After a near perfect five race start to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Team Penske pilot Simon Pagenaud started to slide off course. It was not that the Frenchman was unlucky or extremely poor in the races following his three win, two runner-up finish start to the campaign, it was more of the need to avoid the big mistake that could put his massive point lead in danger. Taking advantage of the more conservative approach from Pagenaud was his Australian Team Penske teammate Will Power, who entering Sunday’s Honda 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course had won three of the last four Verizon IndyCar Series races and had cut the Frenchman’s once insurmountable lead in the championship standings to just 47 points. On Sunday, just one lap of the 90-lap distance made all the difference.
Pagenaud, who won the Verizon P1 Award on Saturday as the event’s fastest qualifier, led the early stages of Sunday’s race when various pit strategies began to arise following the first full course caution of the day on lap 14 when his teammate Helio Castroneves collided with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon at the difficult Keyhole hairpin. The incident proved costly for both drivers, as they each entered Sunday’s action in the third and fourth positions in points, but with limited chances of catching the Frenchman prior to the incident.
As the race resumed with both Pagenaud and Power mired back in the pack, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin had moved to the front of the field and the Russian suddenly became a serious threat to secure his first career victory in IndyCar competition. Leading a race-high 33 laps on the afternoon, Aleshin was able to keep the remainder of the field at bay holding as much as a ten second cushion as the race was slowed for the second and final full course caution on lap 61 when AJ Foyt Racing driver Jack Hawksworth suffered a major crash at the fast turn one.
Things however, would also turn sour for the Russian during the final round of pit stops as despite a flawless stop that would have likely allowed him to maintain the top spot, Aleshin collided with Josef Newgarden leaving his pit box and lost several places as a result. The damage suffered in the collision would regulate Aleshin to a 17th place finish.
More strategy calls would manifest during the second yellow as Dale Coyne Racing’s Conor Daly who started 22nd and last due to problems suffered during Saturday’s first qualifying phase decided to stay out and captured the lead. However, Daly’s hopes of victory would rest on the need for another caution before the finish to avoid having to take on more fuel. Behind Daly, the aforementioned key point of the race was lap 64, when Pagenaud and Power went to battle for second place and likely the eventual win if Daly had to pit.
With both drivers utilizing the Push to Pass system, Pagenaud managed to outlast Power gaining the second position for good at the difficult Carousel curve just before the finish line. Although Pagenaud was unable to reel in Daly, who despite starting at the back had managed to post some of the fastest laps of the race late, never saw the necessary yellow he would have needed to make the distance and eventually peeled off the track to pit for necessary fuel with six laps to go.
Now in the number one spot, Pagenaud drove the final laps trouble free to take the twin checkered flags from Verizon IndyCar Series starter Paul Blevin first by over four seconds on Power who was a further two seconds clear of Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz who completed the podium. Last year’s Honda 200 winner and Ohio native Graham Rahal finished fourth, followed by James Hinchcliffe, and despite the late stop for fuel Conor Daly still managed to finish in sixth place.
With his fourth victory of the season, Pagenaud now holds a 57-point lead on Power in the race for the championship with only four races left on the season schedule. With the rest of the top five on the points table all unable to finish in the top ten on Sunday, the battle for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship is essentially down to the two Team Penske teammates when the action resumes on August 21st at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania for the ABC Supply 500.