Monday, August 21, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: A Commentary of a Commentary

I went to Pocono and despite spending hours in the sun got next to no color. Team Penske's march for world domination continues. The same man won all three NASCAR national touring series races at Bristol. The Lausitzring hosted its final major motorsports event. World Supersport had a late red flag that left a few angry. The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters went to the Netherlands. The World Rally Championship was in Deutschland. Rain hampered the Super Formula weekend from Motegi but a future Formula One driver took a maiden victory. People are losing their minds over a total solar eclipse. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

A Commentary of a Commentary
IndyCar has a lot of good writers following the series. Robin Miller, Marshall Pruett, David Malsher and John Oreovicz are just a few names. They all bring different perspectives to the table. Miller is the man who has seen it all. Pruett is the former mechanic who is the go-to when it comes to anything on the technical side. Malsher fell in love with IndyCar from abroad. Oreovicz is the Generation X-er who lived through the split. Some of the times you agree with them, other times you won't but they are knowledgeable and put thought into their work. They aren't "hot take artists" trying to stir the pot.

David Malsher wrote a commentary prior to the Pocono race weekend titles Why IndyCar Needs Proactive Fans to Revive Its Mass Appeal. Some of what he wrote I agree with. Other parts I disagree with and have written about previously.

Let's start with a very valid point from Malsher. He starts by writing about the moments when he got hooked to motorsports and how the fanfare at races made him wish to be there. In the current state of IndyCar, there aren't many venues that have that kind of state of fanfare where grandstands are filled to the brim with fans louder than the cars and cheering every pass for position. With that lack of raw excitement it is hard to attract people and make them want to be a part of the crowd. In turn, IndyCar in this case won't grow.

"If hardly anyone bothers to show up in person, then that too is transmitted via media, the event's perceived value as a sporting spectacle is shredded and so the compulsion to watch on TV rapidly dissipates, too," Malsher wrote. I agree with what he is saying. I remember last year during the Olympics visiting my parents on putting on a soccer game that took place in a stadium that wasn't even close to half-filled. My mother wondered why I was watching it based only on the amount of people in the stands.

Malsher believe the lack of atmosphere has hurt several IndyCar races, most notably ovals. He isn't wrong. I love going to Pocono each year and I actually like the atmosphere. The one thing I have always enjoyed about Pocono is the fan-friendly nature of the race track. All those working at the track always greet you with a smile and are accommodating if you have a question but the atmosphere isn't a raucous crowd. There aren't 100,000 screaming fans with every 20-something woman wanting a piece of Josef Newgarden. It is more of a causal get together of speed junkies quietly moseying around, looking at the cars, lining up for autographs and then taking their seats for a 500-mile race. I love of it but if you are a 22-year-old, recently out of college, looking for a good time on the weekend that won't break the budget because you still live at home, have yet to find a job and you want to drink in the sun it probably isn't enough to get you interested.

Now to the part where I start to disagree with Malsher: "What's most worrying now is that luring even the hardcore IndyCar fans to "driver into the middle of nowhere" appears to be an uphill battle. For years we've read comments from a sizable section of series loyalists about how oval racing is vastly superior to street course racing because it's faster, there's more passing and you can see far more of the track – valid reasons, all. But are those critics actually prepared to make an effort to attend their nearest oval IndyCar race?"

Malsher continues by saying 50,000 people shouldn't be too much to expect for Gateway because it is only three hours from the Indianapolis-area and if 20% of the Indianapolis 500 crowd showed up to Gateway, it would easily break that 50,000 mark.

Some people want more ovals on the IndyCar schedule, I would like to see a few more, but I wrote about this before and you can't expect a Grateful Dead-esque crowd of the same 15,000 people going to every oval race around the country and then hoping about 20,000 locals show up to each race. It isn't on the fans for IndyCar to succeed. The tracks need to make it worth it for the locals to come and support the events. Forget 50,000 Hoosiers heading west for a Saturday night on the banks of the Mississippi. St. Louis has a population just north of 311,000 people. Why not try and get 20% of St. Louisans instead of relying on 50,000 people to make a three-hour drive.

The same goes for Pocono, Texas and Phoenix. Pocono isn't in the middle of a metropolis but it is within shouting distance of Philadelphia and New York and you have all of northern New Jersey to pick from. New York is the largest city in the United States and Philadelphia is the sixth-largest city. You have 10 million people between those two cities alone; drawing 1% of the combined population of those two cities would be enough to be the second-highest attended IndyCar race. Phoenix is the fifth-largest city at over 1.6 million people and Dallas is ninth largest at 1.3 million.

Instead of putting the weight of IndyCar's success on the already small fan base, why not look to the tracks and work on creating events that attract people out? I look at the success of the Snake Pit during the Indianapolis 500 and wonder why that can't be replicated at all the oval races? Why couldn't each oval race have an EDM concert going on in the infield? The Snake Pit for the Indianapolis 500 already draws about 30,000 people. The same could be done for these other oval races and all of a sudden you go from drawing 15,000-20,000 to 45,000-50,000. Races should be something a community embraces and look forward to each year. That is what has made the Indianapolis 500 as successful as it has been.

Fans should still drive long distances if they want to go to a race. If you live in Indiana and want to drive three hours for Gateway, do it. I would love to make the four-hour drive to Watkins Glen in two weeks time but it isn't feasible this year with work. Fans should not feel it is their responsibility to go to races to make IndyCar look good. That responsibility is on IndyCar and on the tracks that host IndyCar. For the series to truly succeed those two facets need to start attracting different people for the surrounding areas of the race tracks and not rely on the same group of people traveling multiple hours.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Will Power but did you know...

Kyle Busch swept the NASCAR races at Bristol as he won all three national touring division races.

Chaz Davies swept the World Superbike races from Lausitzring. Sheridan Morais picked up his first career World Supersport victory after a red flag for an accident between Yamaha teammates Lucas Mahias and Federico Caricasulo led to the race to be reverted to the results at the end of lap 17.

Timo Glock and Mike Rockenfeller split the DTM races from Zandvoort.

Fabian Coulthard and Jamie Whincup split the Supercars races from Sydney Motorsports Park.

Pierre Gasly won the Super Formula race from Motegi, his first career Super Formula victory and the first Super Formula victory of the season for Honda.

Ott Tänak won Rally Deutschland.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar makes its return to Gateway Motorsports Park.
Formula One is back from summer vacation and will be at Spa-Francorchamps.
Super GT runs the Suzuka 1000km for the final time and Jenson Button and Kamui Kobayashi will be there!
MotoGP heads to Silverstone.
IMSA's two GT divisions head to Virginia International Raceway.
NASCAR's second division head to Road America.
European Le Mans Series heads to the future home of the French Grand Prix, Circuit Paul Ricard.
Blancpain Sprint Series will be in Hungary.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

First Impressions: Pocono 2017

1. Alright, it is a few minutes after 8:00 p.m. ET, I have been home for about a half hour and now I look back on the race I just attended after having about 100 minutes in the car. Will Power stole it again and that is what makes Team Penske the greatest team perhaps in motorsports history. It isn't that Power didn't have the speed to compete in the front but nine times out of ten when a team needs to make an unscheduled pit stop or front wing change it is game over and if you can get a top ten finish than it is considered a day salvaged. Not Team Penske and not Will Power. That team stopped when there was no way to make it on one more stop and ran hard enough to cycle out with a sizable lead and then short stint to maintain the advantage.

2. It didn't come easy for Power. Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi ran him down and they were breathing down his neck for the final ten laps. Newgarden couldn't maintain his runs into turn three. Power took away the inside lap each lap and Newgarden could keep the momentum up through turn three and down the front straightaway. It isn't a win but it is a great day in the championship for Newgarden. He needed a solid run and he only had Power gain ground on him. It is far from over but Newgarden held onto the advantage, which didn't appear likely at the start of today.

3. Alexander Rossi might have been the best driver out there today and this feels like a second consecutive year of Honda being the best for the first 350 miles and then lost it in the final 150 miles. Rossi was on the back of Newgarden the whole way but he couldn't get by and challenge Power. It is a good day and this is a bit of redemption after how he race ended last year but he probably feels like he should have won this one. Honda has to be slightly disappointed not to win this one. It had the top four cars consistently in this race and its best finisher was in third.

4. I will be honest, the entire drive home I thought Tony Kanaan finished fourth. I didn't realize it was Simon Pagenaud. He had a good day. He seemed to stop on the first lap or two of a fuel window and then would come out three or four positions better than he was only to lose those positions after a few laps. The streak continues for Pagenaud. He will head to Gateway having completed every lap this season.

5. Tony Kanaan finished fifth and he was the best guy on restarts all race. I think he went third to first into turn one at least twice. He had a really good car at the start of runs but he didn't have it over long stints and that is where the likes of Rossi, Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay had Kanaan beat but Kanaan got a solid result out of this one.

