Thursday, August 17, 2017

Track Walk: Pocono 2017

IndyCar hopes to only see blues skies and sunshine at Pocono
IndyCar is back after a two-week summer vacation and it returns to Pocono Raceway for the ABC Supply 500. Pocono is the start of three consecutive weekends of racing for IndyCar and it is the penultimate oval race of the season. With four races remaining, 17 points cover the top four in the championship and 58 points cover the top six drivers. Chevrolet has won four of the last five races and has surpassed Honda in total victories with seven victories from the first 13 races. Chevrolet has won three of the four oval races this season.

Coverage
Time: Coverage begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on Sunday August 20th. Green flag will be at 2:40 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN.
Announcers: Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy are in the booth with Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Anders Krohn and Robin Miller working the pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
Saturday: 
First Practice- 9:00 a.m. ET (75-minute session).
Qualifying- 1:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage).
Final Practice- 5:00 p.m. ET (30-minute session).
Sunday:
Race- 2:40 p.m. ET (200 laps)

Penske Power Surge
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the hottest team in IndyCar is Team Penske. The IndyCar juggernaut has won four of the last five races after winning only three of the first eight races of the season. Team Penske is the only team to have multiple drivers win this season and it is only one of two teams to have stood on the top step of the podium multiple times in 2017 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing being the other thanks to Graham Rahal's sweep at Belle Isle.

Josef Newgarden's back-to-back victories have him sitting atop the championship for the first time in his IndyCar career and his Mid-Ohio victory occurred at a track where the Tennessean had struggled to find results. His previous best finish in his first five Mid-Ohio visits was tenth. Now Newgarden heads to a track where he has been constantly at the front of the pack. His worst finish in four Pocono starts is eighth, he has three top five finishes at the 2.5-mile oval, his fifth-place finish in the 2013 race was his first top five finish on an oval and he has led at least a lap in three consecutive Pocono races. He could become the first driver to win three consecutive races on a road course, street course and an oval since Cristiano da Matta did it in 2002. Da Matta won at the permanent road courses of Laguna Seca and Portland, then at the slightly larger than a mile of an oval that was Chicago Motor Speedway and he capped it off with a victory at Toronto.

Seven points behind Newgarden is Hélio Castroneves. After finishing eighth and second in his first two Pocono starts, the Brazilian has had his last two Pocono starts end in accidents, last year's race being the infamous pit lane collision with Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball. Like Newgarden, Castroneves enters Pocono on the back of four consecutive top ten finishes and while Castroneves has 12 top ten finishes to Newgarden's ten, the American driver has double the number of podium finishes as Castroneves with six to Castroneves' three. However, Castroneves has won at Iowa, finished second at Indianapolis and fourth at Phoenix while Newgarden's best oval finish this season was sixth at Iowa.

Simon Pagenaud leads all drivers this season with ten top five finishes but the defending IndyCar champion finds himself fourth in the championship. Pagenaud won at Phoenix, the first oval victory of his career, and he finished third at Texas but a 14th-place finish in the double points-paying Indianapolis 500 has him fighting an uphill battle. Last year, Pagenaud's accident in turn one at Pocono ended a streak of 23 consecutive finishes for the Frenchman. Pagenaud has finished 16 consecutive races entering this year's Pocono race. Pagenaud is the only driver to have completed all 1,738 laps run in 2017.

Will Power is the bottom of the Penske quartet but he rounds out the top five in the championship. Power won last year's Pocono race from eighth on the grid. Like his teammate Newgarden, Power has three top five finishes and four top ten finishes from four Pocono starts. Power has led at least a lap in every Pocono race since IndyCar returned to the track in 2013. Outside his retirement at the Indianapolis 500, Power finished second at Phoenix, won at Texas and finished fourth at Iowa. If Power finishes in the top five in the final two oval races this season he will match his career-high for top five oval finishes in a season, which occurred in 2011.

Ganassi's Need to Fight Back 
While Penske has been on a roll, Chip Ganassi Racing has been struggling to stay on its own two feet since the start of July. The team's best finish since Scott Dixon's victory at Road America was seventh at Toronto by Max Chilton.

