by Frank Santoroski

EJA_D_-967The Verizon Indycar Series has concluded  its final off weekend of the 2014 season.   The teams then begin a three-week stretch that will take them to Milwaukee, Sonoma and finally to Fontana for the season-ender.  Five teams chose to spend the off weekend testing at Sonoma in anticipation of the GoPro Grand Prix to be held August 24th.

As the Championship  boils down to the final three events, Team Penske still stands atop the points standings with Will Power and Helio Castroneves keeping the battle close.  The two have swapped the lead back and forth recently and Power currently holds a slim 4 point advantage coming out of Mid-Ohio.

Their closest competitors, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud, lie a little over 60 points out of the lead and are separated by a single point.  While the Penske advantage might look commanding on paper, it can be swallowed up in a single weekend given the points structure.  Throw in the fact that Fontana pays double points, and this is anybody’s game.  The attrition alone at the 500-miler in California will be a game-changer.

In fact, drivers all the way down to the 13th spot are mathematically able to take the title.  Mind you, 13th place Charlie Kimball would need a ton of help to get there, but the top five to eight drivers in the standing have a realistic shot at the cup.  Juan Montoya, Scott Dixon, Carlos Munoz, Sebastien Bourdais and perhaps even Tony Kanaan can vault to to top of the standings is things fall their way.

ryan-hunterRyan Hunter-Reay, no doubt,  is looking forward to the Milwaukee Mile where he has won the past two seasons.  If he can stay out front and the Penske cars falter, he can make huge gains. At the same time, Penske has been very good at the Mile.  Sharing the podium with RHR last year was Power and Castroneves.

Sonoma is a different story. Hunter-Reay has never cracked the top five on the challenging road course.  Kanaan and Dixon have both won at Sonoma and Will Power has taken the win there three times.

With Power having a perceived advantage at Sonoma, it should also be noted that Pagenaud has been strong on all of the road courses.

honda-indy-toronto-2013-sunday-76Perhaps the biggest danger to the title contenders is not Ryan Hunter-Reay or Simon Pagenaud,  but rather reigning series champion, Scott Dixon.  He has had a less-than-stellar 2014 season, but managed to stay in the top ten in points.  Following a fantastic drive from last place to victory at Mid-Ohio he finds himself in the sixth spot.  Dixon has won at all three of the remaining tracks on the schedule.  (He took an Indy Lights win at Fontana in 2000.)

Fontana is going to be the race to watch.  The key to every driver’s shot at the title will be to finish at Fontana.  With the double points structure, a DNF will likely knock anyone out of contention.  For this reason, expect to see some very conservative setups on the big oval from those atop the standings.  At the same time, expect some very aggressive driving from those trying to make up ground.  At this point it will be an ‘all or nothing’ situation for the drivers trailing in the points.

There is one other factor: Ed Carpenter.  While not in title contention due to his part-time schedule, Carpenter been blindingly quick on the oval tracks.  He most certainly can sneak in and steal that 100 point prize from the contenders.  It will be fun to watch.

PHOTO_ownersdrivers-710x400In other Verizon IndyCar Series news, the Rahal Letterman Team took a blow last week with the announcement that The National Guard will be ending its racing sponsorships.  It seems so unfair that this team, that has struggled with sponsor issues over the years, finds itself in a tight spot yet again.

The National Guard was the most lucrative sponsor package the team has had to work with since Max Papis ran the Miller Lite colors in the CART Series so many years ago.  Given the fact that Rahal Letterman had to fight so hard to obtain the National Guard money, its a shame that it lasted only one year.

INDYDallara3Aero kits may finally be a reality in the 2015 season.  IndyCar seems to be a full go-ahead with the project that will allow Chevrolet and Honda to add custom distinctive bodywork components to the Dallara DW-12 chassis.  Manufacturer testing will begin in October and run through January.  Teams can expect to take delivery of the road course kits on March 1, with the oval track kits arriving at a later date.

In 2016, the manufacture of aero kits will be open to the teams, other engine manufacturers and third party companies.

It will be interesting to see IndyCars with a few different looks on the cars, and it will be interesting to see which aero kit performs better.  While my personal opinion on the on-again-off-again aero kits has been, “I’ll believe it when I see it” it looks like a sure thing, at least for now.

Simon222With the season finale rapidly approaching, the silly season rumors are beginning to crop up.  While there are a number of unsigned drivers and free agents for 2015, much of the rumors swirling around regard a few hot properties, namely Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden.

Simon Pagenaud has performed admirably with the smaller Schmidt-Peterson Racing team over the past two seasons, taking four race wins and putting himself in title contention.  Now, in a contract year, the talented Frenchman has a number of options to explore.   Pagenaud has not only had conversations with Andretti Autosport, but he may also participate in a Formula One test for Honda.

Newgarden, in the final year of his contract with Sarah Fisher Hartmann racing has yet to find victory lane.  At the same time, he has shown incredible promise and one could only imagine how he would perform with a top-tier team.  Unfortunately, many of the top seats are spoken for, but it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

It’s a bit too early for a lot of silly season talk,  because we have a race to get ready for this weekend.

The Verizon IndyCar Series will be in action this weekend on the historic Milwaukee Mile.  The ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 will take the green flag on Sunday August 17th at  3:00 pm Eastern.  Television coverage will be provided by NBC-SN with coverage also available in Sirius 213 XM 209, or download the IndyCar 14 app provided by Verizon.