6. Scott Dixon finished sixth and like Rossi, this probably should have been a better result. Dixon led a fair share of this race and he was consistently in the top five. He trails Newgarden by 18 points and while Newgarden might have the edge at Gateway, Dixon is arguably the man to beat at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Next week might be about making sure the bleeding isn't too bad and giving himself a good shot at it in the final two.

7. Hélio Castroneves finished seventh and that was probably the best he could have asked for. He got to the fringe of the top ten but never really challenged for the top five. This is a good recovery after yesterday's qualifying accident.

8. Ryan Hunter-Reay started a position behind Castroneves and finished a position behind Castroneves but he had a far better day than Castroneves. Hunter-Reay definitely deserved a top five, if not a podium finish. For a good portion of this race it looked like either Rossi or Hunter-Reay were going to win this one. He got shuffled back during the last pit cycle when someone came out and he got caught behind him and lost all momentum.

9. Speaking of drivers that deserved a better finish, Graham Rahal was much better than ninth. He and Kanaan traded the lead for every lap for almost a dozen laps. I don't think Rahal could have won it but he should have been ahead of at least three of the four Penskes. During that never-ending position swap between him and Kanaan, I was trying to figure out why and what I noticed was the wind was blowing head on toward the exit of turn two and the only thing I can think of was the leader was slowed on exit, the trailing car didn't have that disadvantage and could use the leader as a pick into turn three.

10. Carlos Muñoz rounded out the top ten. He had a good day but he wasn't a factor. It is still a good showing in what has been a difficult year for him and A.J Foyt Racing.

11. One final driver that should have finished better than he did: Marco Andretti. He led a handful of laps during the pit cycle and he had to pit for a splash of gas and that didn't go as smoothly as it could have. Even if that splash and go was to perfection, at best I think Andretti would have come out in sixth or seventh, which is kind of where he should have been. He seemed to be ahead of Newgarden for most of the day and he was running with Hunter-Reay for a bit in this one.

12. Ed Carpenter finished 12th. Who knew?

13. Takuma Sato went directly to the back when the green flag fell, which is disappointing considering how positive his pole position was yesterday. Thirteenth can't be spun as a positive.

14. Conor Daly gets his first lead lap finish on an oval, and his third consecutive lead lap finish, in finished 14th. He was running with Muñoz for a good portion of today. I don't know if he could have cracked the top ten but I think Muñoz finished about four spots better than he should have and had the cautions gone differently, Daly could have finished ahead of his teammate.

15. Quickly through the rest of the field: Gabby Chaves was another car that dropped through the field like a rock at the start. Fifteenth is still good considering this is the team's third race ever and it is the team's worst result but I am sure they were really hopeful after starting eighth. Charlie Kimball had to change his front wing early and never got back into this one. Ed Jones spent a good portion of the race around 11th but finished 17th. Max Chilton had mechanical issues hamper his day. J.R. Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe got together. Hinchcliffe let his botched pit stop get the better of him and he never recovered, although he made the save of the decade, perhaps the century exiting turn one on one lap. Sebastián Saavedra did nothing spectacular before brushing the wall. Esteban Gutiérrez had a really good start and his race was over after completing just over 50 miles.

16. I have gone to every Pocono race since the series returned. This had to be the biggest crowd in that period and it felt bigger. This isn't some wishful bullshit of thinking it looks bigger because of rose tinted glasses. It looked like there were more heads to my left when I looked toward turn three and more to my right when I looked toward turn one. It wasn't a sellout and I am not going to pretend it was a sellout but if you said 35,000 to 40,000 people were there, I would buy it and I could even buy about 45,000.

Whatever Pocono did, they have to do it again. I think they have found a great date in late August. It was another comfortable day, which only helps attract people to the track and they saw a top-notch race today. My only request would be to start the race an hour earlier. A 2:40 p.m. start time was good but I think a 1:30 p.m. would be better.

A few years ago I was worried about IndyCar's future at Pocono. I am hopefully now but races are delicate. A track could try to do too much and ruin all the progress made. One increase in ticket prices could be a death sentence and I am afraid that will happen. I can understand why a track would want to do it but greediness can bite.

17. On to Gateway. IndyCar's final races come thick and fast and the title is going to Sonoma. Forty-two points cover the top five; 100 points cover the top eight. It should be a good one.

Morning Warm-Up: Pocono 2017

Takuma Sato looks to sweep IndyCar's 500-mile races
Takuma Sato picked up his second pole position of the season, seventh career pole position and his first pole position on an oval since Iowa 2011 with a two-lap average of 219.639 MPH. The defending Indianapolis 500 winner was the only driver to run a sub-41 second lap in qualifying and he did it on the first lap of his run. This will be Sato's seventh top five start of the season. He scored his best finish from starting on pole position earlier this season at Belle Isle when he finished fourth. He has finished outside the top fifteen four times after starting on pole position. Sato is attempting to become the first driver to win multiple 500-mile races in a season since Juan Pablo Montoya did it in 2000. On two occasions has the Indianapolis 500 winner gone on to win the Pocono 500, Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and Al Unser in his Triple Crown season of 1978. Simon Pagenaud joins Sato on row one as the Frenchman had a two-lap average of 219.395 MPH. This is Pagenaud's best start on an oval this season and this is the second time Pagenaud has been the top Penske qualifier this season. Pagenaud started second in the 2015 Pocono race and he finished seventh that day after leading 30 laps.

Charlie Kimball missed out on the front row by 0.026 MPH. This is Kimball's best starting position at Pocono. His previous best came in 2013 when he started 12th. This is the first time Kimball has started third in his IndyCar career. In his eight previous top five starts, Kimball has finished in the top ten six times. Tony Kanaan makes it an all-Ganassi row two. Kanaan matches his best starting position of the season, which occurred at Texas. This is the fourth time in five years Kanaan has started in the top ten at Pocono. Kanaan is attempting to become the eighth driver to win four 500-miles in a career. Will Power will start fifth. He won last year's Pocono race from eighth on the grid. Power could become the first driver to win consecutive years at Pocono. The only time Power won the 14th race of a season was at Sonoma in 2011. Alexander Rossi rounded out the top six. This is the third consecutive top ten start for Rossi. He led four laps in last year's race after starting seventh

Graham Rahal will start seventh. This is the sixth time Rahal has started seventh in his career. Only twice has Rahal finished in the top ten after starting seventh. He finished fourth in Mexico City in 2007 and he finished fifth at Mid-Ohio in 2014. Gabby Chaves will start eighth, a career-best for Chaves. This is the best qualifying effort for the Harding Racing team. His previous two starting positions this season were 25th at Indianapolis and 20th at Texas. Chaves could becoming the first driver to win with car #88 since Al Keller did it in a NASCAR Speedway Division race at Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta on June 8, 1952. Scott Dixon and Max Chilton make it an all-Ganassi row five. This is the first time Dixon has qualified in the top ten at Pocono. Dixon finished ninth at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago. Only once has Dixon won from ninth position. That was Sonoma 2015, where he took the title from Juan Pablo Montoya on tiebreaker. Chilton makes his tenth top ten start of the season. He had three all of his rookie year.

Ed Jones qualified 11th, the same position where he started in the Indianapolis 500 in May before finishing third. While having five top ten finishes this season, Jones has finished outside the top fifteen on seven occasions including the last three races. James Hinchcliffe joins Jones on the outside of row six. This is the fourth of five oval races in which Hinchcliffe has started outside the top ten. The only other two times Hinchcliffe started 12th in his career were in 2013 at Texas and Mid-Ohio, he finished ninth and tenth respectively in those two races. Esteban Gutiérrez starts 13th for the first 500-mile race of his IndyCar career. The only 500-mile IndyCar race won by a Mexican driver was the 1999 Motorola 500 held at Fontana. Adrián Fernández won that day from 13th on the grid. Josef Newgarden starts 14th. The only time Pocono has been won from 14th was in 1973 by A.J. Foyt after Roger McCluskey ran out of fuel while leading on the final lap.

Sebastián Saavedra's second start for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports will come from 15th on the grid. This is Saavedra's best starting position at Pocono and the 19th time top fifteen start of his IndyCar career while he has started outside the top twenty on 27 occasions. Marco Andretti will start 16th, the furthest back a Pocono winner has come from. Scott Dixon won from 16th in 2013. Andretti's most recent IndyCar victory came from 17th on the grid at Iowa in 2011. His grandfather Mario won the 1969 Pikes Peak Hill Climb after being the 16th starter. The furthest his father Michael won from was 15th at Long Beach in 2002, the final victory of his career. Conor Daly and Carlos Muñoz start on an all-Foyt row nine. Daly has qualified ahead of Muñoz in the last four races and the two drivers are now level as the top Foyt qualifier in seven races apiece. Both drivers have the same average starting position of 17.928. Muñoz has finished 15th in his previous two occasions starting 18th. It occurred at Milwaukee in 2015 and earlier this year in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

J.R. Hildebrand qualified 19th. This is the first time Hildebrand has started 19th on an oval. His best finish from 19th on the grid was seventh at Motegi in 2011. Hélio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay both had accidents in qualifying and will start 20th and 21st respectively. Ed Carpenter had an accident at the end of the first practice session and did not participate in qualifying and he will start 22nd. Castroneves and Carpenter each participated in the final practice session and they were fifth and 16th-fastest respectively. Hunter-Reay did not participate in the final practice as he was taken to Leigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest for X-rays. He has a torn muscle and has yet to be cleared to drive but it appears he will be good to go for the race.

