In looking at the championship hunt, I took everyone within a single racing weekend's worth of maximum points, plus our defending champion. Realistically, one of these eight drivers will be our champ. I’ve listed them based on reverse order of how likely I find their winning the title to be, starting with the least likely and going from there:
Still Hanging On
Dario Franchitti (8th place, 216 points)
When Franchitti’s engine blew last Saturday, it very well could have marked the end of his championship run. Outside of his two-race run at Indy and Detroit, Dario has only a single Top 5 on the season, which seems almost unbelievable to say in regards to the defending Series champ. Still, we’ve seen him finish strong before; the problem is, in his come-from-behind 2010 and 2011 championship runs, he was nowhere near this far back. At this point, Top 5s or Top 10s won’t cut this lead nearly enough in the six races remaining on the schedule; he needs wins and podiums strung together in a hurry.
Tony Kanaan (7th place, 235 points)
TK has been white-hot since Indy, finishing P3, P6, P11, P2, and P3. Those three podiums have bumped him up to P7 in the standings after a pair of disastrous races started his season. KV Racing Technology is still looking for that elusive win, and Kanaan is likely their best chance to get it. Looking to the schedule ahead, Toronto and Edmonton have been a mixed bag in years past for the affable Brazilian, but Sonoma has routinely been one of his best tracks. If he can keep his string of excellent finishes going, he could be a player going into the closing stages of the season. TK likely isn’t a title favorite this year, but he could certainly make it interesting.
The Perennial Candidate
Helio Castroneves (4th place, 261 points)
After starting the season with a win at St. Petersburg, Helio has managed to lead the Series in percentage of laps completed so far. That’s a very good indicator for a driver who previously lost championship fights due to a couple of really poor finishes in otherwise excellent seasons. Helio fans will have to wait and see if he can keep up that consistency over the last half of the season. If he does, the season finale at Fontana should be his kind of race, and that long-elusive championship for the Brazilian favorite could become a reality.
The Young Guns
Simon Pagenaud (6th place, 246 points)
As a long-anticipated rookie in INDYCAR, Pags has lived up to just about every expectation, and then some. He’s been good on the ovals (the area where many expected him to struggle), and with a single-car team, has put the fear into the competition on the road and street courses. Few drivers have been steadier this year than Simon. He should have a very good chance to collect more podiums and possibly even a victory over the next month or so of racing, and has every chance in the world of moving up in the standings. This rookie isn’t finished impressing just yet, one would wager.
|The New Guard: Pags and Hinch have excelled this year.|
(Used with permission. Courtesy TrackSideOnline.com)
As great as Hinch has been in his sophomore IndyCar season, he missed a prime opportunity to put the fear into Will Power after the points leader’s incident with EJ Viso at Iowa. Hinch’s single-car accident late in the race denied him the chance to make a nice jump in points, and belied the sort of consistent season he’s otherwise had this year. The Mayor has been competitive in nearly every race this season, but he’ll have to keep those podiums coming (and probably steal a win somewhere) if he wants to make a title run. It’s been a great campaign for Hinch; we’ll see if it can be a championship one as well.
The Great American Hope
Ryan Hunter-Reay (2nd place, 283 points)
In years past, RHR has been the sort of driver good for a victory once a year, but has never been the guy to string together enough races to really contend for the title. This year, I thought he might continue to stick around the tail end of the Top 10 after his disappointment at Detroit, but he responded by reeling off two extremely impressive victories on the short ovals to move right back into the title hunt. Hunter-Reay already has two road and street podiums this year, and is usually considered a contender on the twisties. He’s finished on the podium two years in a row at Toronto; if he matches that for a third year, it could be a nice indicator for the rest of the season. To match Scott Dixon and Will Power, though, he’s going to need keep his streak of good finishes going, with no major letdowns. If he does, this could be the year we marked as a big turning point in RHR’s already accomplished open wheel career.
Scott Dixon (3rd place, 271 points)
Although he’s in third place, Scott Dixon might just be the odds-on favorite for the title this year. Dixon’s usual method is to be quietly be in contention through most of the season, and close up bit by bit as other drivers fail to match the rhythm-like regularity of those sneaky wins and podium finishes. Over the last 6 races of 2011, he averaged a finishing position of 3.0. That’s just ridiculously good. Earlier this year, Dixie had a pair of back-to-back finishes outside the Top 10 for the first time since 2005. Unless has a serious relapse on that, it’s tough to see him not at least into contention going into the season finale.
Will Power (1st place, 286 points)
Without a doubt, Will Power remains the king of the road and street course. He routinely posts eyebrow-raising times in qualifications, and is an ace when it comes to pole position on those courses. What’s more, Power has won at every single remaining twisty on the schedule (with the exception of Mid-Ohio, where his career best is P2). To say he’s favorite to win at least a majority of the remaining twisty courses would seem a given, but remember, there are still six races to go, and it's been a turbulent year. For Power, there remains the specter of lost points leads in the closing races of both 2010 and 2011, and IndyCar once again closes the schedule with an oval this year. Will isn’t completely invincible, and will have to hope his Chevy engine continues to hold against fierce competitors both in the Bowtie Brigade and Honda. Still, he has to still be considered with Scott Dixon as a frontrunner to be this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series champ.
Agree? Disagree? Think we should have included someone else for consideration? Your comments are welcome below!