Sunday, September 4, 2016

First Impressions: Watkins Glen 2016

1. Scott Dixon dominated this race but he and the rest of the field nearly pooched it. Dixon was miles ahead of everybody today. He was the only guy running in the 84-second bracket while the rest of the field was toiling in the mid-85 range. This is his 40th IndyCar victory, his fourth at Watkins Glen and he has won at the track with three different manufactures. The only drivers ahead of him in victories are AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti and Michael Andretti. He is an all-time great. He might not win his fifth championship in 2016 but don't rule him out for 2017.

2. Josef Newgarden finished second from 12th on the grid. He made it on fuel mileage while others didn't and he benefitted from pitting before the first caution for Mikhail Aleshin's accident. This has been a good year for Newgarden and he won't be in the championship fight at Sonoma like last year. Had he not had so much unfortunate turns (electrical problem at St. Petersburg, getting clipped by Juan Pablo Montoya at Toronto, getting clipped by Will Power at Mid-Ohio) he might have been contending. Maybe 2017 will be his year.

3. Hélio Castroneves finished third after it appeared he would have been out of luck. He went off strategy, appeared to be a few laps short, got a caution, ended up being a few laps short but was in good position and gets a podium out of it. This was a textbook Castroneves day. He never bosses a race but he still ends up with a finish at the front.

4. Like Newgarden, Conor Daly benefitted from the Aleshin caution and he stayed toward the front. He was nearly on the podium but had to coast home and finished fourth. This is still a great run for Daly. Dale Coyne is the master of strategy in IndyCar, arguably as good as Roger Penske considering the lack resources Coyne has. He should be working for Haas F1 considering how terrible they have been with strategy this year. Maybe Gene Haas and Coyne can form some type of partnership and bolster Coyne's IndyCar team to become a contender each week. Coyne already has one driver talented enough for the job and he might have another but more on that in a minute.

5. Sébastien Bourdais was next to the tires at pit exit after the first turn of the race. He was nearly 40 seconds behind Dixon. Then he had a trip through the grass at the chicane and had to give up a position and he still finished fifth. What a day. He might be on the move but he seems to be a great fit at KV Racing. Maybe a teammate, a veteran teammate would help him there but it appears it maybe be too little too late for KV.

6. Charlie Kimball didn't want to save fuel and went balls out, made a stop and charged to sixth after his final stop. He also made contact with Graham Rahal and Will Power and both those drivers retired. Kimball isn't a dirty driver. He never really runs people off the road but he is consistently able to bring cars home. I think his consistency is what other drivers are jealous of.

7. Simon Pagenaud hung around Will Power all day. When Power thought he could jump Pagenaud by pitting early, Power ended up in traffic and Pagenaud ended up staying at the front. Power ended up in the barrier after racing Kimball, Pagenaud limped home to seventh. He leads Power by 43 points heading to Sonoma. Scott Dixon over came a 47-point difference last year. If Power wins and gets three bonus at Sonoma and Pagenaud finishes third with no bonus points, Power would win the championship on tiebreaker. It isn't over. It is very much alive for Power but he crumbled today when in direst. He can't do that in Sonoma.

8. Alexander Rossi limbed home to eighth but he was a hard charger at the start and was in the top ten on speed. He won the Indianapolis 500 and is in the catbird seat for Rookie of the Year. Most years that would be a great year but it has been frustrating as none of the Andretti Autosport teams have been consistently quick this year. If anything, the team has regressed since the first round of the season. They are going to need to make big strides in the offseason but that might not matter for Rossi. I am sure others are knocking at his door. Will he want to take a risk though?

9. RC Enerson started 11th, avoids the first lap incident and was running sixth. He got caught out by the Aleshin caution and really wasn't a factor. On the final stint, he was able to run harder than most other drivers and ended up in ninth, his first career top ten finish. Coyne may have had the steal of the season by promoting Enerson to IndyCar so quickly. He will race at Sonoma next week but after that, his future in IndyCar is up in the air. He definitely deserves a shot in 2017.

10. Max Chilton had a good car today and gets his first top ten since Phoenix. He was second after the Aleshin caution but it was clear he didn't have the pace of some of the car behind him. He and Kimball carved up the field before their final stops but while Kimball got up to sixth, Chilton was stuck and could only manage tenth. It is still a good day but could have been better.

11. Carlos Muñoz and Marco Andretti both didn't stop after the Power caution and stopped about 3-5 laps later. They were able to make it on fuel and ended up on the edge of the top ten. This is where Andretti Autosport has been this year: needing to roll the dice to get a decent finish. That isn't a good thing.

12. Juan Pablo Montoya appeared to be on his way for a top five finish and then stopped soon after the Power caution instead of trying to conserve fuel. He then spun and it cost him a few positions. It has been that type of year for Montoya.

13. Quickly through the rest of the field: Ryan Hunter-Reay looked to be on his way for a top ten but had to conserve fuel. The Hondas have sacrificed fuel efficiency to make up some speed on the Chevrolets and other than at Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono it hasn't been worth it. Spencer Pigot crawled home in 15th. He has had a decent year and deserves a full-time ride in 2017. Jack Hawksworth started ninth but finished 16th. Takuma Sato was on the Muñoz-Andretti strategy and got up to eighth and then spun. I can't see how Foyt keeps him for another year but he kept him this year and I thought he was going to be gone after 2015. Who knows? Foyt might boot him before Sonoma. James Hinchcliffe was third at the start of the final lap and he ran out of fuel and didn't even make it back to the line. How unfortunate for a guy who charged to the front just like Rossi did.

14. Tony Kanaan had a rear suspension issue cost him a top five finish. We already went over Will Power's day. Graham Rahal had a fast car, got into the top ten, got caught out by the Aleshin caution and then got into Kimball after Kimball bottomed out on the curbs and Rahal was in the worst position. Mikhail Aleshin had a tire failure. It might have been something else, maybe rear suspension failure like Daly at Road America but either way it ruined his day.

15. I thought this was a great return for IndyCar to Watkins Glen. The crowd looked better than I expected. The race was better than most expected. I really hope it works this time. Labor Day weekend may be tricky, especially if traffic is nightmare for the holiday weekend. That is what is going to keep people from coming back but hopeful the experience is good enough to bring them back. If IndyCar can get all three Road to Indy series and maybe a sports car series to Watkins Glen next year, it could be something that rivals Road America in terms of a jam-packed weekend.

16. One race remains and it is two weeks away. The Road to Indy series will crown its champions next week at Laguna Seca and then the focus turns a few hours north to Sonoma. Will the Astor Cup return to Will Power or will Simon Pagenaud add his name to the list of Penske champions? Two weeks my friends. That is all that remains for IndyCar in 2016.