Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR

Santoroski: Five Takeaways From the Iowa Corn 300

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

The Iowa Corn 300 for the Verizon IndyCar Series ran yesterday afternoon and Ed Carpenter Racing driver, Josef Newgarden, put on an oval racing clinic and took a convincing win. The young driver from Tennessee led 282 of the 300 laps and took the checkers 4.2828 seconds ahead of Team Penske’s Will Power. Lets have a look back at some of the story lines coming out the the 7/8 mile bullring.

1 ) Iowa Podium is Pagenaud’s Worst Nightmare

Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud entered Iowa with a 74 point lead in the Championship, and left still ahead by 72. With a fourth-place finish, and only dropping two points one might say that Iowa was a successful weekend in terms of defending his lead. However, the three drivers that finished ahead of him are realistically the biggest threat to snatch the title from his grasp.

Newgarden and Power were joined on the podium by Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, and those three names now occupy 2-3-4 in the points standings. A quick look at the remaining schedule, that consists of six tracks where Pagenaud has never won, ans we see why the Frenchman is likely to lose some sleep.

Newgarden is coming off the momentum of the Iowa win and heading into Toronto, where he won last year. Newgarden’s path to the Championship contains one road block. Having crashed at Texas, when the series returns to resume the race in August, he will be on the sidelines and be credited with 22nd place and a mere 8 points.

For Pagenaud’s Penske teammate, Will Power, the remaining schedule looks bright as the Australian has won at Toronto, Mid Ohio, Watkins Glen and Sonoma. After missing the season opener due to illness, Power has steadily climbed up the standings.

The biggest threat comes from Scott Dixon, who is 88 points back in fourth. Dixon has had a bit of an up and down season with the low point coming at Road America two weeks ago when mechanical issues put him out of the race. However, Dixon has a reputation as a strong closer in the late stages of the season as evidenced by his four Verizon IndyCar Championships.

Dixon has won at least once all all of the remaining tracks on the schedule, including five wins at Mid Ohio, and three wins at both Watkins Glen and Sonoma. This is not to say that Pagenaud will not be strong to the finish, but these are three guys you don’t want coming after you.

2 ) What Would an Aero-Kit Freeze do to Honda?

Jay Frye, president of competition and operations for IndyCar, has hinted the technical regulations and direction for the next two seasons will be revealed in the coming weeks. This is a hot topic, as one of the possible scenarios discussed involves a freeze on aero-kit development for 2017, and a possible common kit for 2018.

This possibility has been met with positive feedback from the owners and manufacturers, as it will represent a significant cost savings for 2017. However, considering that the Chevrolet domination in Iowa yesterday mirrored that of Phoenix earlier in the season, it is blatantly obvious that Honda is in a different time zone compared to Chevrolet with the short oval package.

They have been a bit better on the street and road courses, but have yet to deliver a win. Honda’s super-speedway kit produced fantastic results at Indianapolis, took pole at Texas, and is expected to perform well at Pocono. With a freeze on the kits, can the Honda teams afford to concede the bulk of the wins to Chevrolet once again?

Certainly, a short-term struggle with a long-term gain on the horizon makes good business sense, but I wonder if this makes for a harder sell to sponsors who expect to see immediate results.

3 ) Clean Race, Good Crowd

Given the short and fast nature of the 7/8 mile oval in Iowa, some of the past races have been messy, most notably in 2007 when there were seven cars that crashed out before half distance. Yesterday’s race was, by comparison, a rather clean affair, with the only contact being a quick spin from Ganassi driver, Max Chilton, who was able to continue albeit several laps down. The only other caution periods on the day were caused by engine problems from Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya.

With Newgarden checked out up front, some of the battles through the field were impressive, including Will Power’s breathtaking pass on Scott Dixon in the closing laps to snag second place. There were, however, some close calls as several drivers struggled with handling. Tony Kanaan, in the #10 Ganassi car, had a moment when Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi washed up the track, pushing Kanaan up into the marbles.

Much like Road America two weeks age, the win was never contested, but the mid-field racing provided a great show for the fans. Particularly impressive was SPM driver, Mikhael Aleshin who finished fifth, the top Honda and the last car on the lead lap.

Speaking of the fans, Iowa Speedway once again, produced a very nice turnout for the IndyCar Series despite having moved off of its traditional Saturday Night date. Attendance appeared to be down from prior years, but IndyCar announced earlier in the week that an agreement was signed that would guarantee Iowa on the schedule for another two seasons.

