Labor Day weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2016 was originally scheduled for the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, however when the necessary funding failed to come through, Mark Miles and company looked at other options to replace it. The series brass have certainly have found a qualified alternative in the form of New York’s famed Thunder Road, aka the Watkins Glen International circuit in the upstate section of the Empire State.
The 3.4 mile layout, which unlike the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit does include the extra “Boot” section of the course, creates an undulating challenge made up of multiple medium and high speed corners. The first realistic opportunity to overtake comes at turn one, also known as The 90. With additional asphalt runoff now present, one can expect some aggressive driving here particularly on the initial start and on restarts. The second realistic passing spot comes at the entrance to the Bus Stop chicane at the end of the backstretch. Created in 1992 to slow the cars down before the fast 180 degree corner, it has been the scene of several out-braking duels over the years in NASCAR, IndyCar, and sports car racing.
While the circuit itself will play a starring role in Sunday’s IndyCar Grand Prix at the Glen, the focus will center greatly on a pair of Team Penske teammates, each looking to take the upper hand in the battle to be the 2016 series champion. For the first half of the year, France’s Simon Pagenaud was the dominant driver in North American open wheel racing, claiming three wins and finishing no worse than second in any of the first five races. Although Pagenaud has won recently at the Mid-Ohio SportsCar Course, it has been his teammate Will Power from Australia who has become the hottest driver extending the same second place or better streak through six races, of which four were victories. Even though this run was broken this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion had cut what was an 80-point lead for Pagenaud, down to just 20 entering this past weekend.
The Frenchman however, was able to post a fourth place effort on Saturday night as opposed to Power’s eighth place effort, increasing his lead back up to 28 points, or the difference between a victory and ninth place at every event minus the Indianapolis 500 and the season ending Grand Prix of Sonoma, which are both worth double the points. Based on that, Pagenaud puts himself in a stronger position to win his first title with a win or strong result on Sunday at Watkins Glen, coupled with a lesser output from Power.
While the fight for the championship is down to just two drivers, the battle for best of the rest has as many as six drivers in the fight for third in the final standings. Currently, Tony Kanaan holds that position by just one point over fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves. A strong finish to 2016 could prove pivotal in terms of TK’s future in IndyCars, as questions loom over whether he will stay at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2017 or not. One of the his possible replacements is also within range of third place in the form of Josef Newgarden, along with Kanaan’s current teammate Scott Dixon. Also not to be outdone are Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe, the two duelists in Saturday’s wild finish to the Firestone 600 at Texas. Any of these six drivers could take third on the final points table.