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Championship Battle Gets Closer With Team Penske Victory

Story By: MITCH ROBINSON /INDYcar SERIES MEDIA

Photos By: RACERSGUIDE.COM PHOTO STAFF

405LONG POND, Pa. –August 23, 2016- Simon Pagenaud entered the ABC Supply 500 with a 58-point lead in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship over Will Power. As the Team Penske drivers leave Pocono Raceway this evening, the silver No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet of Power is much larger in the figurative rear view mirror.

Power won today’s 500-mile race at Pocono Raceway by 1.1459 seconds over pole sitter Mikhail Aleshin, while Pagenaud crashed out in 18th place to heat up the championship battle with three races yet to be completed. Ryan Hunter-Reay, last year’s Pocono winner, charged from the last starting position to finish third.

“Well, I felt like this place owed us,” said Power, who had two top-five finishes in three previous Pocono races. “We’ve led a lot of laps here. The car started off really, really difficult to drive. We adjusted on it all day and, for the second half of the race, the car was just awesome. Awesome.”

Awesome enough to trim Power’s points deficit to Pagenaud to just 20 points. Josef Newgarden, who finished fourth in the race, moved into third in the point standings, 100 behind Pagenaud.

408Aleshin, in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Honda, accounted for several of those lead changes. The 29-year-old Russian battled up front all day after earning his first career pole on Saturday and led 87 laps en route to his matching his best Verizon IndyCar Series finish.

“I’m very proud of my team and everyone who works on the SMP Racing car No. 7,” said Aleshin, who led the most laps three weeks ago at Mid-Ohio as well (33), but was denied victory due to a late pit incident. “They did a fantastic job today and it paid off.”

“Will was just faster in the end and I couldn’t do anything with him,” Aleshin added. “When I was catching him, I almost put my car into the wall a couple of times but I still couldn’t overtake him. He has a fair win, for sure, but I’m happy to be in second place because we had some difficult moments this race and this year, so this is a good position to move forward.”

Hunter-Reay’s wild day began on the first lap, storming from his 22nd starting spot to 14th. The driver of the No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda later took the lead on Lap 49, capping his last-to-first run despite racing his backup car after the primary was damaged in a practice crash on Saturday.

617The complications weren’t done for Hunter-Reay, however, who later lost power after taking the lead on Lap 163, losing a lap as he reset the car’s electronics while driving through pit lane. A late caution helped the 2015 Pocono winner get back on the lead lap and he cut through the field in the final 20 laps to the bottom step of the podium.

“I had to come through the field twice. It’s heartbreaking,” said the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. “It’s the type of year it’s been for us: really heartbreaking. The No. 28 DHL Honda really deserved to be in contention for the win there at the end.

“The car was a rocket ship. It’s a shame.”

Poor fortunes also struck Hunter-Reay’s teammate and reigning Indy 500 champ Alexander Rossi, who was part of a bizarre incident on pit road on Lap 64. Upon exiting his pit stall, Rossi (No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda) made contact with Charlie Kimball’s No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet, went airborne and bounced over the top of the No. 3 of Helio Castroneves (Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet). All three were eliminated from contention, and Rossi and Castroneves’ days were done.

“Everyone is going to have their own opinion, but I was staying in the slow lane,” said Rossi, who finished 20th after a 20-second time penalty for avoidable contact and contact with pit equipment was assessed. “Kimball was obviously trying to come in his box, but then Helio was being released, so I don’t know. It’s very unfortunate. This car was awesome today.”

For Pagenaud, it went pear-shaped on Lap 158, when the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevy wiggled in Turn 1 and slapped the outside wall. Pagenaud was uninjured but the damage cuts a major chunk out of the points lead he has held since the second race of the season.

_ACE4773“There’s nothing we can do about it now, so we’ll move on to Texas. I don’t think it changes anything. We’ve gone all out all season and that’s not going to change.”

After a final caution on Lap 176 for debris allowed all leaders to pit, a 20-lap sprint to the finish saw jostling for position all around the track. But after a few laps, Power and Aleshin had stretched a three-second lead on the rest of the pack.

The Russian stalked Power but could not find a way alongside in the closing laps. Power won his fourth race of the season and made it six straight races finishing in the top two, dating to the second race at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit in June. Power also claimed his 29th career win, tying him with Castroneves and Rick Mears for 11th on the all-time list.

There is no break for Verizon IndyCar Series, as the field heads Saturday to Texas Motor Speedway for the resumption of the Firestone 600. The race was suspended after 71 laps in June due to rain. There will be a brief practice session (5:30-6 p.m. ET, RaceControl.IndyCar.com) before the race resumes under the lights on the 1.455-mile oval. Race coverage begins 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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