Pagenaud, Power take IndyCar championship battle to revamped Watkins Glen

Will Power, left, and Simon Pagenaud are battling it out for the IndyCar championship. (Tom E. Puskar/AP)

For the first time since 2010, IndyCar teams will compete on the 11-turn, 3.37-mile road course at Watkins Glen International Speedway in upstate New York. It’s the second-to-last race of the year and the track will feel very different for drivers that raced here previously.

A repaved track surface that teams were able to test on a couple weeks ago had one consistent message delivered by drivers afterwards: It’s fast. New pavement offers tremendous grip and that means more speed. The DW-12 is also a different car than the one previously raced here. The current model is quicker and offers much more downforce.

Every weekend, drivers and teams hope to unload with a setup on the car that will be close to ideal and simply fine-tune during the practice sessions. With all that is new, that will be an even greater challenge this weekend.

Much of the focus is on the championship battle that is essentially down to overall leader Simon Pagenaud who is 28 points ahead of Penske teammate Will Power. Pagenaud has never raced this course before while Power was the pole sitter and winner back in 2010.

Some fun stats to consider heading into the weekend: In six of the past nine seasons, the driver who has lead in the standings with two races remaining has failed to win the title. However, only two drivers since 2010 have overcome a larger deficit to win the title. They being Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Scott Dixon a year ago.

Much of the championship field behind the two leaders should also be a battle right to the final lap of the season. Tony Kanaan sits third and Carlos Munoz is eighth with just 34 points between them. In descending order, the drivers in between those two are Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Dixon and Graham Rahal.

Up until yesterday, James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., was also in that mix. Late Wednesday, IndyCar officials announced that Hinchcliffe’s #5 car did not pass post-race inspection. The domed skid plates along the bottom of the car were deemed to be worn down to the point of creating a performance advantage. Along with a team fine, Hinchcliffe was docked 25 points in the championship standings and now sits ninth overall.

It’s been an eventful week for the ‘Mayor of Hinchtown.’ Following the heartbreak of having a win snatched away from him at Texas on the weekend came the news that Hinchcliffe would be joining the cast of Dancing with the Stars for the upcoming season.

Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi was the other IndyCar driver under consideration for the role on the reality show but Hinchcliffe is definitely the right choice. He’s smart, funny, humble and a great ambassador for the series.

If he’s able to enjoy a long run in the competition it will help promote the series to a wider audience but also elevate him to the next level in personal popularity. Race fans know him and his abilities. The most popular athletes in our society, though, aren’t just widely recognized in their own sport, the general public also knows them. A public figure with that kind of notoriety could give IndyCar a very nice boost.

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