King of Barber Knows a Good Tire Guy

Josef Newgarden needed help from his Tim Cindric to win the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Monday. For the second time in three races, Cindric made the correct call on when to switch tires. In Phoenix it was a fresh set for the final restart. Monday it was putting rain tires on several laps before anyone else. He had some assistance from the weather. Had it not started raining harder Sebastien Bourdais would have won staying on slicks.

The rain with about 15 minutes left turned what was an ordinary race into an intriguing finish. Newgarden was clearly the class of the field. Bourdais’s gamble didn’t work because the rain intensified. He might have had a better chance pitting when Newgarden did. Bourdais ended up fifth, beating Scott Dixon in a drag race to the line.

With the victory Newgarden takes the points lead back from Alexander Rossi, who finished eleventh. This is the first time this season Rossi has not been on the podium. Newgarden leads by 13 points. I expect these two to swap the lead back and forth a few more times before Sonoma. Meanwhile, don’t ignore Sebastien Bourdais or Graham Rahal. They are tied for third 39  points behind. Bourdais owns the tie breaker with his victory at St. Pete. Rahal is having a very consistent year and one of his best starts to a season. He is usually very strong in the second half. Bourdais has led laps in all four races this year.

Notes

Why weren’t the leader lights working at Barber? They were on during Friday’s first practice, but weren’t on the rest of the weekend.

SPM continues its resurgence with a third for James Hinchcliffe and fourth for Robert Wickens.

Matheus Leist finished 12th for his best result this season. It was a bit of  salvation for an otherwise horrendous weekend for the Foyt team.

Zachary Claman De Melo turned the fastest lap of the race, 1:09.8183. He made some great passes. Keep an eye on this rookie.

Three drivers have won at what they consider their home tracks this season.  Bourdais at St. Pete, Rossi at Long Beach, and Newgarden at Barber. Does this trend bode well for Ed Carpenter at the 500?

Newgarden has won three of the last four races at Barber. He now has nine career wins.

Marco Andretti earned his third top 10 of the season Monday. This is by far his best start in a long time.

The windscreen gets its second test at IMS next Monday after the open test. Josef Newgarden will test the the device. Dixon tested it at Phoenix.

“Bump Tales” Begins May 3

A four week series recounting some of the more dramatic Bump Days in the past begins May 3. Many former winners missed the race and there was once a tie for the last spot.

Check in each Thursday during the month for stories about who didn’t make the fastest 33.

 

Advertisements

Rossi Stars in Amazing Race Again

It was a home game for Alexander Rossi and he won convincingly. Rossi led 71 of the 85 laps in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and never faced a serious challenge for the lead. He pitted ahead of the mid race caution that caught out two of his biggest challengers, Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon. Rossi drove a perfect race, blasting ahead on restarts and executing flawless pit stops. While he was breezing along, there was quite a bit of drama behind him.

In turn 1 Graham Rahal bumped Simon Pagenaud, knocking him out of the race. Rahal served a drive through penalty but fought back to finish fifth.  Bourdais and Dixon engaged in a great battle for second. Bourdais made one of the greatest passes I’ve ever seen, darting between Dixon and backmarker Matheus Leist. Race control deemed the move illegal as Bourdais’s right side tires crossed the line marking the pit exit lane. Officials ordered him to relinquish the spot to Dixon. He did- for about half a lap.

Josef Newgarden went to a three stop strategy, which didn’t work out for him. He finished seventh. Teammate Will Power had the last shot at stealing the victory from Rossi on the last restart but could only get within 0.71 of a second at one point. Power had twice as many push to pass seconds as Rossi when the race resumed, but burned it quickly and still couldn’t catch him.

It was another good street race with the new aerokit. There was passing and strategy. the yellows fell at times that made for an entertaining event. The first two street races have been so good I’m tempted to make a return to Belle Isle this year.

Notes

Rossi has been on the podium all three races this year and four of the last five races. He has two wins and two thirds.

Robert Wickens, the star of the previous two races, struggled most of the weekend and had a gearbox issue. he finished 22nd.

Andretti Autosport had a great day with Zach Veach coming in fourth in just his third race and Marco Andretti getting his second top 10 of the season. Veach nearly caught Ed Jones for third after the final restart.

The only down part for the team was Ryan Hunter-Reay’s awful day. He got clipped by Dixon in turn 1 at the start, later had a flat tire, and then got stuck in the hairpin traffic jam that also ruined Bourdais’s comeback. He ended up 20th.

Tony Kanaan had his second straight top 10.

Is Matheus Leist in over his head? He seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time all day, interfering with the leaders. He has been the least impressive driver in the field this year.

500 Field at 35

Two announcements this week brought the field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 to 35.

The worst kept secret in the paddock became official when J. R. Hildebrand got the ride in the second Dreyer and Reinbold car.

James Davison, who filled in last year for Bourdais in the 500, will drive a third car for A. J. Foyt Racing with sponsorship from David Byrd.

I’m planning a series on past Bump Days beginning the first week in May. I will highlight some of the more memorable moments of bumping.

The Long Beach Winding Road

Just two races into what has been an entertaining Indycar season to date, we have seen a great mix of new names and familiar names. It’s hard to believe Alexander Rossi is only in his third year in Indycar. We’ve heard Robert Wickens’ name so much it’s hard to remember he is a rookie in this series. I think we will once again be hearing those two names, along with the names of some veterans we haven’t heard from much yet this year at Long Beach this weekend.

While a pair of races don’t create a trend, there are some things forming a consistent pattern. Wickens is a darn good driver. Rossi has quickly learned the tracks and has fully embraced Indycar. In  2016, no one would have been shocked if he didn’t come back in 2017. But then the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 happened, and Indycar had a new star.

