Saturday, July 4, 2020

First Impressions: Seventh Grand Prix of Indianapolis

1. In case you were dismissing the idea Scott Dixon locked up the title with his Texas victory, take today's victory as exhibit B in Dixon's favor.

It is not just Dixon but the entire team. The team nailed the strategy today, starting on the primary tire and committing to a three-stop strategy off the crack of the bat. It had the driver that could execute the strategy to perfection.

Dixon had the pace from the start. He made up ground on the first stint and he was in the right place when the caution came out for Oliver Askew's accident in the final corner. Dixon had his second stop in the bag while other three-stoppers, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Jack Harvey, were caught out. Dixon took the lead of that pack but was still fourth because of the two-stoppers.

Many drivers would get stuck in traffic, lose some time and settled for a third or fourth-place finish. Dixon carved up the cars ahead of him. With Graham Rahal on the slower primary tires, Dixon closed in and was setting up to take the lead on the track before Rahal could make his final stop. Dixon did just that and immediately opened the lead to two seconds and then he added another two seconds and another two seconds and the race was over at that point.

Rahal had to keep the lead before his final stop, but his tires were gone before completing the stint. Once Rahal lost the lead, he could not stay glued to Dixon. The race was over with 27 laps to go.

It was not a surprise. Dixon does not struggle with traffic. He wasn't going to let two-stoppers slow him down. He had a clean shot at Rahal and took it. None of the other three-stoppers could counter. Colton Herta restarted behind Dixon but could not carve through traffic in the same way.

It was Dixon's race for the taking and now he has two victories from two races. Since the creation of USAC in 1956, ten times has a driver opened the season winning consecutive races. In seven of those ten occasions that driver won the championship.

Dixon has got this in the bag. Stay tuned if you want to see Dixon overtake Mario Andretti for second all-time in IndyCar victories and pick up his sixth title, putting him one behind A.J. Foyt's record. There has been plenty of history made in 2020. Dixon will look to make some on the racetrack.

2. Graham Rahal deserves some praise because he tried the two-stop strategy and it mostly worked. If Askew doesn't have his accident, Rahal might have pulled out the victory. He looked good on the first stint and ran competitive lap times all the way through. I think the unhindered two-stop strategy could have worked for Rahal, but that one caution negated what would have been in Rahal's favor, time. He lost the gap he would have had on track after all the three-stoppers made their second stops. Add to it that the primary tires were junk for the entire stint. The primary tire did not come to life while the alternate fell off. Second is still a great result for Rahal and the next two races are at Road America, a place Rahal has a fondness for.

3. How the hell did Simon Pagenaud pull off third from 20th on the grid? Answer: The #22 Menards Chevrolet of Team Penske has some of the best engineers and strategists in the business. Kudos to Ben Bretzman, because this team used similar tactics in the iRacing events held during the lockdown from March to May. This was the simulated world coming to life. Add to it Pagenaud is one of the smoothest drivers in IndyCar.

Pagenaud and Bretzman are pretty close to the Dixon, Mike Cannon, Mike Hull combination. Through two races, the only one keeping up with Dixon is Pagenaud and this fight might carry through to the end of October.

4. Colton Herta was fourth and a distant fourth. Herta could not keep up with Dixon when in traffic and Pagenaud leapfrogged him on the final stops. It is still a good run but Herta was in the distance today. It is not a bad result and it is one to build off of.

5. After the beating Rinus VeeKay took at Texas, the first driver to commit to the three-stop strategy pulled out a top five in his second start. Great bounce back for VeeKay and the Ed Carpenter Racing team.

6. Silently, Marcus Ericsson pulled out a sixth-place finish, and I can say is he played the three-stop strategy right. He didn't put his nose into any trouble and didn't make any mistakes. Good for Ericsson.

7. Josef Newgarden got caught out when the Askew caution came out. Newgarden was the second-best of the three-stoppers up to that point. This could have been a top five finish if it weren't for that caution. It is Newgarden's first top ten finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He had to start somewhere.

8. Patricio O'Ward drove smart and got an eighth-place finish. Not much more could be say about his day.

9. This race was nearly a disaster for Santino Ferrucci. Ferrucci committed to the two-stop strategy but he had a problem getting his right rear tire on during his first stop. It cost him significant time, but the Askew caution neutralized that penalty and it allowed him to get a top ten. A few retirements also played into Ferrucci's failure, but if this race had gone caution-free, even with those retirements I think Ferrucci ends up outside the top fifteen.

10. I have no clue how Takuma Sato was tenth. He was not mentioned once and never factored into this one.

11. Quickly through the rest of the field: James Hinchcliffe was 11th, which is good but not great. Conor Daly was a two-stopper, and he could have been in position for a top five finish, but he did not have the pace after the caution and lost a lot of ground. Ryan Hunter-Reay was one of the last to commit to the three-stop strategy, but he had already lost a lot of time. The best he was going to pull out was 13th. Zach Veach had a late off drop him to 14th. Felix Rosenqvist was lost today and ended up 15th, not great when his teammates were first and sixth. Max Chilton was 16th, which is about right for him.

12. Jack Harvey appeared to be a podium contender or at least be in position for a top five. The Askew caution shuffled him back and he did not have the pace in traffic. Harvey ended up 17th but this could have been better.

13. A.J. Foyt Racing might have the ovals figured out, but it has some work to do on road courses. Charlie Kimball was 18th and Dalton Kellett was 21st. There is not much expectations for Kellett but after the speed Kimball showed at Texas, I bet he thought he would be more competitive.

14. Álex Palou didn't appear to do anything wrong but he was 19th. Palou did get an avoidable contact penalty, but what happened was no shown. Not a great day for Marco Andretti and Sage Karam.

15. The untimely Askew caution hurt Will Power enough, dropping him from fighting for a podium position to outside the top ten. It appeared he would get back into the fight at the front until Power stalled on his final stop and ended up 20th after what could have been a top five finish.

While Power stalled, Alexander Rossi suffered fuel pressure issues all day. It delayed Rossi's participation in the warm-up but the problem was fixed and the car was quick. Rossi was on VeeKay's heels coming to the restart and then the car coughed, and his race was over at halfway. Rossi's 43 consecutive finishes comes to an end and he has a lot of work to do after mechanical issues cost him at Texas. Rossi needs a massive rebound.

At least Rossi wasn't the only Honda driver to suffer mechanical issues. Spencer Pigot was losing the engine while in third. Pigot might have been able to pull out a podium or at least a top five finish, but instead he dropped down the order and he dropped out of the race with six laps to go. Pigot was stout all weekend and that is an encouraging sign for when he returns to the track for Indianapolis 500 practice.

16. Oliver Askew led Arrow McLaren SP all weekend. It was one moment exiting the final corner that washed that out. He had a wiggle, overcorrected a tad and ended up in the barrier. This is his first setback, hopefully he can put it behind him, and he can keep up his speed for the rest of the year.

17. This was the first IndyCar/NASCAR combined weekend, though it really wasn't. There had been plenty of IndyCar/Truck weekends before this and this was the first time one of the top two NASCAR national series were with IndyCar, but it was pseudo-combination weekend.

With the pandemic, it was not going to be the massive cross-pollination of drivers mingling as we expected, the Cup cars and IndyCar didn't share the facility on the same day. There were no spectators on hand. It was a convenient weekend to make up the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

The one enticing thing about an IndyCar/NASCAR weekend is seeing an IndyCar session with a Cup session following. It is about walking down one side of the garage area seeing Joe Gibbs Racing tweak its race cars and then going around to the other side and seeing Team Penske's three IndyCars resting in the garage. If any future IndyCar/NASCAR combined weekends see IndyCar practice, qualifying and race before a Cup car hits the track then it is not worth it. That was the initial plan for this weekend. Cup was not going to hit the track until after the Grand National Series road course. If you are not going to see both series on the same day or have to wait four hours, then it is not worth it.

In this soft trial, things worked well. IndyCar didn't have any issues and the NASCAR Grand National Series didn't have any issues. The extra curbing for the NASCAR race could wait to be put in until after the IndyCar festivities were complete. I think a road course will always work better than an oval. One, there is less of a worry about weather delaying sessions and causing battles over track time. Two, different tire brands don't cause nearly as many problems on a road course. On an oval, it can make the track one-lane only, but on a road courses, different tires don't completely ruin the racing line. You just drive through it and make it work.

IndyCar hasn't had problems with IMSA and Pirelli World Challenge before, it wasn't going to have a problem with NASCAR and maybe this is how IndyCar gets back to Watkins Glen. We can talk about future combined weekends down the road.

18. This is the start of the gauntlet. Next week there are two races at Road America and a week after that there are two races in Iowa. IndyCar was gone for a while and then had a month off between rounds. Now, we have five races in 15 days. With a reduced calendar, we are going to be in the middle of the calendar in a blink. This season is going to fly by, and the championship picture will be clear in quick time.

Morning Warm-Up: Seventh Grand Prix of Indianapolis

Will Power looks for a record fourth Grand Prix of Indianapolis victory
Will Power picked up his 58th career pole position with a lap of 70.1779 seconds in qualifying for the seventh Grand Prix of Indianapolis and this pole position comes at Roger Penske's first race as the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Power sits nine pole positions behind Mario Andretti's all-time record. This is Power's fourth Grand Prix of Indianapolis pole position. He won each of the previous three times he has started on pole position. In his three prior victories he led 65 laps, 61 laps and 56 laps. He has won from pole position 16 times in his IndyCar career, tied for fourth all-time with Bobby Unser. Only Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Sébastien Bourdais has won more from pole position. This is one of four tracks where Power has three victories. The other tracks are Pocono, São Paulo and Sonoma. Power could become the 13th competitor to win five races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Current competitors with five victories at the track are Arthur Greiner, Howdy Wilcox, Michael Schumacher, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Marc Márquez.

Jack Harvey started and finished third in last year's Grand Prix of Indianapolis and this year Harvey will start a position better in second. Harvey fell 0.1874 seconds behind Power's fastest lap in the final round of qualifying. Harvey's average running position in this race last year was 4.635 and he spent 54 of 85 laps in one of the top three positions. Despite how well he ran last year, Harvey did not lead a lap and he has yet to lead a lap in his IndyCar career. This will be Harvey's 21st IndyCar start. Only two drivers have won their first career race in their 21st career start. Bobby Olivero did so at Springfield in a USAC Gold Crown race on August 14, 1982. Robbie Buhl did it at Loudon on August 17, 1997.

Colton Herta and Graham Rahal set up an all-American row two for this Independence Day race. Herta enters off the back of four consecutive top ten finishes and seven top ten finishes in his last nine starts. Last year, Herta made it out of the first round of qualifying on nine of ten occasions and he made it to the Fast Six on five occasions. He has qualified on one of the first two races in eight of his 21 IndyCar races. This is Rahal's best Grand Prix of Indianapolis starting position. Rahal has finished in the top ten of the second race of the season for the last five seasons. His first career victory was in the second race of the 2008 season at St. Petersburg, but it was Rahal's first start of that season. He missed the Homestead season opener after a practice accident totaled his car, forcing his withdrawal from the event. Bobby Rahal won on Independence Day in 1982.

