Sunday, May 28, 2017

101st Indianapolis 500: First Impressions

1. The world came to watch Fernando Alonso conquer the greatest race in the United States. It got a winner the world had forgotten about a decade ago. Fernando Alonso was the winner the world wanted to see. Takuma Sato was the winner IndyCar need with the Formula One congregation watching on.

In light of Lewis Hamilton taking a dig at the IndyCar grid yesterday by suggesting it wasn't that talented because Alonso in his first oval experience was starting fifth, IndyCar needed Sato to win to prove someone from Formula One doesn't just come in and take the cake. Sato has been in IndyCar since 2010 after five-plus seasons in Formula One. Sato wasn't one of Formula One's best but he was respectable and since he won the 2001 British Formula Three championship everyone knew he had the speed in him but inconsistency cost him. He hasn't really gotten control of his consistency but his pace alone hasn't been enough for him to become one of IndyCar's best.

In his seven previous seasons Sato has never finished better than 13th in the championship. It took him 38 starts to get his first podium. It took him 52 starts to get his first career victory. Neither of those accomplishments were on an oval. His first top five on an oval came in his 22nd start in the first race of the Texas doubleheader in 2011. Sato's victory today was his second top five finish on an oval in his 45th start on an oval. It's not as easy as it looks.

We worry too much about the optics of the winner. Takuma Sato isn't a household name in the United States and some believe only American success will grow the sport but what the soft-spoken Sato has is passion that comes from a nation that takes great pride when one of its own succeeds. His story of a journeyman, a man everyone including myself wrote off as a speedy driver who didn't live up to the potential he showed over a decade ago. He entered this race as probably the fifth likely Andretti Autosport car to win despite starting second-best of the five cars and one of his teammates being in his first oval race. For the second year running the fifth bullet in the Andretti gun hit the target.

Sato nearly won this race in 2012. Many don't get a second bite at the apple, especially at Indianapolis. Sato did today and it was the sweetest of his career.

2. Hélio, Hélio, Hélio. He could be a six-time winner by now. At the same time, he could still be on two but let's put 2002 behind us. Three victories, three runner-up finishes in this race and he probably shouldn't have been in second. How many Indianapolis 500 runner-ups did it after driving under a car flying in the air? Castroneves did that today after the Scott Dixon-Jay Howard accident and he broke off one of his rear winglet off and never got it fixed.

Then he got penalized for jumping a restart, which is near impossible to do in IndyCar but the cautions fell his way after he served that penalty and just like that he was in the top five but slightly off strategy and then he gets the caution to get him back on strategy. And there was one restart after he was penalized for the jumped start where he went from ninth to sixth before turn one and he didn't even get called for that.

It was another year where it felt like everything was falling Castroneves way. He was mixed in with all the teams that appeared would be short on fuel with all the early challengers stuck in the back half of the top ten or out after mechanical issues or accidents. It didn't work out today. It felt like it should have.

3. Dale Coyne Racing thought its best chance at Indianapolis 500 victory was squashed when Sébastien Bourdais spun on the fastest qualifying run of the weekend, totaled the car and left him with a busted pelvis and hip. Ed Jones picked up with the ball and ran with it. He started 11th, he finished 3rd on his Indianapolis 500 debut in his sixth IndyCar start.

This kid is special. I don't know if he is going to win 38 IndyCar races, two Indianapolis 500s and two championships but he is going to be here for a while. He went toe-to-toe with Castroneves for the last 100 miles and he never blinked. He never got scared. Coyne has got a gem. How long can he hang on to him?

4. Max Chilton nearly won this race as the fourth bullet of four in Ganassi's gun. A career-best finish two weeks after he matched his career-best with a seventh in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. I don't know if this is the start of Chilton becoming a front-runner or if these are just two great weeks. He was a lap down or he was on the tail end of the lead lap after one of the pit cycles. His fastest lap was 222.779 MPH. Only eight cars had a slower fastest lap. He may have been lucky on this one but you take what you can get whether you deserve it or not. Deserve has nothing to do with it.

