Wednesday, June 20, 2018

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Halfway Report

Summer is not even here yet but we are halfway home when it comes to the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. There are fewer races ahead of us then are behind us and in 40 days there will only be four IndyCar remaining in the 2018 season.

There have been six different winners representing four different teams through the first nine races of the season. Seven different drivers have won a pole position. Teams continue to learn the new aero kit and there are still plenty of unknowns that lay ahead.

As with the first quarter report, this halfway report subjectively ranks the full-time teams through the first nine races of the season.

1. Team Penske
No change here as Team Penske won two of five races during the second quarter of the IndyCar season, both coming at the hands of Will Power. While none of the team's three drivers lead the championship, the team has been the one consistent threat every week. Even the team's off weekend is a great weekend when you consider the team was not close at all to competing for victory at Belle Isle and Power still ended up second in the second race of the weekend and exited as the championship leader.

While Penske is still on top, the gap is closing. Josef Newgarden is coming off his worst five-race stretch with Team Penske. His best finish was eighth in the second quarter of the season. He went from championship leader, 13 points clear of the field to fifth, 68 points back. Simon Pagenaud has had the worst nine-race stretch of his career but the good news is his ninth race was his best race as he finished second at Texas, not only his first podium finish but his first top five finish of the season.

Team Penske is the one team you would not be surprised if it won the next five races with each driver getting at least one victory. The team could be sleeping in the grass but it needs to wake up early in summer otherwise it will not be on top heading down the stretch.

2. Andretti Autosport
No change again as Andretti Autosport has two drivers in the top five of the championship, same as Team Penske. Ryan Hunter-Reay picked up the team's only victory in the second quarter of the season but he has been on a tear with four consecutive top five finishes and he is tied for most top five finishes this season with seven and the driver he happens to be tied with is his teammate Alexander Rossi.

Rossi leads all drivers this season with five podium finishes, including two in the second quarter of the season. However, while Rossi has picked up some silverware and he had an impressive drive in the Indianapolis 500 from 32nd to fourth, Rossi has coughed up his fair share of points this year and most notably in the second quarter of the season was the second Belle Isle race. A lock up while leading not only cost him a victory but the championship lead as instead of coasting to second behind Hunter-Reay, he had to turnaround in the runoff area, return to the track in fourth but with a deflated right front tire requiring a pit stop and leaving him with a 12th place finish but 21 points fewer than had he finished second. Rossi is second in the championship, 23 points outside the championship lead.

Marco Andretti scored a pole position and had a fourth and ninth at Belle Isle. He had a good day going at Texas before a clutch issue on a pit stop ended his good run. Zach Veach had a strong night at Texas working his way from 16th to fourth in the opening stint but a brush with the wall ended his night. Veach's best finish in the second quarter was 12th in the first Belle Isle.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing
Scott Dixon won twice and that has lifted him to the championship lead but after the poor start (but not that poor of a start), Chip Ganassi Racing finds itself third after nine races. Dixon has been Dixon and the two races he has won have been clinical races where he knew when to use patience and when to use aggression. He finished in the top five in all five races in the second quarter of the season with four podium finishes. Through nine races, Dixon has completed all 1,200 laps.

Dixon has not been doing it alone. Ed Jones had his rough days, both coming at Indianapolis with an extra pit stop costing him a lap in the road course race and an accident in turn two end his Indianapolis 500 after 57 laps. However, Jones finished sixth in the first Belle Isle race and out ran Dixon all day in the second race for a third place finish. Texas started off slow but despite his early lack of pace Jones stayed on the lead lap and overcame a penalty for jumping a restart to finish sixth, his third consecutive top ten finish.

4. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Graham Rahal has been a stud this season but mostly because he has been starting behind the eight ball in most races. He has seven top ten finishes this season with four top ten finishes from five races in the second quarter of the season. The one blemish was a surefire top five finish in the first Belle Isle race wasted after catching the curb in turn 12 and throwing his Dallara-Honda into the barrier. Rahal has been lacking in qualifying form but it hasn't stopped him from putting together impressive drives such as 30th to tenth in the Indianapolis 500 and 20th to sixth at Texas.

Takuma Sato has also been strong as of late. Minus an accident in the Indianapolis 500 when Sato made contact with James Davison exiting turn three, he had three top ten finishes in the second quarter of the season with one on a road course, one on a street course and one on an oval. While only having one top five finish through nine races he is only two top ten finishes off his total from last year and Sato will need a better second half than 2017. Last year, he had one top ten finish from the final eight races.

