WHAT TO LOOK FOR AT MID-OHIO
By Rob McCurdy, Mansfield News Journal
What to look for at Mid-Ohio:
Here's a fact the folks at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course love to throw around: An Izod IndyCar driver who has finished on the podium at Mid-Ohio has gone on to win the championship each of the last four years.
If that's the case, look for Dario Franchitti and Will Power to be among the top three after Sunday's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
This year's points chase is a two-horse race between last year's top two championship contenders, when Franchitti came from behind in the second half of the season to edge Power by a mere five points and earn his third title since 2007.
Both drivers have four wins apiece this year, but wrecks at Iowa and Toronto have Power 38 points behind with seven events to go. Meanwhile, Franchitti has been a picture of consistency this year with nine top fives in 11 races. His worst finish was 12th at the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500.
Franchitti and Power have turned in top performances at Mid-Ohio.
Franchitti won last year's event and has never finished off the podium in three IndyCar races in Lexington. The Scotsman also holds the all-time fastest lap ever record on the 13-turn circuit from his CART days, sharing the mark with Gil de Ferran.
Power started from the pole in 2010 after wrecking in a practice session and ended as runner-up to Franchitti, a sign of things to come later in the season. In his only other start at Mid-Ohio, the Australian started 12th and finished fourth in 2008 for KV Racing Technology.
Here are some other things to look for this weekend:
Who else is capable of winning?
While Power and Franchitti seem to have the best directions to victory circle, this year has been a bit unpredictable.
Mike Conway picked up his first ever win and Marco Andretti earned his second win in IndyCar. And don't forget the stunning victory by Dan Wheldon at Indy.
But Mid-Ohio isn't kind to upstarts. Going back to its Champ Car days, the track tends to favor big-budget teams and big-time drivers.
How's this for a list of winners? Johnny Rutherford, Teo Fabi, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Paul Tracy, Scott Dixon and Franchitti make it a who's who. And it's not like Roberto Guerrero in 1987, Adrian Fernandez in 1998, Patrick Carpentier in 2002 and Ryan Briscoe in 2008 are hacks.
Big money operations Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske have owned the podium at Mid-Ohio since IndyCar's debut in 2007. The only interloper was Franchitti, but that was in 2007 when he drove for Andretti Green Racing and won his first racing title.
Who can crash the podium party?
Marco Andretti has the pedigree (grandfather Mario and father Michael own three combined Mid-Ohio wins in big-time open-wheel racing). He also has a fourth on the only other natural terrain road course competed on this year at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay is a solid road racer who hasn't finished outside the top 10 at a Mid-Ohio race in an IndyCar.
Tony Kanaan is a cagey veteran capable of bringing home a podium finish for KV Racing Technology-Lotus. He has three top 10s in the last four years at Mid-Ohio.
Graham Rahal with Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing has a pedigree as well and a lot of Mid-Ohio laps over the years of his burgeoning career. He has three podiums this season, including a runner-up in Brazil.
Oriol Servia has led resurgent Newman/Hass Racing with a quietly consistent season, cracking the top 10 six times with a podium in Milwaukee.
Justin Wilson with Dreyer & Reinbold, J.R. Hildebrand with Panther Racing, Takuma Sato with KV Racing Technology-Lotus and Alex Tagliani with Sam Schmidt Motorsports all have the chops to post big weekends, too.
What's the matter with the big names?
Castroneves is ninth in the standings and Danica-mania is 11th.
"Dancing with the Stars" winner Castroneves is being cursed by bad luck, enduring first-turn accidents in St. Petersburg and Brazil and tire punctures in Milwaukee and Iowa. A runner-up finish at Edmonton was his only podium so far as he is trying to extend his streak of seasons with a win to 12.
Patrick has endured an uninspired 2011. She's been bad in qualifying most weeks and has had to fight traffic or use off-strategies to gain middling results. Her best finish is a fifth at Milwaukee.
Will there be any passes?
The truly gifted can make a pass stick at Mid-Ohio, as Kanaan has shown in the past. But it is difficult to make something happen at the point. With the cars using the same engines, chassis and tires, it makes for almost equal results among the best five to 10 drivers -- which means overtaking is hard to almost impossible.
Someone needs to make a mistake and do it in the right place, mainly at the end of the backstraight. Two other places where passing could be available are in Turn 1 and the Madness section before Thunder Valley.
How will double file restarts work at Mid-Ohio?
That's a wait-and-see, but it should make for entertaining restarts since the first lap has been the most exciting lap at Mid-Ohio each of the last four years. Who can forget the botched start in 2007 when Marco Andretti ended up on his helmet after the car flipped during contact with Kanaan when Patrick slowed in the front row and Castroneves roared away from the field?
As of last week's testing session, Hildebrand said he was unsure where they will do it, on the backstraight or frontstraight.
"You could definitely see some guys getting punted off and getting into trouble down there (at the end of the backstraight)," he said. "It's not that wide on the straightaway let alone once you get into those first few corners at the end of the backstraight," he said.
Is there anyone else to keep an eye on?
Martin Plowman is making his IndyCar debut this weekend for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The 23-year-old from England won his first Firestone Indy Lights race a year ago at Mid-Ohio while competing for AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport.