Sunday, May 29, 2016

100th Indianapolis 500: First Impressions

Alexander Rossi: 18 Gallons Dry, One Pint of Milk Full
1. This race had aspects of the previous 99 Indianapolis 500s. The opening stint reminded me of 2014. When was a caution going to come? Would one come at all? Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe reenacted the Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward duel for the first twenty-five laps. You had the start-stop nature with caution after caution during the middle of the race like it was the IRL-era. A car painted in Menards colors had engine problems and a USAC driver led. The finish was 2011 except it didn't end with a rookie sliding short of history but coasting across the finish line at a pace that hasn't been seen in over forty years.

Alexander Rossi's Indianapolis 500 victory couldn't have been more complete. He ran the fastest lap in the 100th Indianapolis 500 at 225.288 MPH and he took the checkered flag with a lap averaging 179.784 MPH. That has to be the slowest green flag lap that wasn't an in-lap or an out-lap. Rossi had a respectable month but nobody expected him to win it. He was around the back half of the top ten all month but he was the fifth fastest of a five-car team. He was light years ahead of other rookies but he wasn't busting up the big boys. He was on the periphery. Rossi has always been on the periphery. Second in GP2 but couldn't stay in Formula One and couldn't get a respectable team, hell he couldn't get the American team to take him in. Won the Formula BMW World Finals only to have BMW pull out of Formula One. IndyCar fans knew he existed but always felt he never wanted to come in. You could say we all felt he thought he was bigger and better than IndyCar.

Did he really felt that way? He had to at least put up that facade. If Formula One teams or GP2 teams knew he was interested in racing at home and wasn't focused on Europe, they would have sent him packing. When push came to shove over whether to race or just be a reserve driver for the cellar dweller Manor Racing, Rossi decided to race. While most young single-seater prospects turn to sports cars, whether its LMP2 or GT, when their road to Formula One collapses into the sea, Rossi dove into IndyCar. No one of his ilk choose IndyCar unless they never want to be seen in Formula One. It's a career move on par with getting on a sinking ship. A sinking ship that hovers at the surface because of the Indianapolis 500.

Did Rossi's victory raise IndyCar out of the water for all to see? We won't know tonight or tomorrow or a week for now or a year for now. I think of the words of Justin Wilson. He never regretted coming to America and making a career here instead of in Europe. Did Wilson have an affluent life here? No. He was successful but money was tight. Wilson was out of a ride despite being one of the most respected on the grid but would his life been any better if he was a Formula One reserve driver or had raced another year in Formula One or had chosen DTM or prototypes over IndyCar? We will never known but Wilson showed you could be happy and race in IndyCar. Many drivers come from Europe, from the world of Formula One and can't believe how friendly the IndyCar paddock is. How can that be when IndyCar is in such a state of distress? IndyCar's joy is the only thing it has going for itself.

Rossi has reached the pinnacle of IndyCar in six starts. Where does his career go from here? Will Formula One come calling and would he go back? Does he stick around in IndyCar and, though he won't be making millions and soaking in glitz and glamour at every race, fall in love with a series most wouldn't dare join?

2. Carlos Muñoz came home in a strong second for a Andretti Autosport 1-2. Muñoz was quiet all day. He faded a little bit but never lost the front of the field. He carved his way to the front as the race wore on. Muñoz didn't have a caution fall his way; he put himself in contention. Another second for Muñoz. He looked gutted. He should be. He was charging. If it weren't for his teammate, he would have won the Indianapolis 500.

3. Josef Newgarden was at the front of the race all day. He and Muñoz are the future and one, if not both, will win an Indianapolis 500 someday. Though he drives for Ed Carpenter Racing and they pinch pennies to get by, he doesn't need to go to Penske or Ganassi. He can be a champion with the little team. It sounds crazy but it isn't inconceivable.

4. After a slew of other drivers stubbed their toes, it appears Tony Kanaan was going to be in position to win his second Indianapolis 500 and would only have to hold off Josef Newgarden. He worked his way to the top ten and kept his nose clean. Was this Kanaan's last hooray in the Indianapolis 500? I don't think so but he doesn't have that many left.

5. Charlie Kimball made it the final 36 laps without stopping and he conserved fuel at a extreme rate. When Kanaan and Newgarden were leading and running laps at 215-217 MPH, Kimball had dropped down to 201-202 MPH laps. Was that too conservative of Kimball, especially after he finished over five seconds behind Muñoz and Newgarden and was nipped at the line by 0.0255 seconds by Kanaan for fourth? Probably but fifth is nothing to be ashamed off.

6. Another year, another set of results J.R. Hildebrand can superglue to John Barnes door. Sixth-place for Hildebrand. Can someone get this man a full time ride? Six Indianapolis 500 starts, four top ten finishes. He has completed all 200 laps all but once. He has too much talent to be on the sidelines 50 weeks of the year.

7. James Hinchcliffe had a great day but seventh doesn't do it justice. He and Hunter-Reay were the class of the field for the first 250 miles. For a man who was knocking on Heaven's door last year, to come back and finish seventh in the Indianapolis 500 is a fantastic result.

8. Scott Dixon finished eighth and that is as high as he could get all day. He never challenged for the lead. He never challenged for the top five even. I can't even remember him being mentioned on the broadcast. And he finished eighth. This wasn't a bad day for Dixon but not a day to brag about.

9. Sébastien Bourdais finished ninth but I can't recall him being mentioned once. He kept his nose clean and this is what he got out of it.