5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
The first quarter darling isn't looking so pretty after quarter two. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has still had a good season but it suffered a few big blows over the last few races. The good news is Robert Wickens continues to impress and he had four top ten finishes in the five races. Unfortunately, his one bad result was when he was competing for a top five finish and possibly a victory at Texas and his night ended after contact with lapped traffic. While Wickens has been stellar, he has not had a top five finish in the last four races.

James Hinchcliffe's second quarter has been well documented. Failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and a pair of finishes outside the top ten at Belle Isle but he turned it around at Texas with a fourth place finish, his first top five since Barber and he did it from 15th on the grid. However, the damage has been done and Hinchcliffe is 11th in the championship.

6. Dale Coyne Racing
The shine has worn off this gem and Dale Coyne Racing has become just another brick in the wall. Sébastien Bourdais dropped six positions in the championship over the second quarter of the season as he suffered three consecutive finishes outside the top ten between the Indianapolis 500 and the Belle Isle doubleheader, two of which were finishes outside the top twenty. While he has shown speed and finished eighth at Texas, Bourdais he not been able to replicate his first quarter performances and after leading 90 laps between the first two races, he has led 18 laps in the last six races and has not led a lap in the last three.

The second seat was split between Zachary Claman De Melo and Santino Ferrucci with Ferrucci running the two Belle Isle races. Claman De Melo has put out three strong performances with a lead lap finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and a near top ten performance in that race. He was quick in the Indianapolis 500 but faded to 19th. At Texas he was aggressive and maybe at times could have done lead lap cars a favor when he was not compete for a position but he was running in the top ten before tangling with Will Power. Ferrucci had two good days at Belle Isle with the first race ruined after Charlie Kimball drove into the back of him. The second day was squandered when Ferrucci spun exiting the pit lane on cold tires and it cost him a shot at a top ten.

7. Ed Carpenter Racing
Things have not improved much for Ed Carpenter Racing but they have improved enough. In fact, it could be argued the only thing that got the team up one position from quarter one was Ed Carpenter's display in the Indianapolis 500 where he won pole position, led a race-high 65 laps and finished second. His Texas race was not going well prior to the contact with Wickens and he would have been fortunate to finish in the top half of the field.

Spencer Pigot got his first top ten finish of the season in the first Belle Isle race, 364 days after his prior top ten finish but Pigot has been stuck in the middle all season. He did himself no favors in the Indianapolis 500 where a pit lane speeding penalty killed any shot of a top ten finish after starting sixth. The second Belle Isle race was doomed after a lap one spin, which wasn't really his fault. He wasn't close to his Indianapolis pace at Texas but hung on for an 11th place finish.

Jordan King has given himself a reputation for tearing up equipment. Through every round King has participated in this season he has found the barrier or put the car significantly off course. It cost him in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after starting fifth and a practice crash at Belle Isle nullified any shot of a promising result.

8. A.J. Foyt Racing
Things have been better for A.J. Foyt Racing but it is still bad for the team and it has not been because of a lack of speed from Tony Kanaan. He was competitive in the Indianapolis 500 before a tire puncture forced a pit stop and a spin canceled out any hopes of a comeback. At Belle Isle, he turned a 22nd starting position in race two into a seventh place finish.

Matheus Leist has been completing laps, which is a good thing for a rookie but he has yet to recapture that spark he showed in qualifying at St. Petersburg. He started 11th at the Indianapolis 500, to the right of his senior teammate, but his next best starting position in the second quarter of the season was 18th. Leist has yet to threaten for a top ten finish this year and he might only be the fourth best rookie this season with Claman De Melo giving him an argument for third best of the newcomers.

Texas was a nightmare for the team as Leist's night ended after five laps due to a fire and Kanaan's night was over after 31 laps after suspension damage. It was Kanaan's first retirement in 19 Texas races and it came from sixth on the grid, Kanaan's best starting position of the season.

9. Carlin
It has been a rough debut season for Carlin but the team is off the bottom after Charlie Kimball picked up two top ten finishes in the last two races. Besides those results, Kimball was solid throughout Indianapolis 500 practice, qualifying and the race and he completed all but one lap in the second quarter of the season.

It has been a trying year for Max Chilton and while he is still behind Ed Carpenter in the championship, Chilton picked up best two finishes of the season in the last two races with an 11th at Belle Isle and a 12th at Texas, he qualified tenth for the first Belle Isle race and he completed all but three laps in the second quarter of the season.

