Tires, Heat, and Hondas after Sundown- Texas 2018

Remember a few years ago when Texas decided to have twin races on the same night? Last night’s one scheduled race at Texas was two races in one, as Scott Dixon and the other Honda teams came to life after the sun set . Team Penske Chevrolets had swept the first three spots in qualifying and led early, but tire issues affected all three cars. Pole sitter Josef Newgarden and teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud had to make early stops to replace blistered tires. Only Pagenaud would be contending at the end.

Dixon, Robert Wickens, and Alexander Rossi showed speed early, and when the Penske cars faded they went to the front. The cooling track favored the Hondas. Pagenaud came back to finish second, fighting off a strong challenge from Rossi. Newgarden faded to 13th, three laps down, and Power crashed into Zachary Claman de Melo just past the 200 lap mark and ended in 18th.

The results again shook up the point standings. Dixon now leads Rossi by 23 points and Power is 36 behind. The fight for the championship will continue until the end. This is a fun battle. Dixon is the third different leader since the 500.

Thoughts and Notes

The early part of the race was processional and not very interesting, but as the track cooled it became turned into a good show. I think the oval aero package needs a tweak or two, hopefully by Pocono.

I appreciate Indycar’s mandate that cars had to use scuffed tires on their first three stops. This is a much better plan than last year requiring a stop every 30 laps.

Rossi and Wickens can pass anyone, anytime, anywhere. These two continue to be the highlight of every race. Rossi had passed more than 50 cars halfway through the race. Wickens looked to have the fastest car of the night, but Ed Carpenter collided with him as Wickens tried to pass on the low side. I still think Wickens will catch a break and win a race this year. Hard to believe he hasn’t broken through yet.

Rossi apparently learned his lesson from Race 2 in Detroit as he conceded second to Pagenaud in the last few laps. Pagenaud came on strong after getting his last set of tires and Rossi’s car didn’t seem to work as well in the high groove as it did early in the race.

Tire wear seemed to affect the Penske cars more than it did the rest of the field.

The pack race many feared never developed. There was, however, some good close racing throughout the field.

Newgarden was the points leader after barber, but now is fifth in points with three finishes outside the top ten in the five races since May.

Good for Ed Carpenter and Will Power for admitting that their mistakes caused the crashes.

It was very cool to see Rossi go to Pagenaud after the race and shake his hand. That was a great battle for second.

Dixon, Power, and Newgarden have each won twice this year.

Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe, who finished fourth, both needed good results. They had been struggling this season.

Scott Dixon now has 43 victories and now is third on the all time list behind Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt. Enjoy watching this new legend race while you can. I think with another win or two this season, Dixon has a shot at passing Mario.

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Honda Sweeps Doubleheader; Race 2 and Weekend Thoughts

Above: Ryan Hunter-Reay just after taking the checkered flag to end his three year winless streak. Photo: Mike Silver

Another drought ended yesterday as Ryan Hunter-Reay chased down teammate Alexander Rossi, forced him to make a mistake, and won for the first time in 42 races. On Saturday, Marco Andretti ended his five year pole drought and Scott Dixon won his first race in nearly a year. Honda won both poles and both races in the home games for Chevy in Detroit.

Unlike Saturday, drama started in turn 3 of the first parade lap, when GM Vice President Mark Reuss spun the Corvette ZR-1, slammed head first into the wall, and bounced back in front of the field. Pole sitter Rossi was the only car able to get past wounded pace car. The others later returned to pit lane after the car was cleared. Rene Binder stalled the engine and needed a tow back to the pits. After a 30 minute delay, Oriol Servia, in a backup pace car, led the field to the green flag.

Sunday’s race looked a lot like Saturday’s event. teams used  different pit strategies with some cars opting for a three stop race. Ryan Hunter-Reay was one of the first to pit. meanwhile, Rossi was running away from the field. Rossi and Hunter-Reay exchanged the lead on pit stops. Rossi, on a two stop schedule, took the lead when Hunter-Reay pitted on lap 53. A 63. second stop put the deficit to Rossi at 10 seconds. Hunter-Reay’s DHL car had a lot of speed on fresher tires. Rossi had made his last stop six laps earlier. The lead gap slowly closed until on lap 64, Rossi missed the turn with a huge brake lockup. Hunter-Reay zipped past and took the checkered first. Rossi shredded a tire and after a quick replacement, he ended up twelfth. The mistake not only cost Rossi the victory, it also cost him the point lead that he had just gained on Saturday. Rossi is now third in points behind Will Power and Scott Dixon.

Overall, Sunday’s race was a better than average Detroit race. There were battles for position throughout the field and a fight for the win at the end. Belle Isle will return to the schedule next year.

Notes

I hope Sunday’s pace car incident leads to the end of celebrity pace car drivers. While Reuss does have experience driving high performance cars, he does not drive professionally. The drivers in this series deserve professional in all phases of the race. I have opposed this practice for a long time. I feel the same way about celebrity flag wavers. Professionals should controla race from the command to start engines on.

Sunday changed my mind about the new car racing at Detroit. It was amuch more competitive show than Saturday. This package needs a little tweaking. Texas next weekend will show how much adjusting needs to be done.

Zak Brown, principal at McLaren, and Gil De Ferran were at Belle Isle this weekend talking to teams about entering the season next year. DeFerran is helping facilitate McLaren’s entry into the series. Nothing has been confirmed.