Dixon still finds himself third in the championship on 445 points, eight points behind Newgarden and he has seven consecutive top ten finishes but his last three finishes have been eighth, tenth and ninth and he had been leading the championship by 34 points after his victory at Road America. Like Newgarden and Power, Dixon is the only driver to have finished in the top ten in all four IndyCar races at Pocono. Ironically, Dixon's best career starting position at Pocono is 11th and the three laps he led in last year's race was the first time he led at Pocono since his 2013 victory.

Tony Kanaan finds himself ninth in the championship but the Brazilian has been far from contending for a victory this season. Since the Indianapolis 500, Kanaan has finished 15th or worse in four of the last seven races. Kanaan has led every year at Pocono but last year was the first time Kanaan finished in the top ten there. He finished ninth after starting ninth.

Max Chilton sits on 310 points, only ten points behind Kanaan, and 11th in the championship. Chilton completed all 200 laps in last year's Pocono race and finished 13th. He has led a lap in the last three oval races with the lone oval race he did not lead in being Phoenix because he was involved in the first lap accident after Mikhail Aleshin spun exiting turn two.

Charlie Kimball has only three top ten finishes all season with eighth at Phoenix being his best result on an oval. Kimball started on pole position at Texas and he led 42 laps before he suffered an engine failure. Since finishing second in his Pocono debut in 2013, Kimball has failed to finish on the lead lap in three consecutive Pocono 500s with his best finish being 12th. He has been involved in an accident the last two years at Pocono.

Rahal Right In It
While Penske holds four of the top five and Scott Dixon once again finds himself in contention, Graham Rahal lurks sixth in the championship, trailing Newgarden by 58 points.

Rahal has seven consecutive top ten finishes, the longest streak of his career, five of those seven finish have been top five finishes and his third-place finish at Mid-Ohio was his third podium finish of the season. Not only has Rahal been getting good finishes but he has been starting at the front of the grid as well. He has started in the top ten for six of the last seven races with his worst starting position in that period being 11th at Texas. His average starting position in the last seven races is 5.285 after being 14.667 through the first six races. Rahal has completed every lap since being caught up in the turn one lap one accident at Phoenix.

Rahal will need a strong showing a Pocono, something that has escaped him in his previous four appearances, if he hopes to be in title contention come Sonoma. He has never finished in the top ten at Pocono with his 11th-place finish last year being his best outing and his only lead lap finish. He has started in the top ten only once at Pocono. That was fifth in 2015 and that race ended in a turn three accident after being hit by Tristan Vautier.

Another Home Race For Andretti
Pocono Raceway is in the backyard for the Nazareth-based Andretti family and the team is looking to get its second victory at the 2.5-mile oval.

Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato leads all Andretti Autosport drivers in the championship. He sits seventh on 381 points. Sato had a rough start to summer after four consecutive top ten finishes from the Indianapolis 500 to Texas. He finished 19th, 16th and 16th at Road America, Iowa and Toronto respectively but he picked up a fifth-place finish at Mid-Ohio, his fourth top five finish of the season, the most Sato has had in a season since joining IndyCar. Pocono has not been a great place for Sato. He finished sixth there in 2015 but he has retired in his other three races, including two accidents, one of which occurred on lap two last year.

Alexander Rossi had a promising day last year at Pocono before his pit lane collision with Charlie Kimball. He started seventh last year and led four laps before the incident. Rossi heads to Pocono coming off back-to-back top ten finishes after finishing second at Toronto and sixth at Mid-Ohio. Rossi finished outside the top ten at those tracks the year before. He trails Sato by 23 points in the championship.

Ryan Hunter-Reay still finds himself 12th in the championship on 297 points but the 2015 Pocono winner has finally strung together some top ten finishes. He finished third at Iowa, sixth at Toronto and eighth at Mid-Ohio, the longest streak of consecutive top ten finishes for Hunter-Reay this season. Hunter-Reay has not been in the top ten in the championship since he was eighth after the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Last year, Hunter-Reay picked up his second consecutive podium finish at Pocono with a marvelous comeback drive to third after having his car shut off on him while leading and costing him a lap in the final 100 miles of the race.