Oliver Askew will start fifth in his second career start. Next to Askew will be fellow past Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden. Askew scored a ninth-place finish on debut last time out at Texas. He became the first American driver to pick up a top ten finish for Arrow McLaren SP/Schmidt Peterson Motorsports since Conor Daly was sixth at the second Belle Isle race in 2015. Eighteen drivers have won their first career race in their second career start. The last driver to do so was Jim Clark at Milwaukee on August 18, 1963. Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden has finished on the podium in the second race of the season every year. He was third at Long Beach in 2017, won the Phoenix race in 2018 and was second last year at Circuit of the Americas. Newgarden has never finished in the top ten at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Scott Dixon missed out on the Fast Six by 0.0570 second and Dixon will start seventh. Dixon is looking to become the first driver to win the first two races to start a season since Will Power did it in 2010. Since 1956, a driver has opened the season with consecutive victories on ten occasions. On seven of those ten occasions, the driver who opened the season with consecutive victories went on to win the championship. Conor Daly will make his debut with Ed Carpenter Racing in the #20 Air Force Chevrolet from eighth on the grid. This is Daly's second-best starting position in his IndyCar career. He started seventh at Toronto in 2016. Daly was sixth at Texas driving for Carlin in the #59 Chevrolet. Daly will run all the road and street course, as well as the Indianapolis 500, for Ed Carpenter Racing while running the other four oval races for Carlin. This will be the sixth different team Daly has driven for in his IndyCar career and this will be the 11th different number Daly has used in his first 52 IndyCar starts.

For the second consecutive race, Felix Rosenqvist starts ninth. Rosenqvist enters the Grand Prix of Indianapolis with four consecutive top five finishes on road/street courses and six consecutive top ten finishes on road/street courses. Last year, Rosenqvist picked up ten top ten finishes from 12 road/street course races. Max Chilton's 2020 debut will come from tenth position, the same starting position he had for the 2019 finale at Laguna Seca. This is Chilton's best starting position on this track. Chilton will run all the road and street courses and the Indianapolis 500 in the #59 Chevrolet. Chilton has not had a top ten finish in his last 30 starts. His last top ten finish was eighth at Watkins Glen in 2018.

Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay form an all-Andretti Autosport row six. Rossi has not led a lap in his last eight starts and he has only led two laps at the IMS road course in four starts. The only tracks where Rossi has led fewer laps are Phoenix, where he led one lap, and Austin, Toronto, Sonoma and Laguna Seca, where he has yet to lead a lap. He has only one start at Austin and Laguna Seca, as both those tracks were new to the 2019 schedule. The only time Rossi has won from outside the top ten was the 2016 Indianapolis 500, which he won from 11th on the grid. Hunter-Reay attempts to tie Jimmy Vasser for the fourth longest consecutive start streak at 211 races. This streaks dates back to 2007 at Mid-Ohio when he drove for Rahal Letterman Racing, replacing Jeff Simmons. During this streak he has driven for Rahal Letterman Racing, Vision Racing, A.J. Foyt Racing and Andretti Autosport. His last 131 starts have come with Andretti Autosport and 152 of his 210 consecutive starts have come with Andretti Autosport.

Patricio O'Ward will start 13th. O'Ward picked up fastest lap in last year's Grand Prix of Indianapolis. In the previous six Grand Prix of Indianapolis, there have been five different drivers to pick up fastest lap. The only driver with multiple fastest laps is Scott Dixon, who picked up fastest lap in 2014 and 2018. Only twice has the driver who picked up fastest lap in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis finished in the top ten. Alexander Rossi was tenth in 2016 and Dixon was runner-up in 2018. Marcus Ericsson missed out on advancing to round two by 0.0340 seconds from group two and joins O'Ward on row seven. Ericsson started 11th in last year's Grand Prix of Indianapolis before spinning out on lap 11 in the final corner. That left Ericsson with a 24th place finish, the worst finish of his IndyCar career to date.

Santino Ferrucci qualified on the inside of row eighth. Ferrucci was tenth in this race last year. His average finish in road/street course events is 16.25 in 16 starts with his best road/street course finish being ninth. In those 16 starts, Ferrucci has been the top Dale Coyne Racing finisher three times. Spencer Pigot was strong in practice but finds himself 16th on the grid. Pigot did finish fifth in last year's Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Pigot has never finished in the top ten in his first start of the season. This will be Pigot's first start in a Honda since the 2016 Indianapolis 500. He had made 53 consecutive starts with Chevrolet-powered cars. Pigot will be the first driver to use car #45 in a IndyCar race since J.J. Yeley at Loudon on June 28, 1998.

Takuma Sato looks to make his first start of 2020 from 17th on the grid. Sato has never led a lap on the IMS road course. The only track where Sato has more starts and has not led a lap is Mid-Ohio, where he has ten starts. After failing to make a qualifying run at Texas, Rinus VeeKay was successful on the IMS road course and ended up 18th. VeeKay will become the first Dutch driver to race in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Last year, Ed Carpenter Racing had both cars finish in the top ten. It was the first double top ten finish for the team since Iowa 2018, but it was the team's first on a road/street course since Mid-Ohio 2016. Ed Carpenter Racing has had at least one top ten finisher in six of the last seven races.

James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud share row ten. Since finishing third last year at Iowa, Hinchcliffe has one top ten finish in his last six starts with an average finish of 16.833 over that time. He has not had a top five finish on a road/street course since he finished fourth at Toronto in 2018. Simon Pagenaud had started in the top eight in every Grand Prix of Indianapolis up to this point. This is Pagenaud's worst starting position since he started 22nd at Austin last year. Like Power, Pageanud could become the 13th competitor to win five races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Álex Palou rolls off from 21st. Palou will become the second Spaniard to start the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Oriol Servià started the 2014 race driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Servià led seven laps and finished 12th from 22nd on the grid. Zach Veach ended up 22nd in qualifying. Veach had started 20th in his first two starts in this race. The Ohioan matched his best career finish in the last race. He was fourth at Texas, his best oval finish and his third top five finish in his IndyCar career. Veach's best finish at a natural-terrain road course was tenth at Mid-Ohio in 2018.

Sage Karam will make his Grand Prix of Indianapolis debut from 23rd position. Karam has three top ten finishes in 16 IndyCar starts. He was ninth on debut in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, fifth at Fontana in 2015 and third at Iowa in 2015. Karam's best finish on a road/street course was 12th in the second Belle Isle race in 2015. He has finished outside the top twenty in six of his last eight starts. Charlie Kimball ended up 24th on the grid. This is Kimball's third time starting on row 12 in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He was the fifth-place finisher in the first three Grand Prix of Indianapolis but finished 21st and 20th the next two years. Kimball did not compete in last year's race. Last year, A.J. Foyt Racing picked up its best finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis with Matheus Leist finishing fourth in the #4 Chevrolet. Kimball has not had a top five finish in his last 13 starts. He was fifth at Toronto in 2018.

Marco Andretti had an off on his final qualifying lap and he will have to start 25th, his worst starting position on this course. Last year, Andretti's only top ten finish on a natural-terrain road course was sixth at Austin, which was the second race of the 2019 season. Dalton Kellett rounds out the final row. Kellett will become the second driver to make an IndyCar debut in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Matthew Brabham was the first driver to do so when he drove the #61 Chevrolet for Pirtek Team Murray. Brabham was 16th on his debut. Kellett is the third Canadian to drive for A.J. Foyt Racing. Paul Tracy drove for the team at Milwaukee in 2009 and finished 17th. Alex Tagliani made three starts for the team with 17th place finishes in the 2015 and 2016 Indianapolis 500 and he was 23rd in the 2016 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

NBC's coverage of the seventh Grand Prix of Indianapolis begins at 12:00 p.m. ET on Saturday July 4 with green flag scheduled for 12:08 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 80 laps.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Track Walk: Seventh Grand Prix of Indianapolis

A record entry list is ready for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis
The second round of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season will be the seventh Grand Prix of Indianapolis, otherwise known as the GMR Grand Prix for sponsorship reasons. For the first time in a decade, IndyCar will be racing on July 4 and it will be the first time in 110 years Indianapolis Motor Speedway is hosting an IndyCar race on Independence Day. Not only is this year different, as the Grand Prix of Indianapolis has been moved from the middle of May, but this race happens concurrently with the NASCAR weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The NASCAR Xfinity Series will run a 150-mile race after the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course and the Brickyard 400 will happen the following day on July 5, on the oval.

Time: Coverage begins at 12:00 p.m. ET on Saturday July 4 with green flag scheduled for 12:08 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Marty Snider and Dave Burns will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule 
First Practice: 11:30 a.m. ET (90 minutes)*
Qualifying: 4:30 p.m. ET (Live coverage on NBCSN)
Warm-Up: 9:00 a.m. ET (30 minutes)*
Race: 12:08 p.m. ET (80 laps)

* - All practice and qualifying sessions are available live with the NBC Sports Gold IndyCar pass.

Penske's First Home Race
This will be the first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Roger Penske's Penske Entertainment Group purchased the facility and the IndyCar Series from Hulman & Co. last November. What has been jokingly known as Penske's backyard after all his team's success at the facility is now legally his.

Penske's first home race comes in the form of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a race Team Penske has won the last five years.

Simon Pagenaud picked up his third Grand Prix of Indianapolis victory last year after a breathtaking drive in the wet that saw him charge to the lead with just over two laps to go. Pagenaud's final pass came on Scott Dixon in turn nine, a place no one would fathom to make a move in the dry. Prior to that point in the race, Team Penske had led 23 laps with Josef Newgarden having led 20 before putting on slicks before the rain started to fall forced him to back another pit stop and knocked him to the back of field. Pagenaud led three laps under caution before that final restart.

Pagenaud is tied with Will Power for most Grand Prix of Indianapolis victories. Pagenaud and Power are the only two drivers to win the race, each sitting on three victories. Power does boast the better average finish at 6.2 with three victories and five top ten finishes. Every time Power has led the race, he has won it and he has won all three times from pole position. In the three races Power did not start on pole position, he finished worse than his starting position.

Pagenaud's average finish is only a half position worse than Power's at 6.7 and, outside of a retirement in 2015 due to a gearbox problem, Pagenaud has five top ten finishes and he has never started worse than eighth in this race. In fact, last year, Pagenaud won from eighth, the worst starting position for a Grand Prix of Indianapolis winner.

While Pagenaud and Power have outstanding track records in this race, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is historically one of Josef Newgarden's worst events.

Newgarden has never finished in the top ten in this race. His best finish was 11th in 2017 and 2018. Those are the only two years he started in the top ten. Last year, he led 20 laps from 13th on the grid. In his prior five Grand Prix of Indianapolis starts, he led one lap. In terms of average finish, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is tied with the Indianapolis 500 for Newgarden's worst average finish among active tracks at 15.8.

Heading into Indianapolis, Pagenaud leads the way sitting second in the championship on 40 points. Newgarden is three points behind Pagenaud after starting on pole position at Texas and leading 41 laps. Power is 13th in the championship on 17 points. This is the lowest Power has been in the championship since he was 14th after Phoenix in 2018. Meanwhile, Newgarden has been in the top five of the championship for 34 consecutive races and he has been in the top ten of the championship for 46 consecutive races. Newgarden has never been outside the top ten of the championship as a Penske driver. Pagenaud has been in the top four of the championship since his Grand Prix of Indianapolis victory last year.

New Ironman
With Tony Kanaan stepping aside, his consecutive start streak ends at 318 consecutive races and the new active leader in consecutive starts will be the IndyCar championship leader, Scott Dixon.

