The first half of the IZOD IndyCar Series season was littered with upsets from the smaller teams in the paddock – Takuma Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing at Long Beach, Tony Kanaan and KV Racing at the Indianapolis 500, and Mike Conway (Dale Coyne Racing) and Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports) at Detroit. But as the season has gone into its second half of the year, it appears that the Big Three teams – Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing – are collectively asserting themselves once again.
This past month or so, we saw Helio Castroneves (who has managed to maintain the championship lead with a superb show of consistency) put Team Penske on the board for the first time this season at Texas. Then, at Milwaukee and Iowa, we saw Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe respectively triumph for the Andretti camp. And at Pocono last weekend, the Ganassi gang appeared to get their season turned around with a stellar 1-2-3 podium sweep, Scott Dixon leading Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti to the checkered flag.
I'm sure I'm not the only one enjoying this dynamic between the smaller and larger teams this season, and it could evolve further with this weekend's Toronto doubleheader. Personally, I don't see how anyone can not look at Conway, who is back with DCR this weekend, as a threat to win after torching the field to a crisp in Race 1 at Detroit – likely the most dominant single performance we'll see all year. As soon as I saw that he'd be back for Toronto, my mind perceived to hear a groan from the rest of the paddock.
It's amazing to think we'll only have six races remaining in the season after this weekend's two-step up North – which could very much alter the championship considerably. As of now, it's a battle between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay, the defending series champion, with the Brazilian ahead of the American by 23 points.
Considering that RHR won at Toronto last season and that Castroneves has never really prospered there (two Top-10s in eight career starts), one would assume that the former could have an edge at Exhibition Place. But with Toronto now going to a doubleheader format, there's twice the potential for trouble. At this point of the campaign, neither of them can afford a mishap. Marco Andretti may have looked like he wanted to cuss himself blue after failing to finish off Pocono last weekend – fuel mileage woes knocked him back to 10th at the finish – but he's still within striking distance at 55 points back of Castroneves; ditto for Pocono winner Dixon, who is 65 points back in fourth position on the table.
If RHR or Castroneves falter this weekend, Andretti and Dixon will be there to pounce. And this two-horse race will suddenly have a few more contestants.
The media blitz for "Turbo" is roaring along as we speak. Earlier this week, IndyCar drivers were part of the festivities on NBC's "Today" show – festivities that included a snail race up the side of a Times Square building with the mollusks propelled via skeeball. It'll make more sense if you watch it rather than listen to me try to explain it.
INDYCAR is hopeful that a new generation of fans can be created through the Dreamworks Animation movie, which will open nationwide on July 17 and features the series and the Indianapolis 500 as main story elements. I'm thinking that it'll go over well at the box office, considering the A-list voice cast and the constant demand for family entertainment at the cineplex. And Curt Cavin, who's seen the film already, says it's better than "Driven," so there's that.
But I suppose I have some doubts on whether a tidal wave of new fans really will come crashing onto IndyCar's shores. Maybe it's residue from the two decades of obscurity this sport has been under since the split, but we haven't seen this kind of marketing push involving the sport in some time and I can't help but wonder if it's an "all or most of the eggs in one basket" sort of situation.
Granted, a Dreamworks movie is a damn good basket to put your eggs in. But I guess I would have liked to have seen IndyCar in better health before the "Turbo" project got rolling. The fate of a sport is quite a bit of weight to put on the shoulders of an animated snail.
Still, I'll certainly queue up and get a ticket when it comes out. IndyCar hopes you'll do the same.
And I hope you'll also tune into NBC Sports Network this Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. ET for the Honda Indy Toronto. Keep up with all the news from T.O. at MotorSportsTalk on NBCSports.com.