NBCSN's coverage of the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway begins at 2:00 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 2:40 p.m. The race is scheduled for 200 laps.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Track Walk: Pocono 2017

IndyCar hopes to only see blues skies and sunshine at Pocono
IndyCar is back after a two-week summer vacation and it returns to Pocono Raceway for the ABC Supply 500. Pocono is the start of three consecutive weekends of racing for IndyCar and it is the penultimate oval race of the season. With four races remaining, 17 points cover the top four in the championship and 58 points cover the top six drivers. Chevrolet has won four of the last five races and has surpassed Honda in total victories with seven victories from the first 13 races. Chevrolet has won three of the four oval races this season.

Time: Coverage begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on Sunday August 20th. Green flag will be at 2:40 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN.
Announcers: Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy are in the booth with Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt, Anders Krohn and Robin Miller working the pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice- 9:00 a.m. ET (75-minute session).
Qualifying- 1:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage).
Final Practice- 5:00 p.m. ET (30-minute session).
Race- 2:40 p.m. ET (200 laps)

Penske Power Surge
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the hottest team in IndyCar is Team Penske. The IndyCar juggernaut has won four of the last five races after winning only three of the first eight races of the season. Team Penske is the only team to have multiple drivers win this season and it is only one of two teams to have stood on the top step of the podium multiple times in 2017 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing being the other thanks to Graham Rahal's sweep at Belle Isle.

Josef Newgarden's back-to-back victories have him sitting atop the championship for the first time in his IndyCar career and his Mid-Ohio victory occurred at a track where the Tennessean had struggled to find results. His previous best finish in his first five Mid-Ohio visits was tenth. Now Newgarden heads to a track where he has been constantly at the front of the pack. His worst finish in four Pocono starts is eighth, he has three top five finishes at the 2.5-mile oval, his fifth-place finish in the 2013 race was his first top five finish on an oval and he has led at least a lap in three consecutive Pocono races. He could become the first driver to win three consecutive races on a road course, street course and an oval since Cristiano da Matta did it in 2002. Da Matta won at the permanent road courses of Laguna Seca and Portland, then at the slightly larger than a mile of an oval that was Chicago Motor Speedway and he capped it off with a victory at Toronto.

Seven points behind Newgarden is Hélio Castroneves. After finishing eighth and second in his first two Pocono starts, the Brazilian has had his last two Pocono starts end in accidents, last year's race being the infamous pit lane collision with Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball. Like Newgarden, Castroneves enters Pocono on the back of four consecutive top ten finishes and while Castroneves has 12 top ten finishes to Newgarden's ten, the American driver has double the number of podium finishes as Castroneves with six to Castroneves' three. However, Castroneves has won at Iowa, finished second at Indianapolis and fourth at Phoenix while Newgarden's best oval finish this season was sixth at Iowa.

Simon Pagenaud leads all drivers this season with ten top five finishes but the defending IndyCar champion finds himself fourth in the championship. Pagenaud won at Phoenix, the first oval victory of his career, and he finished third at Texas but a 14th-place finish in the double points-paying Indianapolis 500 has him fighting an uphill battle. Last year, Pagenaud's accident in turn one at Pocono ended a streak of 23 consecutive finishes for the Frenchman. Pagenaud has finished 16 consecutive races entering this year's Pocono race. Pagenaud is the only driver to have completed all 1,738 laps run in 2017.

Will Power is the bottom of the Penske quartet but he rounds out the top five in the championship. Power won last year's Pocono race from eighth on the grid. Like his teammate Newgarden, Power has three top five finishes and four top ten finishes from four Pocono starts. Power has led at least a lap in every Pocono race since IndyCar returned to the track in 2013. Outside his retirement at the Indianapolis 500, Power finished second at Phoenix, won at Texas and finished fourth at Iowa. If Power finishes in the top five in the final two oval races this season he will match his career-high for top five oval finishes in a season, which occurred in 2011.

Ganassi's Need to Fight Back 
While Penske has been on a roll, Chip Ganassi Racing has been struggling to stay on its own two feet since the start of July. The team's best finish since Scott Dixon's victory at Road America was seventh at Toronto by Max Chilton.

Dixon still finds himself third in the championship on 445 points, eight points behind Newgarden and he has seven consecutive top ten finishes but his last three finishes have been eighth, tenth and ninth and he had been leading the championship by 34 points after his victory at Road America. Like Newgarden and Power, Dixon is the only driver to have finished in the top ten in all four IndyCar races at Pocono. Ironically, Dixon's best career starting position at Pocono is 11th and the three laps he led in last year's race was the first time he led at Pocono since his 2013 victory.

Tony Kanaan finds himself ninth in the championship but the Brazilian has been far from contending for a victory this season. Since the Indianapolis 500, Kanaan has finished 15th or worse in four of the last seven races. Kanaan has led every year at Pocono but last year was the first time Kanaan finished in the top ten there. He finished ninth after starting ninth.

Max Chilton sits on 310 points, only ten points behind Kanaan, and 11th in the championship. Chilton completed all 200 laps in last year's Pocono race and finished 13th. He has led a lap in the last three oval races with the lone oval race he did not lead in being Phoenix because he was involved in the first lap accident after Mikhail Aleshin spun exiting turn two.

Charlie Kimball has only three top ten finishes all season with eighth at Phoenix being his best result on an oval. Kimball started on pole position at Texas and he led 42 laps before he suffered an engine failure. Since finishing second in his Pocono debut in 2013, Kimball has failed to finish on the lead lap in three consecutive Pocono 500s with his best finish being 12th. He has been involved in an accident the last two years at Pocono.

Rahal Right In It
While Penske holds four of the top five and Scott Dixon once again finds himself in contention, Graham Rahal lurks sixth in the championship, trailing Newgarden by 58 points.

Rahal has seven consecutive top ten finishes, the longest streak of his career, five of those seven finish have been top five finishes and his third-place finish at Mid-Ohio was his third podium finish of the season. Not only has Rahal been getting good finishes but he has been starting at the front of the grid as well. He has started in the top ten for six of the last seven races with his worst starting position in that period being 11th at Texas. His average starting position in the last seven races is 5.285 after being 14.667 through the first six races. Rahal has completed every lap since being caught up in the turn one lap one accident at Phoenix.

Rahal will need a strong showing a Pocono, something that has escaped him in his previous four appearances, if he hopes to be in title contention come Sonoma. He has never finished in the top ten at Pocono with his 11th-place finish last year being his best outing and his only lead lap finish. He has started in the top ten only once at Pocono. That was fifth in 2015 and that race ended in a turn three accident after being hit by Tristan Vautier.

Another Home Race For Andretti
Pocono Raceway is in the backyard for the Nazareth-based Andretti family and the team is looking to get its second victory at the 2.5-mile oval.

Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato leads all Andretti Autosport drivers in the championship. He sits seventh on 381 points. Sato had a rough start to summer after four consecutive top ten finishes from the Indianapolis 500 to Texas. He finished 19th, 16th and 16th at Road America, Iowa and Toronto respectively but he picked up a fifth-place finish at Mid-Ohio, his fourth top five finish of the season, the most Sato has had in a season since joining IndyCar. Pocono has not been a great place for Sato. He finished sixth there in 2015 but he has retired in his other three races, including two accidents, one of which occurred on lap two last year.

Alexander Rossi had a promising day last year at Pocono before his pit lane collision with Charlie Kimball. He started seventh last year and led four laps before the incident. Rossi heads to Pocono coming off back-to-back top ten finishes after finishing second at Toronto and sixth at Mid-Ohio. Rossi finished outside the top ten at those tracks the year before. He trails Sato by 23 points in the championship.

Ryan Hunter-Reay still finds himself 12th in the championship on 297 points but the 2015 Pocono winner has finally strung together some top ten finishes. He finished third at Iowa, sixth at Toronto and eighth at Mid-Ohio, the longest streak of consecutive top ten finishes for Hunter-Reay this season. Hunter-Reay has not been in the top ten in the championship since he was eighth after the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Last year, Hunter-Reay picked up his second consecutive podium finish at Pocono with a marvelous comeback drive to third after having his car shut off on him while leading and costing him a lap in the final 100 miles of the race.

Marco Andretti is looking to win at his home track for the first time in his career. He started on pole position for the 2013 race but it has all been downhill from there. He finished tenth in the 2013 race after having to conserve fuel and coast home. He finished ninth the following year, had an accident while running at the front in 2015 and he was a non-factor last year and finished 12th. His grandfather Mario won at Pocono in 1986 and his uncle Jeff won the Indy Lights race the day prior to Mario's victory. His father Michael's best finish at Pocono was third in the 1989 race.

