Between rain, weepers and a nasty crash on lap 40 that injured Josef Newgarden, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ first attempt at completing the Firestone 600 was ugly at best.
Now, with Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Mikhail Aleshin out for the week to run the 24 Hours of LeMans, the series has been forced to move the race at Texas Motor Speedway to Aug. 27, where it will resume on lap 71.
While the race in Texas failed to reach its conclusion over the weekend, the 70 laps that were ran and the subsequent postponement served to shake up the 2016 championship battle, with the largest swing coming to Newgarden.
While his teammates at Ed Carpenter Racing have struggled – J.R. Hildebrand’s sixth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 is the only top 10 for anyone on the team besides Newgarden – the Tennessean continued to show promise through the first half of his fifth IndyCar season.
Coming off of a two-win 2015, Newgarden rallied from a 22nd-place letdown in the season opening round of the 2016 tour at St. Petersburg with a group of solid runs, including two podiums at Barber Motorsports Park and Indianapolis, and a fourth-place run in the second race at Belle Isle.
Despite his rough start to the year, Newgarden entered Texas sitting fourth in the championship, 98 points behind the dominant Simon Pagenaud but just 18 points back from second-place Dixon.
However, following Sunday’s harrowing incident with Conor Daly, Newgarden’s championship hopes are in jeopardy.
Newgarden was running outside of Daly during lap 40 of the planned 248-lap Firestone 600, when Daly lost control of his No. 19 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Dale Coyne Racing Honda-Dallara, slipping up the racetrack and into Newgarden and forcing his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet-Dallara to crash violently into the 1.5-mile oval’s outside wall.
Following the first hit, Newgarden’s car flipped onto its right side and Daly, unable to control his machine, again forced Newgarden up into the outside wall, where his Chevrolet punctured the SAFER barrier before sliding to a stop on the track.
Thankfully, Newgarden avoided serious injury in the incident, but the 25-year-old sustained a broken right clavicle and a small fracture to his right hand.
The injuries sidelined Newgarden for Wednesday’s test session at Road America, and could keep him out for the June 26 Kohler GP and beyond.
If that’s the case, Newgarden’s hopes for a 2016 title are gone.
In contrast, driving the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet-Dallara, Simon Pagenaud has been on an remarkable tear through the midway point of the IndyCar season. The Frenchman has tallied three wins and six podiums in eight starts, building a substantial championship lead in the process.
With two finishes outside of the top 20 already (22nd at St. Petersburg, 21st on the Indianapolis Road Course), Newgarden has little margin for error through the rest of the season. If he misses even one race, he’ll likely be eliminated from contention.
All hope isn’t lost just yet. Will Power sits seventh in the points after missing the season opener at St. Petersburg with a misdiagnosed concussion, but the Australian has also tallied a win in Belle Isle and finished every race in the top 20 to compensate. Newgarden’s results, while strong, haven’t been quite as consistent.
Newgarden would likely require a long stretch of podiums and wins mixed with poor results from Pagenaud to have any chance at the title if he misses a race. If he misses two, the Tennessean might as well look ahead to 2017.
As for the championship battle, it too saw a significant change come from the weekend.
By virtue of Texas’ postponement to August 27, it will now serve as the final oval race of the season, coming between a 500-mile race at Pocono Raceway and the penultimate event of the season at Watkins Glen International.
Because of this schedule change, a race that was once a mid-summer barnburner will now factor in as a significant late chapter in the 2016 championship battle.
With the success he has shown this season, Pagenaud could potentially clinch the championship in Texas, much like Lewis Hamilton did in Formula 1 in 2015, if he continues to race with the same consistency shown in the first eight rounds of the tour.
If not, TMS could offer a different story entirely.
Pagenaud, while strong everywhere, is regarded by most as a road-course specialist. Each of the 32-year-old’s seven victories has come on a road course or street circuit, with a runner-up performance in Phoenix serving as his best oval finish to date.
Given Pagenaud’s weaker oval results, the second half of the season offers a chance for championship rivals Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves to strike.
The IndyCar Series will compete on three ovals during the summer stretch to close the season – Iowa Speedway, Pocono and Texas. Pagenaud’s average finish at those three tracks last season was a mere 10.66.
While Castroneves and Dixon didn’t fair much better at those events – Castroneves tallied a 10.0 average finish, while Dixon averaged a result of 9.33 – each driver proved that they were capable of succeeding. Dixon is the defending winner at Texas, and Castroneves notched a third place run in the same event.
For better or worse, the storylines that will roll through TMS at the end of August will likely vary greatly from the ones that followed IndyCar to the 1.5-mile oval in June. Whether or not they’ll make up for the current dark cloud looming over the series following the rain out is yet to be determined.
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