Will Power’s runner-up finish yesterday was the only Chevy on the podium all weekend. Andretti had three of the six spots and Ganassi had two.

ABC/ESPN televised its final Indycar race for the foreseeable future. NBC Sports takes over television duties next weekend at Texas and all of the next three years. ABC at one time was the go to network for Indycar, but at the corporate level seemed to have had a waning interest in the sport the last few years. I appreciate the hard work of all the people I’ve met who work for ABC and hope many can catch on with NBC next year.  Some great people may not be back next year.

What is the Ceiling for Dixon?

Now that Scott Dixon has tied Michael Andretti with 42 career wins, how many more can he get before he retires? Someone asked me Saturday if I thought he could get to 50. I think that may be a stretch given his age and how difficult it is to win in today’s Indycar series. On the other hand, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that he can reach the 50 mark.

Bump Tales- Marlboro Snuffed; Team Penske Fails to Qualify

Nothing at the Indianapolis Motor4 Speedway is a given. A car, a team, or a driver cannot be penciled into the starting lineup because they just happen to be at the track in May. This point was never driven home as hard as it was in 1995 when Team Penske, winners of the previous two 500s and three of the previous four, failed to make the field for the 79th running of the Indianapolis 500.  Penske came to Indianapolis with a new chassis. The car was a handful from the first practice day. A switch to a Lola or Reynard chassis didn’t help.

The powerful Mercedes-Ilmor pushrod engine that dominated the field in 1994 was not available by rule. The engine wasn’t the issue, however. The car had handling issues. It couldn’t get through the turns well. By the first qualifying weekend, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, winners of the last two 500s, were running 10 mph slower than eventual pole sitter Scott Brayton. Penske hoped they could find a solution in the week following pole weekend and get the cars in the field on the second weekend. Pole weekend 1995  was the first time Team Penske did not qualify at least one car on opening weekend.

Bump Day arrived and still neither car had qualified. Bump Days during the era of two qualifying weekend followed an unwritten schedule. If the field hadn’t been filled by then, a handful of cars would go out early to grab the few reamaining slots. If weather interfered later in the day, those cars were guaranteed a spot in the race. Then, several hours of open track for practice occurred. No one seriously thought about qualifying until after 4 pm, when a cooling shadow appeared on the front straight.  1995 stuck to the pattern.

The day before, Fittipaldi made an attempt to qualify. He was averaging 225.5 but the crew waved off the run. It was a speed that would have put him in row 10. Unser, Jr. did not come close to a  speed that would get him in the field. The team put all their hopes into the final two hours of qualifying.

At 5:20 pm Fittipaldi completed a run at 224. 907 which placed him insecurely on the grid. With 12 minutes left in qualifying, Stefan Johanssen bumped Fittipaldi and Team Penske from the field of 33 for the 1995 race. The team that dominated the previous year did not come close to getting in the race.

To his credit, and one thing I have always respected Roger Penske for, he did not try to buy qualified cars to put his drivers in the race. Other owners have done that in this situation, as recently as 2011, when Michael Andretti bought one of A. J. Foyt’s qualified entries for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Unser, Jr. was the first active defending champion to not make the race. It would be the first 500 without an Unser in the field since 1962. He and Bobby Rahal are the only defending series champions to fail to qualify. Rahal’s bump story is coming next week in this space.

Following the 1995 season, Tony George formed the IRL, which precipitated a 12 year war with CART. The competing open wheel series hurt the sport. It is slowly recovering, but will likely never regain the prominence it once held. Penske opted to stay in CART and didn’t return to IMS until 2001. His team won three consecutive races and his team has since won three more. Team Penske’s most recent victory was in 2015 with Juan Pablo Montoya.

As bizzare as qualifying was, the 1995 race was one of the strangest I’ve seen. It seemed as if every driver who led crashed. The strangest crash was Jimmy Vasser, who loked to be in complete control, crashed trying to pass a lapped car. Scott Goodyear took command and was well on his way to victory. On a restart with about 10 laps to go, Goodyear passed the pace car, which had not yet left the track. He ignored the black flag. Officials stopped scoring Goodyear’s laps after lap 195. Jacques Villeneuve, who had received a two lap penalty earlier in the day, inherited the lead and the win. Villeneuve drove 505 miles to win the 500.

Next week on Bump Tales, stories of two former winners who failed to qualify in different years.  Look for my Indycar Grand Prix stories Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

 

Fearless (and mostly wrong) Predictions for 2018

Please remember to check out my new column on wildfireadiosports.com tomorrow morning.  I will be posting there most Fridays and maintaining this blog on either Tuesday or Thursday. The post should be up between 6-6:30 am. I have some track to get to.

The IndyCar season is finally here. It has been one of the busiest off seasons in a long time. It was great to see all the positive news, but it doesn’t replace seeing cars on track. We get some answers this weekend to some questions that remain: How will the new aero package race? Will there be more passing? Can a smaller team fight for the title? Will the longer braking zones make racing better? We should know the answer by turn 1 Sunday.

Here are my predictions for the season, subject to change of course.

St. Pete- Graham Rahal

Indianapolis 500- Will Power

IndyCar season champion- Alexander Rossi

Rookie of the year- Zach Veach

Number of race winners- 10

. Back tomorrow with a qualifying summary. Enjoy the race. It’s great to have IndyCar back.