Dixon will attempt to make his 260th consecutive start this weekend, the second longest behind only Kanaan's streak. Dixon will do whilst leading the championship, sitting on 53 points after a dominating night in Texas a month ago. Dixon has never started a season with consecutive victories and only twice in his career has he started with consecutive podium finishes (2007 and 2012). The last time Dixon won consecutive races was when he won three-consecutive in 2013, taking victory at Pocono and sweeping the Toronto doubleheader.

Dixon has finished runner-up in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis the last three years. Last year's 39 laps led were the first time he led the race since he led one lap in 2015 during pit cycle. He has started in the top ten in all but one Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and that was when he started 18th in 2018.

The last race Dixon missed was the 2004 Milwaukee IRL race after a pair of accidents in practice and qualifying left him with a chipped bone in his right hand and an ankle sprain.

Two other notable active consecutive start streaks belong to Andretti Autosport drivers.

Marco Andretti has the third longest streak in IndyCar history at 235 consecutive starts. Andretti has not missed a race in his IndyCar career. His streak dates back to his debut at Homestead in 2006. He has yet to start or finish in the top ten for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. His best starting position was 11th in 2017 and he has finished 13th the last two years, his best result. Despite lacking a positive finish, Andretti has completed 500 of 501 laps in the history of this event.

Ryan Hunter-Reay could tie Jimmy Vasser for fourth longest consecutive start streak at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Vasser sits on 211 consecutive starts, and that was the record before Kanaan surpassed him at Baltimore in 2013. Hunter-Reay clawed out an eighth-place finish at Texas despite the setback of an electrical glitch on the grid, which caused him to start at the rear of the field and did enforce a drive-through penalty. Hunter-Reay has been wishy-washy in this event. He was second in the inaugural running and he was third in 2017, but he has started outside the top ten on four occasions and he has finished 18th and 17th the last two years. He has not led in this race since the inaugural race in 2014.

Fighting From Behind
With a 14-race calendar versus a 17-race calendar, and the Indianapolis 500 being the only double points race, drivers who did not have the best night at Texas find themselves in a deeper hole than usual after the first race of the season.

The most notable name is Alexander Rossi, who is 15th in the championship, 38 points behind Dixon. Like Hunter-Reay, Rossi suffered the same electrical problem at the start of Texas and was handed the same penalties. Rossi added insult to injury with a pit lane speeding penalty when serving his drive-through. This forced another trip down pit lane and another lap lost. Rossi could not get back on the lead lap.

For the first time since after Phoenix in 2017, Rossi finds himself outside the top ten in the championship. He has also not led a lap in the last eight races. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis has not been Rossi's greatest race. He has never started better than eighth, but he did have three consecutive top ten finishes prior to last year, with his best result being fifth. Rossi has finished outside the top ten in three of his last five starts after having 19 top ten finishes in the prior 20 races.

Graham Rahal was another Honda driver to suffered glitches on the grid in Texas and it set Rahal just as far behind as Rossi. Rahal is 17th in the championship, 40 points off Dixon, and Rahal is burrowed in a rut. He has finished outside the top ten in the last four races. His last top five finish was fourth at Road America last year and his last podium finish was third at Texas last year.

In the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Rahal has five consecutive top ten finishes, but his finishing position has been declining each year. He was runner-up to Power in 2015 but he has finished fourth, sixth, sixth and ninth since. Last year, he did start seventh, his best start on the IMS road course.

Felix Rosenqvist was the second-best car of the night at Texas until he was caught in lapped traffic and a desperate move to get around James Hinchcliffe in turn two sent Rosenqvist into the wall. Instead of entering Indianapolis second in the championship on 40 points, Rosenqvist is 20th on ten points.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was a site of Rosenqvist's first IndyCar pole position last year, but he faded in the race, finishing eighth after leading 15 laps.

Takuma Sato had made 169 consecutive starts entering Texas, the eighth longest streak in IndyCar history, but for the first time in Sato's IndyCar career he was not on the grid after his qualifying accident. With Sato back at zero, he will have to fight from 24th in the championship on six points. He has finished eighth, 12th and ninth in the championship the last three seasons and 24th is his worst championship position since he was 24th after Barber in 2010, his third IndyCar start.

Sato has never started in the top ten for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but he has started 11th the last two years. He was the ninth-place finisher in the first two editions of this race, but he has yet to improve on that result.

Holiday Guests
With this being the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, a few more entries have been attracted for this holiday race. This will be the largest Grand Prix of Indianapolis with 26 entries.

James Hinchcliffe is back for his second start of 2020. Like Texas, Hinchcliffe will be in the #29 Gensys Honda for Andretti Autosport. Hinchcliffe was 18th at the season opener. He drove for Andretti Autosport in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but his race ended early after a piece of debris hit him in the head, knocking him out of the race on lap 57. His best Grand Prix of Indianapolis finish was third in 2016.

Sage Karam returns to the grid with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the #24 Wix Filters Chevrolet. This is Karam's first race since driving for Carlin at Iowa last year and this is D&R's first race that wasn't the Indianapolis 500 since São Paulo 2013. Oriol Servià drove to a fourth-place finish that day.

This will be Karam's Grand Prix of Indianapolis debut and his first IndyCar race on a natural-terrain road course since Mid-Ohio 2015. Karam's only race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was the 2014 IMSA race, the Brickyard Grand Prix. Karam was runner-up with Scott Pruett driving for Chip Ganassi Racing behind the #5 Action Express Racing entry of Christian Fittipaldi and João Barbosa.

Spencer Pigot will drive the #45 Shield Cleansers/Mi-Jack Honda for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Citrone/Buhl Autosport partnership. Pigot made his first three IndyCar starts with RLLR in 2016, which included the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He was 11th that day and since he has finished in the top ten in two of his last three Grand Prix of Indianapolis starts. He picked up a fifth-place finish last year, his best result at this race. Pigot has completed 337 of 337 laps in his four Grand Prix of Indianapolis starts.

Rookie Rebound
While Oliver Askew had an encouraging IndyCar debut at Texas with a ninth-place finish, two of the other rookies are hoping things only go up in their second starts.

Rinus VeeKay spun after getting high in turn two, and VeeKay collided with the innocent bystander, and fellow debutant, Álex Palou, who had exited pit lane after making his first pit stop. Both cars were out of the race after 36 laps.

Race aside, VeeKay had a rough day at Texas. The Dutchman completed only 11 laps in practice before he spun in turn four after clipping the apron. This kept him from making a qualifying run and forced him to start at the rear of the field.

Palou had a positive debut weekend. He was the quickest rookie in practice and qualifying and he was faster than his Dale Coyne Racing teammate Santino Ferrucci by just under two-tenths of a second.

Askew and VeeKay have both made six Road to Indy starts at the IMS road course. Askew swept the 2017 U.S. F2000 races, finished second and fourth in Pro Mazda and second and third in Indy Lights. VeeKay was sixth and second in U.S. F2000, third and 14th in Pro Mazda and third and first in Indy Lights, with his victory coming from pole position.

Dalton Kellett will make his IndyCar debut this weekend in the #14 K-Line Insulators Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing. Kellett is scheduled to drive eight races this season for A.J. Foyt Racing, seven will be in the #14 Chevrolet with Kellett shifting over to an additional entry for the Indianapolis 500. The Canadian made 126 starts in the Road to Indy from 2012 to 2019. In his Indy Lights career, Kellett scored zero victories, eight podium finishes and 16 top five finishes. He did make 13 starts on the IMS road course across the three Road to Indy Series. His best finish at the track was in his first start at the track, fourth in the first Pro Mazda race in 2014.

Fast Facts
This will be the 54th IndyCar race to take place on July 4 and the first since 2010, when Will Power won at Watkins Glen.

The previous two July 4 races were in 1982, the inaugural Grand Prix of Cleveland, which Bobby Rahal won, and in 2004 at Kansas, which Buddy Rice won driving for Rahal Letterman Racing.

There has been an IndyCar race held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On July 4, 1910, Joe Dawson won the Cobe Trophy Race, an 80-lap, 200-mile race around the 2.5-mile oval. Bob Burman was second with Ray Harroun in third.

Last year, Simon Pagenaud became the second consecutive driver to win the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 in the same year. Will Power did it the year prior.

Last year, Pagenaud became the sixth driver to win on both the oval and road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, joining Alex Lloyd, Jack Harvey, Dean Stoneman, Colton Herta and Power.

Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato and Oliver Askew could all become the seventh driver to win on both the oval and road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Marco Andretti, Newgarden, Herta, Harvey, and Askew could become the first driver to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indy Lights and IndyCar.

Honda has not won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis since the inaugural race when Simon Pagenaud won driving for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports.

The driver who has led the most laps has won four of six Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The exceptions are Pagenaud in 2014, who led six laps, and Pagenaud in 2019, who led five laps.

One of the top five finishers has started outside the top fifteen in every Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

The average starting position for a Grand Prix of Indianapolis winner is 2.667 with a median of one.

The average number of lead changes in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is 8.8333 with a median of 9.5.

Three Grand Prix of Indianapolis have had ten lead changes or more.

The average number of cautions in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is two with a median of two. The average number of caution laps is 8.5 with a median of nine.

The most cautions in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was four in 2014. The fewest was zero in 2017.

Four of the previous six Grand Prix of Indianapolis have had a caution on the first lap; all four of those have occurred between the starting line and turn two.

Possible Milestones:
Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead 55 laps to reach the 1,600 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead 24 laps to reach the 800 laps led milestone.

Graham Rahal needs to lead 12 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Alexander Rossi gets off the snide but has to fight off at least two Team Penske drivers. Josef Newgarden will finally get a top ten finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Felix Rosenqvist bounces back and finishes in the top five. Scott Dixon will also be in the top five. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has what the team would describe as a frustrating weekend. Álex Palou will be the top rookie and top Dale Coyne Racing driver. Rinus VeeKay completes more than 47 laps. Dalton Kellett will be the bottom of his qualifying group. Patricio O'Ward will not run into the back of another driver at the start. Jack Harvey will spend fewer laps running in the top three. There will not be a need for wet tires during the race. Sleeper: Charlie Kimball.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

This Month in Motorsports Headlines: June 2020

We are halfway through 2020. Six months down, six to go. We can't even pretend things are going well or have been all that rosy. After these first six months, I think we all can't imagine what is to come.

There are some headlines from this month. Once again, this is just for fun. In case you are new, this is my gut reaction to headlines without reading the article. Of course, the gripes I have may be answered in the article.

We are going to start with a hypothetical, but one that almost happened 20 years ago, and could have completely shifted the motorsports world as we know it...

Revealed: IndyCar's Predecessor Made Bid To Buy Formula One
CART almost bought Formula One about 20 years ago.

I thought about dedicating a post to this exclusively, looking at all the ramifications of what happened in the world of motorsports if this deal did happen and wonder where we would be today, but let's not get too deep into this. I think we can cover the basics here.

CART was public traded at the time, was still reasonably successful but didn't have the Indianapolis 500 and that absence was soon going to bring CART to its knees. Purchasing Formula One, however, could have entirely swung the tide of The Split.

I don't think Formula One and CART merge to form some super series. Even in the late 1990s, Formula One teams were outspending CART teams by a country-mile. Penske would be lucky to keep up with Jordan at that time let alone compete with Ferrari and McLaren. I think we see two complementary series. CART is still an American-based series and has a handful of oval races but there are a few CART/Formula One weekends around the globe. CART becomes a development outlet for Formula One drivers, and we see CART-developed talent on the radar for more Formula One teams.