Schmidt Peterson Look to Replicate Last Year's Pocono Success
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had a great showing last year at Pocono. Unfortunately, the man who carried the SPM flag will not be there this year.

Mikhail Aleshin has been released from SPM to focus on SMP Racing's LMP1 privateer development. Aleshin started on pole position for last year's race and led a race-high 87 laps before finishing second to Power, the second podium finish of Aleshin's career. He also finished seventh in his first Pocono start in 2014.

Sebastián Saavedra returns to the #7 Honda for the second time this season after he replaced Aleshin at Toronto. The Colombian driver has also been confirmed for the Gateway race. Saavedra finished 15th earlier this year in the Indianapolis 500 and he completed all 500 miles. It was only the second time he has finished on the lead lap in an oval race in his career. Saavedra has two starts at Pocono. He completed two laps in the 2013 race before retiring due to a throttle issue and he finished 13th, one lap down in the 2014 race, the best oval finish of his career.

James Hinchcliffe finished tenth at Pocono last year after starting sixth; it was his first top ten finish at Pocono. Hinchcliffe has started third, sixth and sixth in his three Pocono starts. Hinchcliffe has not had much fortune on the ovals this year. His best finish was tenth at Iowa and he had two accidents at Indianapolis and Texas. Despite starting six of the last seven races in the top ten, the Canadian has only three top ten finishes but two of those were podium finishes at Belle Isle and Toronto. Aleshin had qualified ahead of Hinchcliffe at all four oval races this season.

Can Ed Carpenter Racing Find More Big Oval Success?
Ed Carpenter Racing had the top two Chevrolet qualifiers at the Indianapolis 500 in May and the team will be looking to replicate that at Pocono.

J.R. Hildebrand seems to only have things go his way at ovals and even then he has his bad days. While he stood on the podium at Phoenix and Iowa, he had a penalty for jumping the restart at Indianapolis 500 cost him a top five finish and he was involved in the massive accident in turn three and four that took out over a third of the field at Texas. Hildebrand has never raced at Pocono before in IndyCar. Panther Racing fired him before IndyCar returned to the track in 2013.

Ed Carpenter has been running at the finish of three of four oval races this year but even his one retirement at Texas saw him classified in 11th. Iowa was his worst finish of the season in 12th. Carpenter has failed to finish the last two years at Pocono due to mechanical reasons. He started tenth in last year's race, his best starting position at Pocono. His ninth-place finish in the 2013 race is his best Pocono finish. Carpenter has never led a lap at Pocono.

Can Coyne Keep Up Big Oval Speed?
The stunner this year at Indianapolis and Texas was the speed Dale Coyne Racing has shown with Sébastien Bourdais on his way to the top time of the month before his accident and Tristan Vautier qualifying fifth at Texas after being out of a car for over a year.

Ed Jones finished third in the Indianapolis 500 and he was in the top ten at Texas before being caught up in the massive accident in turn three and four. Jones has come back to earth since Indianapolis. He has only two top ten finishes in the last seven races and after completing all but four laps in the first seven races, his only lead lap finish in the last six races was at Road America.

Jones could clinch the 2017 IndyCar Rookie of the Years honor this weekend at Pocono as his only challenger, his teammate Esteban Gutiérrez, trails him by 202 points and there are 266 points left on the table. Like Jones, this will be Gutiérrez's first time at Pocono. Gutiérrez has finished ahead of Jones in four of his six starts, including in the last three races. The best finish for a Mexican driver at Pocono was seventh by Josele Garza in the 1986.

And Then There is A.J. Foyt Racing
A.J. Foyt Racing has not had a good year and the team once was a stalwart at Pocono Raceway. The good news for the team is it has one driver who has been quite impressive at the 2.5-mile oval.

Carlos Muñoz has finished third, fifth and seventh in his three Pocono starts and his three starting positions in those three races were third, sixth and fifth. Muñoz also won the 2013 Indy Lights race at Pocono. Despite Muñoz's success and completed all 600 laps contested at Pocono, he has yet to lead a lap at the track. The Colombian driver is looking for a good result. He has not finished in the top ten in the last seven races since finishing tenth in the Indianapolis 500. Muñoz has yet to start a race in the top ten this season.

Conor Daly made his Pocono debut last year and finished two laps down in 16th. Daly did pick up his first career top ten finish on an oval at Texas when he came home in seventh. However, he is still looking for his first lead lap finish on an oval. He is coming off a tenth-place finish at Mid-Ohio and he has finished on the lead lap in the last two races. Daly has never had three consecutive lead lap finishes in his IndyCar career.

Harding Racing is Back!
For the third time this season and first time since Texas, Harding Racing has entered a car and Gabby Chaves returns behind the wheel of the #88 Chevrolet.

The team had two stellar performances in its first two races ever with Chaves bringing the car home to a ninth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 and then avoiding all the accidents to finish fifth at Texas. To put the success of Harding Racing and Chaves into perspective, Chaves is tied on points with Esteban Gutiérrez with each driver on 83 points. While double points and qualifying points were awarded for the Indianapolis 500, if you look at percentage of points earned, Chaves earned 41.5% of a possible 200 points from the two races he started while Gutiérrez has earned 25.617% of a possible 324 points from his six starts.

This will be Chaves' first Pocono appearance since 2015. He started 16th in that race but led 31 laps, the most in the race and he was in contention for the victory before his engine quit on him with three laps to go. Despite the engine failure, Chaves finished 11th.

Fast Facts
This will be the 15th IndyCar race to take place on August 20th and the first since Paul Tracy won at Road America in 2000.

This year's Pocono race takes place 28 years to the day of the final Pocono race of the initial run of CART races at Pocono, which was won by Danny Sullivan.

Eight different drivers have won the last eight Pocono races.

Of the last nine Pocono races, Team Penske has won every other race.

No team has ever won consecutive Pocono races. In turn, no driver has ever won consecutive Pocono races.

Team Penske leads all teams with nine Pocono victories.

The only other teams with multiple Pocono victories are A.J. Foyt Racing with four and Vel's Parenlli Jones Racing with two.

The driver who has led the most laps has won the last seven races. It is the longest streak for winners leading the most laps since the first eight Champ Car races in 2004.

The average starting position for a Pocono winner is 5.347 with a median position of third.

The pole-sitter has won seven times at Pocono.

A driver starting in the top ten have won 12 consecutive IndyCar races. That is tied for the longest streak of winners starting in the top ten during the DW12-era. That other 12-race streak started at Milwaukee in 2012 and ended at São Paulo in 2013.

Teo Fabi is the only European driver to win at Pocono.

Fourteen of 23 Pocono races have been won from inside the top five.

Three of the four Pocono races since the return of IndyCar in 2013 have been won from outside the top five.

Three of the four Pocono races since the return of IndyCar in 2013 have had an average speed over 180 MPH.

Honda and Chevrolet have split the last four Pocono races. Chevrolet has four victories all-time at Pocono.

The average number of lead changes for a Pocono race is 18.583 with a median of 16.5.

The last two Pocono races had 33 lead changes and 29 lead changes respectively, the most and second-most lead changes to occur in a Pocono race.

The average number of cautions for a Pocono race is seven with a median of seven. The average number of caution laps is 39.59 with a median of 37.5.

Possible Milestones:
Scott Dixon and Hélio Castroneves are both one top five finish away from tying Michael Andretti for fifth all-time at 139 top five finishes.

Hélio Castroneves needs to lead 28 laps to reach the 6,000 laps led milestone.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 23 laps to reach the 5,000 laps led milestone.

Marco Andretti needs to lead 3 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 149 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Ed Carpenter needs to lead 90 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Ryan Hunter-Reay gets the victory but it is another tough fight with Team Penske despite two of the Penske cars starting outside the top ten. Harding Racing gets its worst finish in the team's history. Simon Pagenaud completes all 200 laps. Conor Daly gets his first career lead lap finish on an oval. James Hinchcliffe qualifies ahead of Sebastián Saavedra. Chip Ganassi Racing gets back into the top five. Ed Jones clinches the Rookie of the Year. Sleeper: Marco Andretti.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Scripting 2017-18 IndyCar Silly Season

Donny Schatz won the Knoxville Nationals for the tenth time and Kyle Larson finished second. It didn't rain in Austria, which meant Cal Crutchlow got to race. Two part-timers got victories this weekend in NASCAR-sanctioned races. Pirelli World Challenge ran the penultimate Sprint X round of the season at Utah Motorsports Campus. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Scripting 2017-18 IndyCar Silly Season
This is the third time I have done this. Every year we reach the point of IndyCar silly season where a handful of seats will be switching and now we are waiting to see where the pieces will fall. However, most of the time it feels like divine intervention should come into play and give a little direction over who goes where in IndyCar.

