While the thrill of the fastest Indianapolis 500 has yet to dissipate, there are definitely some big championship implications that need to be examined.
The Indy 500 was the beginning of a crucible that runs throughout June, a grueling schedule that will test driver, team, and engine alike. Five races, including a doubleheader at Belle Isle this weekend, are squeezed into a span of less than 30 days.
This gauntlet for IZOD IndyCar Series participants will be the host of an immensely close points battle. A massive amount of points will be awarded in June, and the implications are massive in terms of this year’s title battle.
What makes that fight even more intriguing is how Indianapolis managed to muddy the waters even more in terms of contenders. Takuma Sato did have a narrow lead over Marco Andretti coming into Indy, but a mid-pack finish saw him slip back to second, 11 points behind Marco.
For Andretti’s part, whatever disappointed he may feel over falling just short of Indy could be partially tempered by being the new points leader, and the most consistent driver of the year thus far. Seeing whether or not the “new Marco” persists pasts Indy is going to be one of the big questions in the next part of the season.
Just behind Sato (-5) and Andretti (-16) sits Helio Castroneves. He’s still well in the fight, after another Top 10 result at Indianapolis. Castroneves still enjoys a 14-point lead over title competitor Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has to be hoping that the middle part of the schedule can reward him with a string of great finishes as it did a year ago.
James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson are respectively 40 and 43 points back of Andretti in P5 and P6, but their seasons could not be any more different. Hinchcliffe has won two races, but had extremely forgettable turns in the other three. On the other hand, Wilson continues to enhance his reputation as one of the best pure drivers in the series after an extraordinarily sneaky Top 5 at Indianapolis.
An intriguing championship prospect, fresh off of his epic Indianapolis 500 victory, is Tony Kanaan. He trails Wilson by only a single point, but it remains to be seen if he can build off his success at Indianapolis.
It should be no surprise that Scott Dixon is still hanging around, 46 points out of the points lead. While the Target Chip Ganassi organization has underperformed by their standards this year, he’s the sort of driver that always seems to be hanging around at the end of the year. For a driver such as Dixon, 46 points is nowhere near insurmountable a lead.
Other drivers could very easily make a run at a big jump in the rankings, especially if they put a nice list of June wins and podiums on their driving record. Charlie Kimball and EJ Viso, for example, continue to flirt with finishing in the Top 10 in season points for the both time in each of their IZOD IndyCar Series careers. Surprisingly, after poor performances culminating in disappointing runs at Indianapolis, Dario Franchitti and Will Power have all but faded from the championship picture, with both drivers needed nothing short of pristine seasons from this point forward to even be included in the discussion.
It seems as if just when fans think they have a bead on the frontrunners this year, something happens to turn our best guesses on their collective ears. This points battle is perhaps fitting in a year that saw 68 lead changes, because it seems more uncertain than ever which driver will be on top when the dust settles.
Will Marco continues his smooth drives enroute to his first-ever title? Can Sato deliver a championship for Honda? Can Hinch find enough of a rhythm to jump back in the points lead? Is Ryan Hunter-Reay’s finish at Indianapolis the first sign of a repeat championship campaign? Will Helio get that much-desired, elusive title, or can Justin Wilson stun the world by delivering one for Dale Coyne Racing? Almost anything seems possible right now, and we can only watch to see who emerges as a contender from the upcoming rigors of June.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.