INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time this season, the Verizon IndyCar Series is taking its show abroad. Not very far, as the streets of Toronto are a hop, skip and a jump from the U.S. border, but this remains the only chance — for now — the series has to put its product in front of a foreign audience.
And it’s a chance the series’ drivers relish.
“Toronto is always a fun track to go to,” said 21-year IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan. “It’s a really fast street course. I love the venue. It’s one of the most fun races of the year. I know we have a good street-course car so I’m looking forward to maybe getting a podium for A.J. (Foyt) and cheer him up a bit.
“The fans in Toronto support IndyCar big time there, and the city’s a lot of fun.”
Here are four story lines heading into Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network).
Minutes after the conclusion of last Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300, Robert Wickens was irate. It wasn’t just that he thought IndyCar race control cost him a podium during the late-race confusion at Iowa Speedway, it was that it cost him a chance to stand atop a podium with his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and best friend.
“It would have been both of us on that podium,” Wickens said after James Hinchcliffe’s victory at Iowa. “I would have been the happiest guy to get a podium at Iowa my first time here, and furthermore celebrate it with my teammate and best friend on the top step. It would have been a dream day for us. And we just got robbed of it. It’s not fair.”
Perhaps the racing gods decided not to deny Wickens’ dream but defer it. Perhaps they figured the first time the two Canadian natives would celebrate atop a podium together should be back home, in front a legion of friends and family.
It is not unthinkable to imagaine both drivers celebrating Sunday. Hinchcliffe, for one, seems to have solved the riddle of Toronto’s street course in recent seasons, producing back-to-back podiums in 2016 and 2017.
While he hasn’t been exceptional on street circuits this year, he’s been solid with a fourth-place finish at St. Petersburg (Fla.) and a ninth at Long Beach before struggling in the doubleheader races in Detroit. If he can recapture the street magic he showed early in the season, he has a chance to rack up consecutive podiums for the first time in his eight-year career.
As for Wickens …
By rights, Wickens should already be an IndyCar winner. St. Petersburg, Phoenix, heck, maybe even Texas all could have been — and in one case should have been — victories, podiums at the very least. Yet, for one reason or another, he’s yet to cross the finish line first.
“I’m getting really tired of saying would’ve, could’ve and should’ve with podiums,” the Guelph, Ontario native said after Iowa. “This is probably the fourth race this year we could have had a podium and we’re not standing there, and it’s getting frustrating.”
I think the frustration comes to an end this weekend in Toronto. Not only is Wickens back on home soil, but more importantly is back on a street circuit. He’s qualified for the Fast 6 in three of four street races this season, including a pole-run at the opener in St. Petersburg. His late run-in with Alexander Rossi at St. Pete cost him a victory while he posted a pair of top-10 finishes in Detroit.
As for other contenders, Sebastien Bourdais was dynamite at St. Pete before running into all sorts of adversity at Long Beach despite a strong car. Assuming he avoids more trouble, he can be a contender at Toronto, where he is a former winner. Also be on the lookout for defending series and race champion Josef Newgarden, who’s left Toronto a winner twice in the past three years.
His appointment to Harding Racing’s No. 88 car at Toronto caught many by surprise, including Conor Daly himself, but the key for him this weekend will be to keep the opportunity in perspective. While it’s surely a big moment in Daly’s young career — one that undoubtedly came in part because of his perseverance and determination since losing his job at Foyt — he should try not to treat it as such.
I think Daly’s best bet for a positive weekend is to treat is it like any other race weekend and not “one big chance” to prove himself to Harding or any other race team. While it might have some bearing on future opportunities, pinning all of his hopes on one race will do nothing but add the weight of the world to his shoulders.
To his credit, Daly seems to be taking the right mindset into the weekend.
“We’ve got to look at what it’s front of us, which is Toronto,” said Daly, who added that he’s already been picking the brain of his former roommate Rossi about best practices regarding the street circuit aero package.
“After that, we’ll see what happens. I’m just thankful for a chance. It’s an American team, based in Speedway, Ind., so it’s cool to be involved with them and if I can be a part of the building blocks of this team moving forward, then that’s awesome.”
It took some time — nearly half a season — but the 2017 Indianapolis 500 champion looks to be finding his groove at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Following a disappointing May, Sato has rallied to four top-seven finishes in the past five races, picking up his first podium of the season at Iowa.
Unfortunately for Sato and RLL, their slow start to the season damaged any championship dreams, but continued success throughout the rest of this year could be a nice way to build momentum heading into 2019.
“I’m very excited to go back to the Honda Indy Toronto,” Sato said. “We think we have a good car for a street course and it’s the final street course of the season, so I really want to have a strong race and I think we can. We have good momentum right now so I hope we can continue in Toronto.”
For a minute there, it looked like Josef Newgarden himself had penned the script for the Iowa Corn 300. Drive dominant car into victory lane. Watch fellow championship contenders suffer various ailments. Soar up point standings.
Unfortunately for the Team Penske star, someone stole his pen and flipped the script on him. Hinchcliffe sped past him for the lead before a late yellow caused him to pit from second place and live to regret it when the race never resumed green and he settled for fourth.
Meanwhile, Will Power capped his early-race free fall from the pole and finished sixth; Alexander Rossi rebounded from a tough pit stop to finish ninth; and Scott Dixon salvaged a tough day with a 12th-place finish. Only Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered a bad result, as suspension issues ended his day in 19th. And even still, the Andretti Autosport star remains well within contention — 52 points back of Dixon — as Newgarden’s dream day never fully materialized.
While Newgarden did climb into second place — 33 points back of Dixon — Iowa was almost like a mulligan for the championship field. Dixon’s lead only shrank by 12; Rossi lost a spot but actually inched four points closer in the title hunt. Hunter-Reay dropped two spots but dropped back just seven points. And finally, Power remained in fifth, but closed the gap between he and Dixon by 12 points.
In truth, the Iowa Corn 300 was a day of little championship consequence however, I don’t think there will be any races like that left. From this point forward, if any of these fearsome five-some suffers a DNF or back-marker finish, it will be catastrophic to their title hopes. With only six races to go, there little room left for error.