If recent history can be used as a guide to how this weekend's Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston double-header will play out, the 49-point advantage championship leader Helio Castroneves holds over Scott Dixon could be in jeopardy.
With 50 points on offer to win each race, a point for pole, a point for leading a lap and two more for leading the most laps, Castroneves and his Team Penske crew will need to keep an eye on the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver. The Kiwi has a pair of fourths from the Detroit double-header, a pair of wins at the most recent double-header in Toronto and was also in the frame for another podium at Baltimore until…well, you know what happened there.
Of all the drivers in the IndyCar paddock, Dixon was seemingly created to drive on bumpy street courses and that's exactly what he'll have this weekend as he attempts to keep the No. 9 Honda earthbound during a pair of 90-lap events. There's no guarantee Houston will be another repeat of Toronto for Dixie, but you could not pick a better track to give the two-time champion 108 points to pursue.
Castroneves will also have a two-time street course race winner to contend with in Schmidt Hamilton Racing's Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has a longer haul to the Brazilian from third in the standings, but with victories on Detroit's rallycross circuit and again at Baltimore, his No. 77 Honda is another pre-race favorite to grab handfuls of points.
It's also worth noting that since Chevy-powered James Hinchcliffe won in Brazil for Andretti Autosport, Honda, with its exceptional mid-range power delivery, has won every street course – five in total – since the series visited Sao Paulo in May.
Add in fourth-place Marco Andretti (-71 points) and fifth-place Ryan Hunter-Reay (-74 points) to the Castroneves Chase and the 38-year-old Brazilian needs to come away from Houston with solid runs inside the top-5 if he's to hold the championship lead into the season finale at Fontana.
Without running through a mind-numbing list of every possible championship scenario, Castroneves could clinch the title this weekend if he moves his lead to 55 points or more by the end of Race 2.
Coming off of last week's test at Fontana, Castroneves was the class of the field – untouchable, almost – which could make Houston the place where Dixon, Pagenaud and the rest have a realistic shot at turning the tide in their favor.
In a call to RACER prior to a sponsor function for Shell, whose branding will be carried on his No. 3 Chevy in Houston, Castroneves made it clear he'll be racing with his head this weekend while those who are pursuing him have no choice but to dial up the intensity and go for broke.
“The way I'm approaching it is I'm not only thinking about the championship lead; I'm thinking about keeping the lead, but also our performance this weekend,” he said. “My goal is to have a quick car, a consistent car, and it's 90 laps each race. I don't know the track, I haven't been there, so if it's bumpy, I'll deal with it. I'm just going to work on setting up my car the best we can. I'm not worried about who's being aggressive, how the Hondas are doing, or whatever. I'm focused on learning what we've learned at the tracks we've been to, the street courses. At Toronto the car was very good, so we're going to focus on trying to make the Shell car like that.”
Castroneves has been incredibly effective this season by taking a “best on the day” approach to his races. In the past, he's been susceptible to over-driving – trying too hard at times, or trying to squeeze a better finishing position out of a car that just didn't have the pace to get there – and paid the price with broken wings or meetings with the wall. Yet once he dialed down his intensity a notch or two and stopped trying to force the issue, his championship aspirations became more realistic.
He's rarely been the fastest car on track, but through 16 rounds, Castroneves has only finished outside the top-10 on one occasion. Nine visits inside the top-6 and five trips to the podium, including a win at Texas, has Castroneves on the cusp of his first Indy car title, which means changes to his less forceful approach are unlikely for Houston.
“That's my mentality,” he confirmed. “That's how I'm approaching this weekend – it's two races. I'm not going to start counting points or positions – who's where in the race and what does that mean for me and all of that stuff. You can't control those things. All I can do is drive. I'm only trying to control the things I can at this point. It's like we did at Baltimore.
“We did the best with the circumstances we had and it worked out very well. I want to do everything we can to be competitive with those guys. If we can be at the front, OK. If we're at the back, we need to make things better so I can get to the front. We will handle whatever situation we have.”