IndyCar begins its final four-race stretch over the two months with this weekend's Honda Indy 200 from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The twelfth race of the season is only the second on a permanent road course, the first since Barber in April.
DIXON'S LAST STAND – It's weird to come to a road or street course on the IndyCar schedule where Will Power is not the presumptive favorite, but that is certainly the case at Mid-Ohio. All challengers need to check their chances at the door, because the target has always been on Scott Dixon's back since he first turned up at the central Ohio road course.
Dixon's got a nice string of three consecutive odd-year victories at Mid-Ohio, in 2007, 2009 and last year. The '09 win was IndyCar's most dominant victory since the open-wheel unification of 2008; Dixon won by some 30 seconds over Ryan Briscoe. In that five-year period, only two races (Kentucky 2010, Baltimore 2011) have seen a margin of victory over 10 seconds, and the 13.1597sec gap at Kentucky pales in comparison to Dixon's most authoritative drive.
If he's been invincible in odd years, his even years have been far from an eyesore – a third in 2008 with fifths in 2002 and 2010. And at a track where passing is normally at a premium, Dixon's done this with only one pole on his scorecard, a year ago. The combination of Mike Hull's strategy and Dixon's outright pace has seen the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi entry firmly entrenched at the top of the pecking order.
All this is particularly important to note given Dixon's going to need another mega Mid-Ohio weekend, plus a bit of luck to sideline his chief rivals, to maintain a realistic championship challenge for the final quartet of races. At 61 points back, Dixon would roughly need a win and the trio ahead of him to finish about fifth or worse (a net gain of 20 points) to make significant inroads. Anything less and you may as well stick a fork in his title chances.
MID-O GREAT FOR RHR, TOO – Dixon's dominance has taken some of the attention away from others who've starred at Mid-Ohio, if slightly below the radar, in past years. One of those is Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose career has had several monumental moments at the track.
As a rookie in 2003, Hunter-Reay put in a sterling effort taking a dated Reynard chassis to both a front row start and his first career podium in third place behind the Player's/Forsythe teammates of Paul Tracy and Patrick Carpentier. RHR also left that day with his dignity intact, given the fact he was the only podium finisher who didn't take a victory lap wearing only a checkered flag…
Mid-Ohio was also the site of his IndyCar return from career wilderness in 2007, replacing Jeff Simmons at Rahal Letterman Racing. A seventh was the first result that earned RHR IndyCar's Rookie of the Year honor, an award that was bestowed as much for his talent far more than being an outright rookie, compared to the year's other freshman driver, Milka Duno.
Hunter-Reay, loaned out to A.J. Foyt's team the balance of the 2009 season, also took a surprise fourth place that year, one spot off the podium in Dixon's romp. Third last year plus 10ths in 2008 and 2010 are also on his résumé. This is a great track for RHR to recover from a frustrating Edmonton weekend and renew his surge to a potential first championship.
THE PENSKE PLAN – Helio Castroneves re-entered the title discussion – even if he never really should have been left out –with his win in Edmonton. Will Power's determined drive there from 17th to third was an excellent effort to keep himself in the frame, too. Ryan Briscoe…started second and finished eighth.
Castroneves won back-to-back races at Mid-Ohio in 2000-'01, and has three podium finishes in the five IndyCar-sanctioned races since the series returned to the track in 2007. Briscoe's a former Mid-Ohio winner (2008) and also has a runner-up finish a year later.
Power has never won at Mid-Ohio in three prior starts. While he and Castroneves could be in the mix, Briscoe's main help will come if he can translate qualifying pace into proper results assistance, much as he and Castroneves did at Sonoma last year when the trio swept the podium behind Power.
There won't be too much harm in Power and Castroneves taking points off each other at this stage, at 26 and 23 points apiece behind RHR. Briscoe's goal should be to beat his fellow Ryan and play the supporting role.
PANTANO RETURNS ON RAHAL'S HOME SOIL – No doubt Graham Rahal is one of the drivers looking to impress on home soil. The Columbus native has struggled in his prior starts here, with one top-10 finish in four appearances (eighth in 2009).
Usual teammate Charlie Kimball is out after fracturing his fifth metacarpal in last week's test. Giorgio Pantano will make his sixth career IndyCar start (two in 2005, three last year all as a substitute) as his replacement. Pantano's not raced at Mid-Ohio before but has shown particularly impressive road course pace in his few appearances – culminating with the fastest race lap his most recent start at the Motegi, Japan road course last September. As a point of reference, Kimball's best start this season is ninth (Long Beach), and while that was aided by the Chevrolet engine changes in advance his second best is 13th.
A PROPER WEEKEND FOR PAGENAUD – Stuck in a mini-slump with three finishes outside the top 10 in the last four races, expect Simon Pagenaud and the Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports crew to shine. Pagenaud won the American Le Mans Series race here in 2009 with Gil de Ferran, and came up short a year later in what could be considered Chris Dyson's best ALMS race. Last year, the Frenchman was called in at the eleventh hour to replace the injured Justin Wilson, and needed to borrow almost all equipment to fit into Wilson's car.
