Who Wins The IndyCar Championship?

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Depending on who you ask, the Verizon IndyCar Series championship is still up for grabs between three, five or even eight drivers. With two races to go, there are still 150 points on the table. Mathematically speaking, I suppose even Tony Kanaan in ninth and 111 points out is still alive for the championship – but barely.

Realistically, I think there are no more than five drivers that have a real shot to win it –but common sense tells me that Helio Castroneves and Will Power, in fourth and fifth place respectively, need a lot of things to fall their way in order to win the Astor Challenge Trophy after the Sonoma race.

I think those drivers that are truly in serious contention are points leader Juan Montoya, Graham Rahal who is only nine points out of first place and Scott Dixon, who trails Montoya by thirty-four points. I’ll be surprised if the championship isn’t ultimately decided between those three drivers. Helio Castroneves could prove me wrong. He certainly knows how to win 500-mile races. Will Power won a 500-miler at Fontana in 2013 and his record at Sonoma, which pays double points, is excellent. Still, they are both almost sixty-five points behind Montoya. The three drivers in front of them would all have to have two bad races in a row to get them back into the hunt.

Juan Montoya has led the points from the very beginning. He won the season-opener at St. Petersburg and the double-points paying Indianapolis 500. Beyond those two races, Montoya has been very consistent with good finishes that have kept him comfortably up front – until recently. Crashing on Lap 10 at Iowa and an eleventh place finish at Mid-Ohio has tightened up the points battle to where the surging Graham Rahal is only nine points back.

Aside from two straight finishes outside the Top-Ten, Montoya’s only other poor finish was at Barber where he finished fourteenth. Other than that, every finish has been in the Top-Ten, with eight Top-Fives and four podium finishes. While that sounds impressive, Montoya has not had a podium finish since May. His lead has been shrinking lately. Many believe that Montoya and Team Penske will right the ship and breeze through the next two races to win the championship leading from wire-to-wire. I’m not so sure.

The sexy and trendy pick for everyone these days is for Graham Rahal to win the championship. He very well could do it. Momentum has certainly been on his side In his last four races; Rahal has two wins, a third and a fourth – all while Montoya has struggled. The question is; does Honda have enough to push Graham to the championship? Some question if Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing can pull off their first championship since 1992, when the team was known as Rahal-Hogan Racing and Bobby Rahal was the driver. That remains to be seen. Even if not, it’s nothing short of miraculous that they are where they are right now.

No one in their right mind would have predicted Graham Rahal to be in second place and nine points out of the championship with two races to go. If you’ll go back and see what I wrote last winter, I thought Rahal would have a decent season. But after finishing eighteenth and nineteenth in the last two seasons, a decent season probably meant tenth or twelfth in the points – not contending for the championship at the end of the season. So in my mind, Rahal has already had an ultra-successful season. But I’m not sure he’ll be able to close the deal on the championship.

The not-so-sexy pick and the one that has been below the radar lately is Scott Dixon. So many people are focused on Montoya, because he has led the entire season; and Rahal, because he has gained so much ground lately and has all the momentum. People seem to be overlooking Scott Dixon as a legitimate threat. I’ll assure you, this is not a two-horse race.

If you overlook Dixon’s eighteenth place finish at Iowa; Dixon has a win, a fourth, a sixth, seventh and an eighth in his last six races. That is in addition to his win at Long Beach, a third at Barber and a fourth in the Indianapolis 500. It may not be as sexy as what Rahal has done this summer, but Dixon’s body of work has been consistently high all season long.

Montoya won at Pocono last season and finished fifth at Sonoma in his only IndyCar starts at either track. Some say he knows both tracks very well from his NASCAR days, but I question how much of that actually translates to IndyCar. Still, the fact that he won at Pocono and placed fifth at Sonoma last year bodes well for his chances for success at both tracks this year.

Last year, Graham Rahal finished nineteenth at Pocono and twentieth at Sonoma. In 2013, Rahal’s only other start at Pocono – he finished eighteenth. In Rahal’s seven starts at Sonoma, his average finish is 11.7, with a best finish of fifth in 2012 – Rahal’s second and last year at Ganassi.

Scott Dixon won Pocono in 2013 and finished fifth there last season. Dixon won at Sonoma last year and has an average finish of 7.3 in ten starts. That includes two wins and a second, but also four finishes of twelfth or worse.

There are many questions surrounding the championship heading into the final two races of the season. Can Montoya turn things around and get at least a podium to help solidify his lead, or will his semi-funk of the summer continue? Can Graham Rahal continue his surge toward the championship, or will the two-weekend layoff cool his momentum and this is as close as he’ll get? Will Scott Dixon do what he always does and lurk about unnoticed and then pounce to steal the championship away from Montoya and Rahal?

