STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- After packing nine races into an eight-week period, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns from a short summer vacation for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
The race for the IndyCar championship starts now, and the driver with momentum is Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon. The New Zealander went three-for-three in July, claiming a victory at Pocono and sweeping the Toronto doubleheader to move from seventh to second in the standings, 29 points behind championship leader Helio Castroneves.
Conversely, July was a disaster for defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who started the month just nine points back of Castroneves but ended it down by 69. Marco Andretti (-70) is the only other driver within 100 points of Castroneves.
Although Castroneves is a two-time winner at Mid-Ohio (CART-sanctioned events in 2000 and '01), Dixon is the man to watch this weekend. He's won four of the last six Indy car races at the hard-to-master road course, often in dominant fashion, but he's hesitant to take the credit.
"The Target team always had good results here, and both cars have been very quick," Dixon said. "If you could put your finger on it, you would try to replicate it at every track. It makes it tough to work out why, but if you are, you just roll with it, and hopefully you can continue it each year."
"I hope we can keep these results coming," he added. "It was much needed. It was a big turning point for us in the championship. Before Pocono, we were 92 points out, and now 29 and second in the championship. Typically, Mid-Ohio has been a great circuit for us. Hopefully that transfers."
For most of the 2012 and '13 seasons, the Ganassi team as a whole was unable to replicate its dominant form from 2008 to 2011, when Dixon and Dario Franchitti won four consecutive IndyCar titles. Franchitti's 2013 season got off to a terrible start, and while he still hasn't won a race this year, he's up to sixth in the standings, 118 points back and with a remote shot at the title.
Dixon's season didn't start quite as badly, but until peaking in July, he had visited the podium only once and had four finishes of 16th or worse.
"We don't intentionally start the season bad, though we typically seem to somehow," Dixon said. "With how many different race winners we've had this year [eight in 13 races], the points are jumbled up and people have made strides at different points in the year.
"I suspect there's going to be four, five, six people that are going to be fighting for it at the end of the year. Hopefully we're one of them."
Castroneves' Mid-Ohio victory in 2000 was just the third of his Indy car career. His total now stands at 28, but unlike two-time champion Dixon [2003 and '08], Castroneves has never won the IndyCar Series championship.
Although he has only one race win this season (at Texas Motor Speedway), Castroneves has put together the most consistent campaign of his 15-year Indy car career. His only finish outside the top 10 came at his home race in Sao Paulo.
With three Indianapolis 500 wins on his résumé, Castroneves' status as one of Indy car racing's all-time greats is already established. He knows that a championship would crown his legacy.
"We've always been very close, and right now things are going our way. Hopefully we keep it this way, but there's still a long way to go," Castroneves cautioned.
We've been right there second in the points pretty much the whole year and have two race wins, but we've just had a string of bad races recently. From Pocono to Toronto -- eight days -- we had a terrible run, and we're ready to turn that around.
"-- Ryan Hunter-Reay
"Six races, a lot of points are involved. We just need to keep doing what we're doing. It's gotten us here to this point. We're pushing the limit of the car and myself, but we're not trying to overdo it. If the car is good, we'll go for it. If the car's not good, then we have to find ways to make it happen."
Unlike Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport teammates have struggled for consistency this year. James Hinchcliffe boasts three race wins but six finishes of 19th or worse, while Marco Andretti has slipped slightly down the order after finishing seventh or better in seven of the first eight races of the season.
Hunter-Reay was fastest in the IndyCar Series' open test at Mid-Ohio on Wednesday, with a lap just 0.3 second off the track record of 1 minute, 5.347 seconds shared by Franchitti and Gil de Ferran.
"We've been right there second in the points pretty much the whole year and have two race wins, but we've just had a string of bad races recently," Hunter-Reay said. "From Pocono to Toronto -- eight days -- we had a terrible run, and we're ready to turn that around.
"There's no better place to turn that around than Mid-Ohio. We've come back from bigger deficits than this, so I'm optimistic."
Several teams have made driver changes for the Mid-Ohio weekend. The biggest news is that popular veteran Alex Tagliani will be subbed out of Barracuda Racing's No. 98 car in favor of 27-year-old Italian Luca Filippi. The F1 aspirant has been trying to break into Indy cars for the past year and hopes to pick up a disappointing campaign for Barracuda that has produced only two top-10 finishes this year.
James Davison, whose two years racing in Indy Lights were highlighted by victories at Mid-Ohio, will make his IndyCar Series debut in Dale Coyne Racing's second car. And Oriol Servia returns to the Panther Racing entry, which will feature a pink camouflage paint scheme this week to honor female soldiers serving in the National Guard.