If recent history can be used as a guide to how this weekend’s Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston double-header will play out, the 49-point advantage championship leader Helio Castroneves holds over Scott Dixon could be in jeopardy.
With 50 points on offer to win each race, a point for pole, a point for leading a lap and two more for leading the most laps, Castroneves and his Team Penske crew will need to keep an eye on the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver. The Kiwi has a pair of fourths from the Detroit double-header, a pair of wins at the most recent double-header in Toronto and was also in the frame for another podium at Baltimore untilwell, you know what happened there.
Of all the drivers in the IndyCar paddock, Dixon was seemingly created to drive on bumpy street courses and that’s exactly what he’ll have this weekend as he attempts to keep the No. 9 Honda earthbound during a pair of 90-lap events. There’s no guarantee Houston will be another repeat of Toronto for Dixie, but you could not pick a better track to give the two-time champion 108 points to pursue.
Castroneves will also have a two-time street course race winner to contend with in Schmidt Hamilton Racing’s Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has a longer haul to the Brazilian from third in the standings, but with victories on Detroit’s rallycross circuit and again at Baltimore, his No. 77 Honda is another pre-race favorite to grab handfuls of points.
It’s also worth noting that since Chevy-powered James Hinchcliffe won in Brazil for Andretti Autosport, Honda, with its exceptional mid-range power delivery, has won every street course five in total since the series visited Sao Paulo in May.
Add in fourth-place Marco Andretti (-71 points) and fifth-place Ryan Hunter-Reay (-74 points) to the Castroneves Chase and the 38-year-old Brazilian needs to come away from Houston with solid runs inside the top-5 if he’s to hold the championship lead into the season finale at Fontana.
Without running through a mind-numbing list of every possible championship scenario, Castroneves could clinch the title this weekend if he moves his lead to 55 points or more by the end of Race 2.
Coming off of last week’s test at Fontana, Castroneves was the class of the field untouchable, almost which could make Houston the place where Dixon, Pagenaud and the rest have a realistic shot at turning the tide in their favor.
In a call to RACER prior to a sponsor function for Shell, whose branding will be carried on his No. 3 Chevy in Houston, Castroneves made it clear he’ll be racing with his head this weekend while those who are pursuing him have no choice but to dial up the intensity and go for broke.
“The way I’m approaching it is I’m not only thinking about the championship lead; I’m thinking about keeping the lead, but also our performance this weekend,” he said. “My goal is to have a quick car, a consistent car, and it’s 90 laps each race. I don’t know the track, I haven’t been there, so if it’s bumpy, I’ll deal with it. I’m just going to work on setting up my car the best we can. I’m not worried about who’s being aggressive, how the Hondas are doing, or whatever. I’m focused on learning what we’ve learned at the tracks we’ve been to, the street courses. At Toronto the car was very good, so we’re going to focus on trying to make the Shell car like that.”
Castroneves has been incredibly effective this season by taking a “best on the day” approach to his races. In the past, he’s been susceptible to over-driving trying too hard at times, or trying to squeeze a better finishing position out of a car that just didn’t have the pace to get there and paid the price with broken wings or meetings with the wall. Yet once he dialed down his intensity a notch or two and stopped trying to force the issue, his championship aspirations became more realistic.
He’s rarely been the fastest car on track, but through 16 rounds, Castroneves has only finished outside the top-10 on one occasion. Nine visits inside the top-6 and five trips to the podium, including a win at Texas, has Castroneves on the cusp of his first Indy car title, which means changes to his less forceful approach are unlikely for Houston.
“That’s my mentality,” he confirmed. “That’s how I’m approaching this weekend it’s two races. I’m not going to start counting points or positions who’s where in the race and what does that mean for me and all of that stuff. You can’t control those things. All I can do is drive. I’m only trying to control the things I can at this point. It’s like we did at Baltimore.
“We did the best with the circumstances we had and it worked out very well. I want to do everything we can to be competitive with those guys. If we can be at the front, OK. If we’re at the back, we need to make things better so I can get to the front. We will handle whatever situation we have.”
Castroneves has had an average finishing position of sixth across the last five street courses, which would play into his championship efforts if the trend continues in Houston, but he’s obviously hoping for a more competitive outing on Saturday and Sunday.
“We know we can be right up there, but also some places we’ve had a hiccup,” he explained. “At the first Detroit race, the car was awesome. For the second race, we changed the car too much and ended up making it worse. In Toronto we did the opposite. We started out good but made the car better for the second race and I ended up on the podium. So that’s what I would prefer for this weekend. I want to learn all that I can for the first race, whatever those things are, and use them to make the car better for the second race.
“At the least, we want to learn and be competitive. We will see what the consequences of the points are and how they will play out. In my mind, it’s not about going in trying to be conservative or aggressive. It’s about what the situation presents us this weekend and then deciding on how to play things.”
Based on his speed at the 2.0-mile Fontana oval, the final race of the championship could be a solid fallback event for Castroneves to secure the title. But with the possibility of earning the crown this weekend, the 16-year Indy car veteran would prefer to celebrate in front of his sponsors in Texas.
“If we have to take this to Fontana, at least we know we’ll be very competitivebut I don’t want that,” he said with a laugh. “I feel very strong at Fontana, and also with the Chevy Ilmor engines, but we might have something for my competitors at Houston. I’d like to do this in front of all the people from Shell. No dream is too big to dream. The best scenario possible is me finishing both races in front of the other guys, and that would be a big deal if we can make this [championship] happen right now.
“I’d rather not wait another two or three weeks to think about everything and go to Fontana to try again. But I don’t have a crystal ballit has been rusty for many years, so we can speculate a lot of things, and it’s a dream to seal things this weekend, but wherever the opportunity presents itself, we’ll take it.”
If there’s been one criticism that has followed Castroneves throughout his Indy car career, it has centered on his inability to win a championship. He’s won the Indy 500, the sport’s biggest event, three times. He’s finished second in the championship on two occasions and added 22 wins and 34 poles to his resume, but consistency has often proved to be elusive.
In an interesting twist, and with consistency now on his side, the criticism that’s surfaced late in the year has revolved around Castroneves possibly becoming the 2013 IndyCar Series champion with just a single win to his credit. Based on his blunt response, and after being criticized for what he once lacked yet now possesses, it’s obvious Castroneves has very little time for his detractors.
“If you go in the record books 10 years from now, will you remember how many wins the IndyCar champion has?” he said. “I guess that answers the question At the end of the day, it’s about how you score points. A win is a win. A championship is a championship.
“We’d love to win another race this year, but if it doesn’t happen and we still win the championship, I don’t think Mr. Roger Penske will be upset.”