Saturday, April 2, 2016

First Impressions: Phoenix 2016

1. Scott Dixon puts himself in the record books. He is the first driver to win an IndyCar race in 12 consecutive seasons. Three drivers had won in 11 consecutive: Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and Hélio Castroneves. Dixon benefitted from Penske tire issues but no one could catch him. He didn't pull away but no one could pass him, which is another story entirely. Dixon is now tied with Al Unser for fourth all-time in IndyCar victories with 39 victories. The Andrettis are just ahead of him. Michael Andretti could be dropped in the record book before this season is over.

2. Simon Pagenaud was nowhere for the first 200 laps and then a great final pit stop vaulted him to second. He never challenged Dixon but because of the aero package he came home comfortably in second and with two second-place finishes, he now leads the IndyCar championship heading into Long Beach. 

3. Will Power passed nobody on the track all night. He made up five spots on one pit stop and benefitted as a few drivers had issues in the pits or tapped the wall. Not a bad race for Power in his return. He is going to need all the points he can get if he hopes to get a second championship in 2016. 

4. Tony Kanaan picked up right where he left off the last time IndyCar raced at Phoenix. He was up front all night and after he was caught out by the penultimate caution, he worked his way to fourth. He made a few questionable moves, such as squeezing Josef Newgarden entering turn three, but overall Kanaan deserved a fourth place finish.

5. From 19th to fifth. Graham Rahal made passes on restarts, passes on the outside and he did catch a break on one caution that vaulted him into a contender for a top five. Honda struggled this weekend but Rahal was one of the few bright spots tonight. 

6. Josef Newgarden overcame being chopped by Charlie Kimball and being caught out by a caution to finish sixth. Who knows where he would have finished had he not been snake bitten twice. Newgarden is great on the short ovals. He raced well at Milwaukee. He races well at Iowa. I am sure he hopes Phoenix stays for many, many years and perhaps another short oval or two are added sooner rather than later.

7. In his first IndyCar oval race, Max Chilton finished seventh. He made a few bold moves but more importantly he kept his nose clean and completed all the laps. This is a huge step forward for him and a huge boost of confidence heading into the rest of the season, especially the Indianapolis 500.

8. Sébastien Bourdais grazed the wall and finished eighth. He benefitted as he went slightly off strategy because of the contact and ended up in the top ten. Sometimes that happens.

9. Juan Pablo Montoya was the second of Penske's tire failures. It was just a Penske thing as no one else had tires go down. Montoya looked like a contender for the victory in the first 100 laps. What could have been?

10. Ryan Hunter-Reay earned a test with McLaren-Honda for tonight. He passed five drivers on the initial start and passed at least two drivers on every restart tonight. If only he could have caught a break with cautions. Twice he pits and the caution comes out a lap later. He should have finished in the top five and perhaps he could have stolen a spot on the podium. Frustrating but encouraging as Hunter-Reay knows he can run with the Chevrolets even when it is an up hill battle.

11. Hélio Castroneves cut a tire while leading and never really recovered. Castroneves and Montoya both did great jobs not getting into the barriers when entering turn one at about 190 MPH. 

12. Quick run through the rest of the field: Charlie Kimball was 12th after his penalty for chopping Newgarden. Marco Andretti ran just outside the top ten all day. Alexander Rossi nearly had a top ten but he had to pit to top off on fuel when the pits were closed and was sent to the back of the line. Then Rossi tapped the barrier to bring out the final caution but he ends up 14th. Takuma Sato did nothing but ended up 15th. Conor Daly did nothing but ended up 16th. Mikhail Alehsin nearly had a top ten but spun entering the pit lane under caution to make his final stop and he settles for 17th. James Hinchcliffe's oval return sees him final 18th. Jack Hawksworth was never a factor. Other than his lazy spin, Luca Filippi ran 243 laps in his oval debut. Ed Carpenter had another top ten on an oval taken away from him because he got into the marbles. Carlos Muñoz had what was probably the worst weekend of his IndyCar career.

13. It was a good race. It was interesting to see when a driver would make a move and it took a lot of skill to make a pass. I think IndyCar should listen to Will Power though and take downforce out of the cars and increase the horsepower a little bit. That and Firestone should bring a tire that is more like the Texas tire and falls off gradually but significantly over an entire stint. Dario Franchitti and J.R. Hildebrand seem to feel the same way about taking out downforce. I hope IndyCar considers it.

14. Rick Allen did a really good job in the booth on his IndyCar debut. The race went so fast that Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy lost track of how many laps were left when the final caution came out with two to go. Other than that, a solid broadcast for NBCSN in its first race of 2016.

15. On to Long Beach and I guess the championship picture is jumbled up. I didn't see the championship table after Phoenix. I know Pagenaud is leading but with Montoya having a first and ninth from two races and Dixon having a seventh and first and Hunter-Reay with a third and tenth I would guess that it is pretty close from first to fifth. There are a lot of races to go. Long Beach is in two weeks. Sleep tight boys and girls.