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IndyCar POWER RANKINGS: Phoenix

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Throughout the season, POPULAR OPEN WHEEL will rank the drivers and teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR OPEN WHEEL Facebook page.

Josef Newgarden not only had the pace to snatch victory in the Phoenix Grand Prix, but his Team Penske squad showed the strategy moves required to maintain a level of success that has allowed them to bounce back from a lackluster showing at St. Petersburg. Although misfortune continued to plague his teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, the current Verizon IndyCar Series No. 1 plate holder used clever pit strategy, including a willingness to surrender the lead late in favor of fresh tires.

Although the decision seemed questionable at the time, it did not take long to clear the three non-pitting entries in the final eight laps once the event went back to green. While not enough to vault Newgarden nor Penske to the top of the rankings this week, any rumors about a bad year for 2018 have been to rest for the moment.

For the second straight event, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports looks to have the rabbit role as the current pacesetters. Robert Wickens proved a fast learner in his first try on an oval and fellow Canadian James Hinchcliffe drove a consistent race to secure his second consecutive top-six result to open the new year.

So with that teaser on the table, here’s how the top ten pilots and squads stand in advance of next week’s Grand Prix of Long Beach. Keep in mind, the current rankings may not reflect the championship standings.

DRIVER RANKINGS:

1) Robert Wickens, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1 from St. Pete poll): The former DTM standout has proven a quicker study in IndyCars, than even Dario Franchitti was in his first year in CART. The comparison comes as both drivers moved to North American open-wheel action via touring cars in Germany. While becoming a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion like the Scotsman may be too risky a prediction to make at this point, there is no question that the junior member for SPM is a lock for Sunoco Rookie of the Year. However, he must start to be considered as a potential Astor Cup-lifter if Long Beach follows the present pattern.

2) Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport (+2): Year three has gotten off to a strong start for Rossi, who overcame multiple adversities to scoop up the final step on the podium at Phoenix. Long Beach and Alabama should provide two more decent chances to bag a winner’s plaque, before a serious effort to add his visage to the Borg-Warner Trophy in May.

3) Josef Newgarden, Team Penske (+4): The test returns from Alabama were not exactly backed-up at ISM Raceway, but the Tennessee-raised star found a way to the winner’s circle, much in the form witnessed last fall at St. Louis. Now, the big question.. will the consistency achieved by the Captain’s men across the board the past two seasons return at this crucial point of 2018?

4) James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1): The Mayor earned another top-six placement, but once again was outperformed by his new co-pilot in Phoenix. Momentum’s heading in the right direction, but Hinch must find a way to reverse the trend against Wickens; hence why he’s number four on the list, as opposed to numero uno.

5) Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing (-4): Great Verizon P1 Award, solid first race stint, but oh my, a shocking pit gaffe on opening attempt. Whether the blame rests on the driver or the crew, the Frenchman never recovered. A show of heart to salvage 13th, but Phoenix did little to kill off the questions raised about DCR’s capabilities on ovals.

6) Will Power, Team Penske (-3): The bad luck and misfortune that has haunted the Australian speed-king since 2016, unfortunately, made an encore showing at Phoenix. One DNF is enough to overcome, but that has NOT been the trend for the No. 12 Chevrolet runner. Will the third time’s the charm factor save him from further embarrassment in 2018? A win at Long Beach would lessen the requirement to literally run the table in the championship hunt.

7) Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing (+1): Made the most of an awful grid position (17th), to escape with a fourth-place finish. The Iceman avoided the urge to make the unnecessary gamble and allowed his pit crew to advance his efforts. Must avoid having to repeat this process too often. however, so a Firestone Fast Six challenge at Long Beach would be a friendly suggestion.

8) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport (+1): A top-five could be a springboard for RHR entering a Long Beach, a venue where the 2012 IndyCar king has enjoyed several positive moments. Building momentum at the right time in advance of another major Indy 500  victory pursuit.

9) Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (-3): Driver 15 quietly netted another top-ten result at a short oval, not the strongest track type for the Ohio-based pilot. If he puts down a solid effort in qualifying at Long Beach, a victory burn-out that father-in-law John Force would be proud of could be in order.

10) Tony Kanaan, AJ Foyt Racing (new this week): TK took advantage of fresh tires late at Phoenix to bank an eighth-place. While the veteran can’t be counted on for the consistency shown at Andretti Autosport, the potential big effort is still within range.

DROPPED OUT: Takuma Sato (Was No. 10)

TEAM RANKINGS

1) Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: If not for their decision to stay out when others chose to pit for fresh rubber late, the second and sixth-place results at Phoenix, could have been even higher. Couple that with their performance at St. Petersburg, and SPM maintains the king of the hill spot for Long Beach.

2) Andretti Autosport (+1): Rossi and Hunter-Reay backed-up their showings from St. Pete. Andretti and Veach could each be a bigger threat with better grid positions.

3) Team Penske (+1): Yes, Newgarden won, but Pagenaud and Power were off target. Far from the dominant form each enjoyed the last two seasons.

4) Chip Ganassi Racing (+1): Scott Dixon improved 13 positions from the start. Ed Jones was headed towards a similar outcome, but had a meeting with the turn three fence instead.

5) Dale Coyne Racing (-3): A five-lap phase ruined the Phoenix Grand Prix for both Pietro Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais. The road course kings should experience a better time of it at Long Beach.

6) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Ninth and twelfth is not great, but compared with who’s behind them in the rankings, no change this week.

7) A.J. Foyt Racing: A good strategy call allowed Tony Kanaan to grab a top-ten, while a pit stop mess-up stopped Matheus Leist’s effort. Once the young Brazilian posts a finish, his performance level could start to emulate the legendary TK.

8) Ed Carpenter Racing: Late surge from the team boss was worth something, but Spencer Pigot’s finding the going tough in his first full IndyCar tour.

9) Harding Racing: 15th-place effort from Gabby Chaves is enough to keep Carlin and Juncos at bay, but beyond that? There is little to say advancement among the old guard is on the cards looking ahead to Long Beach and Alabama.

10) Carlin Racing: They are finishing, but beyond that not too much to be proud of for either Max Chilton or Charlie Kimball.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularOpenWheel.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

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