This deal keeps the CART owners invested. If CART owned Formula One, is Roger Penske bolting for the IRL in 2002? No. Is Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti, Kim Green, Bobby Rahal and David Letterman following in 2003? No.

The pressure would have been on Tony George and the IRL. George would either have to concede and be absorbed into this global conglomerate for open-wheel racing or he would have had to ask for more fire power from Bill France and NASCAR and that second option is the scariest.

The simplest thought is CART purchases Formula One, George sees he has no hope of beating that, lays down, partners with this mega-entity, restores the Indianapolis 500 to its former glory but makes sure the top IRL teams get shares, are a part of the club, reap the benefits from being included and reunification happens about eight years sooner.

Or George does the opposite of that and the only party that could have fought a CART/Formula One behemoth would be NASCAR. The IRL becomes more like NASCAR, NASCAR maybe even takes over sanctioning the IRL. We see Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress enter cars, IRL races are run on Saturdays of NASCAR weekends at Atlanta, Rockingham, Loudon, Pocono and Darlington, Ford gets forced over to the IRL, taking away Cosworth from CART teams. Maybe NASCAR twists Fords arm and makes sure to withdraw Cosworth from Formula One, which only really prevents Jaguar from becoming a team, but that is a minor blow for Formula One.

I am not sure how a CART/Formula One vs. IRL/NASCAR war would have played out from 2000 to 2020. I feel both sides would have gotten further apart, both would have stuck to what they were doing, both would still be separate to this day, and the Indianapolis 500 would be worse off.

I think the Indianapolis 500 would have become an open-wheel NASCAR race. We would have seen NASCAR send Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Bobby and Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett to the Indianapolis 500 every year while Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon and John Andretti could go without any hiccups. I think NASCAR's goal would be to make the Indianapolis 500 a de facto NASCAR race and capitalize on making sure the Indianapolis 500 winner is a NASCAR driver. If a NASCAR driver enters and wins the Indianapolis 500 then it is clear NASCAR is the superior series, all these open-wheel drivers are second-class, and these fans would tune into NASCAR for the 51 weekends outside the Indianapolis 500.

Oh, and we definitely have guaranteed positions for the Indianapolis 500 if this happens. The field probably would have expanded to 40 cars or 43 cars at this time. Bumping is long gone, and NASCAR probably owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway instead. I think NASCAR would snuff out of the Hulman-George family. NASCAR would pay them handsomely to go away and the family would be taken care of for the next nine generations, but NASCAR takes over the property and controls the most notable motorsports event in the United States.

I think the IRL and the Indianapolis 500 become even more American, which some of you are probably thinking doesn't sound so bad, but I think we all know it would not be as good as what we have today. The Indianapolis 500 is taken hostage in this scenario. It is the one bargaining chip Tony George would have had and he wasn't going to give it to a CART/Formula One superpower. He would have gone to NASCAR to be his protector, but NASCAR would have taken everything away from him. NASCAR would see the power it would wield if it controlled the Indianapolis 500 and not think twice about seizing it.

From one hypothetical to another...

WRC wants to return to key markets United States and China
The World Rally Championship has not run in the United States since 1988 and has not run in China since 1999. Between the two countries, they have hosted a combined six WRC events. If these were such key markets, why hasn't WRC been to either in the 21st century?

There is no interest in the United States for a WRC event and when I say no interest, I mean WRC could come and run a rally in this country and not even myself would notice.

I enjoy the World Rally Championship. I enjoy rallying. There is something about a car flying through the forest that is exhilarating and respectable. It can be some of the most breath-taking scenes in motorsports, but I know the interest isn't here in the United States, at least for it not to make a difference.

I thought there was a window, maybe ten or 12 years ago for a WRC in this country, when Rally America was doing well, and Travis Pastrana was involved. I thought perhaps the Olympus Rally could be resurrected or one of these rallies in the Michigan woods could work.

The problem with any American rally is it would take place in the middle of nowhere and I don't think the WRC teams would be all that impressed. The middle of Pennsylvania or somewhere in Maine or Michigan isn't worth it for the teams to come over.

I did think there could possibly be a desert rally somewhere outside of Las Vegas and the super stage could be held downtown near the strip. That could be worth it for the teams and it could end the season. Who wouldn't want to end a season in Las Vegas? Even if it was run around Las Vegas, it would be another obscure event in a city of obscure events. There is not enough interest in this country that would bring all the American rally fans to Las Vegas to support the world championship.

Moving on to two-wheels...

Rossi "more beatable" the longer he stays in MotoGP - Stoner
Everyone gets more beatable the longer he or she stays in something. Valentino Rossi is no different. Casey Stoner is pointing out the obvious. We all know this.

For the final eight years of Richard Petty's career, he was pretty damn beatable. Same was true for A.J. Foyt and the final decade of his IndyCar career. Jimmie Johnson's last two-and-a-half seasons are not going out on the highest note, but very few drivers walk away from the mountaintop. Most keep going, thinking another title is in the cards, another dozen trophies will be added to the trophy case only to come far short.

It has been odd watching Rossi's last few seasons. It has been 11 years since his last championship, which I hadn't realized was that long ago. He was championship runner-up for three consecutive seasons, and he cost himself the 2015 championship. He was seven points ahead of Jorge Lorenzo entering the finale but had to start last after kicking Marc Márquez while passing him in the penultimate round in Sepang. Rossi went from 26th to fourth in the Valencia finale but Lorenzo won the race and took the title by five points over Rossi.

Rossi could have had another title. If he had won a title five years ago, he would not appear as beatable as he is now. Rossi does have a career that doesn't appear will die, same as Kimi Räikkönen. I don't know if we will see Rossi get that one final triumph. I feel Rossi's career should have a grand exit. It's not going to feel fitting if his final season is eighth in the championship with his best race finish being fourth. It will probably be better than that but not a championship.

Speaking of drivers who walked away while on the mountaintop...

Top 10 Moments of Nico Rosberg Brilliance
Are there ten moments of Nico Rosberg brilliance? I know he won the World Drivers' Championship, but not much brilliance stands out.

I will admit, his first victory at Shanghai in 2012 was pretty good. That came out of nowhere. Outside of that, I am lost. Rosberg had a lot of brain fades and it counterbalances the good. He ended the 2015 season with three consecutive victories from pole position, and that is notable because he did it after Lewis Hamilton clinched the championship, but those victories came after Rosberg gave away the championship at Austin when he went wide while leading with nine laps to go.

The other thing I have to give Rosberg credit for is finishing the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. For someone who had been close to bulletproof all season, Rosberg suffered an ERS failure during the finale when he had a shot at the title. The team wanted him to retire the car, but Rosberg wanted to finish the season on the track. I applauded it then and I applaud it now.

Rosberg won a world championship but the biggest two moments from his championship season is Rosberg colliding with his teammate Hamilton on lap one in Barcelona and Rosberg colliding with his teammate Hamilton on the final lap in Austria. That says a lot about a driver.

Top 10: George Russell's best drives ranked
Russell is 22 years old and has done one season in Formula One. Can we give him a little more time for his career to develop before we start doing top ten lists for him?

I know he won a GP3 championship and a Formula Two championship, but if you are using junior series events to complete a list of best drives, then the list should not be created in the first place. Give Russell some time before we start creating specific lists for his career.

I know the pandemic has created a lot of holes and there are gaps for stories and pieces, but let's not be this desperate and turn George Russell's infant career into some nostalgia piece. He isn't old enough to be nostalgic about yet.

I am calling it a wrap on this headline exercise for a little bit. I want to try something new in July with all these motorsports series returning. Headlines could return in the future, but for now, on to something completely different. Let's see how that goes in July.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Trying to Feel Happy

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin split the NASCAR Cup doubleheader from Pocono, but it would not be a NASCAR weekend in 2020 without a weather delay and we had a few. First, the Truck race was rained out from Saturday to Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. Second, the Cup race was delayed twice and did not end until the final rays of sunlight remained in the sky. Australia saw motorsports action return with Supercars at Sydney Motorsports Park behind closed doors. Elsewhere, Formula One is almost back, as will be the Formula Two and Formula Three divisions. IMSA continues to re-arrange its calendar. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Trying to Feel Happy
The last month has been rough and I can't say it has gotten any better.

It is hard to be happy during this time. The pandemic has been a tough period for many. Unemployed in the United States is the worst it has been since the Great Depression. Parts of the country are seeing record-breaking spikes in cases on a daily basis, and in turn, the country is right back where it started in early April.

Meanwhile, protests have been taking place in response to the murder of George Floyd and it has spurred protests globally against racial inequality. We are seeing tremendous displays and calls for unity, and it feels like a watershed moment, it feels like great change is happening, but it comes with an unfortunate backlash of racism and ignorance.

It is heart-breaking seeing how difficult it is for some people to treat fellow human beings with respect. It is devastating when kindness and understanding and listening is too difficult of a task for a lot of people.

And all that is wanted is love. The black community around the world wants to be treated like everyone else. They want to live their lives and not be seen as an outsider or a threat on a constant basis. They want to be treated like another person.

For the last month, NBC Sports Premier League studio analyst Robbie Earle has been the voice that has broken through the most to me. As a soccer fan, Earle has been a weekly guest in my home for years. Before getting into television, he was a top player in England, playing for Wimbledon and he scored in the 1998 FIFA World Cup for Jamaica. He is an intelligent and thoughtful man. His analyst is incredibly insightful. Like everyone on NBC's Premier League coverage, he is one of the best in the business.

Listening to Earle's stories facing causal racism and hearing the pain in his voice hurts. I hear a man who just wants to be loved. He wants to walk down the street and not have others make him aware he is viewed different. He wants to be seen for more than his skin color. He wants to go to a restaurant or store and not have eyes on him at all times.

That basic freedom is what black people want. That basic freedom is what white people have.

That is white privilege. White privilege is going out and not having a security guard trail you in a store just because of your skin color while posing no other sign of being a threat for theft.

Every aspect of the world is confronting racial inequality, bias and discrimination in the last month. From soccer to television to motorsports and every part of life in-between.

For the last month, NASCAR has been making changes and it has been led from within. Bubba Wallace is using his voice and drivers are listening. Officials are listening. Like the many other aspects of life, there has been push back, but change is coming in NASCAR. The resistance to change will not go away easily but change will not stop.

Wallace has NASCAR's support, and that is something I am not sure a previous NASCAR regime would have been as quick to give. Fellow drivers rallied around Wallace, showing unity after a noose was found in the Richard Petty Motorsports garage. Fortunately, after FBI investigation it was determined it was not a hate crime, but on the heels of NASCAR banning the confederate flag at its tracks after Wallace publicly stated he would like the flag to be barred from events, with protesters outside the facility and a plane flying with the flag overhead, NASCAR protected Wallace when it otherwise may have ignored it.

It turned out to be a misunderstanding and one of the craziest coincidences where the one garage pull rope in the Cup garage that was tied into a hangman's knot at Talladega from last October ended up being in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace's team in June 2020.

Watching everything going on in the world and Bohemian Rhapsody plays in my head.

"I don't want to die. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all."

The world is dizzying. The bell rings to end the round and before you reach your corner it rings again, and you are back facing a barrage of punches. Dying can't be that bad, right? It seems like the only way out. Improvements and changes are not expected overnight but there is this relentless opposition to social change that will drag this on longer than it should and in some cases prevent changes a vast majority of people support from ever happening. The opposition isn't going to miss me. Let's just give them the world. They will have no one to be mad at but themselves.

