DetroitThrough the first eight races of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Penske Racing’s Will Power had a tremendous run.  He took two wins, three seconds, completed every lap and finished no lower than 8th place.  In the process, he built a comfortable lead in the standings.

In the three races run over the past two weeks, he saw that lead evaporate to nothing.  He leaves Pocono tied in a dead heat with his own teammate, Helio Castroneves.

HoustonPolelCastroneves, on the other hand, has had a season that has been a bit up and down.  Strong finishes at St. Pete, both Indianapolis races and the Dual in Detroit were offset with poor finishes at Long Beach, Alabama and Houston.    He is certainly not alone, as inconsistency has plagued Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

As consistent as Will Power seemed to be in the early season, it was the small miscues that allowed Castroneves to capitalize.   Pit lane speeding penalties cost him a shot at an Indy 500 victory, as well as a sure win at Texas.  At Pocono this past weekend, it was a blocking penalty that dropped him back in the late stages of the race.

As fate would have it, the car he chose to move over on belonged to Castroneves.  Power lost a certain podium finish as he headed down the pit lane for the drive-through penalty.  Castroneves took second place in the 500 miler that paid double points.  Power ended up in tenth.

JPMandCapt852948_nCertainly, both of these guys are hungry for a title.  Between them, they own 49 victories and seven runner-up finishes in the championship, with no season titles.   Team owner, Roger Penske, is also hungry for a title having last won it in 2006.  This may indeed be Roger’s year as the third Penske entry driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, currently sits fourth in the championship after taking the win at Pocono.

The Penske team has been the class of the field in 2014, but here may be one big thing standing in the way of another championship for the storied organization, and it is not a Target car or an Andretti car.

simonPagenaudThat thing is ‘the little engine that could’, a.k.a. Simon Pagenaud and Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports.  With two wins and a pole on the current season, Pagenaud has been running at the finish in 10 of the 11 races contested thus far.  He sits third in the standings just 44 behind the two tied for the lead.

I have grown a deep appreciation for Pagenaud over the past few seasons.   Sure, I like to have a laugh and call him Jean Girard because he reminds me of the antagonist from the Ricky Bobby movie.  At the same time, to speak with Pagenaud is impressive.  He has a tremendous amount of focus and determination.  He exudes an overwhelming amount of self-confidence and he had this ‘never say die’ attitude.  In that respect, he reminds me of someone far removed from a comedy film.  He actually reminds me of Ayrton Senna.

SimonHelmetI thought that it was fitting that Pagenaud donned an Ayrton Senna helmet at Indianapolis in memory of his racing hero who passed away 20 years ago.

If there is anyone out there who can derail the Penske juggernaut this season, Pagenaud fits the bill.  I would imagine that there are multiple championships in store for the young French driver in the coming years.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that other than the Penske Team and Pagenaud,  no one else has a realistic shot at the title.

But, at the same time, that is what makes the Verizon IndyCar Series so interesting.  This thing is far from over.  At mid season last year, I would have told you that Dixon didn’t have a shot at the title, and I would have been woefully wrong.

The Andretti Autosport team currently has drivers sitting in 5th, 6th, 7th and 12th in the standings.  Hunter-Reay perhaps has an outside shot at catching up, but that would be assuming that the Penske team were to just implode over the next seven races.  Of course, stranger things have happened.

Shell Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston - Day 2Another contributing factor to this years title fight is the fact that the smaller teams stepping up and snatching points away from the title contenders.   Ed Carpenter racing, with its two part-time drivers, has taken two wins.  Dale Coyne driver,  Carlos Huertas, surprised everyone with a win at Houston.  A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato looks poised to step up to the top of the podium on any given weekend.  Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz may indeed find victory lane before Marco or Hinchcliff does.

Over at Chip Ganassi Racing, it is only a matter of time before that team gets it’s mojo back and comes on strong.  Tony Kanaan might have won at Pocono had his fuel strategy panned out.

The Verizon Indycar Series will race three times in the next two weeks.  The Iowa Corn Indy 300 will go down on Saturday night, July 12th followed by the Honda Indy Toronto ’2 in T.O.’ double header on July 19th and 20th.  NBCSN will carry television coverage with live streaming available on the Indycar 14 app provided by Verizon.  Radio coverage will be available through Sirius XM.