IndyCar title tilt hits the homestretch
There was some concern expressed before the season when INDYCAR announced that the scoring system that produced eight consecutive nail-biting championship finishes was being modified.
But two-thirds of the way through the Verizon IndyCar Series' 2014 campaign, it's business as usual. Five drivers are solidly in the hunt for the crown, and several others, including defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, are just one really good weekend away from putting themselves back into title contention.
"It seems like nobody wants it," said Dixon. "There's been a lot of good points given up, even with the guys sitting first and second [in the standings].
"At the front of the field, at the moment, it makes for a really good fight for the championship."
The introduction in 2013 of doubleheader street-course weekends that offered a driver the opportunity to score double points has been expanded this year to make the three 500-mile speedway races on the calendar (Indianapolis, Pocono and Auto Club/Fontana) worth 100 points instead of the usual 50.
Last year, Dixon used a 100-point sweep of the Toronto doubleheader weekend and a 74-point swing on Helio Castroneves in the Houston twin bill late in the season as the cornerstones of the run for his third IndyCar Series championship.
Yet as the New Zealander pointed out, nobody has really put together a run of even three or four strong races in a row to stand out this year.
Ryan Hunter-Reay leads the series with three race wins yet lies third in the standings following a series of lackluster results between his double-points victory in the Indy 500 in late May and his Saturday night triumph at Iowa Speedway.
Juan Pablo Montoya is this year's other 500-mile winner, and that healthy helping of 100 points lifted the Colombian into the top five in the standings. His Team Penske teammates Castroneves and Will Power run 1-2 atop the points, but neither man has ever won an IndyCar championship and both have a history of faltering down the stretch.
Tony Kanaan has led the second-most laps this year (mainly courtesy of his dominance at Iowa), but he doesn't have a win to show for it and is 10th in the standings. Meanwhile, Carlos Munoz hasn't led a lap yet has posted twice as many top-5 finishes as Kanaan and ranks four places higher.
With six races remaining in the season, evenly split between street courses, road courses and ovals, who will have the advantage when the season wraps up at Fontana on Labor Day weekend? Here's an early form guide (ranked according to points):
* Bad race denotes a finish of 15th or worse in what is generally a 22- to 23-car field.
1. Helio Castroneves -- 471 points, one win, six top-5 finishes, two bad races, 208 laps led
Castroneves has been the year's most consistent driver, but he hasn't been in position to win many races. He will be a strong contender at Fontana, but he needs to arrive there as the points leader.
Key weekend: Toronto, where Castroneves has never won and has five finishes of 16th or worse in seven starts.
Quotable: "The plan is to bring this championship to Roger Penske. Whoever it's going to be, that's the luck of the draw. I dealt with this scenario before. This is not my first rodeo, which is a good problem to have."
2. Will Power -- 462 points, two wins, six top-5 finishes, zero bad races, 348 laps led
Power leads the series in exciting moves and laps led, but he also tops the charts in terms of penalties assessed, for blocking, pit equipment and pit speed violations, and avoidable contact. Still clearly the fastest man in the series, Power has to clean up his races if he wants to win a title.
Key weekend: Milwaukee, where he can prove once and for all that he's a contender at every kind of oval.
Quotable: "One race at a time. I'm good on ovals, I'm good on street courses, I'm good on road courses. We've just gotta be smart and just have a good finish to the season and see if we can win a championship."
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Ryan Hunter-Reay wasn't a contender for most of the night at Iowa Speedway on Saturday, but a heady call from team owner Michael Andretti made him a winner, writes John Oroevicz. Blog
Ryan Hunter-Reay blew past the field with two laps to go and won the IndyCar race at Iowa Speedway on Saturday for his first victory since the Indianapolis 500. Story
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay -- 439 points, three wins, five top-5 finishes, five bad races, 167 laps led
Any year that includes an Indianapolis 500 win is a good year, but Hunter-Reay is on the way to making it a great one. He made a rare lapse in judgment at Long Beach but has been strong at every kind of circuit to overcome a poor run of results post-Indy. The remaining schedule plays in his favor.
