At three-quarters mark of 2016 season, field still chasing Pagenaud

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Will Power was trying to find a positive in losing a race he was in position to win after The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on July 31.

He blamed himself for being overtaken late by Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, whose victory widened his points lead over Power to 58 at the three-quarters mark of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season – 12 races down with four to be completed.

“It is not over yet,” Power said after settling for second place. “I think we’re pretty clear of everyone (behind them in points), are we?”

Verizon IndyCar Series ChampionshipIt does appear the title chase has become a two-car race. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves is 111 points behind Pagenaud in third. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden is 120 back. Defending series champion Scott Dixon and Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan are each 127 points behind.

Race winners receive 50 points. Bonus points are available for winning the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying (one point), leading a race lap (one) and most laps led in a race (two). The season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, offers double race points (100 for the winner), which means those giving chase are just trying to stay in the hunt until then. 

“I just want it to be one of ‘em,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said of Pagenaud and Power. “I want to go into Sonoma thinking it’s one or the other. That’s all I care about.

“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, let those guys race it out, but make sure we don’t let these other guys back in the game. They’re more than capable. Dixon can win the last four races, no problem. He’s shown that.”

Dixon, a four-time series champion, has won at each of the four remaining tracks — Pocono Raceway (Aug. 21), Texas Motor Speedway (Aug. 27), Watkins Glen International (Sept. 4) and Sonoma Raceway (Sept. 18).

Before celebrating his series-best fourth win of the season at Mid-Ohio, Pagenaud also mentioned Dixon as the driver who elicits the most concern.

“I’m actually excited about it. It’s great for the fans. I think it’s going to be a good show. It’s down to the wire,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet. “I tell you, Scott Dixon is going to be there at the end. He’s going to come back. There are a few tracks he’s really strong at, quite dominant. Dixon, in my opinion, is the biggest threat.”

But Dixon, in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy, had a forgettable weekend and crashed out at Mid-Ohio in last place after tangling with Castroneves. Even if the New Zealander finishes strong, he’ll need Pagenaud and Power to falter more than once.

“(Pagenaud) should probably be a little more worried about his teammate,” Dixon said, referring to Power. “(Power is) on a pretty good roll there.

“We tried to turn it around. We had a superb car at Road America and had a mechanical problem, and then at Toronto. I think we could have been on a similar run right now. It’s kind of frustrating, but the positive thing is the Target team has had a strong car throughout all the courses we’ve been to recently and pretty much the whole year outside of Indianapolis.”

Dixon just hopes to give himself a chance.

“Simon has had a pretty smooth year," he said. "It’s just whether we have enough time left.”

Power has had an exceptional run of late with three wins and two runner-up finishes in the last five races. But if anyone knows what it’s like to finish second in the points, it’s the driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. The Australian was runner-up in three consecutive seasons and then fourth before finally breaking through with a series title in 2014. He finished third last year to Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya.

“This is the type of the year you’d think you’d be clear for the championship,” Power said.

If not for missing the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with an inner-ear infection, Power suggested the title chase would be “bloody close.” Power won the pole in qualifying before sitting out the race. Pagenaud finished second in the race as part of his own impressive five-race stretch, starting the season with two runner-up showings followed by three consecutive wins.

Everyone has been chasing the Frenchman since. Power was ahead of Pagenaud for the final restart at Mid-Ohio, but admitted he “fell asleep” and was passed later on the lap after contact between the two on more than one occasion.

“We’ve got to beat him and the team did everything it could to put me in that position and I ruined it on that restart,” Power said. “I could have done a way better job than I did there.

“We’ve got to keep finishing ahead of No. 22 (Pagenaud). That’s my first mistake of the year that I kick myself for, that restart.”

Pagenaud has enjoyed a breakthrough season in his second year driving for Roger Penske. He’s finished worse than 13th only once, 19th in the Indianapolis 500.

As he closes in on what could be his first series championship, Pagenaud reiterated the key is to worry about himself and not anyone else. 

“You can focus on that battle and everything, but at the end of the day, it’s you and the car, right?” he said. “I’ve got to reproduce special moments. If I do that, I don’t have a worry in the world.

“I have the best car, I’m driving really well this year, I just need to keep putting my foot down and things will take care of itself.”

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