We can also see strength from the smaller teams which appears to be sustainable over the long run. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan have had two strong weekends and that should continue in California. While neither may have the season champion driver, they will be in contention for a long time. These teams will be more than spoilers.

Long Beach is the second longest running event on the Indycar schedule. This will be the 35th Indycar race on the streets.  There has been a race at Long Beach since 1975, when Brian Redman won the Formula 5000 race. The following year F1 began an eight year run. In 1984 CART took over and Indycar in some form has raced in Long Beach ever since.

Sebastien Bourdais is one of several current drivers who have won here. Bourdais has three victories, and Will Power has two. Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud also have won.  Can the young guns overcome all the experience on this narrow track?

We know the new cars race better than the Honda/Chevy kit versions, but will that make for a better race? I don’t expect the kind of show we saw at St. Pete. Long Beach doesn’t have a long wide runway for a front stretch. Passing will rely on mistakes, tire degradation, and pit strategy. There have been some dramatic races here as well as some parades.

Who will win? Alexander Rossi should pull into Victory Circle this time. He was in a position to win last year before engine failure knocked him  out of the race. With the win, Rossi will take the points lead to Barber next weekend. Wickens will have another strong race, but might miss the podium.  Oh, some of the veterans might make a splash as well.

Back Monday with a recap. The race is on NBCSN at 4:30 pm ET Sunday.

 

Photo: Ryan Hunter-Reay  pit stop in Phoenix last Saturday.   Photo by Mike Silver

 

Season Preview Part 3- Big Teams Will Still Contend

This is likely the group from which your 2018 Indycar champion will emerge. It won’tbe easy. I see as many as seven contenders from this group, with two teams having multiple contenders. Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud could stage one of the greatest title fights Indycar has seen. Each team won  at least one race last year. I expect that to be the case again.  A reminder- the order I talk about the teams does not indicate any prediction of season results.

Team Penske

Another year with this team in the championship hunt. Penske drivers should again dominate qualifying on the road/street courses and will probably do well at some ovals, too. Defending champion Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power will  each win races. I don’t think they will win as many combined as they did in 2017, but they should win nearly half of the events. The key is where thel finish in the others that will determine their title hopes.

Newgarden will not relinquish his title willingly. Pagenaud, who had a strong title defense in 2017, will be a threat to win at every road /street course. He showed huge improvement on ovals last year as well, winning Phoenix and nearly winning Gateway. Power lurked near the front all season but early DNFs doomed his chances. He has had to fight back from low finishes at St. Pete the last two years.

The new aero packages should favor the Penske cars. The question is, will the new package allow other teams to catch  them? I think there will be a closing of the gap.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

RLLR has been the best of the smaller teams the last three years. A single car team until now, they usually have one dominant weekend a season and have another race fall their way. In 2015 Rahal left Mid-Ohio just nine points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya. This year could be even better.

Finally, Graham Rahal gets a teammate to help with setups. Not just any teammate, but defending Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who is known to be very good at helping his team in that department. Rahal has been in the top 5 or just outside it for the last three years and has won races for three consecutive seasons.

Sato was fastest at the Phoenix Open test. Rahal also showed speed. The first part of the year is where this team has struggled. If Graham can have success early, he can make a real run toward his first Astor Cup. Sato won the 500 last year and a pole. He still needs to be more consistent and stay out of trouble.

I think Rahal will be in the top four at season’s end. I’m not picking him for fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing

The addition of sponsor PNC full time on Scott Dixon’s car and downsizing to two cars put the Ganassi team in great shape for another title run. Dixon is the only driver holdover from 2017. Tony Kanaan is now with A. J. Foyt Racing, and Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton now are teammates at Carlin Racing. Ed Jones will be Dixon’s teammate in the NTT Data car.

The contracted operation allows more focus on Dixon and should help Jones as well. The main goal, however is putting the 9 car in victory lane more than once and bringing the title back to CGR. Their chances are good.

Jones will have a steady season and could help his teammate by taking points away from some of Dixon’s chief rivals.

Andretti Autosport

The armada is coming. Look out for these guys. Two strong title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi will be frequent visitors to the podium, including the top step. Promising rookie Zach Veach will lead a strong rookie class. Marco Andretti has renewed hope to improve his results with the new aero package.

Hunter-Reay should return to winning after a drought that seemed to begin with the manufacturer’s aerokit.  He is one of the early favorites to win his second Indianapolis 500. Huner-Reay sounds very enthusiastic about the new configuration.

Rossi is on the verge of a very special year. He came on strong at the end of last season, capped by a strong performance at Watkins Glen. He will win well before Labor Day this year, and likely more than once. Fans will need to pay attention to where he will finish at Sonoma. This could be his championship.

Veach has waited a very long time for his chance to be in Indycar, and I expect him to take full advantage of it. He is more ready than any rookie ever has been. Veach should have many top 10s and possibly a couple of top 5s.

Marco and his crew chief Bryan Herta have displayed a lot of excitement about the coming year. We have heard this before from Marco, but the results have never matched his preseason optimism. Will this year be different? I think they might, but what is the bar? What will constitute improvement? I would like to see better qualifying performances- 2nd round on road/street courses consistently with an occasion Fast 6 for starters, and more race presence with results in the top 10 becoming routine.

This will be a very good year for Andretti Autosport. Rossi will rival Josef Newgarden for attention and points.

Tomorrow, a season preview with my rock solid predictions. That means my picks will be dropping like rocks by Long Beach. Thanks for reading this week. Look for my posts on Wildfire Sports in a day or two. I will let you know when they are up.