It seems every other year we say we are looking at a silly season that has never been seen before and then it ends up being a pretty tame period and the new season starts. This year feels different to the point it might make many uncomfortable. Currently, there are more open seats than filled seats and I doubt we will be opening presents on Christmas morning this year knowing the entire IndyCar grid is set for the upcoming season. This feels like it is going to be the year where at least one household name in IndyCar will be on the outside and perhaps it could be as many as two.

Here are the drivers we feel certain will still be in the same seat in 2018: Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, Sébastien Bourdais and Ed Carpenter will have some type of seat within the Ed Carpenter Racing stable.

Other than that it is a game of musical chairs that is more of a race car driver battle royal with as many as three-dozen drivers from every corner of this godforsaken planet trying to fill at most 15 seats. Where do we begin when it comes to scripting an IndyCar Silly Season fantasy? Do we start at the top? Do we get the bottom out of the way? This whole process is absurd. Remember, this isn't fact. This isn't what is going to happen. This is a pure fanatical exercise to stretch the mind's creativity.

Let's start with someone who I think should stay put and that is James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian has a good thing going at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and I don't think there is another paying option out there better than the one he currently has. He and the team have won races together; let's not ruin a good thing. As for his teammate, if Arrow Electronics is serious and is going to step up to fund two cars than I think the best option would be to reunite the 2011 Newman-Haas Racing duo and bring in Oriol Servià to team with Hinchcliffe. Servià turned 43 years old in July so he has more days behind him than ahead but Servià will have valuable knowledge with the new universal aero kit as he is one of the two test drivers. I think Servià could be one of the top five available drivers this offseason because of that experience he brings to a team. As for more cars at SPM, let's stick at two for now and see where other pieces fall.

Let's shift to another Honda team, Dale Coyne Racing to be precise. Bourdais will return. After all this team went through to get the band back together from Bourdais' championship-winning days at Newman-Haas with engineer Craig Hampson and chief mechanic Todd Phillips joining the team, Bourdais isn't bolting and I bet he has something to prove after the very successful start to this season before his accident in Indianapolis 500 qualifying. His teammate is another story. Ed Jones was the darling of the first half of the season but ever since he finished third in the Indianapolis 500 he has fallen to back earth a bit and has looked like a rookie. Dale Coyne Racing isn't known for consistent driver lineups and keeping one driver for a second consecutive season is a feat in of itself. Keeping two drivers for another season would be astonishing. The problem for Jones is Coyne will hire anybody from anywhere. Jones doesn't have to try and only beat an Indy Lights driver hoping to breakthrough. He could lose out to a Danish F4 driver or a Japanese Formula Three driver.

I think it would be best for Coyne if he kept Jones for a second year and allowed him a full year of tutelage from Bourdais, something the young Emirati driver lost out on this year after the Frenchmen was hurt in May.

Two teams down and not much change. Maybe this silly season won't be so crazy after all but we are only getting started.

Let's jump over to a Chevrolet team and Ed Carpenter Racing to be specific. J.R. Hildebrand's first year with the team hasn't been great but the entire team was going through a shake up heading into 2017 as Newgarden left for Penske and engineer Jeremy Milless left for Andretti Autosport. I think Hildebrand, as well as everyone else on that team, deserves at least a second season. As for the #20 Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot got his second year of road/street course duty and he has been impressive even in races where the results haven't been there. Pigot has made passes most drivers don't even dare attempt and he is ready for a full season. That full season opportunity should come at Ed Carpenter Racing. I don't want to say Pigot is Josef Newgarden 2.0 but he is something special that the big dogs are not ready to embrace. That makes ECR the perfect place for Pigot to show what he has got.

As for Carpenter, this is the time to step aside and only attempt the Indianapolis 500 or try to put a program together for all the ovals. Having two cars going for the championship will be best for the team and perhaps it can get the team back to championship contention.

So three teams down and still not much change. Let's dive into the deep end then.

We all have heard the rumor by now that Andretti Autosport might be returning to Chevrolet for the 2018 season. I think the team has to make the move because Chevrolet is offering a favorable deal that would financially benefit the team. It can't turn that down. A switch to Chevrolet means Takuma Sato is out as well as Alexander Rossi, as he apparently is tied to Honda. Andretti Autosport won't be down to just Hunter-Reay and Andretti. The team will have three cars and this sets up nicely for a three-car lineup with Tony Kanaan returning to the team for one final go at it. All three were teammates in 2010 and they finished sixth, seventh and eighth in the championship with Kanaan leading Hunter-Reay and Andretti.

With Kanaan returning to Andretti Autosport, what does that mean for Chip Ganassi Racing? This is where I think things get interesting. Dixon will be there but Max Chilton will be walking. The Brit has ties to Carlin but more on that in a moment. If Chilton is going, Ganassi has to keep Kimball and not lose that money, even if it is less than Kimball has brought in past seasons. I don't think Ganassi would drop to two entries for 2018 and while it loses Chilton and Kanaan, Ganassi brings in Felix Rosenqvist. The Swede has won everywhere he has gone (he still has a half dozen races to get a win in Super Formula and he didn't win in DTM, but I digress). He is the future for Chip Ganassi Racing.

As for Chilton, he is going to be the one to bring Carlin to the big time that is IndyCar. How is he going to do that all on his own? He isn't going to do it by bringing Kimball along with him from Ganassi. Carlin is going to need an engine deal to get onto the grid and there is only one driver who swings a ball and chain that big. That is Takuma Sato. Carlin signs Sato, reuniting the pairing that won the 2001 British Formula Three championship and the 2001 Macau Grand Prix and Carlin has a Honda engine deal that allows it to enter IndyCar.

Quick recap: SPM keeps Hinchcliffe and adds Servià, no change at DCR, only change at ECR is Pigot full-time and Carpenter in a third part-time entry, Andretti Autosport to Chevrolet and Kanaan enters while the last two Indianapolis 500 winners leave, Ganassi keeps Dixon and Kimball and adds Rosenqvist, Carlin completes its rise to IndyCar with help from Chilton and Honda's boy Sato.

That leaves Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Team Penske and A.J. Foyt Racing.

With Andretti leaving Honda and Ganassi dropping a car, that leaves a few open Honda engine leases and it finally allows Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to expand its operation. With Rossi still hanging out there, an all-American two-car line up seems fitting for RLLR. A Rossi-Rahal partnership seems like a tag team capable of overthrowing the IndyCar overlords of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.

This year has not been easy for A.J. Foyt Racing but after cleaning house coming into 2017, you can't expect cleaning house at the end of 2017 to be the answer to the problems. The team has two capable drivers in Carlos Muñoz and Conor Daly and both have got to get another season.

On to Penske. With the end to Hélio Castroneves' full-time IndyCar career seeming eminent, it appears Penske will be set to shrink to three cars with three strong drivers in Pagenaud, Power and Newgarden. The team is taking on Acura's DPi program. Those workers have to come from somewhere and shifting them over from an IndyCar program.

We have gone through all the existing IndyCar teams, plus one and let's take a look at the grid: 11 Honda, 10 Chevrolets full-time with another one possibly for all the oval, the only rookie would be Rosenqvist but we aren't done just yet. Carlin isn't the only team joining IndyCar in 2018 though there is a catch.

Juncos Racing will also join the IndyCar grid but it is dependent on Kyle Kaiser winning the Indy Lights title. Kaiser wins the Indy Lights title, he and Juncos will be full-time in IndyCar with a Chevrolet engine package. The team might need some additional funding for a second seat. While Sebastián Saavedra isn't the sexiest option, Gary Peterson for some reason funds him wherever he goes and a second car, even if it is Saavedra, would benefit Juncos Racing as it enters IndyCar full-time and Saavedra was respectable with Juncos Racing at Indianapolis in May.

This would see IndyCar up to ten teams, 23 full-time entries and with two rookies on the grid. Who is still on the outside? Harding Racing has done well in its first two races and might be back for Pocono but it is a new team and I am not sure if it is ready for the big time of a full-time IndyCar schedule. Unlike Carlin and Juncos, Harding Racing doesn't have years of operating as a racing team to fall back on. It is still learning and it doesn't need to be in IndyCar full-time in year two. It would be better to have a second year to stretch its legs and continue to learn how to walk than try to sprint with the big boys.

Besides Harding Racing and in all likelihood Gabby Chaves, also on the outside would be Mikhail Aleshin, Esteban Gutiérrez, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey, Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam, Santiago Urrutia, Matthew Brabham and a handful of drivers from international series that have yet to publicly throw their hat into the IndyCar ring. There are always more drivers than seats. It never seems fair. Even in a fantasy world I can't find places for them all and maybe I don't have the imagination I once had. I didn't include off the wall ideas like Kasey Kahne or Ricky Taylor entering IndyCar. Maybe I am too grounded in the real world.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Donny Schatz but did you know...

Andrea Dovizioso won MotoGP's Austrian Grand Prix, his third victory of the season. Franco Morbidelli won in Moto2, his seventh victory of the season. Joan Mir won in Moto3, his third consecutive victory and seventh of the season.

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup race from Michigan. Sam Hornish, Jr. won the Grand National Series race from Mid-Ohio. Darrell Wallace, Jr. won the Truck race from Michigan.

