The Verizon IndyCar Series is back to work this weekend for their second race in as many weeks. This week, it’s the first and only international event of the season for the Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/INDYCAR Radio Network). Here are the top five storylines.
There’s no question, the Canadian race fans are some of the most passionate motorsports fans in the world. Even if the Verizon IndyCar Series races north of the border and they don’t have any Canadian drivers in it, the home fans still show out. But, what if not one, but two drivers that hail from Canada enter this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/INDYCAR Radio Network) and what if both are on the same team? Also, what if both are from Toronto too?
SPM has been closely followed this season in Canada as they hired Guelph native Robert Wickens to join Oakville native James Hinchcliffe with the team. Both are childhood friends and have had some good success together in 2018.
Wickens, nearly won his first ever INDYCAR race that he competed in back in March at St. Pete. He not only started on the pole, but he led a race high 69 laps and was in the lead on a late race restart before being crashed in Turn 1 with just a handful of laps to go. In his second race, he came home runner-up on another track that he’s never raced on before.
See, Wickens has been impressive all year. He finished third in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his ninth place run in the Indianapolis 500 earned him Rookie of the Year honors. He has six top 10 finishes over his last eight races on the season and should have his No. 6 Honda able to please his home fans for a possible win on Sunday.
So could his teammate too.
Hinchcliffe, missed the year’s biggest race at Indy, but he’s been upbeat still. He’s finished in the top 11 in three of the four road course races in 2018 and has two straight third place finishes in his home race. Imagine if he could win it?
This weekend has a chance to see two Canadian racing heroes battle it out for a win.
There seems to be very limited caution flags that fly in Toronto, but when they do come out, they’re usually in the middle of a pit sequence. It’s happened in the last few years there. Last year, there were only two yellows that flew and they virtually flipped the field. Same for 2015. In race No. 1 of the 2014 doubleheader weekend, two more flew.
Pit strategy is going to be key on Sunday because of that. You don’t want to pit too soon but also don’t want to be caught out either.
Penske Going For 3 Straight
Team Penske should be the favorites right? They’ve won five of the 11 races thus far in 2018, most in the series, and have led a series leading 453 laps overall coming into this weekend. Also, Penske drivers have won the last two races on the 1.786-mile street course and if you count Josef Newgarden’s win with CFH Racing in 2015, they have the drivers that have won the last three years too.
But, street courses haven’t been kind to this bunch lately.
Yes, Newgarden has won two of the last three years in Toronto, but he didn’t finish in the top 10 in his other six Toronto starts. On street courses this season, the Penske driver has finished seventh, seventh, ninth and 15th respectively. What about his teammate Simon Pagenaud? He has five straight top four starting spots in Toronto and two straight top 10’s, but also only two career top fives there. On street courses in 2018, Pagenaud’s best finish is 10th in the second race on Belle Isle. He was 13th, 24th and 17th respectively in the other three races.
Will Power has been the best among the Penske trio on street courses this year with two runner-ups, a seventh place run and 10th place finish too, but in Toronto, he finished 21st last year and has just three top five finishes in his last nine starts north of the border.
Honda’s Race To Lose?
From the point above, it appears that the Penske trio could struggle on Sunday. That opens the door to being wide open for the Honda camp. Out of four street course races in 2018 that have been run, Honda drivers have won all four of them.
Points leader Scott Dixon has nine top 10 finishes in 11 Toronto tries. He’s finished sixth, 11th, third and first respectively on street courses this season. Ryan Hunter-Reay has struggled recently in Toronto but on street courses this year, he’s finished in the top five in three of them including a second place finish in the first race in Detroit and a win in the other.
Alexander Rossi has finished on the podium in three of the four street course races in 2018 and if not for a late race mistake in the second race on Belle Isle, he would be four-for-four with two wins. He finished runner-up last year in Toronto too. He’s the favorite in my mind.
You also can’t count out Robert Wickens. Like his teammate James Hinchcliffe, this is his home race too. Wickens, led 69 laps from the pole in St. Pete and was two laps away from a win in his first ever INDYCAR race. In Long Beach, he was headed towards a solid top 10 finish before a mechanical malfunction. In Belle Isle, he finished eighth and sixth respectively. The speed is in his car to contend.
Graham Rahal has three top five finishes in four tries this season too.
Those five Honda’s can put a lot of pressure on the three Penske’s and really shape the championship moving forward.
With how the last two points shape up, this race on Sunday has huge implications in the championship race. Five drivers have a realistic shot of winning this year’s Astor Cup, but several others remain close to contention still. If either Wickens and Rahal can find their ways to a win or podiums this weekend and the Penske’s struggle, then with a little bit of luck they can reenter the championship fray.
With only five races left in 2018 when leaving Sunday’s race, this could be the point we turn back to when the dust settles in Sonoma.