Who Wins The IndyCar Championship?
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.