Despite debilitating back pain, Simon Pagenaud and the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet took the checkered flag first at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The win came after an intense side-by-side, title-hinging battle with his teammate, Will Power, who finished second in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske machine. Carlos Munoz, the highest scoring Honda, rounded out the podium in his Andretti Autosport No. 26. Hometown favorite, Graham Rahal, and James Hinchliffe completed the top 5. The race featured action on all levels as fans were treated to heated on-track passes, in-depth pit strategy, and gambling with lady luck.
The 2016 championship battle began to heat up as soon as the green flag waved. Pagenaud began the defense of his championship lead from his narrowly-awarded pole position and slowly began to pull away to a one-second lead over Power after just one lap.
The first caution of the day came out as Helio Castroneves made contact with Scott Dixon as the defending champion attempted to pass coming into Turn 2. Dixon later came back out to lap his engine, many laps down. Castroneves finished 15th after a rear wing assembly replacement.
Mikhail Aleshin, proving his speed, became the leader on Lap 26 after Juan Pablo Montoya pitted for fuel and tires. As pit strategy began to develop, Aleshin led an interesting top five of Munoz, Takuma Sato, Sebastien Bourdais and Spencer Pigot, with Hondas controlling the top of the field heading into the second round of pit stops.
Cycling out of the pits, Aleshin pushed hard for an impressive lead of more than 10 seconds over second place, Power. With a 47-point deficit in the championship, Power held a valuable advantage over Pagenaud at halfway from quick work in the pits.
Jack Hawksworth brought out the final full course caution on Lap 60 and set the field up for one-last fuel run to the finish, as the field headed for the final pit stop of the race. In the pits, Aleshin was released prematurely into the No. 67 of Josef Newgarden, who had already made repairs earlier in the race. The contact, coupled with multiple penalties for Aleshin, took the No. 7 car out of contention for the race win, rendering Aleshin a 17th place finish.
After staying out of pit lane, Conor Daly would lead the field to the Green Flag on Lap 66, but all eyes were on the epic battle unfolding behind him. With a better restart, Pagenaud attacked the second place Power for position. The two points leaders fought side by side for a large part of the circuit in a dogfight not only for the win, but for the championship. Pagenaud managed to out-maneuver his team mate to take second place. Power later lamented his lackluster restart.
“I slept on the restart. I should have been better than that” – Will Power
Hoping for a yellow flag before relinquishing his lead for fuel, Daly took to pit lane with just seven laps left. Once around his championship rival, Pagenaud pulled out an impressive lead to the checkered flag, but not without a slight interruption to the action. Bourdais and Sato made contact in Turn 4. Race officials elected to allow the race to finish under green, waving just a local yellow.
The win stretches Simon Pagenaud’s championship lead to 58 points over teammate, Will Power. Helio Castroneves made it a Penske 1-2-3 in the standings, with Castroneves a whopping 111 points back from the top spot. Tough races for both Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon keep them from making any headway in points, at fourth and fifth, respectively.
With just four rounds of competition left, the championship fight is heating up. The Verizon IndyCar Series will take to the track again for Round 13 of the championship at Pocono Speedway for the ABC Supply 500 on August 21.
Featured Image: Joe Skibinski