Pocono points a big deal

LONG POND, Pennsylvania -- Last week in Houston, Verizon IndyCar Series drivers raced 300 miles over the course of two days in their quest for 100 valuable championship points.

That same points bounty can be snapped up in the space of less than three hours Sunday afternoon in the Pocono INDYCAR 500.

As the second leg of an unofficial Triple Crown of 500-mile races on the 2014 IndyCar Series schedule, Pocono -- like the Indianapolis 500 and the season-ending MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in California -- is worth twice as many points as a typical race. That means a driver can take away 100 points (plus potential bonuses for pole position and/or laps led) instead of the usual 50.

That's a big deal in a championship that routinely goes down to the last lap of the final race of the season, with every year between 2006 and 2012 decided by 18 points or fewer. Last year's title margin of 27 points, won by Scott Dixon over Helio Castroneves, was an anomaly in the modern era, and Dixon demonstrated the power of a double-points weekend with a crushing 74-point swing in his favor at Houston late in the campaign.

This year's IndyCar championship chase sees Team Penske's Will Power and Castroneves running 1-2 in the standings, with Power enjoying a 39-point cushion over his teammate. Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay is third, taking advantage of his double-points victory at the Indianapolis 500 (a race that also offers significant qualifying points bonuses) to overcome three DNFs and remain within 41 points.

At a 65-point defecit, Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), the most recent race winner in the IndyCar Series, is the only other driver within 100 points of Power's lead. Defending series champion Dixon is ninth in the standings with 237 points, a seemingly massive 168 points behind Power's tally of 405.

But a lot of that could be made up at Pocono, and the doubleheader weekend in Toronto July 19-20 offers another chance to grab a quick fistful of points.

In 2013, Dixon's rally to his third IndyCar Series championship started with a win at Pocono in a 1-2-3 sweep for a Ganassi Racing team that hadn't yet reached Victory Lane all year. Ganassi is 0-for-2014 as well.

"We're looking for a turning point at any race right now," Dixon commented in the aftermath of a Houston weekend that yielded finishes of 19th and 18th, as opposed to first and second a year ago. "If Pocono is going to be the one, that would be awesome.

"If you are going to be strong you have to be strong at all the races to win the championship, and right now we are ninth best at it."

It's been a rough year in general for the Ganassi IndyCar team, which is still perhaps feeling the loss of Dario Franchitti, whose driving career was unexpectedly ended by a violent crash the same weekend that Dixon was having such success in Houston.

Franchitti recovered from the injuries he suffered in Houston, and still works with the team as an advisor. His replacement, popular IndyCar star Tony Kanaan, is 11th in the standings, with Ryan Briscoe 13th and Charlie Kimball 15th.

The team switched from Honda to Chevrolet engines in 2014 and added a fourth car for Briscoe, but those were the only major changes for a team that has won 10 Indy car championships since 1996.

Dixon's own campaign, topped by a trio of fourth-place finishes, has been inconsistent to say the least. But he discounts that it is anything like the defense of his 2003 championship, when the Ganassi Toyotas were outclassed by the Andretti and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Hondas.

"In 2004 we knew what the problem was," he said. "That year we struggled for speed and tried to overextend ourselves. This year, our pace has been pretty good at a lot of places. I've messed up a couple of times, which is frustrating, and then [at Houston] it was just something that came unattached.

"This time our speed is acceptable, but we have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But you can't dwell on that stuff."

This year's Pocono race has been extended to 500 miles, making the first Triple Crown of 500-milers since 1989. Indy winner Hunter-Reay could join Al Unser (1978) as Indy car racing's only Triple Crown winner.

"Coming off the heels of the Indy 500, I'm pretty confident in our oval package, especially on the bigger ovals," Hunter-Reay said. "Hopefully we can make a big run for it. We had a good test there. It's something I'm looking forward to.

"Obviously the Triple Crown would be a huge honor to be a part of, but one step at a time -- one stint at a time," he added. "We'll see how Pocono goes. One thing's for sure, it's going to be a hard-fought race."

Hunter-Reay acknowledged the significance of Pocono's status as a double-points race.

"It's absolutely critical," he said. "We just came off double points races at Houston, here we have one race with double points at Pocono, we go to Toronto, and that's another race with down-the-line points, and we go to Fontana with double points. I don't know, maybe we should make the whole series double points at this point!

"There's a lot riding on every weekend. You can have huge swings in your championship fight because of it. Especially as the season goes on, as you get later in the season, it becomes more and more valuable to score points in these big races."

Power, who has led the IndyCar championship into the final round but is still in search of his first title, is not a fan of the changes to the point system this year.

"These doubleheader weekends are OK, because you get a second chance if you have a bad day," he said. "But to me, the double points thing [at 500-mile speedway races] is too much. If you just happen to have a DNF in the wrong race, you're in trouble. It's way overkill there.

"But that's the way it is, so we're heavily focused on these next few races. Anyone can get back into it easy."

Power finished fourth at Pocono last year and followed it up with a victory at Fontana in the 500-mile season finale.

"You really hope that your car is working well or those added 100 miles can be brutal," he said. "The biggest adjustment will be on the fuel mileage. I have to believe that we are going to get some long green-flag runs just like we did at Indianapolis.

"Last year was a fuel mileage race and we were on the wrong end of it."

Last year's Pocono race, a 400-miler, was the first Indy car event at the historic tri-oval since 1989. Encouraged by the response, the race was extended to 500 miles this year.

However, ticket sales are reportedly slow, and track management is already publicly talking about getting out of the contract for 2015. With ideal weather expected Sunday, IndyCar fans in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast will need to show up in force if they want to keep the sport coming back to the region.