PRUETT: Pre-Portland points to ponder

Image by Scott LePage/LAT

PRUETT: Pre-Portland points to ponder

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Pre-Portland points to ponder

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We’re down to two Verizon IndyCar Series races in three weeks, and before we hit the West Coast sprint from Portland to Sonoma, here are a few random observations on points and pressure and changes that came to mind:

• My first thought is one of respect for Robert Wickens. Consider this: he entered Pocono sixth in points, finished 19th overall after the stomach-turning crash in Turn 2, and still held sixth at its conclusion. Simon Pagenaud, seventh in points at the time, drew down the gap to Wickens by finishing eighth at Pocono, but was unable to move past the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver in the standings. The Team Penske driver backed it up with fourth at Gateway on Saturday, and without Wickens in the field to earn points, Pagenaud finally overtook the rookie sensation in the drivers’ championship. Robert will likely fall a few more spots once the checkered flag waves over the season, but it won’t be an accurate representation of how far he pushed IndyCar’s established stars on his first try.

• With bonus items for pole and leading factored in, a little more than 150 points are left to capture across the Portland and Sonoma events. The pool of championship contenders has been simplified as a result, leaving Scott Dixon (P1, 568 points), Alexander Rossi (P2, -26), Will Power (P3, -68), and Josef Newgarden (P4, -78) as the most realistic challengers for the title. Ryan Hunter-Reay (P5, -147) is still in the game mathematically, but has no chance of coming away with his second title. It leaves Dixon and Rossi locked in the same gripping fight for the championship and Team Penske’s duo in need of big results this weekend to make Sonoma something other than a Hail Mary event.

• With Andretti Autosport’s Hunter-Reay and Penske’s Pagenaud out of the championship conversation, will they receive requests from their respective teams to play defense in support of Rossi, and Power/Newgarden?

• On a related (but unrelated thread), a few extra entries are expected for Sonoma. I’d imagine IndyCar race steward Kyle Novak will make it abundantly clear that if the championship leaders are anywhere in sight, steering clear will be an expectation.

Newgarden, Hunter-Reay and Rossi toe to toe at Road America. (Image by Michael Levitt/LAT)

• Where Andretti’s Rossi has a 26-point deficit to overcome on Dixon, Andretti’s Colton Herta has a similar amount — 25 points — to erase if he wants to catch teammate Patricio O’Ward in Portland’s Indy Lights showdown. With two Lights rounds on tap settle the championship, a maximum of 60 total points can be earned for race wins, so while O’Ward’s lead over Herta is solid, the young Mexican can’t afford to relax. Herta will need to win and win again, and since he and O’Ward are the only drivers left in the championship duel, there’s little else to follow beyond Andretti’s hard chargers. Regardless of who wins the championship, look for the rivalry to continue in IndyCar — that will be the biggest victory to come from Lights in 2018.

• Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal obviously want to break into the win column before the season ends. With only Portland and Sonoma available to get the job done, there’s no way Pagenaud wants to end 2018 with his second winless season for Team Penske in four attempts. And Rahal has gone three straight seasons with at least one win for the family Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad. Sitting eighth in points, he’s also at the lowest championship position since RLLR completely retooled its engineering department in 2015.

• After Pagenaud and Rahal, we have a few drivers who would love to earn at least one top 10 before the year’s done. Of those who’ve been in the hunt, Max Chilton (11th), Matheus Leist (11th), Jordan King (11th), Jack Harvey (12th) and Gabby Chaves (14th) have come close, but have just missed out.

• Zach Veach is riding a wave of rookie momentum into Portland. He’s one of only five drivers (Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud) to have four straight finishes inside the top 10.

Spencer Pigot. (Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT)

• Spencer Pigot is also in an interesting place during his first full season of IndyCar competition. Having completed the final oval of the year, he came out even on best finishing results at 3-3 with team owner/teammate Ed Carpenter. And with two road courses waiting to be run, Pigot’s up 5-4 over rookie teammate Jordan King. Matching Carpenter on ovals is a definite achievement, and with King looking to close the year on a high, Pigot will be challenged to maintain his intra-team advantage.

• Has any driver had a better ‘bad’ season than Ryan Hunter-Reay? From the 15 races held so far, he’s placed 16th or worse on six occasions which, under normal circumstances, would have dire consequences. His last five races have come with finishes of 19th, 16th, seventh, 18th, and 20th, and yet he still holds fifth in the championship. He can thank the strong body of work — and good fortune — through Road America, and if he can hold onto fifth, it would represent his top seasonal performance for Andretti Autosport since he won the IndyCar title in 2012.

• On the flipside, holding 16th in the standings, Tony Kanaan is flirting with his lowest full-season championship outcome since he became an Indy car driver in 1998. But there’s hope. With 257 points, he’s only 40 behind Ed Jones in 12th. His previous low was 12th in 2002 with the late Mo Nunn’s team. Granted, TK knew signing on with AJ Foyt Racing would come with a heavy effort to rebuild the team from the inside out, and while the difference between 12th and 16th isn’t particularly meaningful, if he can move up to 12th, it will equal the team’s best result since 2010 when Vitor Meira placed 12th.

• We bid farewell to Mazda this weekend as the title sponsor, career creator, and best friend American junior open-wheel racing has ever had. There’s no news to report, as yet, on whether Dan Andersen and his Andersen Promotions team have a replacement for Mazda in the works, but we do know that the Indy Lights and Pro Mazda champions waiting to be crowned at Portland, and Kyle Kirkwood — who sealed the USF2000 title at Mid-Ohio –will receive advancement checks from Mazda to move up the ladder in the Japanese brand’s absence in 2019.

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