It is hard to be happy. How can I justify it when I see everything going on around me?

This should be an exciting time. After three months of lockdown, Formula One is coming back! MotoGP will be back soon! The IndyCar season gets rolling with five races in 15 days! IMSA will be back with a return of the Paul Revere 250 on July 4! Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters will be back with a wacky schedule and it is not the only wacky schedule out there.

DTM plans to return to Spa-Francorchamps! Formula One is running two races at Red Bull Ring and Silverstone and it is talking about returning to Imola. Mugello could host a race, though I do not think that race will be great, I am all for it. Hockenheim and Portimão are possible destinations for Formula One races later this year. MotoGP will have doubleheaders at Jerez, Red Bull Ring, Misano and Aragón.

The next three months are going to be filled with motorsports. An Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans are still ahead of us. We are going to see calendars and races we will never see again. Though a difficult time, this should spark some joy and be remembered as a bright spot. It is too dark to get through. The bright spots are clouded out until we the people start achieving societal improvements.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin but did you know...

Chase Briscoe won the Grand National Series race from Pocono, his fourth victory of the season. Brandon Jones won the Truck race, his first career Truck victory.

Scott McLaughlin won the bookend Supercars races from Sydney Motorsports Park with Nick Percat winning the second race of the weekend.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar has the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
NASCAR joins IndyCar for its Brickyard 400, with the Grand National Series running the road course.
IMSA will run at Daytona on July 4th weekend for the first since 2010.
Formula One starts in Austria and Formula Two and Formula Three will be there as well.

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Look Back: IndyCar at Richmond - Part Three

IndyCar will not be going to Richmond this year, but we are reviewing the nine IndyCar races held at the track from 2001 to 2009. Yesterday, we took a look at the second-third of races from 2004 to 2006. There were a pair of new track records, two lanes for passing and Scott Dixon lambasted from Mike Hull.

The final part will cover 2007 to 2009, the end of The Split and the boom of reunification. We will see Newman/Haas Racing back on the grid with Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and more. There are a few names that popped up and then didn't stick around. We also have to face the possible disappointment of an IndyCar return. Before we get to all that, we go back to 2007, the time before reunification and one final skimpy IRL field.

Andretti Green Racing swept the front row with Dario Franchitti on pole position with Tony Kanaan starting second.

Coming to the green flag, Sam Hornish, Jr. spun out of fifth position but he went into the grass and did not have any cataclysmic damage and continued. On the lap four restart, Franchitti maintained the lead with Tomas Scheckter utilizing the high line to pass Danica Patrick in turns one and two and using the same line on Scott Sharp in turns three and four.

Franchitti lapped Milka Duno on lap 13 and he was on the back of Hornish about 11 laps later before lapping him on lap 26. Kanaan was about 1.7 seconds behind Franchitti, but with traffic the lead closed to under a second. Franchitti was doing a good job lapping cars and did open his lead up to 2.1 seconds over Kanaan.

There was a debris caution on lap 61 and during pit stops, Kanaan jumped ahead of Franchitti to take the lead. The lead was short lived for Kanaan with Franchitti retaking the top spot into turn one on the restart.

This was a rather uneventful event in terms of incidents and passing was limited. There were good battles in the back half of the top ten. Scheckter made a couple more passes. Ed Carpenter battled with Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick. Rice was actually a mover. He went from ninth to sixth over a 30-lap period from lap 90 to lap 127 and his pass for sixth was on Hélio Castroneves.

Jeff Simmons got in the marbles on lap 155, sending him into the wall and bringing out the third caution. This brought the leaders in under caution for their final stops. Franchitti kept the lead with Kanaan in second.

At some point during the restart, Kanaan dropped from second to fourth behind Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon but it was missed on the broadcast. Dixon remained close to Franchitti, about eight-tenths back. The issue was the lapped car of Hornish was between the leaders and was a buffer. Eventually, Hornish got out of the way. Once clear of Hornish, Dixon closed in a bit on Franchitti and Wheldon closed in on Dixon for third.

While carving through lapped traffic, Dixon and Wheldon had to split Kosuke Matsuura into turn one. The next lap, Matsuura made contact with Hornish and brought out the caution. It was a quick yellow. Matsuura never got into the barrier, there was no debris on the circuit and both cars continued. Matsuura slowed up in the marbles to keep it out of the barrier, but it was a quick trigger yellow and probably didn't justify it.

This set up a seven-lap sprint. Franchitti got the jump on the restart and neither Dixon nor Wheldon made a challenge for the top spot. Franchitti took victory after leading 242 of 250 laps, including the final 179 laps. Kanaan was fourth and Rice rounded out the top five.

How was the crowd?
It was another packed house. Marty Reid even said, "We think there was at least 60,000 here tonight," at the end of the broadcast.

Did they mention a USAC Silver Crown race happening before the IndyCar race and needing some number of laps to pick up that rubber and lay down Firestone rubber? 
Yep. They said the Hoosier rubber would make it harder for to find grip early in the race.

Signs of the Time:
Teams were not allowed to keep engines in backup cars and this was the first season such regulation in place.

Hélio Castroneves pied Brian Barnhart in the face during the drivers' meeting because it was Barnhart's birthday.

Reid brought up Scott Sharp was only $190,000 away from $10 million in winnings in his career. I know that isn't all of Sharp's money, but he probably got a nice cut of it. We haven't talked about winnings like that really since 2007 or 2008. I can't tell you what any active driver has in career earnings. I doubt a great majoirty have gotten to $10 million.

The guys who raced in CART (Kanaan, Dixon, Castroneves, etc.) probably got there or got close but what has two-time champion Josef Newgarden earned? What about Will Power? Simon Pagenaud? Ryan Hunter-Reay? Motorsports was once a sport where earnings were shared and used to garner attention, similar to golf. Now it is verboten. The only race we get a breakdown for is the Indianapolis 500. We know the champion gets $1 million but any money we hear about is minuscule in the motorsports world. We hear about $10,000 for pole position, a $30,000 victory bonus but that is puny. We know that doesn't cover the bills. It is almost better if that wasn't out there.

During the race there were multiple promotions for the Mont-Tremblant Champ Car race the next day, because ESPN was showing both series in 2007. I know I have asked this before, but do we miss that? Do we miss having two open-wheel races at two great tracks on consecutive days?

We can all agree the split was bad but it was a time when you could see Richmond and Mont-Tremblant on the same weekend. We got Cleveland, Michigan, Texas, Montreal, Road America, Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Toronto and Surfers Paradise, albeit in two separate championships but we got all of it. We got close to 30 races a year. That wasn't the best because all the best teams and drivers weren't at Indianapolis. You had two separate fields with 18-20 cars tops and each series wasn't getting the best drivers. There was no pipeline for junior series graduates. Drivers left for sports cars and NASCAR. It was rough.

As special as it was, it was bad.

Speaking of the split, the next race was Watkins Glen and the way the broadcast spoke about it and all the road course had a foreign feel. It was treated like a complete unknown. At this point in the IRL,  majority of the field came from road course backgrounds. It sounded poor to treat road courses in such a way. It shouldn't have been a surprise that any of Franchitti, Dixon, Kanaan or Castroneves were good on road courses. That was their bread and butter.

Broadcasting Gems:
Reid kept referring to Richmond as the "action track." I never recall that being a thing for Richmond. Kokomo? Yes. Richmond? No.

Under the Simmons caution, the broadcast cut to a 30/30 update on what else happened in the sports world during pit stops! We come back to see what happened in replay and nothing was explained during the replay. Show the pit stops live and then do the 30/30 update after the pit stops.

In case you were wondering what the order of the post-race interviews were, it was Ashley Judd, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon.

This was the first 300-lap Richmond race and it was also the first Richmond race post-reunification. It saw 26 cars enter, a record number for the event.

Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti swept the front row for Andretti Green Racing, the second consecutive front row sweep for the team. This race was choppy from the start.

Ryan Hunter-Reay spun coming to the green flag exiting turn four, just like Sam Hornish, Jr. the year before. Hunter-Reay continued with no problems.

On lap nine, Will Power got into the turn four wall after the car snapped right on him when making a correction. Lap 30, A.J. Foyt IV spun in turn two after contact with John Andretti. Ed Carpenter suffered right front damage after hitting a piece of debris off of Foyt's car.

Of the first 38 laps, 12 were green. In that time, Hélio Castroneves had made some passes. Castroneves had started 18th and he made three passes in six laps, first on John Andretti into turn one on lap 21, then Foyt four laps later into turn one and then on lap 26, going high on Bruno Junqueira in turn three and four before completing the pass into turn one.

On the lap 39 restart, Castroneves overtook his teammate Ryan Briscoe on the outside of turn two and he did the same move on the following lap on Oriol Servià.

The other mover in the race was Jaime Camara! Camara had stopped under the Foyt caution to get fresh tires and he passed Townsend Bell after getting a run on the high side of turns three and four. He used momentum off of turn two to slice under Briscoe into turn three on the following lap. He nearly got Servià but had the air taken off his front wing and had to lift to keep it out of the wall.

When the caution came out on lap 68 for debris the leaders stopped, but Camara and Danica Patrick stayed out. We would hit another patch of caution laps with only one green flag lap in a 38-lap span and Camara held the lead this entire time.

There were two separate incidents on the lap 79 restart. Buddy Rice spun exiting turn four but continued. Behind all that, cars stacked up in turn three with Briscoe running into the back of Darren Manning. Vitor Meira and Junqueira were collected in this incident. Meira was able to continue, Briscoe and Manning had to get significant repairs and Junqueira was done.

On the one green flag lap, Kanaan passed Patrick for second on the lap 91 restart. Castroneves made it three-wide but he backed out of it and that allowed Marco Andretti to take the spot from Castroneves. Behind those passes, John Andretti ran into Meira entering turn one, as Meira was taking it pretty easy while Andretti had a full head of steam.

In the first third of the race, seven cars were out. Patrick and Bell made pit stops under caution on lap 103 but Camara stayed out and continued to lead.

Kanaan challenged Camara into turn one on the lap 107 restart but did not make it stick. Camara ran the high line and was keeping Kanaan at bay, so much so, Marco Andretti would pass Kanaan into turn one on lap 114. Two laps later, Andretti made the same move on the inside of Camara for the lead. Camara had one counterattack on lap 118, looking to the inside of Andretti into turn three but he had to lift and lost significant ground.

Andretti opened up a four-second lead with second to sixth covered by two seconds.

At lap 133, Graham Rahal spun in turn four on his own. He basically took the turn too hot. This brought everyone but Andretti to pit lane. Andretti wanted to keep track position and the team was hoping to stretch it and do it on one more stop. E.J. Viso and Patrick also stayed out.

Kanaan was first off pit road ahead of Wheldon, Castroneves and Camara. After the restart, Kanaan moved up to third and Castroneves and Camara picked cars off pretty consistently. Both got Wheldon on lap 142 and then both got Patrick on the next lap. Castroneves was able to take third from Kanaan into turn one on lap 145.

On the same lap Castroneves moved into third, Mario Moraes dove inside of Ryan Hunter-Reay into turn three and the move didn't stick. Moraes made contact with Hunter-Reay, knocking both cars were out of the race. At halfway, 11 of 26 starters were out and 31 of 96 laps from lap 68 to lap 163 were under green flag conditions.

