By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
Penske Racing’s Simon Pagenaud returned to the winners circle for the first time since early May, taking the win at the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In doing so, he has once again established himself as the man to beat for the 2016 championship. Let’s examine a few of the story lines coming out of the race weekend.
1 ) A Championship Caliber Drive
Simon Pagenaud began the season strong and took a large advantage in the standings, but he has watched that lead slowly erode away for a variety of reasons. While he still had a comfortable enough cushion to take a conservative approach, and run for points, he has taken the opposite approach.
Despite suffering with some lower back pain, he gave everything he had in qualifying and laid down a lap seven-tenths of a second quicker than the year-old track record, bumping his teammate Will Power from the top spot. On race day, he had a tremendous start. It was a bit too tremendous, causing some to feel that he jumped the start. The starter didn’t see it that way, and the green waved as the Frenchman went on to dominate the early laps.
When Will Power beat him out during the pit stop exchange, Pagenaud knew this was the one guy he didn’t want to finish behind. On a restart, Pagenaud was aggressive, running side-by-side with Power for nearly a full lap, finally nipping him in turn 12. From there, Pagenaud ran calmly and patiently sticking to his plan, while others played out alternate strategies. In the end, the race came back to him as he took his fourth win on the season.
2 ) What Might Have Been
One of the drivers running an alternate strategy was Schmidt-Peterson wheelman, Mikhail Aleshin. The Russian driver led a race-high 33 laps, and realistically was the man to beat. After assuming the lead, he managed to put an impressive gap on the field before the yellow flew on lap 61 when Jack Hawksworth spun off course.
The timing of the caution allowed for a final stop, but he would have to beat the Penske cars off of pit lane. Perhaps a victim of over-zealousness, Aleshin’s crew waved him out as Josef Newgarden was entering the pit. The ensuing contact caused damage to Aleshin’s front wing, and landed him a double-whammy penalty. He would have to start at the back for an improper pit exit, and then serve a drive-through penalty for making contact with a crew member. In the melee, Aleshin had hit Vince Welcher, a Team Penske crew member, who was uninjured.
“I was the fastest car on the track so obviously the car was pretty good,” said Aleshin, “I think the incident was unfortunate. Sometimes these things happen in the race and we’re ready to win, but we just got a little bit unlucky today.”
There is no doubt in my mind that, had it not been for the miscue on pit lane, Alsehin would have taken his first series victory on Sunday. Despite the lost opportunity today, the future looks bright for Aleshin, who has become well-liked in the paddock. Team principle Sam Schmidt is keen to retain the driver’s services for 2017.
3 ) Slipping Away
While Simon Pagunaud’s dream of a championship took a huge surge forward, there are some others that can feel it slowly slipping away. First, some quick number crunching. With four races remaining, three of those races can pay a maximum of 54 points (50 for a win, 1 for pole, 1 for leading a lap, and 2 for most laps led). Sonoma pays double points, but the bonus structure stays the same, so, 104 points up for grabs there. The one point for pole at Texas has already been awarded to Carlos Munoz, leaving 265 total points available.
Pagenaud, with 484 points currently, will end the season with a minimum of 526 points for just showing up. Last place will pay 8 points at Pocono and Watkins Glen, and 16 points at Sonoma. Because 21st and 22nd place in Texas have already been decided, Simon can earn 10 points at Texas.
If I haven’t bored you to tears yet, this means that mathematically the top 14 drivers in the point standings are still alive for the title. Of the drivers running the full schedule, the following are now eliminated: Sato, Aleshin, Daly, Andretti, Chilton and Hawksworth.
Mathematics is one thing. Now, let’s be realistic. Scott Dixon had a shot at the title, but early contact with Helio Castroneves left him with a last-place finish. Dixon’s problems actually extended to qualifying, where an uncharacteristic miscommunication from the Target Chip Ganassi team cost him a shot into the fast six. Dixon had a car capable of winning pole, and he would have been clear of the midfield congestion had he done so. Slipping away.
Josef Newgarden, in the Ed Carpenter Racing entry, has moved ahead of Dixon in the standings, but he still has a last-place at Texas that he has already earned. Slipping away.
Helio Castroneves is in third 111 points shy of the lead, but he has rarely been able to beat his teammates this season. Slipping away.
What this boils down to, is that , barring any bizarre circumstances, we have a two-man fight for the crown between Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. Don’t expect them to give one another an inch.
4 ) Rookies Impressive
Dale Coyne Racing, with their two rookie drivers, had a weekend that the entire team can be proud of. Conor Daly benefited from the wily strategy coming from the Coyne Team, and found himself in the lead of an IndyCar race once again.
Running up front in the late stages, Daly attempted to put enough distance between himself and second place, in order to take a quick splash of fuel. He came up a bit short, and finished his day in sixth place. In the process, he once again displayed the confidence and professionalism that it takes to maintain control at the front. A first win for Daly is right around the corner.
In the meantime, Coyne put young RC Enerson in the second car this weekend after a successful Mid Ohio test in June. Enerson showed considerable speed during the practice sessions, and was impressive during the race, even setting fast lap of the race at one point.
After stalling the car on pit road, the 19-year old lost a lap, leaving him with a 19th place finish that was not indicative of his potential.
5 ) A Win on a Different Stage
Although it was filmed back in May, the episode of Celebrity Family Feud featuring five of Indycar’s finest drivers aired on ABC-TV the evening of the Honda Indy 200.
Indycar drivers like to win, that’s for sure, but I wasn’t sure what to expect after their mediocre performance on American Ninja Warriors last month. Of course, the Family Feud is an entirely different competition.
I’ll be honest with you. I truly enjoy watching the show, and so does my entire family. The personality that Steve Harvey brings to the contest has revived an old staple of my youth, and brought it to a new audience. With that being said, I have been waiting to see this one for awhile.
The drivers did not disappoint. The group consisting of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, Will Power, and Conor Daly not only won in a big way, but they were fun, charismatic and charming. I actually felt bad for their opponents, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, who failed to score a single point.
I did wish Mr. Harvey would have spent a little time discussing the series with the drivers, educating the audience about his guests, but it was still fun to watch. The fact that they all came off looking so well in front of a prime-time Network TV audience is a big win.