IndyCar gang gears up for Milwaukee

The Verizon IndyCar Series race at the Milwaukee Mile has reverted to an August date, putting it in a critical position in terms of the driver's championship. The ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 starts a run of three races in 14 days (Aug. 17-30) to determine this year's IndyCar champion.

With double points up for grabs in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway, no driver is in position to clinch the crown at Milwaukee. But a win at one of Indy car racing's most historic venues could put Team Penske's Will Power or Helio Castroneves in a commanding position heading into the California swing that will wrap up the IndyCar season.

By contrast, a bad weekend for either or both of them at Milwaukee, coupled with a win by one of their pursuers, could make that California road trip a lot less mellow for the Penske powerhouses.

Fifteen races into the 18-round campaign, Power leads Castroneves by just four points. Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay is their closest pursuer (minus-63), and, much to the Penske duo's consternation, the American ace is one of the most successful drivers in the long history of the Milwaukee Mile.

Hunter-Reay took the most statistically dominant victory in Indy car history by leading all 250 laps of a CART-sanctioned race at Milwaukee in 2004. RHR is also the only driver to have won at The Mile in the current generation of Dallara Indy car chassis used since 2012, and he has led nearly a third of the laps he has run on the flat mile oval at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds.

Although it was earlier in the season in June 2012, the win at Milwaukee was an important part of Hunter-Reay's first IndyCar Series championship. Can history repeat?

"I have some great memories of the Milwaukee Mile, and it's been great to me," remarked Hunter-Reay, who successfully defended his race win in 2013. "I had my first big win there on an oval in 2004. We led every lap under the lights, and it was just a magnificent night.

"In 2012, this win was a big part of my championship effort, and coming back in '13 I really wanted to do it on Father's Day weekend with my son [Ryden, now 20 months] being here. It was our first win together; that's one of those victories that rank highest amongst my best memories and one that will rank highest in my career because of that fact."

Hunter-Reay has qualified on the outside of the front row at Milwaukee the past two years as Andretti Autosport seems to have mastered the short oval package the fastest with the DW12 chassis.

He's also a master of working through the traffic that is part and parcel of racing at Milwaukee.

"You feel like you're in traffic the entire time and you have to [work] methodically, over the series of five or six laps, to set up one pass," he said. "It's definitely a thinking track, and if you ask any of the legends in the sport it's definitely among their top two or three tracks. 

"Andretti Autosport has had great cars over the past five or six years, and if you're not qualifying on pole or up front, there's a lot of work to do," Hunter-Reay added. "The track is always changing, the competition is always getting better. You have to be proactive in searching for a better car and pulling out the full capability of the driver."

Over the past couple of years, championship leader Power has overcome the rap that he's not a premier oval racer. But he still has to prove he can hold on to the lead of a title chase all the way to the end.

The Australian finished third at Milwaukee last year and knows exactly what he has to do this weekend.

"We definitely want to stay aggressive -- in a smart way -- because we aren't close to being in a safe position for the championship," said Power, who was the IndyCar Series runner-up to Dario Franchitti in 2010 and '11 and to Hunter-Reay in 2012. "If anyone knows that, it's me.

"We do realize that all we have to do is finish one spot ahead of all the other championship competitors and that will do it," he added. "But we are going to go out there and try to win races."

Although he was not in contention for the 2013 championship, Power closed out the season with victories at the upcoming venues of Sonoma Raceway and Auto Club Speedway. A solid result at Milwaukee would definitely give him some breathing room heading to California.

"We are coming to some outstanding racetracks for the Verizon Chevy team -- I feel like we can win all three races that are left, I really do," Power said. "A win this weekend at Milwaukee would be very sweet for me because I've come to really enjoy racing there." 

Castroneves, who is also chasing his first IndyCar Series championship, also has never won at Milwaukee. He's been the fastest qualifier more than once, but unusual circumstances -- including things like a broken rear wing and a penalty for blocking -- have kept the Brazilian out of victory circle.

"I've been close there before, but things just find a way of popping up and keeping us out of Victory Lane," Castroneves remarked. "But this year feels special, so we are going to put all of those past races out of our minds and just worry about running the best possible race we can this weekend."

Simon Pagenaud is fourth in the championship, one point behind Hunter-Reay, but the Frenchman admits he and Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports are still not on par with their competition at oval venues.

Pagenaud and teammate Mikhail Aleshin recently ran a test session at Chicagoland Speedway in preparation for Milwaukee and Auto Club Speedway.

"I'm going into the Milwaukee and Fontana ovals with more knowledge for sure now, which makes me feel great," Pagenaud said. "We tested reliability as well as performance at Chicagoland, and we made good gains."

This weekend's wild-card driver is Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske. The Colombian won his most recent Indy car start at Milwaukee, in the CART-sanctioned series back in 2000, while he was driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in what was the first Indy car race win for Toyota as an engine manufacturer.

Milwaukee is the kind of track where Montoya could run away and hide -- which he really needs to do if he wants to cut the 101-point deficit between himself and championship leader (and Penske teammate) Power.

"These last three racetracks are definitely places that I feel like I can win," Montoya observed. "So, yeah, even though we are still a little over 100 points out of the lead, I think we can make a helluva run between now and the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway at the end of the month.

"We need to gain a fair amount of points this weekend to start putting pressure on the other guys, and we know that's not going to be easy."

Other drivers to watch this weekend include Hunter-Reay's Andretti Autosport teammates, Marco Andretti (a former Milwaukee pole winner), James Hinchcliffe (podium in 2012) and Carlos Munoz, and the Target Ganassi duo of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan.

Replicating his 2009 victory at Milwaukee is almost a necessity for Dixon if he wants to remain in championship contention; he's 108 points behind Power. Kanaan, a two-time Milwaukee winner, is searching for his first race win with the Ganassi organization.