Status quo is apparently having a good year already 52.94 percent through the Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Four-time series champion Scott Dixon leads the standings – although it feels a little early for a driver who is a master of the late-season close – and used two wins to move into third all-time with 43.
Defending series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske co-leads the series in wins and is fifth in series points, a manageable 68 points back. His team, which has won three of the last four championships, holds two top-five slots in the standings and has claimed four wins, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500 by Will Power.
But the pathway to halfway has been anything but a familiar route. The first season of use for a new uniform aerodynamic body kit by both Chevrolet and Honda added a variable that has seemingly benefitted some veterans and newcomers while others have struggled with less downforce and drag, especially on ovals. Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016, has continued his development as a consistent competitor for Andretti Autosport, winning at Long Beach, dominating, but sliding off course late in Race 2 at Belle Isle and checking in second in points, by far a career best after nine of 17 races.
And it’s Honda 5, Chevrolet 4 in manufacturer wins to this point. But even that has context, as Honda has won three consecutively after Dixon’s romp at Texas last week, extending the manufacturer’s eminence off street/road courses and onto an oval for the first time this season, with three remaining in the second half.
Some first-half observations preceding the last “47.1 percent” of the season:
Biggest surprise (in a good way): Robert Wickens began this season as the long-time friend of new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe, and a notable former DTM driver, but an otherwise unknown commodity in his first Indy car season. The 29-year-old’s late bid for a win in the season opener at St. Petersburg – he was escorted off the lead in an incident with Rossi that is very much open to interpretation – announced the obvious: He was no ordinary newcomer. Wickens has seemed at ease since, finishing second in his first oval race – at Phoenix – fourth at Barber Motorsports Park and third in the INDYCAR Grand Prix to hover seventh in points.
Biggest surprise (in the other kind of way): Hinchcliffe is a feasible selection, given his failure to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and Wickens’ first-year exploits in comparison to the veteran, but Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud having produced just one podium – albeit in the most recent race, when he finished second at Texas Motor Speedway – is startling. The 2016 series champion has an average finish of 11th so far this season after having previously produced six wins in the eight venues that comprise the first half of the schedule.
Best moment (video edition): Sebastien Bourdais’ left-sweeping pass of Dixon at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was exhilarating but nullified by INDYCAR stewards because Bourdais’ Honda crossed the pit exit line. The Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan driver vehemently, but fruitlessly protested, citing Dixon’s move to influence him wide. But the brilliance of Bourdais’ pass was eventually outdone in the Indianapolis 500 by a series of dashing incursions by Rossi in a late charge from a 32nd-place starting spot to an eventual fourth-place finish. Rossi slashed high on a Lap 145 restart to pass four cars in Turns 1 and 2 and used a similar maneuver on a Lap 153 green flag to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud to advance to third at the time.
Best moment (one frame): Will Power’s primal scream. It was an image made for posters. Big ones. There’s Power, sitting atop the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet in victory circle having won his first Indianapolis 500. Various crew and well-wishers have formed a fawning perimeter that wife, Liz, has finally penetrated for a memorable celebration. In a few moments he will make eye contact with her and his intense glare will soften with recognition before a kiss. But in this moment, there is exaltation hyper-pressurized with relief and fatigue and validation, contorting his expressive face into what passed for rage in one of the most blissful moments of the 37-year-old’s life. A driver who spent the middle part of his career harnessing emotions that had helped scuttle his bids for championships in 2010-2012 – he finally won his only title so far in 2014 – who reached the legacy-making pinnacle this May day in Indianapolis, had become a vessel through which these passions would erupt. It was a quintessential Will Power moment sure to become the same for the Indianapolis 500.
Most interesting rookie whose name doesn’t rhyme with Wickens: Zachary Claman De Melo has that certain something. The 20-year-old Dale Coyne Racing driver incites opinions in many of his peers and they’re not always complimentary. The Montreal native exudes the confidence off the track that a young race car driver must project, and the daring on the track that can build or taint reputations at unforgiving early moments of a career. Tabbed to replace the injured Pietro Fittipaldi for the ovals portion of the season after originally signing as a road/street specialist, De Melo is 22nd in points, trailing fellow neophytes Wickens (seventh), Zach Veach (16th) and Matheus Leist (19th). But he’s so far been imminently interesting, for varying reasons.
Second-half trend to watch: Team Penske won six of eight races to end last season as Newgarden outdueled Pagenaud to win the championship in his first season with the team. The organization won five of eight to conclude 2015 as Pagenaud did the same. If the trend continues, Power could become the first to follow an Indy 500 win with a title in the same year since Dario Franchitti in 2010.