10. Harding Racing
Sadly, the only full-time single-car team in IndyCar finds itself lonely on the bottom. Harding Racing has not been terrible but it has been far from a great year for Gabby Chaves and company. The team's best finish is 14th. Besides starting eighth at St. Petersburg the team's best starting position is 14th. Chaves has not retired from a race yet and he has kept it out of the barriers but the joyous days as a part-timer are over. A top ten finish seems miles away for this team. It will be a long conclusion to this season.

Who Is Already Out?
After the first quarter of the season, I buried the championship hopes for five drivers. Prior to Texas I added four more tombstones to the graveyard. How much could have changed after one race?

There were four deathbeds before Texas and after there are still four deathbeds. I said Andretti, Pagenaud, Hinchcliffe and Jones all needed great nights and three of the four met the call. Andretti didn't but with eight races remaining and Pagenaud, Andretti, Hinchcliffe and Jones currently eighth, tenth, 11th and 12th in the championship I figure I will leave the top half of the table in play and while the proposition of Andretti, Hinchcliffe or Jones lifting the Astor Cup come Sonoma seems like a far stretch I will let Road America take place before pulling the plug on any other drivers.

Where Do We Stand With the Universal Aero Kit?
Well, well, well... not as happy now are we?

The aesthetically pleasing universal aero kit proved there is more to a race car than looks in the second quarter of the season. Despite having 30 lead changes, the seventh-most in Indianapolis 500 history, many were not happy with this year's race. Despite having Scott Dixon start seventh and Alexander Rossi start eighth and both drivers working their way to the front as well as having Robert Wickens make his fair share of passes to get to the lead at Texas, many were not happy with this year's race.

On the flip side, Belle Isle put on two interesting races with the two-stop strategy vs. three-stop strategy on display in both races. Unfortunately, cautions negated the battle in race one but in race two we got to see Ryan Hunter-Reay click off laps nearly two seconds faster than his teammate Alexander Rossi in his winning effort. Prior to that, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis saw Will Power and Robert Wickens battle through tire strategy with the each getting the better of the other on a stint and making on track passes for the lead with Power coming out on top.

While the oval races have not been what we saw over the last few years of the DW12-era the races were far from dull affairs. The Indianapolis 500 saw Rossi and Oriol Servià making notable passes on the outside of corners and both drivers were picking off multiple drivers at a time. After Texas, drivers praise the conditions with lifting into corners and tire management playing a key role into the race.

As documented before, what we have seen are different races but with drama coming in different forms and a driver's ability having more to do with determining the winner.

What To Watch For In Quarter Three?
This is put up or shut up time when it comes to the championship.

We have had six winners, three of which have won multiple times. This is a chance for any of those three to start to pull away. It will be key for Josef Newgarden to put together solid performances, as outside of his two victories his next best finish is seventh. Last year, Newgarden's championship run was off the back of three victories and three runner-up finishes in the final eight races of the season. He might have to be just as good to repeat this year.

Alexander Rossi has been the stud but has not accumulated the number of victories he should have considering his performances. He cannot leave any more points on the table and last year he ended strong with a victory, three podium finishes and five top ten finishes in the final eight races.

Graham Rahal and Robert Wickens need to win races if they want to be championship contenders. Consistently finishing seventh or eighth is not going to be good enough. They needed to turn seventh place finishes in to top fives and top fives into victories.

I do not think we will see a driver pull away. While Scott Dixon is one of the best IndyCar drivers of all-time this series is too good to think he will win three of the next four races and sail away to his fifth championship.

Road America's long straightaways could play into the hands of the Chevrolets while the tight natures of Toronto and Mid-Ohio could be more into Honda's favor. Iowa appears to be the one wild card. Honda took four of the top six in qualifying at Phoenix including pole position but despite Honda drivers leading 137 of 250 laps, Chevrolet took the victory after a late call by Josef Newgarden to take tires on the final pit stop and the fresh set of tires saved the night for Chevrolet. The three Penske drivers led a combined 113 laps with Will Power's 80 laps led being the most on the night.

Nobody would be surprised if Team Penske took three of the next four races but the pressure should be on Team Penske because Honda has power in numbers. While only leading in the victories column 5-4, Honda has put multiple cars on the podium in eight of nine races and the only race Chevrolet has had multiple cars finish in the top five was the Indianapolis 500. Team Penske has not had multiple top five finishers in one race this season and if Honda puts together another sweep of the top five or six the championship could quickly fall out of Team Penske's grasp and be left for one of five Honda drivers from four different teams to claim.