10. Will Power made it the final 36 laps without stopping but he is fortunate to get tenth. He had a penalty for an unsafe release from the pit lane and he and the other Penskes seemed to struggle with some type of engine problem. This day could have been a lot worse.

11. I thought this race was going Hélio Castroneves' way. He pits from the lead and the caution comes out when Buddy Lazier loses a wheel. His left rear wheel guard gets knocked and flaps in the wind, a caution comes out after Takuma Sato brushes the wall. He couldn't over come that last problem and he finishes 11th.

12. Oriol Servià finished 12th after starting tenth but faded to 19th within the first 50 miles of the race. Not a bad day.

13. This day could have been worse for Marco Andretti. He made a net gain of one from his starting position but it is nothing to celebrate.

14. Graham Rahal went from the back to the front but couldn't finish in the top ten. He had a good day despite finishing 14th. I think he will look back and realize he set himself back in qualifying.

15. Max Chilton finished 15th and that would have been good enough for Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year most year but nope. His former Marussia/Manor teammate stole his thunder. But I think Rossi earned it. After all, Chilton kept Rossi from making his Formula One debut back at Spa-Francorchamps in 2014. I would say they are now even.

16. Jack Hawksworth had a respectable day and finished 16th. This is actually a big jump forward for him considering how poor his season has been.

17. Alex Tagliani might have finished 17th, the final car on the lead lap but Tagliani led a handful of laps and now has led in six consecutive Indianapolis 500s. Tony Kanaan has the record for seven consecutive Indianapolis 500s led from 2002-2008. The only other driver to lead in six consecutive Indianapolis 500s was Rick Mears from 1979-1984. Tagliani is an oddball in the record books.

18. Pippa Mann was the first car one-lap down in 18th, her best Indianapolis 500 finish. She cracked the top ten at one point late during the final pit cycle but she couldn't stretch it. This is what Mann does. She runs most of the laps but never contends. You can make a career out of it.

19. Simon Pagenaud had something wrong with his engine and he could only manage 19th. He was also penalized for unsafe pit release. This was a hit for the championship leader but not as bad as it could have been considering how many other contenders struggled.

20. Gabby Chaves wasn't mentioned all day and he finished 20th. I think he will run more this season with Dale Coyne Racing if not the rest of the season.

21. Townsend Bell is the first of many to stub his toe. He exited his pit stall, slammed into Castroneves and ricocheted into Ryan Hunter-Reay ruining both their races. Bell and Hunter-Reay could have finished 1-2. Instead Bell was 21st a lap down and Hunter-Reay was 24th, two laps down. Bell may not get a second year with Andretti Autosport and that is unfortunate because he had a great first half.

22. Matthew Brabham finished 22nd but wasn't a factor all day and Bryan Clauson, after completing 92 laps in his first two Indianapolis 500 starts, finished 23rd and completed 198 laps. It was a respectable showing for Clauson after many wrote him off as a wasted seat.

23. Spencer Pigot had a good day until he ran out of fuel under caution and finished 25th. I hope he gets a few more starts this season. Three starts aren't enough, especially for the defending Indy Lights champion.

24. Takuma Sato slapped the wall. He had completed all 200 laps the last three years but his best finish is still only 13th. How much longer will he be at A.J. Foyt Racing? Don't be surprised if this was his final run for Foyt in the Indianapolis 500.

25. Mikhail Aleshin spun and many expected that. He is fast. If he hones in his aggression he could be a winner on an oval and perhaps the Indianapolis 500.

26. Stefan Wilson had a mechanical failure end his Indianapolis 500 debut after 119 laps. He held his own. Will he be back next year?

27. Conor Daly can't catch a break at Indianapolis. He spun after being blinded by the smoke from Aleshin's spin and ended up bumping the Russian and the wall. Daly had been in the top fifteen at that point.

28. Buddy Lazier missed the first 100 miles but got out there and completed 100 laps. He has made 19 Indianapolis 500 starts. I bet he is shooting for 20. He could get it but I think he is better off being a one-off car owner. He has a car and if he could be someone like who Sam Schmidt was from 2004 until 2010 who showed up to the Indianapolis 500 each year and through a partnership put together a respectable effort, he could have a long future not only in the Indianapolis 500 but perhaps as a full-time IndyCar team. There were many talented drivers on the outside this year and if Lazier could get a James Davison or Luca Filippi or Brian Vickers in his car and partner with Carlin or Juncos Racing or another team, he could put together a contender for a top ten finish.

29. Ed Carpenter had an engine failure end his race before halfway. He wasn't contending for the lead but see how this race went you wouldn't have ruled him out if he were out there.

30. Sage Karam picked his way into the top five from 23rd in less than 100 laps but he was too aggressive and he now has consecutive 32nd place finishes. Karam is talented but he needs a mentor. Unfortunately, Chip Ganassi kicked him to the curb. He could be a race winner. He could be a champion. He is currently an orphan.

31. Juan Pablo Montoya joins Jimmy Bryan and Johnny Rutherford as drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 and finish dead last the next. Was it a surprise? Yes. Is it the end for Montoya? No. It is just another oddity in the Indianapolis 500 record book.

32. The pre-race festivities were fantastic. From the anthem to the 21-gun salute to taps from the flag stand. Whoever decided to have taps played from the flag stand is a genius. I bet it was Doug Boles. The children's choir should be apart of every race. They nailed "God Bless America" and they nailed "Back Home Again in Indiana." The race broadcast was good. Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear are still insufferable. Allen Bestwick deserves better. The pit reporters are great. Jon Beekhuis should be in the booth.

33. We are 364 days until the 101st Indianapolis 500.