Verizon IndyCar Series championship leader Simon Pagenaud could have played it safe by settling for second place behind Will Power in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It never crossed his mind.
Pagenaud stomped the throttle and passed Power on a late-race restart, their Penske Racing Chevrolets dangerously touching wheels, and went on to claim his fourth victory of the season.
Four races remain in 2016, but that pass just may have decided the championship.
Power had built up a full head of steam by chopping 79 points off Pagenaud’s lead in the previous four races—three wins and a second—and a triumph at Mid-Ohio would have sliced off 10 more. Instead, Pagenaud added 10—a 20-point swing—over runner-up Power, and pulled the plug on the Australian’s momentum. In re-gaining control of his destiny in the championship, Pagenaud extended his advantage to 58 points, 484-426.
“It was my chance, on the restart,” Pagenaud said. “It was time to go. He (Power) was trying to block. It was a pretty interesting lap. It was fun driving like that. It was fair, it was clean, it was hard racing and I’m just glad I won, really. It’s awesome, four wins this year.”
Pagenaud was able to get alongside Power on the front straight following the lap 66 (of 90) restart and they went side-by-side through the left-hand corner that heads to the keyhole corner. Power stayed in front and they raced through the back section of the 2.258-mile course, again touching wheels. When they got to the final section of turns—known as the carousel—before the front straight, Pagenaud got inside and moved into second.
Conor Daly was the leader for the restart, but he didn’t have sufficient fuel to go the distance and Pagenaud and Power knew it. Daly needed an extended caution period to have any chance to win and didn’t get it. When Daly pitted with six laps to go, Pagenaud moved into the lead.
Power was driving a car with wounded handling, which was caused when he went off line racing Pagenaud and got rubber thrown off his tires during the race.
“I was sleeping on that bloody restart and I regret that,” Power said. “I should have been on it. I got marbles (spent rubber) on the tires. I should have been better than that. He (Pagenaud) saw an opportunity to go for it and he went for it, as he should. It was a good, clean battle. It sucks finishing second.
“It’s for a win and for a championship and you have to go for it. I thought of the team on the last corner when we went side-by-side. I had to back out or we were going to crash. It’s racing. It’s tough.”
Pagenaud finished 4.16 seconds in front of Power. He had started on pole and Power was alongside him on the front row. They raced together throughout the entire race, falling back to mid-pack together because of pit strategies and then rising back to the front. Power had passed Pagenaud to move into second during their final pit stops and they came out second and third, respectively, behind Daly, who stayed out during race’s final caution.
Pagenaud drove with back pain suffered in Friday’s practice and received a numbing injection before Sunday’s race. He was helped from the car in victory circle.
“My back is fine,” the Frenchman said. “Whew, that was a race today, huh? Wasn’t that fun?”
It may have been fun for Pagenaud, but it did cause team owner Roger Penske an anxious moment or two.
“The restart was a little bit dicey there,” Penske said. “Both those guys wanted it and, fortunately, it didn’t cause a problem. I’m sure we’ll talk about it when we get back to the truck.”
Castroneves, Dixon crash nearly fatal to title hopes
Scott Dixon’s front wing tapped Helio Castroneves’s rear wing in an early crash that likely ruined their already fading championship hopes. Dixon finished 22nd and is fifth in points, 127 behind Pagenaud, and Castroneves was 15th and is third, 111 back.
“Helio (Castroneves) was coming out of the pits on the pit exchange and we were trying to go off sequence,” Dixon said. “He was off pace and we caught him on the exit of Turn 1. I got alongside him and he kept edging me over until I just had nowhere to go. I braked when I was alongside him and then he just turned in. Had we had a little more room I think we could have gotten through there just fine. It was definitely an aggressive move but I should have known better trying that with Helio. It usually ends like this with him."
Castroneves has won the Indianapolis 500 three times, but never the championship. At age 41, his chances are dwindling with each season. Although the Brazilian remains competitive, he has gone through 39 straight races since his last victory at Detroit in 2014.
Castroneves seemed a little bewildered by his crash with Dixon.
“Unfortunately, I don't understand yet what happened with the No. 9 (Scott Dixon) in Turn 2,” Castroneves said. “Obviously, I went to move to the inside. He was on the push-to-pass. I was on the push-to-pass. Unfortunately, I felt a big hit on the back. I didn't move anything. It is a shame. Not sure what happened. I have to ask him what happened.”
Castroneves isn’t giving up on the championship, but he knows he’s a long shot.
“Looks like some of my competitors had a bad day except for Will (Power) and (Simon) Pagenaud--great job for them,” he said. “They are probably on their way to a good battle for the championship, but we will keep focused.”
IndyCar’s silly season kicks into high gear
IndyCar’s next race is Aug. 21 at Pocono Raceway and the time away from the race track will likely be the start of serious discussions regarding who will be driving where next year. August is also a month when many major companies make their marketing decisions for the next year.
Josef Newgarden is the No. 1 free agent. He will be 26 in December, has three wins and has shown great speed in his five IndyCar seasons. Newgarden drives for Ed Carpenter Racing and he seems happy there. But it seems probable that Chip Ganassi Racing and, if it can put together a sponsorship package, Andretti Autosport will make runs at Newgarden. Depending upon what Roger Penske decides to do with Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves, Newgarden could also be on the Captain’s short list.
Conor Daly undoubtedly would have options, perhaps with Ganassi or Andretti, but Dale Coyne has an option on him for 2017 and he’d be foolish not to exercise it. Daly will be 25 in December and has matured rapidly in his first full IndyCar season of 2016. Coyne is no fool and he’ll likely keep Daly.
If Montoya, Castroneves or Ganassi’s Tony Kanaan find themselves free agents, they’ll be candidates for teams looking for experience and leadership. It shouldn’t be an active year of ride swapping, but it will be interesting.