What do I think will happen? I think Juan Montoya or his team will continue the slump and set Montoya up to be passed in the points. I also think that these last two open weekends have not been a friend to Rahal or Honda and the team and the manufacturer will struggle – especially at Sonoma. I also think that this season plays into the waiting hands of Scott Dixon. Oh, and those other two Penske drivers? Helio Castroneves and Will Power will have solid races and make things very interesting, but they’ll fall just short of the championship that will be won by Scott Dixon.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Who Wins The IndyCar Championship?”

  1. Included in this discussion should be the fact that a number of other drivers not mentioned above are fully capable of winning either or both of the last two races. Most notably Newgarden, Bourdais, Wilson, RHR, perhaps Marco at Pocono. They will not roll over for anyone.

    One thing for sure, when you play not to lose………..you lose.

  2. Montoya seems to have been in a bit of a slump lately, but when I consider that he won Pocono handily last year; my money is still on him to be champion. It’s amazing when you consider this is only his 4th Indycar season. If we wins the Championship this year that will be 2 Championships in just 4 seasons (not to mention 2 Indy 500 victories in only 3 starts) Only other Driver that accomplished stats at the beginning of their careers like that off the top of my head was Zanardi (2 championships in 4 years of Indycar). Zanardi’s came in year 2 and 3 of his Indycar career. Montoya, assuming he wins it this year (which is definitely still up in the air) would be in years 1 and 4 of his Indycar Career. Amazing.

    That said I’m still pulling for Graham Rahal. How cool would it be to see him crowned?

  3. I think that Ron Ford has made a terrific point. A lot is at play here and the next two races are going to have a lot of play with several other drivers. I think Newgarden and RHR are both capable, as well as Bourdais. However, I see RLL putting it all together and sporting the number “1” next year.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Those who have read my comments on here know I’m rooting for Rahal, and really, he has a great chance to win the title. That’s all I can ask for as a fan (that and a t-shirt with his car on it, which I expect I will be able to get if he wins the championship). I don’t think a favorite driver of mine has been in championship contention this late since Al Unser Jr. in 1996.

    A win in either remaining race by Rahal or Montoya would put them in the catbird seat, but Dixon almost needs to win one of the remaining races to give himself a chance. The other contenders will probably need bad finishes by all of the top 3 and a win to join the championship conversation, even with double points at Sears Point.

    All in all, it should be a lot of fun.

  5. Here we go with yet another season that comes down to the last race of the year that could decide the championship. As far as the entertainment factor is concerned, IndyCar is tough to beat. NASCAR and F1 can’t hold a torch to IndyCar it in my opinion. What is more astounding, so few people know about it.

  6. IndyCar fans don’t agree on a lot of things, but I would like to think we all wish the order of the next two races was reversed. Just imagine Dixon starting from pole in Sonoma and winning a caution free race never having to go wheel to wheel with anyone for the Astor Cup. I do not believe that would be possible in Pennsylvania. Let’s hope we get some suspense.

  7. My choice is predicated to small degree on my love for milk shakes, particularly free ones.

  8. You can never count out Dixon. He is usually very solid. Montoya has been fairly quiet lately, but he is a threat next weekend.

    But, it would be a joy if Graham could win the championship–an American from a small team.

  9. Pocono is an IndyCar race that tends to be won by champions. The best of the best amongst the drivers win at Pocono. The only driver to have won Pocono who never was either series champion or Indy 500 champion is Teo Fabi in 1983 who was runner-up in the championship that year.

    JP Montoya and Scott Dixon both have won at Pocono in IndyCar previously, and Graham Rahal has won the previous 500 mile race.
    The Pocono race is going to be all about this championship even though it’s just a prelude to the season finale, no matter the qualifying positions of each of the 3 contenders.
    Hopefully, this exciting storyline gets enough spectators into the stands trackside for the event to continue next year.

    At the other track still to come on this year’s schedule, Sonoma, the winning team is usually the one which has been the dominant outfit for the season – or maybe several of the past seasons. Michael Andretti’s team has won from 2005 to 2007, and Team Penske has won from 2010 to 2013, plus in 2008. The only other team to win at Sonoma so far is, you guessed it, Chip Ganassi Racing. So this race will be the litmus test if Team Rahal is indeed back to its renewed glory and makes the group of “Big 3 teams” a group of “Big 4 teams” again, which, from the look of their current season, they are very much up to be doing.
    Also, last season, Graham Rahal ran really well and was even leading the race at one point. So you could say the resurgence of Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan started right here. And given Graham Rahal’s great performances at similar circuits this year, Barber and Mid-Ohio, he must be counted amongst those who can score a good result at Sonoma.
    Despite all the criticism this track has received through the years, it very much looks like it is going to host an exciting season finale after all. And that is a very welcome surprise.
    So who is going to win at a track where usually, the dominant team of a season is winning, when there is no team which has dominated this season?

    I can honestly say I’m happy with either of the 3 drivers winning the championship. It’s just that 3 weeks of downtime at this point is a bit long but when you think that it used to be 5 in what was Mark Miles’ first season at the helm, this is an improvment.

    I just wish there were no races which count double for the points standings.

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