The #93 Acura of Peter Kox and Mark Wilkins and the #31 TR3 Racing Ferrari of Daniel Mancinelli and Niccolò Schirò split the PWC Sprint X races. Rodrigo Baptiste and Ian James split the GTS races.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Pocono 500.
NASCAR will be at Bristol.
World Superbikes are back in action and they head to EuroSpeedway Lausitz one final time.
The DTM will be at Zandvoort.
Supercars head to Sydney Motorsports Park.
Super Formula is back for the first time in six weeks and is at Honda's backyard, Twin Ring Motegi.
The World Rally Championship contest Rally Deutschland.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Look Back: IndyCar at Gateway

We are in the middle of IndyCar's summer break and this break has given us some time to look back, which is important as IndyCar's return to Gateway in a few weeks away. The last time the series went to the track was in 2003 and a lot has changed since then. During the last few days I have gone back and watched the seven previous IndyCar races at Gateway.

The first reason I revisited these races was because it has been 14 years since IndyCar has been to Gateway and off the top of my head I couldn't recall what the races were like. The second reason was because I wanted to see what the racing was like to give me an idea of what to look forward to when IndyCar returns there at the end of the month. The one noticeable difference between this upcoming race and the previous seven races is this year's race will be at night while the other seven were day races but it will still give me an idea what to expect.

I started with the 1997 race and I was first taken aback that it has been 20 years since the first time Gateway hosted an IndyCar race. It doesn't feel like Gateway has been around that long. I know IndyCar spend almost a decade and a half away from the track and there were a few years during the recession where the track struggled, lost all its dates, saw a change of ownership and then got a NASCAR Truck race back in 2014 but I can't believe it has been 20 years. Twenty years have flown by.

Anyway, onto the race itself and the first thing I noticed was how much it looked like a race track that had just completed construction. Despite this, the front straightaway grandstand was packed with people and this isn't saying it was packed but the ends of the grandstand were empty. It looked like body on top of body from the top row down to the catch fence.

Once the race got started it was obvious the cars were downshifting into turn one and in some cases drivers were going down two gears into turn one. The first two corners looked tight and slow and it was difficult to pass. Passes could be made but a driver had to have set it up a half dozen laps prior and if it couldn't stick then it would take another half dozen laps to try it again. What made up for the lack of passing was the fuel strategy that shook up the end of the race with a rookie Dario Franchitti leading before the transmission broke and this handed the lead to rookie Patrick Carpentier. However, Carpentier would lose the lead with two laps to go as Paul Tracy passed him and took the victory while Carpentier came home in second.

The following year saw CART switch from high downforce aero package to low downforce aero package usually seen at the super speedways. There was slightly more passing than the year before but most of it came outside the top five. There were three lead changes the entire race. Jimmy Vasser led the first 42 laps, Michael Andretti led lap 43 to lap 175 and Alex Zanardi took the lead during pit stops under caution and led the final 61 laps on his way to victory. However, this race did see Scott Pruett go from 17th to fifth and a fair amount of those spots were made on the race track and Bobby Rahal went from 20th to eighth.

One thing that caught my eye was in the closing laps, with 16 to go to be specific, Zanardi and Andretti are picking through lapped traffic. Zanardi easily clears the lapped car of P.J. Jones on the front straightaway and Jones slows down significantly entering turn one, opening the door for Andretti but not enough for him to get by and Andretti locked up the left front and that pretty much killed his shot at victory. When was the last time we saw someone lock it up going into a corner on an oval? The crowd matched the 1997 crowd in terms of size.

By the time I got to the 1999 race I came to realize that a second groove never developed in either of the first three races and if two drivers went side-by-side into a corner it took a lot of bravery. Drivers were still downshifting as much as twice into turn one and there was more side-by-side racing in this race but it wasn't constant. It was sporadic and Juan Pablo Montoya made a handful of those passes as he was caught a lapped down and worked his way to the topped lapped car in the field.

The other guy who made passing look easy in this race was Hélio Castroneves. He worked his way up to second and he was on the back of Michael Andretti's car and threatened him for the victory. While these two battled and dealt with lapped traffic, Franchitti made it a three-horse race down the stretch and the Scotsman made an incredible save earlier in the race after he and his teammate Paul Tracy made contact entering turn three. Franchitti drifted the car for the duration of turn three and into turn four before sliding into the grass and straightening the car out and continuing with minimal damage. Andretti held on for the victory. The crowd was still really good but it was thinner from the first two years.

It appeared the 2000 race saw downforce added back to the cars as the cars clearly had larger rear wings but the front wings still appeared to be the low downforce, super speedway configuration. There was some more passing but it mostly came when lapped traffic got in a way and a faster car could make a run on the outside. We shouldn't get too picky about how we get passing. There was action. Cars weren't single-file for majority of the races. If it takes lapped traffic to break that up than I think we won't mind that.

Michael Andretti dominated this race. He lapped up to second place by lap 167. Then his engine blew up with 40 laps to go. And that didn't even bring out a caution. The first 210 laps were run under green flag conditions with Paul Tracy's bump into the wall in turn four while running second bringing out the first and only caution of the race for five laps. Montoya went on to comfortably win the race by over 11 seconds as he and Carpentier were the only two cars on the lead lap and Montoya restarted the race as the only car on the lead lap with Carpentier getting his lap back with just over 20 laps to go. The crowd mirrored the 1999 race but there were a few people scattered around the turn two grandstand, which I don't believe were complete for the race the year before.

While Montoya and Carpentier were the only two cars to finish on the lead lap, I would say the 2000 race was the best of the CART stint at Gateway ahead of 1999, 1997 and 1998. There was a fair amount of action for positions it was only between cars not on the lead lap.

The Indy Racing League took over at Gateway and the first thing you notice from the 2001 race is the cars are definitely running more downforce with larger rear and front wings. Passing once again seemed to only come when lapped traffic was in the way. There was a fair amount of drivers following another but not really having enough to get a draft and make a move into the corner. It was also tough to tell how much passing there was because the race seemed to focus on the leaders whether it was Sam Hornish, Jr. all by himself with a 9-second lead or Hornish, Jr. and Al Unser, Jr. running 1-2 with about a second between them but neither gaining ground on each other. Unser, Jr. won the race by stretching fuel while Hornish, Jr. stopped for a splash of fuel under caution with ten laps to go.

The 2002 race still featured high downforce and this race had much more passing than any of the prior five races and more passes were coming without the aid of lapped traffic. Alex Barron took the lead from Castroneves on the outside of turn four at one point. This race was the first Gateway race where the top four to six stayed in close proximity to one another throughout the race. The first five races either saw the leader pull away or the top two pull away. Cars still weren't running two distinct lanes but you could make a pass on the outside.

Castroneves had pulled away from his teammate Gil de Ferran and the rest of the field after the final restart with 50 laps to go but de Ferran would catch and pass Castroneves with 17 laps to go and he would go on to win the race. Barron challenged Castroneves for the lead on that final restart but went very high in turn two and dropped to fifth but recovered to finish third. Buddy Rice held off Hornish, Jr. in a battle for fourth.

The 2003 race felt like a mix of the first six races. Scott Dixon pulled away at one point but second through fourth or fifth stayed in the vicinity of one another and could make a few passes but then the race calmed down and everyone spread out after the halfway point in the race. Unfortunately for Dixon his gearbox broke with 42 laps to go after leading 78 consecutive laps and holding a sizable lead over Castroneves.

Despite having no electrical read out on his steering wheel for majority of this race, Castroneves held on to take the victory by over eight-tenths of a second to Tony Kanaan and de Ferran made it an all-Brazilian podium with Tomas Scheckter and Dan Wheldon rounding out the top five.

Where can IndyCar improve from the previous seven Gateway races? Hope two distinct lines can develop, especially in turns one and two. The first two turns are tight but the banking in the turns could be favorable to a car on the high side. What we need to see is Graham Rahal do what he did at Iowa a few weeks ago. If a car can enter turn one on the high side and carry it to the back straightaway then we could see passes not only in turns one or two but passes set up in the first two corners are then completed entering turn three.

Another hope would be for some tire degradation like we saw at Iowa. Unfortunately, the repave might make degradation non-existent, like we saw at Texas. Firestone was caught out on the tire selection at Texas and times didn't drop like we had seen in recent years, leading to a flat out race where the leader was safe as long as he stayed glued to the bottom of the race track because trailing cars couldn't carry the speed needed to make a pass on the high side. After IndyCar tested at the track last week drivers noted how they no longer had to downshift two gears into turn one like they were at the test on the older surface in the spring test and a handful of drivers were able to be flat out all the way around the 1.25-mile oval.

One question that occurred to me when watching all these races was are super speedways ruining how we view short ovals? We say we want oval races but I worry that because of the races put on at Indianapolis, Fontana, Pocono and Texas in the DW12-era that the bar is set way too high for short ovals to be deemed a success. The bigger tracks allow for drafting to be more of a factor and long straightaways allow for passing to happen multiple times a lap. Tracks like Gateway, Phoenix and Iowa aren't set up for that and passes won't happen every lap and leaders will get to break away a bit from the rest of the field.