Marco Andretti is looking to win at his home track for the first time in his career. He started on pole position for the 2013 race but it has all been downhill from there. He finished tenth in the 2013 race after having to conserve fuel and coast home. He finished ninth the following year, had an accident while running at the front in 2015 and he was a non-factor last year and finished 12th. His grandfather Mario won at Pocono in 1986 and his uncle Jeff won the Indy Lights race the day prior to Mario's victory. His father Michael's best finish at Pocono was third in the 1989 race.

Schmidt Peterson Look to Replicate Last Year's Pocono Success
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had a great showing last year at Pocono. Unfortunately, the man who carried the SPM flag will not be there this year.

Mikhail Aleshin has been released from SPM to focus on SMP Racing's LMP1 privateer development. Aleshin started on pole position for last year's race and led a race-high 87 laps before finishing second to Power, the second podium finish of Aleshin's career. He also finished seventh in his first Pocono start in 2014.

Sebastián Saavedra returns to the #7 Honda for the second time this season after he replaced Aleshin at Toronto. The Colombian driver has also been confirmed for the Gateway race. Saavedra finished 15th earlier this year in the Indianapolis 500 and he completed all 500 miles. It was only the second time he has finished on the lead lap in an oval race in his career. Saavedra has two starts at Pocono. He completed two laps in the 2013 race before retiring due to a throttle issue and he finished 13th, one lap down in the 2014 race, the best oval finish of his career.

James Hinchcliffe finished tenth at Pocono last year after starting sixth; it was his first top ten finish at Pocono. Hinchcliffe has started third, sixth and sixth in his three Pocono starts. Hinchcliffe has not had much fortune on the ovals this year. His best finish was tenth at Iowa and he had two accidents at Indianapolis and Texas. Despite starting six of the last seven races in the top ten, the Canadian has only three top ten finishes but two of those were podium finishes at Belle Isle and Toronto. Aleshin had qualified ahead of Hinchcliffe at all four oval races this season.

Can Ed Carpenter Racing Find More Big Oval Success?
Ed Carpenter Racing had the top two Chevrolet qualifiers at the Indianapolis 500 in May and the team will be looking to replicate that at Pocono.

J.R. Hildebrand seems to only have things go his way at ovals and even then he has his bad days. While he stood on the podium at Phoenix and Iowa, he had a penalty for jumping the restart at Indianapolis 500 cost him a top five finish and he was involved in the massive accident in turn three and four that took out over a third of the field at Texas. Hildebrand has never raced at Pocono before in IndyCar. Panther Racing fired him before IndyCar returned to the track in 2013.

Ed Carpenter has been running at the finish of three of four oval races this year but even his one retirement at Texas saw him classified in 11th. Iowa was his worst finish of the season in 12th. Carpenter has failed to finish the last two years at Pocono due to mechanical reasons. He started tenth in last year's race, his best starting position at Pocono. His ninth-place finish in the 2013 race is his best Pocono finish. Carpenter has never led a lap at Pocono.

Can Coyne Keep Up Big Oval Speed?
The stunner this year at Indianapolis and Texas was the speed Dale Coyne Racing has shown with Sébastien Bourdais on his way to the top time of the month before his accident and Tristan Vautier qualifying fifth at Texas after being out of a car for over a year.

Ed Jones finished third in the Indianapolis 500 and he was in the top ten at Texas before being caught up in the massive accident in turn three and four. Jones has come back to earth since Indianapolis. He has only two top ten finishes in the last seven races and after completing all but four laps in the first seven races, his only lead lap finish in the last six races was at Road America.

Jones could clinch the 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Years honor this weekend at Pocono as his only challenger, his teammate Esteban Gutiérrez, trails him by 202 points and there are 266 points left on the table. Like Jones, this will be Gutiérrez's first time at Pocono. Gutiérrez has finished ahead of Jones in four of his six starts, including in the last three races. The best finish for a Mexican driver at Pocono was seventh by Josele Garza in the 1986.

And Then There is A.J. Foyt Racing
A.J. Foyt Racing has not had a good year and the team once was a stalwart at Pocono Raceway. The good news for the team is it has one driver who has been quite impressive at the 2.5-mile oval.

Carlos Muñoz has finished third, fifth and seventh in his three Pocono starts and his three starting positions in those three races were third, sixth and fifth. Muñoz also won the 2013 Indy Lights race at Pocono. Despite Muñoz's success and completed all 600 laps contested at Pocono, he has yet to lead a lap at the track. The Colombian driver is looking for a good result. He has not finished in the top ten in the last seven races since finishing tenth in the Indianapolis 500. Muñoz has yet to start a race in the top ten this season.

