Rear View Mirror: Pocono's Monday matinee shakes up championship

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What a difference a day makes, especially when it's a Monday race at Pocono Raceway.

A win by 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power, a crash by points leader Simon Pagenaud and some bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time for Helio Castroneves turned the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series title fight into a likely two-horse race.

CLICK HERE: Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings

Just a couple of laps after No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet driver Power took over the lead in the ABC Supply 500 at the “Tricky Triangle,” championship leader Simon Pagenaud got into marbles on Lap 158 of 200 and hit the wall.

When Power took the checkered flag 42 laps later, he closed the gap to his teammate to 20 markers with 200-plus still up for grabs in the final three races of 2016, including the double-points GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma finale on Sept. 18.

“We are chipping away at it and obviously there is still a lot to go,” Power said.

“Now we will give it everything because we really want to win this championship, especially after such a rough start to the year and the first half of the year where I was feeling horrible and could hardly complete a race physically. So we are really coming back strong.” 

Pocono delivered huge blow for Pagenaud, who led Power by 58 points after winning the last race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 31.

While the Frenchman wasn't fighting for the win on the 2.5-mile oval Monday, he was staying close enough to Power on track to minimize the points hit before he slammed into the SAFER Barrier and retired.

“The car bottomed and I went into the wall. It was really weird because I had bottoming but not to that extent and I just lost control of the steering,” said the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet driver. 

“It's definitely a bit of a shame. We didn't have a really good car today, but still it was important for points. We will race hard to the end of the year.”

Castroneves, the third main contender going into Pocono, needed a good result to keep his Penske teammates in reach, but ended up getting a scare just past quarter distance that knocked him out of the race and possibly ruined his title chances.

It happened on Lap 64 when 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi left his pit following a second stop.

Despite team co-owner and pit stand strategist Bryan Herta calling with increasing urgency on the radio, “Car right, car right, car right, car right, car right, car right,” Rossi's No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda careened into the path of Charlie Kimball (No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet), who was angling in toward his own pit box. The cars touched front wheels, launching Rossi's car into the air and directly onto the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet of Castroneves. Rossi's left-front tire hit just next to Castroneves' head before the No. 98 surfed right over the nose of the Penske.

“I was released (from the pit), I was still in the slow lane and Kimball was coming from the fast lane to his box and I was still in my lane, so we have to look at it again,” Rossi said. “I was concerned about Helio, so I am glad he's all right.”

The contact ripped the right-side mirror from Castroneves' car and left a tire mark right next to the driver's head, but like so many times before, the safety features of the Verizon IndyCar Series Dallara IR-12 chassis were his saving grace. The key this time was the tall sides of the cockpit surrounding the driver.

“Inside the car, I was actually more protected than what it looked like,” Castroneves said.

“Sometimes people don't realize the Verizon IndyCar Series are so much about safety and today is the proof of that. Very glad that nobody got hurt.”

The early exit from the ABC Supply 500 dropped Castroneves from third to fifth in the championship (113 points behind Pagenaud). No. 21 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka/ECR Chevrolet driver Josef Newgarden finished fourth in the race and moved into third in points (100 out of the lead). Scott Dixon, who pilots the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Chevrolet, placed sixth in the race and is fourth in the title hunt (111 behind Pagenaud).

While another good showing by Newgarden moved him up a spot in the standings, he will take a big points hit this weekend when the series completes the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. The race was suspended due to rain on June 12 and will restart Saturday (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) on lap 72 of 248. Unfortunately for Newgarden, he crashed out 10 weeks ago and will not be permitted to continue when it resumes.


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