I wonder if we are no longer able to accept that one driver might lead 45 to 60 laps before being challenged for the lead and that passes might be more nuanced and take five laps to set up and complete.

After watching all seven previous Gateway races, what should you expect for IndyCar's return to Gateway in a few weeks? First, I would tell you to keep the bar low. This won't be a super speedway race with 38 lead changes and a pass every other straightaway. We might see two lead changes on track all race and another seven to occur during a pit stop cycle. If you want to know which of the previous seven races this year's race should want to resemble it is 2002. I would say 2002 was the best Gateway race followed by 2000, 1999, 2003, 1997, 2001 and 1998. I think we all want to see at least that drivers can at least get a run on the car ahead into turn one and turn three and make a pass and occasionally see two cars being able to go completely through turns one and two side-by-side.

I have to applaud all the people for doing their best to make this event into a big deal and draw people out. No one can say Gateway isn't trying to promote this event. The track organized a weeklong automotive festival in St. Louis leading up to race day. The CART crowds looked really good but the final two IRL races were a fraction of what the track drew when it first hosted a race in 1997.

There seems to be a lot of positive momentum heading into Gateway. We can only hope everything from the crowd in the stands to the racing on track lives up to the hype.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: What If IndyCar Had Stage Points?

It is August and MotoGP is back. Marc Márquez's mistake in tire selection at the start of the race ended up playing to his favor and he dominated the Czech Republic Grand Prix and extended his championship lead. NASCAR had a fuel mileage race at Watkins Glen. A new manufacture got a victory in IMSA while a championship has already been locked up and an undefeated season stays alive. Another Super GT race came down to the wire. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

What If IndyCar Had Stage Points?
It is summer. IndyCar is off. Why not visit a mythical world where a spineless IndyCar does exactly what NASCAR does and implements stage points just to see what the championship would look like with four races to go?

I have gone back and given out stage points for the results of the top ten at laps closest to the quarter-mark and halfway point in the first 12 races of the season. I considered altering it for IndyCar because NASCAR gives out stage points to about a quarter of its grid while the top ten in IndyCar is close to half the grid but to keep it easy and straightforward I left it as the top ten. I didn't calculate playoff points because that is too big of a hassle because IndyCar doesn't do a Chase. If you want playoff points, figure out it on your own.

Here is the paragraph you can skip if you wish because it tells you what lap I used for each of the mythical stages. St. Petersburg: Lap 25 and 50. Long Beach: Lap 21 and 42. Barber: Lap 20 and 40. Phoenix: Lap 60 and 120. Grand Prix of Indianapolis: Lap 21 and 42. Indianapolis 500: Lap 50 and 100. Both Belle Isle races: Lap 15 and 30. Texas: Lap 62 and 124. Road America: Lap 13 and 26. Iowa: Lap 75 and 150. Toronto: Lap 21 and 42. Mid-Ohio: Lap 22 and 44.

And now what the running order was at each of those laps with three-letter driver abbreviations to save you some time reading.






"500" stage one: ALO, RSI, SAT, CAR, KAN, HIL, RHR, DIX, HCN, AND








Here is a table of who has scored the most mythical stage points:

Driver Stage Points
Castroneves 144
Power 132
Pagenaud 123
Newgarden 117
Dixon 105
Rahal 96
Rossi 95
Hinchcliffe 80
Hunter-Reay 71
Sato 62
Kanaan 47
Hildebrand 41
Daly 34
Bourdais 31
Chilton 25
Aleshin 25
Jones 30
Kimball 20
Carpenter 20
Andretti 19
Pigot 19
Alonso 17
Vautier 16
Muñoz 7
Saavedra 4
Montoya 3
Gutiérrez 1

And here is a table of what the top twenty-four in the championship would look like after adding mythical stage points with number of positions changed from actual championship position:

Driver Championship Points Change in Position
Castroneves 590 +1
Newgarden 570 -1
Pagenaud 559 +1
Dixon 550 -1
Power 533 0
Rahal 491 0
Rossi 453 +1
Sato 443 -1
Hinchcliffe 396 +1
Hunter-Reay 368 +2
Kanaan 367 -2
Chilton 335 -1
Hildebrand 317 +2
Jones 305 0
Andretti 305 -2
Aleshin 262 0
Kimball 243 +1
Muñoz 243 -1
Daly 233 0
Pigot 184 0
Bourdais 167 +1
Carpenter 162 -1
Montoya 96 0
Gutiérrez 84 +1

There are a bunch of positions swapping and the gaps are larger between drivers. Castroneves would not be trailing Newgarden by seven points but rather leading him by 20 points (Castroneves would have scored in 21 of 26 stages through the first 13 races) and the top four of Newgarden, Castroneves, Dixon and Pagenaud would not be covered by 17 points but by 40 points.

It is subjective to decide whether that is a good thing or not but what I have noticed with stage points is all it really does is inflate the numbers of the drivers on top. In IndyCar's case, nobody would make a massive jump in the championship because of stage points. Hunter-Reay would be the only new drivers in the top ten of the championship but he would be 222 points behind the championship, 66 points more than his current gap to Newgarden.

If you take away stage points from the NASCAR championship standings, only one driver is different in the top ten but a few things are noticeable when you strip away the stage points as shown in the table below (Note: I used championship points totals and stage points totals from after the July 30th Pocono race).

Driver Points w/o Stage Points Change in Position
Truex 546 0
Harvick 546 +1
Hamlin 523 +3
Larson 514 -2
Bowyer 511 +5
Ky. Busch 509 -2
Elliott 500 0
McMurray 499 0
Keselowski 486 -4
Suárez 460 +7
Kenseth 456 -2
Newman 452 +2
Stenhouse, Jr. 447 3
Johnson 438 -3
Logano 432 -2
Ku. Busch 425 -2
Bayne 388 +3
Kahne 380 +1
Blaney 377 -7
A. Dillon 376 +1
Jones 372 -3
Menard 359 +1
T. Dillon 355 +1
Earnhardt, Jr. 342 -2
Buescher 320 +1
McDowell 319 -2
Allmendinger 300 0
Patrick 292 0

There are a few big movers when you take away stage points. Clint Bowyer jumps five spots; Daniel Suárez would have been tenth, up seven positions. The one thing to notice about Bowyer and Suárez are neither are near the top in stage points but both are near the top when it comes to bringing the car home in one piece. Boywer was 15th in stage points after Pocono on 66 points while Suárez was tied with Paul Menard for fewest stage points scored of those to have picked up stage points at four points. What stage points dilute is the fact that Suárez was running at the finish of 20 of the first 21 races, tied with Michael McDowell for the most, and his lone retirement was in the Daytona 500. Bowyer was running at the finish of 19 of the first 21 races. Bowyer was tied for second-most lead lap finishes with 17 and Suárez had 16 lead lap finishes as many as Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Finally, of the drivers who started all of the first 21 races, Bowyer had the sixth-best average finish at 13.1 and Suárez had the tenth-best average finish at 15.1.

With a few bigger movers up, there are a few big movers down, including Brad Keselowski (-4) and Jimmie Johnson, -3 despite having three victories. Ryan Blaney would lose seven spots. Keselowski and Johnson both failed to finish five of the first 21 races, tied for the most of the drivers in the top twelve in the championship after Pocono and Blaney had only finished one more race than those two. Keselowski's average finish of 13.3, as well as his 11 top five finishes and 14 top ten finishes, would save him but Johnson and Blaney had average finishes of 16.9 and 19.4 respectively. Besides Blaney, only Kurt Busch had a worse average finish than Johnson in the top 15 and Blaney had the worst average finish of the top 20 after Pocono. Keselowski and Johnson had only 15 lead lap finishes from the first 21 races while Blaney only finished on the lead lap in ten of the first 21 races. Johnson and Blaney had as many top ten finishes as Suárez (7) through the first 21 races.

The other noticeable thing is how close things would be at the top without stage points. After Pocono, Truex, Jr. led the championship by 85 points over Kyle Larson, was 97 points ahead of Kevin Harvick and 298 points separate him from Joey Logano in 13th. Taking away the stage points, Truex, Jr. would be level with Harvick and 99 points would cover the top 13 in the championship.

Not that the driver standings matter. It is all washed away after Richmond in a few weeks time, but if all stage points are doing is spreading out the heard, than is it really an improvement? Stages have encouraged teams to try different strategies within a race but I don't think it does enough to justify its existence. The top five in stage points after Pocono were the top five in the championship at that time. The twelve drivers who have won a stage this season were all in the top 13 in the championship, the lone exception was Jamie McMurray in eighth. Eleven of the top 12 had scored stage points more than 20 times; the lone exception was Bowyer in tenth. Of the 28 drivers to score stage points from the first 21 races, 18 of the drivers had scored stage points at least ten times. Five of the 28 drivers scored stage points twice or fewer.