Things should be easier this weekend with everything in place in advance, and a single-class and single-driver focus compared to multi-class, multi-driver racing – a style where Pagenaud has already excelled at this circuit. It's worth noting that earlier this year, in the other tracks Pagenaud had prior ALMS experience, he finished second (Long Beach) and third (Belle Isle).
CAN SIMONA EMULATE SEBASTIEN? – If trophies were given for attitude and resiliency in the face of a desperate situation, Simona de Silvestro would already have 11 of them this year, always keeping a positive outlook despite wallowing in the morass that is the uncompetitive Lotus engine. With little salvageable from the year, the best she and the HVM team can hope for is a Sebastien Bourdais at Barber emulation, and Mid-Ohio could be the place it happens.
In her first two seasons, de Silvestro's shown strongest here. She took the aging and overweight “Pork Chop” chassis to a top-10 start and eighth-place finish in 2010, following up with a respectable 14th to 12th last year.
Without even having a sniff of advancing out of Q1 this season, de Silvestro may not have what's become a weekly 10-spot grid penalty this race to coincide with either a bum engine or engine upgrade. She genuinely outqualified cars at both Toronto and Edmonton, which, given the engine's weaknesses, is an accomplishment.
If a place exists where de Silvestro could shine, it's here, as the flowing nature of the road course, with only three straights of reasonable length, could play to her and the car's strengths. Speed through the corners and not losing an inordinate amount of time on the straights could see her qualify higher than the last couple rows, and perhaps she could leap forward on strategy. It may be a slightly optimistic prediction, but I have a hunch this is the weekend de Silvestro can do something close to what Bourdais achieved at Barber and what Oriol Servia has on several occasions.
BREAKOUT PERFORMERS? – There's plenty of negative adjectives one could use to describe Marco Andretti's season, especially cast in the context of his teammates. Still, Mid-Ohio's a track where Andretti at least has the potential to thrive. Top-five qualifying efforts in 2007 and 2008 are on his record, as are respectable sixth-, ninth- and seventh-place finishes in the last three years. Given his passing prowess at Barber earlier this year, and the urgency of needing some sort of result (one top-10 in 11 races this year), he could play a spoiling role in the outcome.
Three Honda runners to watch include Team Barracuda-BHA's Alex Tagliani, Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson and Rahal Letterman Lanigan's Takuma Sato. Perhaps the most underrated driver of the year, Tagliani's been given a new lease on life thanks to the team's new Honda engine lease. Three successive Firestone Fast Six appearances plus a record of six top-10 finishes in six Mid-Ohio starts should see Tag fully on it and close to the front this weekend.
Wilson will want a rebound from his practice accident a year ago. Wilson's always someone to be reckoned with and, by this point in the season the Dale Coyne team should have its road course setup rectified after an off-pace and anonymous weekend at Barber. Sato, the Edmonton runner-up, finished fourth at Mid-Ohio a year ago and had solid pace at Barber before a mechanical issue ended his race.
Mike Conway, JR Hildebrand and Tony Kanaan all qualified in the top six at Barber, though much of that was down to Hunter-Reay's spin that brought out a red flag and prevented some perhaps faster drivers from posting laps quick enough to advance. Conway's podium at Toronto had a decent follow-up at Edmonton with a 23rd-to-11th drive, while both the Panther and KV teams had a rough weekend of trial and error on setups in Edmonton.
Lastly, Oriol Servia – as this is the last ABC race of the season, expect a top-five finish from the Catalan. Why, you ask? Servia's four top-five finishes this season have come in the last four races on ABC (Indianapolis, Belle Isle, Milwaukee, Toronto), and all from 14th or worse on the grid. It's a weird streak but I wouldn't bet against it continuing. Surprisingly, he has yet to score a top-10 in the leftover races. Speaking of ABC…
NBC CREW, ABC RACE – IndyCar announced Mid-Ohio as one of six ABC races at the start of the year. Still, with a number of ABC's regular on-air talent, such as lead announcer Marty Reid and pit reporters Vince Welch and Dr. Jerry Punch, on duty for ESPN's NASCAR coverage, and the ESPN NASCAR crew split between Pocono (Sprint Cup) and Iowa (Nationwide), few IndyCar holdovers would be available for Mid-Ohio. NBC Sports Network, meanwhile, is part of the NBC Universal family of networks airing the Olympic Games, and doesn't have an available time slot.
The end result is the NBCSN IndyCar crew working for an ABC telecast; however, as it's an ABC weekend, there won't be a TV broadcast of IndyCar qualifying. To further complicate matters, ABC will also be airing the ALMS race at Mid-Ohio live on Saturday – but with its designated, full-season crew.
As in Long Beach, Townsend Bell will be a candidate for “busiest during the weekend” award, racing in the Alex Job Lotus Evora in ALMS GT and reporting from the pits for IndyCar. Fortunately, his ALMS commitments will be over by the time IndyCar comes on air on Sunday.
On a spotter's guide note, three cars – Ryan Hunter-Reay (Pelotonia), Ryan Briscoe (PPG) and Dario Franchitti (GE Reveal) will have alternate liveries this weekend.
• The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio airs live, Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern on ABC.