Scott Dixon stopped under the Hunter-Reay/Moraes caution because Mike Hull looked at the radar and believed rain was 30 minutes away and did not think the race would go the distance.

The race restarted on lap 164 and Kanaan moved into second ahead of Viso while Castroneves made the same move the following lap. Camara would use the high side in turn two to pass Viso the following lap. Viso was on older tires and kept dropping. He would lose another position to Servià.

Andretti continued to lead with Kanaan remaining about six-tenths back but this strategy was not playing into Andretti's hand. Andretti was going to be forced to stop under green and lose at least a lap. He would need the race to remain green until the rest of the leaders stopped to retake the lead. On lap 206, after a 134-lap stint Andretti stopped and went a lap down in 11th.

Kanaan held a 3.6-second lead over Castroneves at this point and Camara's dream race ended up lap 218 when he spun exiting turn four while in third. Camara's wonderful night was over, Andretti's strategy had backfired, and Kanaan held the advantage. The leaders made their final stops and Kanaan came out in first.

Over the final 72 laps, Kanaan did not face much pressure and continually increased his lead over the stint. There was some movement with Dixon moving into fourth ahead of Servià but with 25 laps to go Kanaan held a five-second lead.

Kanaan took the victory ahead of Castroneves with Dixon passing Wheldon on the final lap for third. In the victory lane interview, Kanaan said he thought Andretti had just as strong of a car as his. Andretti ended up ninth, one lap down after letting Kanaan through in the closing laps.

How was the crowd?
At the top of the broadcast, Marty Reid said it was about 60,000 in attendance. It looked pretty good. I am always hesitant to put a number on attendance, but it wasn't sparse.

Did they mention a USAC Silver Crown race happening before the IndyCar race and needing some number of laps to pick up that rubber and lay down Firestone rubber? 
You betcha!

Signs of the Time:
Max Angelelli and Wayne Taylor gave the command to start engines. This race was the SunTrust Indy Challenge and Angelelli and Taylor drove the #10 SunTrust Wayne Taylor Racing Pontiac in Grand-Am. It is not often you see active professional race car drivers give the command to start engines before another professional motor race.

Scott Dixon called Danica Patrick a menace after the Iowa race the week before due to some questionable driving. I had no recollection of that but the quote from Dixon in the Des Moines Register was as follows:

"She's a menace. It might be just me, but it's tough when you get drivers that don't stay where they should be."

Dixon felt Patrick had gotten away with a few blocks at Iowa. Scott Goodyear described Dixon's accusation as slanderous.

I just wanted to give you a feel for the post-reunification field:

Conquest Racing had Jaime Camara and Enrique Bernoldi as its two drivers. Camara replaced Franck Perera at Kansas. Bernoldi had a practice accident in turn four at Richmond. He ran the first six laps under caution and then pulled in because of a handling concern. This didn't appear to be some B.S. "handling" retirement. Bernoldi was signaling a concern to the team in the pit box. Alex Tagliani replaced Bernoldi for the final two races and the non-championship Surfers Paradise round. This was the only season Camara, Bernoldi and Perera drove in IndyCar.

I am still not sure how Mario Moraes went from 14th in the 2007 British Formula Three championship to IndyCar at 19 years old but Moares' check cleared with Dale Coyne and that is all that matters. His best finish in 2008 was seventh at Watkins Glen and he was 21st in the championship. He moved to KV Racing the next two years, had a few flashes in the pan, most notably three consecutive top five finishes in 2009 at Sonoma, Chicago and Motegi. He made his final IndyCar start at 21 years, nine months and 12 days old on October 2, 2010 at Homestead and he has not been heard from in any major professional series since.

Oh! They still allowed Marty Roth on track and he was dangerously slow. He was 49 years old at the time! His best finish in 21 starts was 13th at Nashville in 2008. He never finished on the lead lap. He immaculately started four Indianapolis 500s, three of which ended in accidents. The guy is going to turn 60 this December and I wonder what he is up to.

Broadcasting Gems:
From watching the first eight Richmond race, this was a time when the broadcast did not share the fuel window and pit strategies with the viewers, and that lack of information contributed to a worse broadcast.

It felt like this was a time when the broadcast was just watching cars going around in circles and anytime a pit stop happened it wasn't explained. It was accepted that everyone knew pit stops would occur, but you didn't know why that stop was happening when it was happening.

With 22 laps to go, Reid speculated Kanaan's gap over second was growing because some cars were saving fuel. Jack Arute in the pit lane said no, everyone was good to go on fuel. Did anyone know the fuel window? You should know if a car makes a stop after a certain lap, they should be good to the end. Yet, here we were in 2008 and the lead commentator is theorizing cars are saving fuel. That most basic strategically element should be clear.

The fuel window is a simple thing to know. When shared it makes the audience smarter, lets them know what to watch for and helps viewers follow along.

For the last decade I am glad this has been taken more seriously, expanded upon and engrained into a broadcast. Any race today that doesn't mention fuel window or tire life would be an amateur broadcast. It was annoying to watch because it made the people calling the race seem out of touch.

Richmond's last time on the IndyCar schedule was Versus' first time broadcasting the race. Chip Ganassi Racing swept the front row with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. Team Penske swept row two with Hélio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.

The race started with Jaques Lazier spinning all by himself in turn one and when I say all by himself, I mean he started dead last and the field was already ten car lengths clear when he lost it.

After the restart on lap 8, Tomas Scheckter again explored the high side but lost a spot to Marco Andretti on exit of turn two. Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon nearly went three-wide into one, but Kanaan lifted.

By lap 27, the leaders were catching the rear of the field and a few laps later Briscoe spun exiting turn two, backing it into the wall on the straightaway. He said he had been battling understeer and the transition of the banking caught him out.

This caution led to different strategies. Everyone but Hideki Mutoh and Danica Patrick made a pit stop. Franchitti would pass Patrick on the restart, starting from on the outside of turn two and completing the move on the outside into turn three. On the same restart, Marco Andretti tried to make the high line work battling with Graham Rahal but slight contact between the two caused Andretti to lose momentum and allowed E.J. Viso to pass Andretti into turn one.

Despite having 30-lap fresher tires and tires only having a 25-30 lap sweet spot, Franchitti settled into second, remaining within three or four-tenths of Mutoh the entire run. Patrick was unchallenged in third but drifted back, falling 2.2 seconds behind her teammate Mutoh.

As the Mutoh caught the tail end of the field, Patrick and Dixon closed in. At lap 100, all 18 cars on track were still on the lead lap and five laps later Mutoh made his first stop. Franchitti put Mario Moraes a lap down two laps after taking the lead but that was the only car he lapped. It was a single-groove, processional race.

After the pit stops, Mutoh and Patrick were running about a half-second faster than the leaders and made some moves on cars with 90-lap older tires but none of the leaders experienced a greater drop off in tire life than the rest. With cars able to go about 113 laps on a tank of fuel and no significant tire drop off, there was no incentive to come a little earlier for tires.

This played into the hands of Franchitti, Dixon and Rahal. They had not stopped yet when Mike Conway got into the wall exiting turn four after running into the marbles. Franchitti did need to make an emergency splash and go before pit lane opened and this handed the lead to Dixon.

When the race restarted on lap 154, Dixon held the lead over Franchitti and Rahal while Mutoh, Patrick, Castroneves and Raphael Matos were waved around back to the lead lap. It never got easier to pass and the waved around cars still had difficulty negotiating lapped traffic while Dixon and Franchitti pulled away and remained within a second of each other.

There was no passing worth mentioning from here on. Castroneves would get into the marbles on lap 248 after checking up to miss Dan Wheldon and avoiding Scheckter, who was in the marbles and off throttle to avoid the wall. While Scheckter kept going, Castroneves ended up in the barrier and this brought out the final caution of the race.

Once again, Dixon, Franchitti and Rahal had not made their final pit stops and this allowed these three to pit without much consequence. Only Mutoh and Patrick, the two drivers to stick to a two-stop strategy, got the wave around this time.

The final restart came with 41 laps to go and there is nothing worth mentioning after this. The top five remain the top five for the rest of the race. Dixon stays about four-tenths ahead of Franchitti to the checkered flag. Dixon caught traffic but he could not lap them. It halted him but didn't make him vulnerable to Franchitti making a pass. This was not a battle between teammates but two cars running in lockstep.

Dixon took the win, Franchitti and Rahal completed the podium, Mutoh and Patrick had good nights rounding out the top five.

Franchitti apologized in his post-race interview for how bad the race was. I think that says everything. I think the only driver that was lapped on track was Moraes and everyone else that finished a lap down was because their pit stops came before cautions, the leaders had yet to stop and they were trapped off the lead lap. If this race had gone caution-free I think everyone would have finished on the lead lap or at least 15 to 16 cars would have been on the lead lap.

How was the crowd?
This was another solid crowd, and I will be honest, on crowd alone I don't understand why IndyCar left Richmond. If you went just by the crowd it was probably 45,000 or 50,000 people every year. I know Marty Reid said a few of those years it was 60,000 or more. Reid might have been exaggerating but when you look at the grandstands that are remaining at Richmond and consider its capacity is now at about 65,000 and you look at what IndyCar drew all nine years, but especially those final two or three years, if it drew the same in 2020 or 2021 the place would be at least 75% full and that would be great all things considered.

Did they mention a USAC Silver Crown race happening before the IndyCar race and needing some number of laps to pick up that rubber and lay down Firestone rubber? 
Damn straight! More rubber inconsistencies.

It was also mentioned that Ed Carpenter ran the Silver Crown race at Richmond in 2002 and finished second and he was third in 2003.

Signs of the Time:
E.J. Viso had not finished the first seven races this season and, at lap 159, Bob Jenkins noted Viso was still in the race. Viso would see his first checkered flag of the season in 12th, one-lap down.

Jon Beekhuis mentioned with 12 laps to go that IndyCar knew it has been difficult to pass on ovals and was hoping to introduce new aerodynamic devices and possibly push-to-pass at the remaining oval races.

Scott Dixon and his wife Emma Davies Dixon were expecting their first child, and this was Emma's final race before giving birth.

It was promoted on the broadcast that Dixon's victory tied with Sam Hornish, Jr. for most victories. Yeesh. I don't miss the split record book. It is technically true as a series but in terms of the vast history of IndyCar it is deception.

Broadcasting Gems:
I forgot how nonsensical the original Versus opening was. The cars turn into animals. What did that signify?

If I never have to hear "Dr. Feelgoods" again I will be a happy man.

What Should We Expect?
If Sam Hornish, Jr. and Tomas Scheckter are entered then we will have a good race. But Hornish and Scheckter are not walking through that door.

There is a chunk of Richmond races that were pretty good and then a few that were less appealing. I think the best races were 2004-2006 and the 2008 race had good moments but it was too choppy to really get a feel.

I think 2006 might be the best race of the nine and that is because of the back and forth battles, leaders having to battle traffic and guys were battling the tires. The problem with all the Richmond races is they all see one leader pull away. Hornish led the final 212 laps in the 2006 race. The racing was great behind him but no one got up and battled him and that was the case for pretty much every one of these Richmond races. There are few instances when the leader dropped back in the middle of the run because of tire fall off or because of traffic.

That is almost a theme for all IndyCar short oval races. Someone is always going to lead 100 or 150 laps. The same is true for NASCAR. NASCAR goes to a short track and someone ends leading 200 laps every time. These short track races do not see five drivers lead 50 laps or more. That almost never happens and I think it is important to realize that before Richmond returns.