With Phoenix as the only other short oval, Iowa is a track that IndyCar desperately needs to maintain a good balance in the schedule. With oval tracks like Milwaukee and Fontana falling by the wayside, and Pocono and Texas under-performing in ticket sales, this beautiful little track in America’s heartland is a breath of fresh air.

4 ) What Next for Newgarden?    

There have been countless things written and discussed about the considerable physical and mental toughness Josef Newgarden has displayed in his speedy comeback from injuries suffered at Texas Motor Speedway last month. So, I’ll skip that and turn my attention to what the future may hold for Newgarden.

Josef Newgarden, in becoming a serious contender week in and week out, has become the subject of the silly season speculation for the past few seasons. In both cases, his has opted to stay put, but admittedly right now his stock is at an all time high. The names Penske and Ganassi have been brought up in conjunction with the 25 year-old’s future.

For Newgarden, his current situation is a comfortable one that puts him in a competitive car. Because of the now-dissolved Carpenter Racing merger with Fisher-Hartmann, there is still a substantial portion of this team that was built around Newgarden, and his Iowa domination clearly shows how he is reaping the benefits. With strong sponsor support from Fuzzy’s Vodka and Preferred Refrigeration, there is nothing holding this team back from becoming the next powerhouse team over the next several seasons.

However, in much the same fashion as many aspiring F1 drivers dream of driving for Ferrari, a Penske or Ganassi ride is the career opportunity of a lifetime. With that in mind, where would Newgarden even fit in on one of those teams?

Roger Penske surprised many by expanding to four cars to accommodate Pagenaud in 2015, whom he believes is the future of the organization. The Frenchman, after a mediocre first season with the team, is now living up to the hype and validating Penske’s decision. Expanding to five cars would appear to be highly unlikely, although stranger things have happened.

While Pagenaud and teammate Will Power are the two highest performers on the team, the other two guys seem relatively safe in their seats. Both are now over 40, but neither Helio Castroneves nor Juan Pablo Montoya are showing any signs of stopping soon. Both are multiple Indy 500 winners and, realistically, represent the two most recognized names in the sport.

The Chip Ganassi team, on the other hand, may actually present an opportunity for Newgarden. Max Chilton, in the #8 car, hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire, but then again, the 4th Ganassi car never has. In my own humble opinion, the Ed Carpenter gig is actually a better seat than the Ganassi bottom-feeder team.

Four-time series champion Dixon will likely remain at Ganassi until the day he retires, and Charlie Kimball’s seat is relatively safe, seeing as how he brings a loyal sponsor to the table with him in the form of Novo Nordisk. This brings up Tony Kanaan, who, in his third year with the team, has never come close to contending for the title. Kanaan is a fan-favorite, and a solid driver, but his future with the team has been the subject of rumors in the paddock recently.

Kanaan has reassured his fans that all is well, and he will be back-full time in 2017. In making those remarks, the words “with Ganassi” never came out of his mouth, so…read into that whatever you like.

While my crystal ball sees Newgarden returning with Ed Carpenter in 2017, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

5 )  Losers on the Day

With all the attention focused on the top of the finishing order, there were some significant names near the bottom of the order that left Iowa bitterly disappointed. Ryan Hunter-Reay, in the Andretti Autosport car, was looking for a good weekend based on his three prior wins at the facility. With his engine letting go in a burst of flame, he was the first car out, credited with a 22nd place finish.

It was a dramatic end to a frustrating weekend for the 2012 series champion, as he struggled to find a setup on the car that would work.

“Wow, this was really bad today. It was something I just couldn’t find a solution to,” said Hunter-Reay. “We tried some significant changes. Not huge, but significant ones trying to settle the rear. My big problem was I could not get around a car at all. If I got around a car it felt like I lost two thousand pounds of downforce. On mid-to-late tires I was just skating around on top of the track like I had no wings on the car. It was amazing. I had never felt anything like that.”

The Californian dropped to 13th in the points standings, and is looking for a better outing in Toronto. Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya also dropped an engine relegating him to 20th in the order while teammate Helio Castroneves found himself caught out after a caution, ending his day in 13th.

As Newgarden ruled the day, his team owner Ed Carpenter was not as fortunate, losing 16 laps in the pits for a gearbox change. Rookie of the year candidate, Conor Daly also exited early with mechanical woes, as his Dale Coyne teammate, Gabby Chaves, struggled with handling coming home seven laps down in 17th place.

The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action July 15-17 for the Honda Indy Toronto. Qualifying airs live at 1:30 p.m. ET July 16 on NBCSN. The 85-lap race on the 1.755-mile street circuit airs live at 3 p.m. July 17 on CNBC .

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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