5. Tony Kanaan finished fifth. He looked really competitive at the start and during the first stint he appeared Ganassi would run away with this in Kanaan and Dixon. It didn't happen and after that first stint Kanaan was more on the fringe of contention but it was another impressive day for him and another top five in the Indianapolis 500.

6. Juan Pablo Montoya was quiet all day and through attrition he finished sixth. Four of the top six are over the age of 40. When was the last time that happened in the Indianapolis 500? When was the last time that happened in an IndyCar race When was the last time that happened in a race in general, not including sports cars where there could be pairs or trios of drivers? Montoya still has it to be a full-time driver.

7. One botched pit stop may have cost Alexander Rossi from going back-to-back in the Indianapolis 500 but he made some moves, caught a few breaks, avoided a few accidents and finished seventh. It doesn't tell the whole story but it could have been worse for Rossi.

8. Marco Andretti finished eighth and he had an extended stop after a rear winglet broke off and he had to change the rear wing assembly. He recovered but he could have been a contender. This is the fourth different teammate of Andretti's to win the Indianapolis 500. That has to be a record. He is in the right place to add his face to the Borg-Warner Trophy. It just has to be his year one of these years.

9. Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing in its first race as a team finished ninth in the Indianapolis 500 and this isn't just Harding Racing's first IndyCar race or first Indianapolis 500 but first race period. This isn't a team coming in from Indy Lights or expanding from a sports car program. This is a team from scratch that finished ninth on debut. Amazing. And they will be at Texas and Pocono and hope to be full-time come 2018. They might not finish ninth in the next two races but what a bright start for that team.

10. Carlos Muñoz finished tenth, A.J. Foyt Racing's first top ten in the Indianapolis 500 since 2008. This was a top ten more because of attrition and other cars being penalized. Muñoz had a great start by making up eight spots in six laps but he never really got higher than 15th in the race before the end.

11. Ed Carpenter overcame breaking a front wing by running into the back of the lapped car of Pippa Mann on a restart to finish 11th. He had a good day but the broken wing cost him a surefire top ten.

12. Graham Rahal fought his way into contention and then the timing of cautions dropped him out of the top ten and a flat tire cost him a shot at a top ten. He finished 12th. He was much better than that. We could actually say that for about ten other finishers.

13. Mikhail Aleshin wasn't a factor in this one and somehow wasn't derailed by a hole in the right side pod. He finished 13th.

14. Simon Pagenaud didn't have it today. Other that a brief stint in ninth and tenth, he wasn't close to the front. He struggled with downforce and 14th was probably as best as he was going to be.

15. Sebastián Saavedra gets his second-career lead lap finish on an oval by finishing 15th with Juncos Racing, the team's IndyCar debut. His other lead lap finish on an oval, 15th in the Indianapolis 500 in 2014. A good showing for a guy who was out of a car all of last year.

16. J.R. Hildebrand was handed a penalty for a jumped restart on the penultimate restart. He was running in fifth or sixth at the time. He probably wouldn't have gotten up to battle with Sato, Castroneves, Jones and Chilton but he never got the chance if you think about it. What a shame.

17. Pippa Mann finished 17th, one lap down and she just kept it out of any incidents, except for when Carpenter got into the back of her. She was never a factor.

18. Spencer Pigot lacked pace all day. He had the slowest fastest lap of the race at 218.872 MPH, the only driver not to break the 220 MPH-barrier in the race. He finished sixth laps down in 18th and that is an improvement over last year despite completing one fewer lap than last year.

19. This is where it all goes to hell. Josef Newgarden was involved in that final five-car accident. He got into the top ten but he was never a factor in this one. He never really got back to where he was before his practice accident.

20. James Davison was running second after starting 33rd despite not getting into the car until the day after qualifying concluded. He made a ton of passes in the early part of the race and he got up to 15th purely on pace before going slightly off strategy to get into the top three. He was got together with Oriol Servià to cause that final accident despite restarting fourth. He made a great case for being the substitute until Sébastien Bourdais comes back.

21. Oriol Servià made a bunch of passes on the outside and out of nowhere he was in the top ten. Unfortunately, his 200th IndyCar starts ended prematurely and after being in contention for at least a top five in the Indianapolis 500.