In the 13 Iowa races, the most laps led totals in those races are 96, 92, 85, 69, 172, 133, 226, 247, 111, 282, 217, 229 and 245. Outside of that 2010 race, it is pretty much total domination for one driver but that driver doesn't always win. Tony Kanaan led 247 laps in 2014 and lost because he stayed out under the final caution while Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden got tires and went from seventh and eighth to first and second in the final ten laps. The following year, Newgarden led 111 laps but Hunter-Reay got the lead under the final caution and pulled away. Newgarden threw away a race in 2018. He nearly lapped the field but let his guard down for a second and James Hinchcliffe won.

I watched all these races and thought this is the perfect place for Newgarden to walk away from the field and win after leading 285 laps. If that concerns you it shouldn't because it is already happening in IndyCar.

The difference between Richmond and Iowa is track layout. Iowa has progressive banking from 12-14º, and it is worn. Tires are junk halfway through a run. IndyCar went to Richmond and the track had a series of repaves. Even at the end of IndyCar's first tenure, Richmond's surface was in pretty good shape. Tires were not garbage at the end of a run. The track has aged over the last 11 years and that could mean conditions similar to Iowa with more cars struggling over a long run than before.

Richmond doesn't race the same way as Iowa. Though Richmond has 14º banking in the turns, it is much tighter and with the way the track falls away exiting turn two, we see more accidents, whether it is someone more aggressive on the gas, contact with another car or getting into the marbles and hitting the wall. When cars back out of it, they come to what seems like a complete stop on corner exit.

Some races had a high line develop but most races you were lucky to get a lane and a half. Just because of the profile of the track I don't think the high line is inviting to drivers and you would not see a second groove develop in practice. It is similar to Gateway where you could get a second line in turns one and two but it would be tight on exit.

It should be noted Richmond uses the PJ1 traction compound for the NASCAR race and we saw what that did to the IndyCar race at Texas, so the top line might not be possible because the track is too slick. That is a wonderful feeling to know the track is already garbage before you even get there.

After nine Richmond races, green flag pit stops are still an unknown. It rarely happened and it wasn't until the 2008 race when green flag pit stops come into play, costing Marco Andretti that race. If there is a caution, drivers are going to stop. That is just how it works on ovals but we didn't see green flag stints long enough to see how green flag pit cycles determine a race.

Richmond can be a two-stop race but we rarely saw a 100-plus lap stint. If that continues then I think we will see teams make it a three-stopper because cautions will allow it. It really is going to be the only strategy that will work.

There are still a lot of unknowns and the earliest we will see how IndyCar looks at Richmond will hopefully be a year from now in June 2021. The one difference between then and now is there likely will not be a USAC Silver Crown race hours prior to the IndyCar race. IndyCar was going to be on its own in 2020. It was to practice Friday night, qualify before the race on Saturday and that would be it. Maybe that would help with getting rubber into the track but we will have to wait and see. The weekend schedule might have to look entirely different in 2021. There are still a lot of unanswered questions for 2020. It is hard to think about next year.

Moving on to the crowd, it never dropped off after nine years on the IndyCar calendar. It's not like Iowa, which has seen a decline in the last five years or Texas over the last decade. Richmond was strong each year. This race didn't go away because the crowd was dismal.

Twelve years later, I am not going to expect the same crowd to be there. Richmond drew over 100,000 people twice a year for NASCAR for a long time. In the last two years, the capacity has been reduced to 65,000 and NASCAR drew about 42,000 for the May race last year.

If NASCAR has less than half the crowd it did a decade ago and can't fill 60,000 seats, why should IndyCar expect to get the crowd of 60,000 people it had in 2009? Why should IndyCar think it will get 42,000, matching a NASCAR crowd?

IndyCar gets about 40,000 at Gateway and Richmond was selling tickets at a favorable price, $40. I just don't know how this race would fair smack dap in the middle of two NASCAR races. It is going to draw some different people. Baltimore drew fantastic crowds and it is three hours north of Richmond. There has to be some people from that area and around Washington, D.C. who will make the trip. With Pocono gone, there could be some in the Northeast that decide to take a weekend trip south. There will be race fans in the area, who support the NASCAR races and will attend the IndyCar race. But how many will that add up to and will it be enough to keep the race alive for many years to come?

I would hope it could draw about 30,000. That would be half the grandstand. We all want it to be better than that, but we have to be realistic. If it got 45,000 that would be terrific, but I can't see it happening.

There is a scary thought in the back of my mind that we might not see Richmond happen at all. Look at the last three months. Is anyone certain over what will happen in 2021? This feels like the race that could get away from IndyCar. Hopefully that will not be the case and if Richmond was willing to commit to IndyCar after 11 years away, I am not sure this pandemic will be squash the event from happening again. It will require patience, at least a year's worth.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Look Back: IndyCar at Richmond - Part Two

IndyCar will not be going to Richmond this year, but we are reviewing the nine IndyCar races held at the track from 2001 to 2009. Yesterday, we looked at the first three visits, from the early, rugged IRL years to the swing year when Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Green Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing joined the series, leaving CART behind.

This second part will focus on the next three years from 2004 to 2006. We are in the thick of The Split. The Big Three dominance has started. Panther Racing had begun shrinking into an alley cat. Race control was way too prominent and there were curious broadcasting decisions over these three years. We start in 2004 with some fresh asphalt.

This race came after Richmond repaved the track and it saw speeds skyrocket with Hélio Castroneves taking pole position at a record speed of 171.202 MPH. Next to him on the front row was Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice with Panther Racing's Mark Taylor in third next to former Panther driver Sam Hornish Jr. on row two.

More cars were able to run the outside and it benefitted Tony Kanaan at the start. Kanaan went from tenth to fifth in the first four laps. Adrian Fernández and Dan Wheldon each moved up four spots in the opening laps from 16th and 20th respectively on the grid. Tomas Scheckter made use of the upper line as well. Kanaan went to the inside of Taylor into turn one to take fourth position on lap nine. The following lap saw the first caution of the night when Alex Barron got into the barrier exiting turn two.

There were few takers to pit lane under this first caution, one was Wheldon.

On the restart, Hornish and Scheckter both used the high line to gain positions. Hornish took second from Rice exiting turn two and Scheckter needed a few laps to get by Kanaan but he would get the spot off of turn four.

Hornish used the high line to pressure Castroneves for the lead and he was able to stay close for a handful of laps before having to make a big lift exiting turn four on one lap. He would gather himself and within ten laps he would use the momentum off the high side of turn two to take the lead into turn three.

The Penske cars pulled away and were pressuring Wheldon, the final car on the lead lap. Scheckter had moved up to third but was 2.5 seconds back and battling traffic. Wheldon kept making passes with the leaders remained on his back and the battle from fourth to tenth remained close, thanks in part to traffic.

Debris caused the caution on lap 67 and this brought the field to pit road with Hornish edging out his teammate for the top spot on exit.

This race saw more moves to the inside and outside than the prior three races. There was a greater second line developing, and cars could run side-by-side for an entire pair of corners and straightaway. There was a breaking point. The car on the outside would eventually have to make the pass or lift and lose all the ground. It wasn't something that could be maintained for ten or 15 laps.

Moisture brought out the third caution 31 laps later but not everyone stopped under this caution. Dario Franchitti and Ed Carpenter stayed out. After a 21-lap caution, Franchitti restarted in the lead while the Penske cars had to battle traffic and a slight moment dropped Hornish behind Castroneves and Scheckter. The caution was soon out again when Darren Manning had a bobble and hit the turn four wall on exit.

Once back to racing, Hornish took third from Scheckter on the inside of turns one and two. Castroneves closed in on Franchitti for the lead and with 100 laps to go he was about two car lengths back with Hornish, Scheckter, Kanaan, Fernández, Herta and Wheldon in the top eight. Herta would soon be up to sixth after sliding under Fernández into turn one.

Hornish dropped behind Scheckter and Kanaan after running high in turns one and two but he would get one spot back from Kanaan a few laps later. About eight laps later, Hornish retook third from Scheckter on the inside of turn three. These two would go back and forth over the next five laps. Hornish ran high in four and allowed Scheckter to take the spot on the straightaway. Hornish would come back and take the spot low into turn three. It all went pear-shaped with 63 laps to go when Scheckter looked low into turns one and two and clipped Hornish's left rear, spinning the Penske driver on exit. Both were able to continue but Hornish lost a few laps getting re-fired.

The rest of the leaders came to pit lane to make their final stops but Wheldon stayed out and inherited the lead ahead of Meira and Rice. Castroneves came off pit lane first ahead of Franchitti, Scheckter and Kanann.

The broadcast doesn't mention the strategy of the top three. We are not sure if they are good to go but Wheldon led the field to the green with 50 laps to go. He did not experience much of a challenge from either Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver behind him. Castroneves moved up to third on the outside of turn three. Rice and Franchitti battled for position for a few laps. While in traffic, Taylor pinched Franchitti in the middle of turns one and two, Taylor spun into the barrier while Franchitti was fortunate to avoid the walls. Scheckter made contact with Fernández trying to avoid the accident, making it a doubly bad accident for Panther Racing.

Meira's team felt confident this caution would allow them to make it on fuel but Wheldon's team believed it would still be close. Wheldon had gone 101 laps, last stopping under the caution for moisture while Meira had gone 95 laps, having stopped later under that yellow.

On the restart with 17 laps to go, Wheldon and Meira put some distance between them and Castroneves, who had to contend with the lapped cars. Wheldon put some distance to Meira but Castroneves closed in on second. With six laps to go, Ed Carpenter and Greg Ray got together after going three-wide with Scott Dixon. Later that lap, Carpenter was at a near standstill in turn three when the leaders passed. He creeped around the high side and it took a lap before the caution came out.

This set up an odd finish where a one-lap dash was to decide the race, but the yellow lights were still on in turns one and two. Wheldon took the victory with Castroneves second on the road ahead of Meira. Meira said when he saw the lights he slowed, allowing Castroneves through. IndyCar would revert afterward, giving Meira second position but Wheldon was still the winner, going over 120 laps on his final stint and winning from 20th on the grid.

How was the crowd?
According to Dr. Jerry Punch, it was the largest IndyCar crowd at Richmond to date. Fans had spread from closer to the middle of turns three and four to the middle of turns one and two. It was reported on the broadcast the track sold 40,000 tickets in advanced sales and every year had seen a ten-percent bump.

Did they mention a USAC Silver Crown race happening before the IndyCar race and needing some number of laps to pick up that rubber and lay down Firestone rubber? 
Yes. The broadcast said it was going to take some number of laps to get Firestone rubber down. So, in three years we went from 20 laps to 50 laps to the vague some number of laps.

Signs of the Time:
There was a pre-race interview with Brian Barnhart, and this is what we were sick of. Barnhart inserted into the races and more than any crew steward should be. Worst of all, ESPN enabled it. It was the same stuff over and over again. Any time Scott Goodyear saw an incident, Goodyear would mention how Barnhart would tell drivers they got to be patient, so some of the blame falls at the feet of Goodyear and it was like this for the next four years. We know race control is there, but we don't hear from Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis on a weekly basis. It is a three-man panel and I am not even sure who the third person is! I had to look it up, it is Dan Davis and I forgot Kyle Novak is race director.

