With the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit in the rearview mirror, we come to the big oval portion of our schedule. The street and road course battle pre and post-Indianapolis have been largely tremendous, but there’s also no getting away from the oval heritage portion of INDYCAR. Texas, Milwaukee, Iowa, and Pocono stand as a formidable mid-section of the schedule, and drivers and teams could find themselves in a world of trouble if they struggle.
As much excitement as the street and road courses have given us this season, there remains a special bond between INDYCAR and ovals. From the early days of AAA racing in America, to the recent high-speed duels at Texas, from the thrilling bullring at Iowa, to the historic confines of the Milwaukee Mile, and with the long-awaited return of Pocono’s classic “Tricky Triangle”, there’s a special love affair with oval tracks. Whether they give us unparalleled thrills, elation, dejection, heartache, or jubilation, they remain an integral part of the test an INDYCAR demands of the would-be title contender.
And make no mistake, the series heads into the ovals with an extremely tight ongoing championship battle. What’s really interesting is that all the title contenders this year can point to at least some success on ovals. If we look at the Texas/Milwaukee/Iowa races from last season, Helio Castroneves trailed only Tony Kanaan for best average finish over those three events (average P6.3 versus P5.3). Ryan Hunter-Reay ran into trouble at Texas, but pulled out huge victories on the shorter ovals. Simon Pagenaud reinforced his status as an all-around racer with good finishes at Texas and Iowa. Marco Andretti has been white-hot at Iowa. Justin Wilson pulled out a huge victory at Texas. James Hinchcliffe also had good runs in Texas and Milwaukee, and is probably looking to alleviate the Indy/Detroit doldrums in a definitive manner. Scott Dixon remains Scott Dixon, never far from contention.
What’s notable is the usual worry in the title battle is absent this season. Will Power’s performance on the ovals is usually a bit of a question mark, but as he sits P16 in the standings, even runner-up status seems far and away just now. Power sits back in the standings with veterans such as EJ Viso and Graham Rahal, hoping for a breakthrough to get back in the title hunt.
For his part, Rahal was extremely good on the ovals last season, finishing no worse than P9 on every oval after Indy, and coming painfully close to winning at Texas before ultimately settling for the runner-up spot. It’s been a tumultuous first season at Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing for Graham, and the next few races could very well be the barometer that indicates just which way this season is ultimately headed.
And what of the other drivers? From drivers that are creeping close to a breakthrough campaign, such as James Jakes, to teams that are struggling, from Dragon Racing to Team Barracuda-BHA, these ovals represent a chance to shake things up, to change their charted course. The parity we’ve seen this season has shown that no driver can really be counted out, that any team can see their hard work pay off in either a podium or victory.
The DW-12 chassis, paired with the Honda and Chevy engine programs, has given us no shortage of exciting racing. As we saw at Indianapolis, that endures when all the turns go left. It’s Oval Time in INDYCAR, and the best part is, no one can be quite sure how it’s all going to play out.
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.