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IndyCar Series title truly up for grabs

8/4/2014 - IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS -- Does anybody really want to win the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship?

It's a strange question to ask, but nobody in the IndyCar field is showing the speed or consistency necessary to take control of the title chase.

A sixth-place finish in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was enough for Will Power to retake the points lead from his Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves.

With Castroneves out of contention, four laps behind from the start thanks to an electronics glitch, it was a golden opportunity for Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya to cut their points deficit. But none of them could better ninth place at Mid-Ohio.

Meanwhile, defending (and three-time) IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon is heating up. Dixon has scored more points than any other driver over the past five races dating to the Pocono 500 in early July, and his first victory of the season Sunday at Mid-Ohio couldn't have come at a better time.

Nor in more dramatic fashion, as Dixon came from last to first while using both speed and fuel-saving strategy to claim Ganassi Racing's first triumph of the 2014 campaign.

"Relief is the biggest thing," he related. "It's a lot later in the season than we're used to as a team. Sometimes you can understand if one of us hasn't won at this point, but all four of us ...

"The way the weekend started, even the test, the car was extremely fast and looked good until I made the mistake in qualifying," Dixon added. "I thought to try to come from last on the grid here to even a top-10 was going to be extremely tough to do."

Dixon used a savvy strategy call by tactician (and Ganassi Racing managing director) Mike Hull to take the lead, and once he got there, he had the pace to pull away although he was trying to save as much fuel as possible. The New Zealand driver's ability to run such a fast pace while still pulling away in the lead astounded his pursuers, led by KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais.

"When I saw how late he made it on the last pit stop, it was pretty clear he was not only making the mileage but also faster than us," Bourdais said. "There was no hope there.

"The fastest car won the race. That's pretty much all that matters in the end."

Dixon is still sixth in the standings, but his win at Mid-Ohio cut his deficit to the leader from 146 to 108 points. Remarkably, it was only his second podium of the season and first since Barber Motorsports Park in April.

With two tracks that have been favorable to Dixon (the Milwaukee Mile and Sonoma Raceway) and double points offered for the 500-mile IndyCar season finale at Auto Club Speedway, he can't be counted out of the championship chase yet.

As a whole, the season to date has been somewhat reminiscent of the 2000 CART-sanctioned Indy car championship.

Depending on your perspective, that was either a close and competitive 20-race title tilt, or a comedy of bizarre circumstances and errors that led to the crown not being claimed until the final round.

Five drivers had a shot at the championship heading into that season finale -- also at the track then known as California Speedway -- where Gil de Ferran's third-place finish in the race was enough to secure the big prize over competitors like Castroneves, Michael Andretti, Adrian Fernandez, Roberto Moreno, Kenny Brack, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser and Dario Franchitti.

In 2000, defending CART champion Montoya won a series-high three races and led 820 laps, more than twice as many as anybody else. But the Colombian finished an unrepresentative ninth in the season standings. De Ferran, who won two races, was fourth in laps led, with 286. In total, 11 drivers won races in 2000. This year's 15 races to date have featured 10 victors, led by Hunter-Reay's three. Power, Pagenaud and Mike Conway have won two races each, but Conway is not contesting the full championship for Ed Carpenter Racing.

A single win at Detroit's Belle Isle was enough to put Castroneves at the head of the points table in a season that nobody has been able to dominate. Power, with two wins, leads the series in laps led with 353. Tony Kanaan (ninth in points) is next with 326, followed by Castroneves with 241.

Last year, Dixon's charge to his third IndyCar Series championship started with a victory at Pocono. His fifth-place finish there this year may be looked back on as the turning point of this year's campaign.

Since the Pocono race on July 6, Dixon has scored more points than any other driver, gaining 60 on Power in that time.

Meanwhile, Montoya and Hunter-Reay are slumping at a bad time. Hunter-Reay has scored just 121 points in the last five races, 12th best to Dixon's 203. Montoya has scored 158 points in the races dating back to his win in the Pocono 500, but only 56 points came in the last four events.

Hunter-Reay had a fast car in practice at Mid-Ohio and qualified fifth, but a pit-lane speed violation and a spin relegated him to 10th place at the flag.

"It was one of those days we really needed to capitalize," said Hunter-Reay, who came from behind to beat Power to the 2012 IndyCar Series championship. "We'll have to get pretty creative here the rest of the year."

Championship leader Power enters the final three races of the year with a four-point edge over Castroneves and in the knowledge that two of the three remaining tracks should play into his favor. Sonoma Raceway is arguably Power's best circuit, with three wins and a second-place finish the past four years there, and he is the defending champion at Auto Club Speedway.

"If you look at the way we finished the season last year, we are right where we need to be," he said. "We have a small lead, and the key from here on is to finish ahead of the other guys week in and week out."