The current race control setup is an observer, a lifeguard if you will, watching over the race but only intervening if needed. Barnhart was a play director, always interjecting and wanting the race to go his way. It was irritating.

Kenny Bräck tested at Richmond in his recovery effort after his Texas accident at the previous season finale. The reason Bräck tested Richmond was because it was the most physical track. He determined he was not ready to return to racing and had sore ankles.

There have been four Richmond races and I cannot recall a green flag pit cycle in any of these races.

Broadcasting Gems:
With 40 laps to go, Hornish is four laps down in 16th, two laps behind the car ahead of him and the camera is on him running with Bryan Herta in seventh. Meanwhile, Paul Page announces, "Rice and Franchitti going at it back and forth." Rice and Franchitti were battling for fourth place and yet the cameras were on a car that was out of contention! What were they thinking?

Sam Hornish, Jr. shattered the track record, taking pole position at 176.244 MPH with Team Penske teammate Hélio Castroneves next to him on row one. It was a Toyota sweep of the top four with Ryan Briscoe and Patrick Carpentier in third and fourth.

Castroneves had an accident during the testing at the track in the weeks leading up to the race and still had sore ribs from the incident.

It took five laps for the first caution, when A.J. Foyt IV spun exiting turn two. He kept it out of the wall and would continue. In the first 17 laps, Tony Kanaan would go from 22nd to 14th. Kanaan had to start last after he spun exiting turn two on his qualifying lap.

Scott Dixon had a rough day. He went off sequence from the start but was a lap down at lap 30 and contact with Dario Franchitti on lap 38 took him out of the race. It led to a sharp critique from Mike Hull when interviewed after the accident, "Champions don't win races by being impatient."

The leaders stopped under this caution but Vitor Meira and Buddy Rice did not. On the restart, Castroneves took third from Hornish going high into turn three. Dario Franchitti moved into sixth after passing Dan Wheldon into turn one. Meira kept the lead but Rice struggled later into the run and dropped from second to ninth in a handful a lap. Rice would be down to 13th by lap 81.

On lap 83, Castroneves took the lead on the low side of Meira into turn one and Hornish would take second on the bottom of turn three.

Briscoe would make it two Ganassi cars out of the race after a spin in turn four after getting into the marbles. The leaders made pit stops but Franchitti, Scott Sharp and Bryan Herta stayed out.

Franchitti would lead for the entirety of the 44-lap green flag. Castroneves would work his way up to second while Sharp stayed in third. Kanaan was 11th when he spun in turn four after close racing with Bryan Herta. Kanaan dropped his left side tires on to the apron and lost the car, spinning into the path of Meira and Meira's night was done.

This brought everyone to pit lane and Castroneves jumped Franchitti with Hornish moving up to third.

Castroneves pulled away on the lap 160 restart and Hornish moved up to second passing Franchitti. Five laps later, Hornish lost the car in turn four and he would describe it as pushing too hard while battling Castroneves for the lead.

With 75 laps to go, Castroneves opened a comfortable lead again over Franchitti and Franchitti gapped Sharp. Sharp's promising night would end with 50 laps to go after contact with the lapped car of Roger Yasukawa in the middle of turn two.

With 42 laps to go, Castroneves led Franchitti, Carpentier, Wheldon, Scheckter and Enge to the restart and Enge, after not being mentioned once up to this point, would get ahead of his teammate Scheckter and Wheldon into turn one, moving up to fourth.

Traffic closed the gap between Castroneves and Franchitti while Enge moved up to third ahead of Carpentier. Enge's strong charge would be washed out after Enge was black-flagged for blocking Carpentier into turn one. Car owner, and now Indianapolis Motor Speedway president, Doug Boles was furious with the call, as Enge was negotiating the lapped car of Jimmy Kite while also battling Carpentier.

With eight laps to go, Darren Manning and Yasukawa made contact after Yasukawa clipped Manning while Manning was passing him in turn two. The accident occurred just ahead of Castroneves, who skated through and would have to make one more defense on a one-lap dash to the checkered flag.

Castroneves got the jump and held on for victory ahead of Franchitti, Carpentier, Scheckter and Wheldon.

How was the crowd?
Pretty much on point with 2004, so that is good.

Did they mention a USAC Silver Crown race happening before the IndyCar race and needing some number of laps to pick up that rubber and lay down Firestone rubber? 
Is the pope Catholic?

Signs of the Time:
Cheever Racing had Red Bull and Izod sponsorship. We saw what happened when Izod got to bigger and better teams. Imagine if Red Bull had done the same. It might not have changed much but IndyCar had two Red Bull cars before having two Red Bull cars was cool.

Broadcasting Gems:
This is the Todd Harris memorial because this was his one year as IndyCar lead commentator and it was bad.

Oh man, how did Harris become the guy? This was a first-round draft bust. ESPN/ABC got rid of Bob Jenkins and Paul Page and this was the best it could do? Don't get me wrong, this is an era of poor broadcasters. Mike King was the lead commentator on radio.

The diamond in the rough was Leigh Diffey. Diffey had the experience, calling the CART races for Eurosport's coverage. He had just become the lead commentator for Speed's sports car coverage. He was there.

Harris tried too much and he tried to fit in, but it was a case of saying too much. This was a guy who was not an IndyCar regular and he talked about how Vitor Meira is going to win a race this season. He compared Castroneves' drive with sore ribs to Michael Jordan's flu game. He said Jordan scored 60-plus points in that game. One is an exaggeration of Castroneves' injury and the other was just wrong. You can look up how many points Jordan scored in that game; it was 38 points.

He said he felt good about Briscoe at Richmond because he was fast at the Watkins Glen test. Those are two entirely different circuits. He kept talking about a rookie jinx at Richmond. That wasn't a thing. He called it a "race of survivors" when only six out of 22 cars had retired from the race. That wasn't even the worst of it. After Castroneves won, Harris said, "This man has done to fences what Hugh Hefner has done to pajamas." What?

It was bad and Scott Goodyear didn't help. After Manning's accident, Goodyear nonchalantly brought up that Manning loves golf. What does that have to do with the accident and why bring that up after an accident with nine laps to go? This set up a one-lap dash to the checkered flag. There is no reason to bring up any of Manning's hobbies.

I am sure Todd Harris is a good guy and he has done plenty of work in recent years across many networks and he has been on the last few Olympic Games. His time IndyCar is not his best. I would put it at the bottom of his achievements and at the bottom of IndyCar's broadcast hierarchy.

It was one year but one rough year. It made Marty Reid a more bearable option in 2006.

With threatening weather, the race started a tad early and this was the first Richmond race in a spec field of all Dallara chassis and all Honda engines. The expectation was this would be a race to halfway.

Hélio Castroneves and Scott Sharp started on the front row and there was some movement at the back of the field. Dario Franchitti went from tenth to sixth in the first three laps, including a pass on the high side of Dan Wheldon in turn two. Tomas Scheckter went from 12th to eighth as well. Sharp did not get a good start and dropped to fifth.

The leaders caught traffic by lap 13 and it was slower to work through the field than previous years. Castroneves led teammate Sam Hornish, Jr. with Marco Andretti in third and Vitor Meira in fourth. Hornish kept making looks on Castroneves for the lead. It took a few attempts, but Hornish would get the lead on lap 39 and quickly opened up a one-second lead.

Andretti got caught behind the lapped car of Buddy Rice and dropped from third to fifth and into a battle with teammates Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. Andretti was experiencing grip issue with his front tires and turning into the corner was particularly difficult.

A caution was thrown for debris on lap 52. There was no debris shown but, according to the booth, Brian Barnhart expressed concerns about the marbles and said if the marbles got too bad, he would send out the sweepers. This caution led to pit stops and Hornish maintained the lead.

Ironically, two laps after going green from the debris caution, Jeff Simmons was in the wall after getting in the marbles exiting turn two.

Both Castroneves and Sharp remained within a second of Hornish on the next green flag run. Neither was a threat for the top spot. The lead yo-yoed with Hornish getting out to a three-second lead on lap 120 only for it to be down to six-tenths over Castroneves and nine-tenths over Sharp 15 laps later, as Hornish negotiated traffic.

Andretti had one of the better cars in traffic and on lap 139, he was up to second. Unfortunately, the broadcast did not catch his pass on Sharp for third on lap 137, nor his pass on Castroneves for second, because we were riding onboard with Danica Patrick in 13th, one lap down and with no other cars around her. We did see Meira pass Sharp for fourth into turn one and he would make a similar move on Castroneves for third about four laps later.

Hornish opened up a five-second lead over Andretti before the lap 151 cautions for debris. This caution allowed everyone to make their final stops. Hornish went unchallenged for the top spot on exit but Franchitti jumped from sixth to second, Castroneves from fourth to third and Dan Wheldon also moved up to fifth.

Franchitti stayed close to Hornish in the opening part of the run. Franchitti's best shot for the lead came in traffic and he made a look on lap 188 to the outside into turn three but backed out of it. Hornish would extend his lead from there, having a 2.5-second lead on lap 205.

Andretti had to make a big save exiting turn two with 23 laps to go, allowing Meira to take fourth. With 18 to go, Meira was up to third after a move inside of Castroneves into turn one. Two laps later, Castroneves and Andretti were side-by-side in turns three and fourth. Andretti would come out with the position, but Castroneves lifted mightily, nursing a tire puncture.

Hornish held a 7.4-second lead with 13 laps to go, but with traffic coming into play, Franchitti closed it to two seconds with five laps to go. Unfortunately for Franchitti, he would catch the crawling Castroneves into turn one and this allowed Meira to take second with an audacious pass into turn one. Immediately after this, Castroneves lost his right rear tire but kept it out of the wall with four laps to go.

This caution effectively ends the race. Hornish took a well-earned victory after leading the final 212 laps. Meira got a deserved second with Franchitti having to swallow third. Andretti spent nearly the entire race in the top five and finished fourth. Sharp rounded out the top five. Despite losing his tire, Castroneves limped around with three wheels under those final laps and was credited with a tenth-place finish.

All this came after Hornish suffered an accident in practice and forced him to his backup car, which was his Watkins Glen car. Franchitti was a bit upset with blue flag inconsistency and felt Hornish got more help than he did. Meira praised Franchitti for not cutting him off when he attempted his pass.

How was the crowd?
Holding strong. It looks just like it had the previous two years and if that is at least 40,000 people then IndyCar would take that in 2021.

Did they mention a USAC Silver Crown race happening before the IndyCar race and needing some number of laps to pick up that rubber and lay down Firestone rubber? 
Surprisingly, no! If they did, I missed it.

Signs of the Time:
Dan Wheldon said he was not shaving until he won another race. I don't recall this or recall if he stuck to this. I don't recall ever seeing a single whisker on his face. He doesn't win again until the Chicago season finale.

Sam Hornish, Jr. tested an IROC car at Daytona during the week before the Richmond race. We don't see that now.

This was Honda's 100th victory in IndyCar.

Broadcasting Gems:
This was Rusty Wallace's gap year, as he waited for ESPN to take over NASCAR coverage in 2007. It was rough. He loved the NASCAR comparisons and loved talking about downforce.

Roger Penske had the quote of the night in his victory lane interview: "If they throw me off the pit box I might get out of this sport."

Let's be thankful no one ever threw Penske off the pit box.

Tomorrow, we will look at the final three IndyCar races at Richmond. It includes reunification, a surprise competitive drive from a forgotten name and a summation on what to expect whenever IndyCar makes its return to the 3/4-mile oval.