Key weekend: Sonoma, where Hunter-Reay has never finished higher than sixth.
Quotable: "I've learned in the years of experience that I've had in the Verizon IndyCar Series that you just have to keep your head in it. No matter what, you have to charge hard and be ready for it. Whether it's a street circuit or a short oval, races can turn."
4. Simon Pagenaud -- 421 points, two wins, six top-5 finishes, two bad races, 53 laps led
The stealth man of the IndyCar Series, Pagenaud finished fifth in the standings in 2012 and third in '13 and could still be on an upward trajectory. Always a contender at road and street courses and gaining comfort every week on ovals, Pagenaud is a championship contender of the future -- not to mention the present.
Key weekend: Toronto, where Pagenaud had a miserable 2013 weekend after arriving thinking he would dominate.
Quotable: "I can win. It can happen. But I'm learning, and you can't go faster than the process. I'm very hard on myself, and there's a lot to be done, a lot to learn, in order to win races on a consistent basis on the ovals and to be as strong as I can be on the road courses."
5. Juan Pablo Montoya -- 405 points, one win, five top-5 finishes, four bad races, 74 laps led
Montoya worked up to fourth in the standings by being smart and patient then threw away a potential top-5 finish at Iowa by being possibly too aggressive. He will have to keep that fire while tempering it with experience down the stretch.
Key weekend: Toronto, where Montoya wasn't at his best when he raced Indy cars there in 1999 and 2000. He has also struggled on some street courses in his return this year.
Quotable: "We just have to keep doing what we are doing. I told the guys this week it's great that we won, but getting there is one thing. The other thing is staying there, and to stay there we are going to have to really step it up."
6. Carlos Munoz -- 358 points, zero wins, four top-5 finishes, four bad races, zero laps led
Munoz hasn't really set the world on fire, but he's a skilled oval racer who rarely makes mistakes and generally sees the checkered flag. He has managed to string together a nice run of top-5s without factoring in any race outside Indianapolis.
Quotable: "My goal is to stay there in the championship and win the rookie award, to learn as much as I can this year and make it a big year next year."
7. Marco Andretti -- 337 points, zero wins, two top-5 finishes, three bad races, 22 laps led
Andretti looks closer to winning than Graham Rahal at the moment, but it's still shaping up like another lost season for the third-generation star. Milwaukee is his best chance for victory.
Quotable: "It's been frustrating, because the races we haven't finished are maybe the ones we had the best shot at. We just need to win."
Hope this luck changes soon. Frustrating. http://t.co/Vuh5oVz810- Marco Andretti (@MarcoAndretti) July 13, 2014
8. Scott Dixon -- 331 points, zero wins, five top-5 finishes, four bad races, 44 laps led
The Ganassi team anticipated the disruption that comes with switching engine manufacturers, but the late change to the driver lineup was unexpected. The team is slowly getting more competitive, but it may be too late for any of its drivers to mount a championship challenge.
Quotable: "We've got a little bit of work to do, and consistently being at the top has probably been our struggle right now."
9. Ryan Briscoe -- 307 points, zero wins, one top-5 finish, three bad races, five laps led
A last-minute addition to the Ganassi team when Dario Franchitti was forced into retirement, Briscoe and the No. 8 team are rounding into shape but look unlikely to reel in the series of race wins they need to get back into the hunt for the crown.
Quotable: "Things are really looking up. We just keep looking better and better as the season progresses, and I think we have a lot to look forward to in the second half of this season."
10. Tony Kanaan -- 305 points, zero wins, two top-5 finishes, two bad races, 326 laps led
Still stout on the ovals, Kanaan should have at least one win on the board. The loss at Iowa after leading 247 laps had to be tough to swallow. Not really a championship threat these days but still one of the IndyCar Series' best.
Quotable: "We dominated the last two races. For one reason or the other, we didn't win. But to win a race, you've got to be up front. That's what we've been doing."
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