The second half of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season officially kicks off this weekend, with a return to one of the most iconic road courses in the world. Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin is the site of this weekend’s event, where the IndyCars will make their return to Road America for the first time since 2007. Eight of the sixteen races are in the books, and there has been plenty of drama and intrigue so far. The best may still be to come, with visits to Iowa, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Texas, Watkins Glen, and Sonoma on tap. It all begins this weekend with the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America.
There have been six different winners through eight races so far. The only real surprise winner you can point to would be Alexander Rossi winning the Indianapolis 500 as a Rookie. A month before the season started, he wasn’t even on the IndyCar radar, and had never sat in a car. The other five drivers already had race wins prior to the start of this season.
Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud currently holds an 80 point lead in the championship standings over last year’s champion Scott Dixon. It’s been a phenomenal year for the Frenchman, who has three race wins and three runner-up finishes through these first eight races. On top of that, he has earned the pole position for five of those events. If he continues down a path anywhere near this level, he’ll have the championship well wrapped up before the season-ending race at Sonoma.
Dixon may be in second place, but he hasn’t had a great season by any stretch of the imagination. He only has two podium finishes so far, and his average finish is 7.4 through eight races. Luck certainly hasn’t been on his side, and The Iceman has been known to be a late charger. In fact, he has come back from significant deficits to win the championship three times in his career. It is certainly way too early to count him out, especially given his record at the remaining tracks on the schedule.
Just six points behind Dixon is another talented veteran driver, Helio Castroneves. He has yet to win this season, and actually hasn’t won in more than two calendar years (Belle Isle in 2014). On top of that, you have to factor in that Castroneves has never won an IndyCar championship in his 19-year career. Still, he is capable of doing it behind the wheel of a Team Penske machine. Castroneves is the only driver this season to have completed every possible lap of competition so far. If he continues down that path, he just may finally get that one thing missing from his impressive resume.
Things get interesting when you get to the driver currently sitting fourth in the championship standings. Ed Carpenter Racing driver Josef Newgarden has had an up-and-down season, which is about to get even crazier. After breaking his right shoulder and a bone in his right hand in a frightening crash at Texas Motor Speedway less than two weeks ago, the American driver is going to try to race this weekend at Road America. Nobody expected him to be ready for this race, and it appears he is going to give it a go around the demanding 4.048-mile road course. JR Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at last week’s Road America test, so he should be well prepared for the event this weekend if Josef can’t go.
Rossi finds himself in fifth place in the standings, despite only have one race where he finished better than 10th place. In addition to the milk, the wreath, the money, and the fame for the winning the Indianapolis 500, you also receive a lot of points. Rossi grabbed 124 points for his win last month, and is clearly the leader for Rookie of the Year in 2016.
So where are the other big names halfway through this season? Tony Kanaan finds himself in 7th despite not having a single podium finish this year. Team Penske drivers Will Power and Juan Montoya have both won a race this season, but are 8th and 9th respectively heading into the second half. Honda drivers James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, and Ryan Hunter-Reay are back in the 11th, 12th, and 13th spots.
If you’re looking for odds on the top drivers for the championship at the midway point of the season, you’re covered. Dee Friedman from from MyTopSportsbooks.com has it all lined up for you. He has the odds to win the 2016 Driver’s Championship broken down between the top contenders. Dee also has odds on the Rookie of the Year race as well, between Rossi, Conor Daly, and Max Chilton. If you’re looking for odds on NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski doing “the double” next year, they have that covered as well. This comes on the heels of the 2012 Cup Champion turning some laps in an IndyCar at Road America last week.
Did the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 live up to the hype? In my opinion, it did. Was Rossi the driver that everyone wanted to see win? Probably not, but it was an incredible story considering where he was in January. He had been fast all month long as well, so it wasn’t a fluke or dumb luck situation. There was also the Bryan Herta / No. 98 car déjà vu with Dan Wheldon in 2011, though those were under different circumstances.
Perhaps the most notable part of the month came on Pole Day, when James Hinchcliffe made his triumphant return to the Speedway a year after his horrific crash that nearly cost him his life. Hinchcliffe won the Pole on the final attempt in qualifying, giving team owner Sam Schmidt a day he’ll never forget. The racing itself was fantastic, and there was plenty of drama throughout the course of the day.
The highlight so far this season outside of Indianapolis had to be the back-and-forth battle between Pagenaud and Rahal at Barber Motorsports Park. The duel had everyone on the edge of their seats, and left the guys in the NBCSN TV booth searching for oxygen. With Honda seemingly closing the gap on Chevrolet this year, look for more dramatic moments in the second half of the season.