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?
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