The Verizon IndyCar Series reported on Monday that 13 of its 39 listed drivers are still mathematically eligible to be this year’s league champion, but it doesn’t take a die-hard race fan to realize that barring major upheaval, maybe half that number are actual contenders for the Astor Cup when the season ends next month.
The championship is Juan Pablo Montoya’s to lose; Montoya holds a 42-point lead going into this weekend’s race at Mid-Ohio, but more importantly has been so consistent throughout 2015 that he will likely keep racking up points, making it hard for anyone behind him to close the gap. Montoya’s wreck early in the Iowa Corn 300 was a fluke; in the other dozen races, he’s only finished outside of the top ten once.
Where the unpredictability comes from is the very thin differentials between the remainder of the top five. Graham Rahal is sitting in second place after some strong finishes with 403 points, but right behind him is three-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon at 397. Dixon, in turn, has a six-point lead over Helio Castroneves, who has just one point more than defending title holder Will Power.
When you drop back to sixth, though, there’s an almost 30-point gap between Power (390) and Sebastien Bourdais (366). That’s not to say that Bourdais and the other seven drivers behind him in the standings couldn’t make a run in the final three races – especially since the season-ender is once again a double points affair – but that’s where you get into not only needing those drivers to race well, but the people in front of them to finish badly.
Should Montoya follow through and be the 2015 IndyCar champion, it will be the period on the end of a massive season for the Colombian and for Team Penske. Montoya was just outside of the three-way championship duel last year, finishing fourth in his first full season back in the league since he was 2000 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year for rival Chip Ganassi Racing.
This would be his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship, coming in the same year that he won his second Indianapolis 500, and would represent back-to-back league titles for Penske in a year where the already top-tier squad added prized free agent Simon Pagenaud and quickly established a dominance within the sport. Nine races this season have finished with a Penske driver on the podium.
But every one of the top five has a story. If Rahal wins, it’s a title for a mid-size team and one of the major families in IndyCar; if Dixon carries it, that’ll be his fourth title; if Castroneves wins, he makes up for being edged out last season, and if Power makes a comeback, he’ll be the first defending champion since Dario Franchitti’s three-peat from 2009 through 2011.
Monday’s report is right about one thing: none of the top thirteen drivers can technically be eliminated from the championship race at Mid-Ohio, no matter what the results are. But it’s also hard to imagine anyone past those first five not only being able to drive well themselves, but having enough people trip up in front of them that they can take advantage. That’s how high the talent level is in this league.
Regardless of how it all plays out, the conclusion to the 2015 IndyCar season will still be worth the wait. Fans can start the countdown to the conclusion with the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH this Sunday, August 2. As regular station NBCSN is broadcasting the NASCAR event at Pocono that day, IndyCar coverage moves to CNBC. The green flag drops at 2 PM local time.
For more on the Verizon IndyCar Series, visit the league’s website.