Crunch time at hand for IndyCar title hopefuls

Image by Scott LePage/LAT

Crunch time at hand for IndyCar title hopefuls

IndyCar

Crunch time at hand for IndyCar title hopefuls

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With 12 races down and five Verizon IndyCar Series events left to run, time is running out for those in dire need of a result to remain in the championship hunt.

Starting with those who’ve yet to reach Victory Lane in 2018, Robert Wickens, Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal are at a crucial point in their championship bids. With points leader Scott Dixon (464) and second-place Josef Newgarden (-60) a considerable distance ahead of Wickens in sixth (-125), Pagenaud in seventh (-144), Rahal in eighth (-151), and Hinchcliffe in ninth (-152), the winless trio, plus Hinchcliffe who won in Iowa, can’t afford to leave Mid-Ohio without a spectacular result.

Otherwise, they risk falling into that dreaded place of being ‘mathematically eligible,’ which is simply another way of saying championship miracles will be required going forward. After Mid-Ohio, a little over 250 points will be available once poles and fastest laps are factored in, which makes slashing the deficit to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver an urgent priority.

Scott Dixon. (Image by Jake Galstad/LAT)

Dixon’s Mid-Ohio performances are legendary, and if we look ahead to the next race at Pocono, he’s either won or finished inside the top six on all but one occasion. After Pocono, he finished second last year at Gateway, Portland will be new for everyone in the Dallara DW12s, and to close the season in the Wine Country, Dixon has three wins at Sonoma. Altogether, history says the four-time champion will be a handful as 2018 winds down, and especially for those who are teetering on being dropped from the championship conversation.

With Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Will Power to overtake before they get to Dixon, the P6-7-8-9 cluster of Wickens-Pagenaud-Rahal-Hinchcliffe are faced with a simple mission this weekend: finish ahead of the Kiwi.

Simon Pagenaud. (Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT)

And if we ignore the championship angles, Pagenaud stands out as someone who might have more to lose if he falls further behind in the standings.

Just as Penske did late last year when Newgarden emerged as the team’s strongest championship contender, the Frenchman could be asked to play a supporting role to his teammates if things don’t change after Mid-Ohio. Newgarden and Power have combined for five victories so far — including the Indy 500 — and if they produce more success this weekend, it’s hard to see how The Captain would permit Pagenaud to take points away from his teammates as they pursue Dixon (and any others that rise) from Pocono to Sonoma.

Of those who are closer to the championship leader, Hunter-Reay (fourth, -91) and Power (fifth, -93) aren’t in desperation mode, buy they also face the risk of losing touch to Dixon if the next race or two don’t go according to plan.

For those behind Hinchcliffe in ninth, talk of championships have come to an end, but in some cases, their goals are just as important. For others, a strong performance — or another forgettable outing — could influence the odds of keeping the seat they’re in or packing their bags after the Sonoma finale.

Marco Andretti vs Graham Rahal. (Image by Scott LePage/LAT)

Marco Andretti, 10th in the standings, is the living embodiment of a driver who needs a win to bring an 85-month drought to an end. Ed Jones, presently 13th in the second CGR entry, finished 14th overall last year as a rookie for Dale Coyne Racing. Considering Dixon’s championship-leading performances to date and the general lack of help he’s received while vying for a fifth title, Jones has something to prove if he wants to keep Ganassi’s eyes from wandering.

Spencer Pigot, 14th in his Ed Carpenter Racing entry, has shown glimpses of supreme talent in his first full-time IndyCar gig, but like Jones at CGR, now’s the time to erase any doubt that he’s the man for the long-term job. His road/street course teammate Jordan King has also made it clear he wants to do the full calendar in 2019, which only adds to the pressure for Pigot to deliver.

And once we reach 15th and beyond, it’s a matter of achieving personal highlights before we bid farewell to the 2018 championship.

The entire paddock would love to see Tony Kanaan and the revitalized A.J. Foyt team secure their first podium of the year. Charlie Kimball, celebrating the five-year anniversary of his first and only IndyCar win from Mid-Ohio in 2013, isn’t expecting to capture a second in Carlin Racing’s rookie campaign, but another top 10 or two would confirm the progress being made.

Rookies Zach Veach in 16th and Matheus Leist in 17th have popped up on the radar a few times, and of the two, Leist feels overdue for a breakout drive. We’ve seen Veach charge hard and play in the lead pack, while Leist has been more impressive in practice and qualifying.

Max Chilton. (Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT)

Max Chilton, 20th and last among the full-timers, has suffered through a painful year on Carlin’s debut. Two points behind Gabby Chaves in the championship — even after the Harding Racing driver missed the last race — Chilton needs a confidence boost more than anyone in the series. Owing to his importance on the entry and funding side of the Carlin equation, something as simple as a top-10 finish would make for happier times in his camp.

At the head of the championship, Dixon, Newgarden, and Rossi are ready to scrap at Mid-Ohio. Hunter-Reay and Power aren’t out of the fight by any means yet can’t afford to lose their grip on the leading trio. And from Wickens back to Hinchcliffe, it’s starting to look like make-or-break time.

Somewhere, in the midst of all the championship ramifications and points to prove for some drivers on the hot seat, there’s a great race waiting to be held in Ohio. IndyCar — rarely boring, always complex.

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