Just two races - one triangular superspeedway and one road course - remain in the 2015
Hard to believe the Verizon IndyCar Series 2015 season, one that began at the end of March is about to be completed in less than two weeks. It’s been an exciting 14 races thus far and, with the third Triple Crown 500-mile race at Pocono this weekend, followed by the first road-course finale in current INDYCAR history - one that pays double points - there are actually seven drivers within 100 points of leader Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya, driving the No. 2 Chevrolet for Team Penske, has led the points chase since the beginning of the season, when he won the first race of the year at St Petersburg, Fla. While road and street courses were his crucible in 2014 after coming from NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, Montoya has settled in and consistently run at the front of the field throughout these 14 contests. He’s got only two victories, at St Pete and in the 99th Indianapolis 500, but the Colombian has been steady as he goes throughout the nearly five months of competition, with only a few mishaps along the way - none that tainted his lead.
The championship is within our grasp; it’s close and we’re capable. Everybody on our team is ready to capitalize on it
That lead is only nine points over Honda driver Graham Rahal but the Colombian admits he’s “feeling pretty good” about his chances. He knows the best way to control the championship is by winning races and he did find Victory Lane at Pocono in 2014, Montoya’s first win since returning to open wheel competition. “There’s really nothing magic about Pocono,” he states. “If we can find what the car needs and what I want from the car we’ll be okay.”
Montoya rates his season, on a scale of 1 to 10, as an “8”. “We opened the season with a win on a street course and that showed the hard work we did on the off-season was right. That was our weakest link in 2014 so our work paid off. Last year we ran good at most places, not great but good… honestly, I think we’re gonna be okay.”
Closing in on JPM ... Rahal within striking distance
His competition is hoping that’s anything but the case for Montoya.
Graham Rahal, like Montoya has two victories for the season, one at Fontana in the second Triple Crown event and the most recent race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a track where he literally grew up. The driver of Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan’s (RLL) No. 15 Honda, Rahal just announced that he has primary backing for these final two races from Steak ’n Shake, which has been an associate sponsor, along with Maxim magazine, throughout the season.
Rahal holds second place points, garnered through his two victories, top-5, top-10 and podium appearances over these 14 races. He lies just nine points behind Montoya but with 50 points available to the winner at Pocono and 100 (plus bonus points) on the line in Sonoma, there’s no comfort factor for the Honda driver.
“For me, I’ve got to go after it. I’m not going to change my mindset,” Rahal states. “I told the guys to keep doing their job and it’ll take care of itself.”
Rahal admits that he understands the level of talent surrounding him the standings. "I could get pretty frazzled; Scott [Dixon] is the best driver in INDYCAR and I looked up to Montoya as a kid. It’s cool to be competing against him for the championship,” Rahal admits.
“The championship is within our grasp; it’s close and we’re capable. Everybody on our team is ready to capitalize on it and yeah, things have gone right. Our guys have done a tremendous job,” says Rahal. While Pocono hasn’t been the best track for him the past two years, “We’re in a great spot looking forward. We’re capable of having a great race this weekend. Sonoma fits our wheel house; last year we led 27 laps or something (actually 18 of 85 when Dixon won). We were terrible on ovals last year but the guys figured out the setups to make them more comfortable for me. There are challenges ahead of us here,” he understands. “We have a great opportunity to keep it up.”
Dixon hanging on
Dixon, last year’s Sonoma victor is third in points, just 34 behind Montoya and 25 back of Rahal. The Kiwi, driving Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 9 Chevrolet, has two wins and two poles this year and is his usual calm self (at least outwardly) coming into these two final races of the year. “We’re not going to change our approach; we try to keep it the same every single race - we try to win them all,” Dixon says.
How does he need to perform this weekend in order to have a legitimate shot? “You’d like to halve it,” he says of the points differential. I’d like to be leading at Sonoma and I think we’ll all be very competitive this weekend at Pocono. We have to chip away, hope for their bad luck or some mechanical issues for Juan (we haven’t seen that too many times) and we just have to focus on doing our job.”
