Simon Pagenaud showcases IndyCar excellence at Mid-Ohio

Simon Pagenaud won for the fourth time this season. Brian Cleary/Getty Images

STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- You could look at the Honda Indy 200 as a microcosm of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season as a whole.

Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, the two main (Chevrolet equipped, sorry Honda) championship contenders, waged an intense duel over 90 laps at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course that ended in favor of the Frenchman.

The Team Penske teammates started alongside each other on the front row, and along with their respective crews, fought a clean and compelling battle that demonstrated why they have distanced themselves from the field this year.

In typical IndyCar fashion, the race could have thrown a surprise result, as Mikhail Aleshin and Conor Daly used alternate pit stop strategies to combine to lead more than half the laps.

But ultimately the eighth win of Pagenaud's IndyCar career came down to hard, wheel-to-wheel racing -- with one of his teammates.

If anybody doubts how hard the man from Poitiers is willing to push in the quest for his first series championship, they should watch a replay of Lap 66 of Sunday's race.

Lining up third behind an off-sequence Daly and Power for the restart, Pagenaud banged wheels as he tried to pass Power on the outside of Turn 4 on the entry to Mid-Ohio's esses.

With Power suffering from rubber pickup on his tires, Pagenaud stayed glued to his teammate's gearbox through the next four corners and got a run through Thunder Valley to try an audacious move into Turn 10 that got properly chopped. But Pagenaud stayed with it, ducking to the inside on entry to the Carousel.

The two Penske cars made contact again, but the No. 22 emerged ahead of the No. 12 through the sequence of corners and pulled away in the run to the finish. Pagenaud won by 4.16 seconds and stretched his championship advantage to 58 points over Power.

Compounding the joy from his fourth win of the season (and first since early May on the road course at Indianapolis), most of the other drivers in championship contention had bad days Sunday at Mid-Ohio.

Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon came into the weekend third and fourth in the title sweepstakes but crashed out together in an incident that, again, was pretty much symbolic of the season as a whole.

While Pagenaud and Power separate themselves from the IndyCar field, everyone else self-destructs.

Pagenaud started the season with three wins and three second-place finishes, and he withstood challenges from Dixon and several others before Power emerged as his main contender.

An under-the weather Power missed the season opener, but he has bounced back with a championship-caliber season in any other year against any other teammate. As well as the Australian performed on Sunday, it wasn't enough to topple his teammate from scoring a very timely victory.

"I just made a dog's breath of the bloody restart, which allowed him to get into the position to have a shot," Power said. "And if you have a shot, of course you can't pass it up. You've got to go for it, and he did.

"I really put myself in a bad position, and I should have done a better job of just getting a jump on the restart."

No question. Mid-Ohio is a notoriously difficult place to pass, so Pagenaud knew his only chance to pass Power would come on a restart or soon after.

When the opportunity came, Pagenaud struck with ruthless precision. When Power lagged, Pagenaud raced him hard and clean and was rewarded with a satisfying victory on a day when he wondered whether he could even make the start after tweaking his back in the Saturday morning practice session.

It looked like an excellent opportunity for Power -- or Castroneves, Dixon, or even Josef Newgarden -- to capitalize.

But serial blocker Castroneves took care of Dixon and himself, while Aleshin -- who had the race in the bag based on his midrace pace -- crashed out Newgarden in the pits.

That set up the Lap 66 restart showdown between Pagenaud and Power. And we know how that came out.

"I knew that was my chance," Pagenaud said. "On that restart, it was time to go. And it was a pretty interesting lap. That was fun driving like that.

"That's racing," he added. "It was fair, it was clean. It was hard racing, and I'm just glad I won."

Team Penske drivers arrived at Mid-Ohio ranked 1-2-3 in the IndyCar Series, and the order remained the same when they left.

But Castroneves is now 111 points behind Pagenaud with four races remaining, as Pagenaud and Power have turned the title chase into a two-man show.

Power started the season in a 40-point hole thanks to the concussion-like symptoms that held him out of the opener at St. Petersburg. And hard as he has tried -- matching Pagenaud win for win up through Sunday -- he just can't seem to make up that disadvantage.

"It was a good clean battle and it was tough, but it sucks finishing second," Power said. "Simon did a bloody good job. He saw an opportunity and he went for it, which he should.

"It's turning into a pretty good battle, though the points have opened up, obviously," he added. "We need to keep pushing."

With no team orders at Team Penske, Pagenaud and Power duked it out fair and square, and the fastest man won.

That's the way it played out at Mid-Ohio -- and on the season as a whole.

Sunday's race was the kind of clean, fair competition that Roger Penske relishes. In terms of intrateam championship battles, this one is far more authentic and realistic than the one being contested between Mercedes-Benz teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Formula One.

"Well look, those guys both want it, and I think that's the reason they're both driving for us," Penske said of Power and Pagenaud. "Fortunately it didn't cause a problem, but overall it was a little dicey."

A little dicey but nobody crashed. That next Penske team meeting will be a lot less awkward than it could have been.

Mid-Ohio, with big crowds lining the hillsides surrounding the old-fashioned road course, was a great showcase for the IndyCar Series. It summed up the whole season, in fact.

"It was close racing but it was clean, to the limits," Pagenaud said. "At the end of the day, we didn't crash. We did what we were supposed to do as top drivers. I thought it was a great battle, and it was fantastic for the fans, what happened.

"I just saw a chance and I went for it, really. Didn't think much more of it."