22. James Hinchcliffe wasn't ever a factor in this one and had nowhere to go after Davison and Servià got together.

23. Will Power was in the same boat as Hinchcliffe as collateral damage in the Davison-Servià accident. He went from ninth to second on lap one and then proceeded to fall back to ninth by the end of that stint. He never really had it.

24. Motorsports is cruel. Fernando Alonso's engine failure while running seventh is proof that motorsports is cruel. It was a great day. It was a successful day. Is oval racing easy? Not as some think. Is IndyCar easy? No. Alonso is a talent above all. His success today was a combination of his supreme talent, his work ethic to study up on the intricacies of IndyCar and a proven race-winning team. He may never be back. He could be back next year. I hope you cherished this.

25. Charlie Kimball and Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered engine failures and it seemed like Zach Veach also had an engine failure. Hunter-Reay might have had the best car today. This might have been the second consecutive year Hunter-Reay had the best car. It is a damn shame he has nothing to show for it.

26. Sage Karam was on the fringe of the top ten and it seemed like he wasn't done making up positions and then his battery died. That is a bummer.

27. Buddy Lazier completed 118 laps and had a hard accident exiting turn two. He had to go to hospital and I have not heard anything on his status. This was his 20 Indianapolis 500 start. It might have been his last and with the significant damage to his car who knows if his team will ever be back.

28. Conor Daly got into the wall in turn three when he tried to pass three cars on the outside. Then Jack Harvey had his first Indianapolis 500 end after he spun after clipping a piece of debris from Daly.

29. Now to the big accident. Jay Howard was respectable all month, he ran out of fuel at the end of the first stint and had nowhere to go after he went multiple laps down. He got into the marbles, hit the wall and Scott Dixon had nowhere to go, as Howard had no control over his car. Dixon got airborne after running over the back of Howard, got into the catchfence on the inside of the south chute. The damage to the catchfence brought out the red flag.

Chip Ganassi was critical that Howard was in the race considering he hasn't competed since 2011 and I understand that but Howard wasn't reckless. He didn't make an unfathomable mistake. He had nowhere to go when getting lapped and unfortunately got into the marbles. I do think more should be done to make sure drivers with race experience get seats and it is concerning when a guy out of a car for six years gets back in but no one contested it when it was announced and after Howard passed the refresher course and no one voiced concern over the week-plus of practice.

It was an unfortunate circumstance and it ended Dixon's shot at victory earlier than anyone would have expected it. Maybe the apron would have prevented it and maybe that should be brought back just to give the drivers a little more elbowroom. We have to thank Dallara once again for building such a remarkable chassis that both drivers walked away.

30. This was an odd race. It felt surreal to see Chilton, Davison, Sato and Jones battling legitimately for the lead. It wasn't a circumstance of a pit cycle and these four had yet to pit. This was the battle for the Indianapolis 500 victory and then Castroneves got in there. And the rain held off despite spending all of last week hoping for the best case scenario of the race possibly starting as late as 5:00 p.m. ET but expecting to be racing on Monday.

31. This was not ABC's finest day. Not showing live driver introductions I believe was a massive mistake. I will give them credit. They did a fun run down of the grid and it gave a little more background information on the drivers but that should have been shown on SportsCenter on Friday, Saturday and before the race on Sunday not prior to the race. ESPN spends about 17 hours a day on the NBA Finals, which don't start until Thursday. They couldn't have squeezed this less than four-minute feature on the Indianapolis 500 starting grid into one show?

The viewers were robbed up of watching the drivers come out and more importantly hearing the fan reactions. We didn't get to see Fernando Alonso walk out to the wall of people that is the front straightaway. We didn't hear the usually loud ovations for Tony Kanaan, Hélio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter. To me, it hurt the pre-race show because the driver introductions were another sign that the race was approaching. A piece about James Hinchcliffe incognito working at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum doesn't do that. I understand trying to show the personalities of the drivers but that should have been done in the days leading up to the race not in the hour prior. ABC used to win Sports Emmys for its Indianapolis 500 coverage. Today deserved a Sports Razzie.

32. Belle Isle is next week and practice begins Friday. I am going to need all four days prior to settle down after this one.

33. 364 days until the 102nd Indianapolis 500.