As this is the first road-course finale for the Verizon IndyCar Series, Dixon has his own views about ending the season. “I’d prefer it on an oval because of how quickly things can change and the excitement of an oval, but I think Sonoma is a fantastic track and it’s been a great place for us in the past. It will be a little bit different because the cautions, the yellow flags can be really tough. You don’t want to get caught out on it like we did at Mid-Ohio,” where the pole sitter was due to pit right around the time of a full-course caution and got stuck on-track with pits closed, where winner Rahal had already made his stop.
“Strategy, I think, has been a bit of a hot topic recently, and that’s really out of your grasp,” as a driver. “You can try your best to have it fall your way, but it’s really in the hands of race control or what happens on the track with different drivers. You think you may help yourself but realistically, I don’t think it hinders or changes anything from what you do outside of the car to how you get on in the race.”
Castroneves still seeking first title
Where he’s usually the hunted in these championship battles, this year Helio Castroneves is a hunter, lying fourth in the standings with 58 points to make up on his teammate Montoya. “I think you can be more aggressive as the hunter and, with the double points at Sonoma,” the Brazilian notes, “We’ve got to do something to accomplish the championship. We need to do everything we can. Running short on time, I know it’s two races, but basically three races because it’s double points (in Sonoma) and we’ve got to make things happen.”
To me it’s a real pity that it comes down to the luck of the draw - more of a lottery than on pace and someone who’s done a good job all day. That’s all going to play into it, a lot of points on hand
Will Power on finale at Sonoma
While Castroneves has earned three pole positions throughout this year, driving the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet, thus far in 14 races he hasn’t visited the Winner’s Circle, so the Brazilian is, as customary, pumped to do his best over the next week and a half. “The good news is we had two weekends off and we recharged the battery of everyone, especially the (crew) guys because they’ve been working their tails off. But going to Pocono and Sonoma, for sure everybody is ready.
“They’re ready for, not only obviously the long trips from one place to the other side of the United States, but we are ready. We feel that those two places, it’s been good to us, to Team Penske.” Last year at Pocono Castroneves finished second behind teammate Montoya; in Sonoma the cautions didn’t favor him after a strong qualifying session, “But we feel that we have a great chance to collect very good points in this battle for the championship.”
Reigning champ Will Power on the fringe of the title fight
The final Team Penske driver in the top five is reigning champion Will Power, who finally got THAT monkey off his back last year in Fontana, site of his first oval victory a year earlier. While he trails Montoya by 59 points, Power is still mathematically eligible so he intends to “keep my head in the game. These are two really strong tracks coming up for me here. I really like Pocono and obviously Sonoma has been really good for me in the past,” despite breaking his back at the undulating road course.
Having finally achieved a championship, he understands the pressure those ahead of him are feeling as they come to the final two contests of the year. “If you’re in the position that Montoya is in, you definitely do feel the pressure, because sometimes it becomes unclear what you have to do to win the championship, whereas if you’re in the position that I’m in right now, it’s very clear what you have to do, which is win two races.”
Power has a single victory to show for his 2014 campaign, along with five pole positions. Last year at Pocono, he sustained a blocking penalty while leading that ruined his day, so Power might be a bit more circumspect, one would think, before making any obvious moves that could cause another penalty. “I learned my lesson on the whole blocking thing; I really want to win that race. I felt like I should have won it last year. Just going to do the normal thing and focus on what I can control and try to get the absolute most out of it.”
Looking beyond Pocono
Looking beyond this weekend’s 500-miler in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and going to the drought-parched hillsides of northern California, Will Power thinks the double-points aspect at Sonoma is “going to be interesting. I think as far as pace goes, I’m obviously very good around there. I feel like I can always qualify in the [Firestone] Fast Six and then it’s really going to come down to what’s governed the majority of road and street courses this year, which has been yellows.
“To me it’s a real pity that it comes down to the luck of the draw,” Power states, “more of a lottery than on pace and someone who’s done a good job all day. That’s all going to play into it, a lot of points on hand, and I think you’ve just got to be on your toes and try and make the right decisions,” which is up to his strategists.
Psychologically, Power is calmer and the pressure is off, now that he’s had his title. But having one is never enough - for anyone that’s a real racer. “You know you’ve got one in the bank, so you can really just focus on the job and try to get absolutely the most out of every situation and not be thinking, ‘Is something going to go wrong to prevent me from winning once again’? For me, personally, there’s less pressure and more confidence.”