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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

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)

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

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!

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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Commentary Open Wheel

Newgarden Opens Path Toward First Championship At Pocono

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Fantasy Hot Tip: Pocono

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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

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IndyCar

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

Dixon and Ganassi Primed for Return to Former Toronto Glory

Chip Ganassi Racing knows what it takes to win on the streets of Toronto, as noted by winning four events over the span of six years. However, the last victory for the organization came in 2013. Based on how things are playing out this season, though, the magic could be rekindled.

Scott Dixon’s last triumph in Toronto came in the form of domination, sweeping the double-header weekend after leading 81 of 85 laps in the second event on Sunday, July 14. Dixon’s pair of victories followed Dario Franchitti’s wins in 2009 and 2011.

While the organization has continued to run up front, they have failed to reach victory lane the past four years. It hasn’t been without effort, though, as they placed a driver in the top-five each year except for 2015 when Tony Kanaan missed out by one spot in sixth. It’s also worth noting in both 2014 doubleheader events, Ganassi had two drivers in the top-five.

Dixon has also qualified well each year, starting on pole last season and leading 56 of the 85 circuits before an ill-timed caution hurt his race strategy, resulting in an eighth-place finish.

This year, though, things could change in favor of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Honda has proven to have the better street course package over Chevrolet, sweeping the four events so far. Honda placed four drivers in the top-five at St. Petersburg, followed by three in the top-five at Long Beach. The double-header in Detroit saw the dominance continue, with four Hondas in the top-five for race one, followed by two in the second event.

Over the past three events at Exhibition Place, Kanaan has posted the better finishes – fourth, second and third – compared to Dixon’s eighth, seventh and fifth. However, if you’re placing your bet on Ganassi, Dixon is the better choice.

“I love coming to Toronto,” Dixon told POPULAR SPEED in May. “It’s a lot of fun. I think the fans are very enthusiastic, knowledgeable, the race has a lot of history here, and the track layout is very tough physically and technically, and even the added changes last year made it a tough circuit to wrap your head around. The atmosphere that this place has is one of the best street courses that we go to.”

He enters the weekend with more momentum as he currently leads the points standings, eight markers over Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves. The driver of the No. 9 Honda has run up front each week, posting one victory and six top-10’s in the last six races, compared to Kanaan’s struggles with three top-10’s in the same span.

Dixon has also run well at each of the street courses this season to date, posting a top-six finish in each of the four events, highlighted by a pair of podiums. He has also posted a top-eight finish in his last six Toronto appearances, including the pair of previously noted victories.

If the cards play into Dixon’s favor, this weekend could very well help shape the championship picture moving forward.

The New Zealand driver has used consistency to build his lead so far, with only one finish outside the top-10 with a crash in the Indianapolis 500. While the strategy has paid off, it has kept the focus off of Dixon with his name not surfacing in title conversation – till recently.

He caught the attention of those who hadn’t noticed his drive so far this year last month by picking up a dominant victory at Road America after leading 24 laps. Now if he could score a second victory this weekend, there would be no denying him as part of the conversation.

A win would also prove that Chip Ganassi Racing is back stronger than ever, ready to battle toe-to-toe with Penske Racing after the Captain swept the top-three spots in the points last year.

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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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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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.