Conor Daly made his Pocono debut last year and finished two laps down in 16th. Daly did pick up his first career top ten finish on an oval at Texas when he came home in seventh. However, he is still looking for his first lead lap finish on an oval. He is coming off a tenth-place finish at Mid-Ohio and he has finished on the lead lap in the last two races. Daly has never had three consecutive lead lap finishes in his IndyCar career.

Harding Racing is Back!
For the third time this season and first time since Texas, Harding Racing has entered a car and Gabby Chaves returns behind the wheel of the #88 Chevrolet.

The team had two stellar performances in its first two races ever with Chaves bringing the car home to a ninth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 and then avoiding all the accidents to finish fifth at Texas. To put the success of Harding Racing and Chaves into perspective, Chaves is tied on points with Esteban Gutiérrez with each driver on 83 points. While double points and qualifying points were awarded for the Indianapolis 500, if you look at percentage of points earned, Chaves earned 41.5% of a possible 200 points from the two races he started while Gutiérrez has earned 25.617% of a possible 324 points from his six starts.

This will be Chaves' first Pocono appearance since 2015. He started 16th in that race but led 31 laps, the most in the race and he was in contention for the victory before his engine quit on him with three laps to go. Despite the engine failure, Chaves finished 11th.

Fast Facts
This will be the 15th IndyCar race to take place on August 20th and the first since Paul Tracy won at Road America in 2000.

This year's Pocono race takes place 28 years to the day of the final Pocono race of the initial run of CART races at Pocono, which was won by Danny Sullivan.

Eight different drivers have won the last eight Pocono races.

Of the last nine Pocono races, Team Penske has won every other race.

No team has ever won consecutive Pocono races. In turn, no driver has ever won consecutive Pocono races.

Team Penske leads all teams with nine Pocono victories.

The only other teams with multiple Pocono victories are A.J. Foyt Racing with four and Vel's Parenlli Jones Racing with two.

The driver who has led the most laps has won the last seven races. It is the longest streak for winners leading the most laps since the first eight Champ Car races in 2004.

The average starting position for a Pocono winner is 5.347 with a median position of third.

The pole-sitter has won seven times at Pocono.

A driver starting in the top ten have won 12 consecutive IndyCar races. That is tied for the longest streak of winners starting in the top ten during the DW12-era. That other 12-race streak started at Milwaukee in 2012 and ended at São Paulo in 2013.

Teo Fabi is the only European driver to win at Pocono.

Fourteen of 23 Pocono races have been won from inside the top five.

Three of the four Pocono races since the return of IndyCar in 2013 have been won from outside the top five.

Three of the four Pocono races since the return of IndyCar in 2013 have had an average speed over 180 MPH.

Honda and Chevrolet have split the last four Pocono races. Chevrolet has four victories all-time at Pocono.

The average number of lead changes for a Pocono race is 18.583 with a median of 16.5.

The last two Pocono races had 33 lead changes and 29 lead changes respectively, the most and second-most lead changes to occur in a Pocono race.

The average number of cautions for a Pocono race is seven with a median of seven. The average number of caution laps is 39.59 with a median of 37.5.

Possible Milestones:
Scott Dixon and Hélio Castroneves are both one top five finish away from tying Michael Andretti for fifth all-time at 139 top five finishes.

Hélio Castroneves needs to lead 28 laps to reach the 6,000 laps led milestone.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 23 laps to reach the 5,000 laps led milestone.

Marco Andretti needs to lead 3 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 149 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Ed Carpenter needs to lead 90 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Predictions
Ryan Hunter-Reay gets the victory but it is another tough fight with Team Penske despite two of the Penske cars starting outside the top ten. Harding Racing gets its worst finish in the team's history. Simon Pagenaud completes all 200 laps. Conor Daly gets his first career lead lap finish on an oval. James Hinchcliffe qualifies ahead of Sebastián Saavedra. Chip Ganassi Racing gets back into the top five. Ed Jones clinches the Rookie of the Year. Sleeper: Marco Andretti.