NASCAR Race Weekend Central

OWW: Bowtie Beatdowns and Napa Know How: IndyCar Midseason Review

Wait, weren’t we just saying Honda was on the verge of a resurgence 10 days ago?

Yes. Yes we were.

If there’s one thing fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series know, it’s that things pass by in the blink of an eye. That includes cars, and – in the middle of the season – races and stories.

Just last week, the entire motorsports world debated whether they were enthused or perturbed by the surprising victory in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 by rookie Alexander Rossi. We all took our turns waxing poetic about the Formula 1 reserve driver, pondering whether this was the beginning of something great for IndyCar, or perhaps just a stepping stone for Rossi to return to the F1 tour he worked so long to reach.

Beyond Rossi, some dared to speculate on the continual Honda-Chevrolet struggle.

Chevrolet entered the Indy 500 amid one of its strongest runs in any series. Led by the suddenly-dominant Simon Pagenaud and Team Penske, the Bowtie Brigade systematically dominated Honda through the opening five races of the season, claiming all five race wins and 12 of 15 available podium positions during that span.

Previously taken to task for failing to give Roger Penske a win in his first season, Pagenaud rattled off three-straight victories entering the month of May, including his second win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The Frenchman was favored by some to bring France it’s first Indy 500 winner since Gaston Chevrolet claimed a victory in the event in 1920. (Note: While 2003 Indy 500 champion Gil de Ferran was born in France, he claims nationality to Brazil.) 

Beyond Pagenaud, expectations remained high for many of Chevy’s top guns. Helio Castroneves was still searching for his fourth Indy 500 win. Juan Pablo Montoya entered as the defending champion of the event. Tony Kanaan desperately wanted a second victory in the greatest spectacle in racing’s 100th running, as did ‘Ice Man’ Scott Dixon.

All signs pointed to Chevrolet to rule IndyCar’s biggest race, yet it was Honda that stole the show for two weeks in May.

James Hinchcliffe took the pole at the track that nearly took his life a year ago for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. When the green flag waved to start the legendary event, Honda’s teams took control, leading 129 of the race’s 200 laps.

While teammate troubles and poor strategy removed Honda’s top contenders in Ryan Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe, the manufacturer still found a way to score a one-two result. Much to Chevy’s chagrin, it was Rossi – running a NAPA Auto Parts livery akin to another spectacular rookie in the NASCAR camp – who crossed the line first after 200 laps in front of some 350,000 screaming fans (and colorful commentary from the media center).

The win was monstrous in its scope, propelling the largely unknown American Rossi and Andretti Autosport into the limelight and masking Honda’s previous struggles. Sure, driver, team and manufacturer had endured the lion’s share of issues throughout the year, but they’d just won arguably the biggest race in at least two decades at America’s most famous racing facility.

In some ways, winning the 500 is enough to overrule an entire season. But the show must carry on, and carry on it did, in more ways than one.

(Photo: Mike Neff)
Alexander Rossi’s Indy win gave the Honda camp something to build on for the rest of the season. (Photo: Mike Neff)

Chevrolet returned to form in a double-header weekend in Detroit, Michigan’s Belle Isle Park. Dixon and Pagenaud traded track records, and Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power both overcame early seasons struggles for much-needed victories.

Suddenly, Chevrolet’s back atop the headlines, and with just eight races left in the 2016 season, Honda will need to strike quick to keep that from being the prevailing story throughout the summer.

Manufacturer talk aside, here are a few quick things to watch for over the second half of the IndyCar season

  • Penske’s Power Struggle: Here’s a crazy stat for you. With his win on Sunday, Will Power now sits tied with Tony Kanaan for seventh in the championship standings, seven points ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya. This is all true despite the fact that Power’s run one less race this season due to a misdiagnosed concussion before the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida. The two teammates have feuded amid their subpar seasons, with Montoya claiming Power was “pressing” and “driving desperate.” Yet after eight races, it’s Montoya who seems to be having the worst go of things, with two DNFs and no wins.
  • Can Anyone Catch Simon Pagenaud? It isn’t going to be easy. With three wins and six podiums in the opening eight events, Pagenaud has been near-perfect to start his second season with Penske. Thanks to the issues of his rivals, he holds and incredible 80-point lead on second-place Scott Dioxin the standings. Pagenaud isn’t breathing easy just yet, but he has more than a full race worth of points to fall back on going to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.
  • Andretti Surprises: Only two Honda drivers sit in the top 10 in IndyCar points halfway through the season, and they’re both members of Andretti Autosport. However, they’re probably not the two you’d expect. Alexander Rossi and Carlos Muñoz find themselves fifth and sixth in the standings, respectively, largely due to their one-two performance in the double points Indy 500. With the rest of Honda struggling with inconsistency, it may be on Andretti’s youngest drivers to lead the way for the struggling manufacturer.
  • Road Course Returns: The 2016 season has been one of returns to the past for IndyCar. The series returned to Phoenix International Raceway in April. Cars including Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp and Dan Wheldon’s No. 98 William Rast / Curb / Big Machine Honda cruised the 2.5-mile IMS oval on Indy 500 race day. Now, fittingly, the series is planning for returns to both Road America and Watkins Glen International in the coming weeks. Fans of tradition should cherish both races, and fans of road course racing will be in for a good show.
  • Rookie Battle Heats Up: The rookie of the year battle could come down to the wire this season. Rossi’s parlayed an Indy 500 victory into fifth in the championship table, but Conor Daly has proven capable of claiming podiums and (somewhat surprisingly) competing for wins with Dale Coyne Racing, and Max Chilton is just a bit of luck from doing the same for Chip Ganassi. The rookie battle could stay close all the way to Sonoma Raceway.
  • Helio: As the season amps up, Helio Castroneves is again a story to follow. Still looking for his first championship, Castroneves sits third in the standings after Detroit, 86 points off of Pagenaud’s mark. Should Pagenaud find misfortune, the three-time Indy 500 winner could again find himself thrown in the middle of a championship battle, despite going winless wince Detroit in 2014.
  • Silly Season: There aren’t too many expected moves this year, but the first bit of silly season news came out before Detroit, when Spencer Pigot shifted from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to join Ed Carpenter Racing for road course races. There aren’t a lot of open seats projected at the top of the grid, but there could still be some moves made in the next few months.

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