I don't know what the point of this was. This was a big tangent away from a mythical world where IndyCar had stage points. This turned more into a dissection of stage points more than anything else. I have not been particularly enamored with stage points and I still believe fewer points should be awarded than are now, not just in NASCAR but IndyCar as well. A championship should be about results and stage points have become a mask for poor results by rewarding a driver too often.

Champions From the Weekend
The #38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca of Pato O'Ward and James French clinched the IMSA Prototype Challenge class championship at Road America as the Mexican-American duo won its seventh consecutive race this season with only Petit Le Mans in October remaining on the PC schedule.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez and what happened in PC from Elkhart Lake but did you know...

Thomas Lüthi won the Moto2 race from Brno. Joan Mir won in Moto3, his sixth victory of the season.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race from Watkins Glen. Kyle Busch won the Grand National Series race.

The #22 Extreme Speed Motorsports Nissan Onroak DPi of Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek won the IMSA race from Road America, ending Cadillac's seven race winning streak. The #66 Ford GT of Joey Hand and Dirk Müller won in GTLM. The #96 Turner Motorsport BMW of Jens Klingman and Jesse Krohn won in GTD.

The #8 ARTA Honda NSX of Tomoki Nojiri and Takashi Kobayashi won the Super GT race from Fuji. The #55 ARTA BMW M6 GT3 of Sean Walkinshaw and Shinichi Takagi won in GT300.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP heads to Austria.
NASCAR returns to Michigan.
Pirelli World Challenge runs the penultimate SprintX weekend of the season at Utah Motorsports Campus.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

1000 Words: Irish Hills of Yesteryear

We have reached August and another IndyCar season is nearing its end. We are in the middle of a two-week summer break for the series and only four races remain. The season flies by and the next round is a 500-miler at Pocono. Just over a month ago I wrote about how it had been ten years since the final Grand Prix of Cleveland and Saturday marks another ten-year anniversary for the most recent time IndyCar went to a famed track. This one was known for its 500-mile shows. It is Michigan International Speedway.

Michigan got caught up in the CART/IRL War and it was one of the tracks that jumped sides as teams and manufactures started flipping sides. It started out with CART and is remembered for the infamous U.S. 500 held the same day as the 1996 Indianapolis 500 to rival the event and prove the driver and team line-up of CART could succeed without having to be at the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway come the month of May. Within a decade, despite great races by CART, the series would leave the track and the IRL would step in. The 500-mile race was shortened to 400 miles.

While being a point of contention during the gruesome decade that was the 1990s into the 2000s, Michigan's history with IndyCar went much further back than that. The first race was held on October 13, 1968. Ronnie Bucknum took the victory, the only victory of his IndyCar career, by a lap over Mario Andretti in a 250-mile event.

After a year off, IndyCar returned on July 4, 1970, Roger Penske purchased the track in 1972 and by 1973 the track would host IndyCar twice a year with a second race weekend added in mid-September. The first 12 Michigan races were won by 12 different winners and after Bucknum won the inaugural race the next six winners were Gary Bettenhausen, Mark Donohue, Joe Leonard, Roger McCluskey, Billy Vukovich II and Johnny Rutherford. For Donohue and Leonard, it would be the penultimate victories of their careers respectively. It was McCluskey's final victory and Vukovich II's only victory. It was Rutherford's third career victory and earlier that season Rutherford had picked up his second career victory at Ontario in one of the heats for the California 500, his first victory in over eight years.

While consistently hosting two races (and some years three because of Twin 125s), Michigan's first 500-mile race wasn't until 1981. Of the twenty-two 500-mile races run at Michigan, only two drivers won the Michigan 500 more than once. Michael Andretti won it in 1987 and 1989 and Scott Goodyear in 1992 and 1994.

It was a site of unpredictable results, as the track's high speeds were known for creating high attrition races with countless engine failures, transmissions seizing and clutches burning up with the occasional driver running a tank dry and coasting back to the pit lane shaking up a race. A grand total of 12 drivers picked up their first career victory at Michigan. Beside Bucknum and Vukovich II; Tom Sneva, Danny Ongais, Pancho Carter, John Paul, Jr. Emerson Fittipaldi, Scott Goodyear, Scott Pruett, Tony Kanaan, Patrick Carpentier and Tomas Scheckter all had their maiden trip to victory lane at Michigan.

Eight different drivers from seven different teams won the last eight Michigan races. I know those races span both CART and the IRL but Michigan became a place where nobody knew what was going to happen even as the final lap began. The 1998 race saw the lead change each of the last five laps with Greg Moore coming out on top and Jimmy Vasser nipping his teammate Alex Zanardi for second as the Italian drove the final three laps with whisks of smoke trailing his car as his engine was letting go. Max Papis seemed to have had his first career victory locked up when he took the white flag with a three-second lead in 1999 but the Italian ran out of fuel entering turn three and Tony Kanaan flew by with Juan Pablo Montoya get a massive draft off the Brazilian. Kanaan held on to get his first career victory by 0.032 seconds. Montoya would come out on top the following year but not before a twenty-lap battle and a drag race to the line with Michael Andretti. The final CART and 500-mile race featured Dario Franchitti, Michel Jourdain, Jr. and Patrick Carpentier dicing for the lead with Carpentier benefitting from the presences of his lapped teammate Alex Tagliani in the lead group to allow him to pass both Franchitti and Jourdain, Jr. on the outside in turn three and then draft off his teammate to pull away and seal the victory for the Canadian.

Even those that hated the IRL probably watched the 400-mile races from 2002-07 and had to think they were pretty good. Tomas Scheckter and Buddy Rice, who was making his debut, worked their way from the back half of the top ten to a 1-2 finish for Team Cheever in the final 30 laps during what was a contentious time between Scheckter and the team. Alex Barron spun and clipped the infield grass with less than 40 laps to go in 2003 after battling for the lead with Sam Hornish, Jr. and Scheckter. Barron escaped any damage and he was able to keep the car running. He was able to get back into contention within ten laps of that spin and he was stuck to Hornish, Jr.'s gearbox for the final five laps before he made his move on the outside into turn three and he would beat Hornish, Jr. by 0.0121 seconds, the 11th-closest finish in IndyCar history.

IndyCar's time at Michigan did not end on a good note. The final two races were delayed by rain. It was a two-hour delay in 2006 and a four-hour delay in 2007. The latter race got bumped from ESPN2 to ESPN Classic. Though the racing wasn't bad, the draw wasn't there. The 2007 race had a pretty good battle between Franchitti and Dan Wheldon. Then there was the infamous accident that turned Franchitti's car into a kite and took out four of the top five cars. Once that accident was cleaned up the race did end with a five-car, 30-lap fight for the victory between Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, Scott Sharp and Kosuka Matsuura. Patrick's shot at victory was dashed when she had to pit for a tire puncture. Kanaan proved to have the best car of those five and led the final 27 laps and he held off Andretti at the line by 0.0595 seconds.

After going back and watching pieces of those Michigan races, part of me feels like going to Michigan would benefit IndyCar. I have said before the current IndyCar schedule is at a good place with its arrangement of road courses, street courses and ovals but the speed and spectacle of big ovals is what gets the attention of people. The Indianapolis 500 has been great in the DW12-era and Fontana put on really great races every year it hosted a race in the DW12-era. The 2015 Fontana race might be one of the ten greatest IndyCar races of all-time. Why wouldn't IndyCar want to have two or three 220 MPH chess matches over 500 miles instead of just one at the end of May? Some might want to keep the Indianapolis 500 sacred but having a few breathtaking races a season wouldn't be a bad thing. It isn't realistic to have eight or ten or 12 races like that every season in IndyCar but three wouldn't be asking for much.

There isn't really a place for Michigan on the current IndyCar schedule. The series is in the midst of a two-week summer break but NASCAR is heading to the track in ten days and it wouldn't make sense to host IndyCar one week and NASCAR the next. July is already packed for IndyCar and the first NASCAR race at Michigan is Father's Day weekend. After the summer break IndyCar runs three consecutive weeks before ending the season on the third Sunday in September at Sonoma. I am not sure the series could go to Michigan for the season finale on the final weekend of September or in early October and draw a crowd. It is hard to compete during football season. Tracks struggle to get people through the turnstiles and the networks struggle to get people to tune into a race when football is in action.

Next year, Michigan International Speedway celebrates its 50th anniversary and it doesn't appear IndyCar will be on the guest list for the celebration but that doesn't mean IndyCar will never return. I am more optimistic about IndyCar one day returning to Michigan than I am Cleveland. For starters, Michigan is a permanent track and has two NASCAR dates keeping the doors open. Chevrolet is invested in the doubleheader at Belle Isle, which seems to suggest that it wouldn't want a race at Michigan but maybe IndyCar continues to grow a bit and the manufacture decides it is worth it to support a second outing down the road at the two-mile oval along with the street course event. Until that day comes, if it ever does, we at least have plenty of videos of slingshot passes aided by the Hanford device to keep us satisfied.