Sunday, July 31, 2016

First Impressions: Mid-Ohio 2016

1. Simon Pagenaud won this race from pole position and Will Power finished second. They started first and second respectively. This was anything but a race where they drove away and were never challenged. This was a race where it didn't look either were going to win. Pagenaud was aggressive despite a sore back and he is taking the championship by the scruff of the neck. He isn't sacrificing any points to anybody. It was an impressive drive. The championship appears to be over barring someone winning the final four races or three of the final four with another top five finish. Pagenaud controls the championship but, as we saw today, he will not take a breather. He is as focused as anyone behind him.

2. Speaking of Power, when Pagenaud passed him for what ultimately ended up being the race-winning pass, those two made contact maybe three times in one lap. Power doesn't want to lose but he was ahead of Pagenaud for a fair portion of this race after the first stint. It seemed he was going to be able to hold off Pageanud and at least make up a few points in the championship and now he has slipped back another 13 points. Power has finished on the podium in five consecutive races but it might not matter if Pagenaud keeps bringing the car home. Pagenaud has now finished 23 consecutive races. His championship rivals need him to have at least one retirement in hopes of taking the Astor Cup. 

3. Carlos Muñoz finished third and he benefitted from pitting early on the first stint before the caution for Scott Dixon's accident. Muñoz needed this as he looks to keep his job at Andretti Autosport. This is the third consecutive Mid-Ohio race to feature an Andretti Autosport car on the podium. He looked good but will it be enough? He jumps ahead of Alexander Rossi as the top Andretti driver in the championship. It will be hard for Andretti Autosport not to keep him if he finished top of the four drivers.

4. Graham Rahal finished fourth in what was a good day for him but a day I bet he wishes was a little bit better. He was strong all weekend and really shouldn't be disappointed with a fourth but when you were a championship contender last year and won at Mid-Ohio last year, anything but replicating that success isn't good enough. 

5. James Hinchcliffe finished fifth in a day that appeared to be falling into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' lap. SPM has been the best Honda team in the last three races. Andretti Autosport really hasn't been that bad but SPM has picked up the Honda flag while Andretti had a few bad races. 

6. Conor Daly rolled the dice and finished sixth. He stopped about five laps before entering the pit window for final stops and stayed out when the leaders pitted under caution. Daly pulled away from the tussling Penskes and he stopped with six laps to go. Dale Coyne Racing worked strategy out well for another race. I am not sure Daly can win a race this year but he is knocking on the door. He is in line for a promotion but there is a logjam of talent that Daly will have to work his way through.

7. Spencer Pigot finished seventh, a career-best for him! He, just like Muñoz, benefitted from stopping early in the first stint and they hung around the top ten all day after that. He has looked good on the road/street circuits and he deserves a full-time ride but I don't know where he will get it. I am not sure Ed Carpenter Racing can expand its operation. Pigot deserves more and I think he will get it.

8. Charlie Kimball finished eighth as usual. Kimball finishes seventh-12th every weekend. He is a consistent driver. While all the other Ganassi drivers faltered, Kimball stood strong. I am not sure he will ever develop into a driver who can grab a race by the reins and steal it but he can bring the car home in a good position nine times out of ten. 

9. Takuma Sato was on track for successive top five finishes and then Sébastien Bourdais made contact with him with four laps to go and dropped Sato to ninth. Still a good day for Sato but he knows it could have been better. Just when it appears Sato's days at A.J. Foyt Racing are over he strings together a bunch of good finishes and makes it hard for Foyt to fire him.

10. Josef Newgarden finished tenth but he should go up to Roger Penske after this race and demand Penske hire him for 2017 because this is two consecutive races Newgarden has had really good days ruin because a Penske driver clipped him. Juan Pablo Montoya clipped him at Toronto and Power did it today after Newgarden passed him. Had it not been for the contact, Newgarden might have been battling for the victory. 

11. A quick run through the field. Juan Pablo Montoya finished 11th and led a few laps after trying to go off strategy but binning that before seeing it out. Tony Kanaan faded to 12th. Marco Andretti went from 21st to 13th. Alexander Rossi did nothing all-day and finished 14th. Hélio Castroneves may or may not have blocked Scott Dixon and ended the New Zealander's race. Max Chilton did nothing and finished 16th

12. Mikhail Aleshin had this race in his hand. He stopped early in the first stint and ended up being the leader because he stopped before the caution. This race was his as he had a 10-plus second lead and when the caution came out with 29 laps to go, putting the field in position to get their final stops under caution, all Aleshin needed was a clean stop and he would have exited as the leader. He had a clean stop. His exit from his pit box was the problem. He drove right into Josef Newgarden (man, what a rough day for Newgarden) and Aleshin threw the race away. He is quick but too aggressive at times. He tried to seize the moment but ended up slamming into reality that a victory was in his pocket. He won't do it again but will he ever find himself in this position again? We will have to wait and see.

13. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 18th but was in position for a top ten (and a top five when taking the Sato-Bourdais contact into consideration). The team didn't get his car full of fuel on the final stop, a pit stop where Hunter-Reay lost two positions for absolutely nothing. He had to conserve. The team stubbed its toe all month. It had a great day and choked on it. It hasn't been a bad year for Hunter-Reay. It has been a catastrophic month and Hunter-Reay needs to hope he can revive the magic at Pocono.

14. RC Enerson finished 19th but if it wasn't for stalling on his second pit stop he would have finished in the top ten, heck he could have been in the same boat as Daly, trying to save fuel and running in the top three with ten laps to go. Enerson passed the audition and there should be no question about him running Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Heck, I would let him run Pocono (actually, that is asking quite a bit. I would call Sage Karam for Pocono).

15. Sébastien Bourdais, Jack Hawksworth and Scott Dixon all didn't take the checkered flag. The championship is falling away from Dixon. Unless he wins the final four races, he won't get his fifth championship.

16. Now there are two weeks off for the Olympics and then Pocono. Today would have been Justin Wilson's 38th birthday. It is hard not to think about him when you say Pocono and vice versa. There will be a lot of emotion heading back to Pocono. There is a lot of time to mull them over.