of the last six rounds have ended with finishes of 16th or worse. If not for a mediocre bottom half in the IndyCar Series, TK would have dropped off the list this week.

Dropped Out: Takuma Sato (Was No. 10 after Pocono)

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

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.

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Gateway Motorsports Park

With only three races for Firestone Fantasy Challenge players, the opportunity to gain ground is getting limited.

That is certainly the case for yours truly, as my quartet for last weekend’s ABC Supply 500 failed to impress. To recover lost ground, those who fared well at Pocono Raceway’s “Tricky Triangle,” have been called upon to rake in the points as the Verizon IndyCar Series competes at the Gateway Motorsports Park oval for the first time since 2003.

Last week’s winner Will Power from Team Penske leads this Sunday’s foursome. Although known more for his exploits on road courses, the Australian has exceeded expectations on ovals in 2017. Two of his three triumphs have been oval-based, and he has a second and a fourth also on the scorecard. The only blemish suffered was a 21st-place finish at the Indianapolis 500, when Power was eliminated in a multi-car accident, not of his own doing.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan is not the same victory threat across the board that he was when he started his efforts in IndyCar in 2003. However, the Brazilian continues to remain potent on the high-speed layouts, earning a top-ten finish in every oval race so far this season. While not normally a good value concerning fantasy-wise, TK has earned his place on my team this weekend.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand unexpectedly struggled at Pocono, only placing 19th after suffering contact with James Hinchcliffe. Despite the setback, the Californian has excelled on the shorter ovals in 2017, collecting his two best finishes to date. He placed third behind two Penske cars at Phoenix and settled for runner-up honors at Iowa Speedway.

Alexander Rossi rounds out my roster for St. Louis, but may have the lowest credentials on oval tracks compared to the other members of the trio. But, the 2016 Indy 500 champion has momentum, collecting top-six results in each of the last three rounds.

With the oval portion of the schedule coming to a close, expect the edge Honda may have had on Chevrolet at Pocono to be lessened at St. Louis. If that plays out, Team Penske could take over the proceedings much as they did at Phoenix Raceway.

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.