Sunday, June 25, 2017

First Impressions: Road America 2017

1. The weekend Team Penske sweeps the top four positions in qualifying is of course the weekend Scott Dixon gets his first victory of the season. He was able to do 14 laps on the first two stints of the race to put him into second position and he jumped by Josef Newgarden on the first restart and never looked back. He had to hold off a hard charging Newgarden at the end but he didn't put a wheel wrong in the closing laps and picked up his 41st career victory. Dixon entered the weekend leading the championship and had yet to win a race this year. Now he has his first victory of the season in a race where it looked like he would be lucky to get a podium finish. The rest of the field must be thinking uh-oh with seven races remaining in the season.

2. Josef Newgarden was the third of the four Penske cars in qualifying and while he was up at the front with all his teammates, he didn't blink and fall. He embraced the fight and ended up on top of what is a very experienced and very successful group of drivers. He isn't scared of this situation and he heads to Iowa, a place he dominated last year, looking to cement himself back in the championship fight. It might be his first year with Team Penske but he could be the top Penske driver in the championship fight entering Sonoma in September.

3. This was an Hélio Castroneves-esque race. Win pole position, dominate the first stint and then fall out of it. He got leapfrogged in pit stops and couldn't make it back up. He stopped a lap earlier than planned for the final stop but that ended up putting him in third position. It's been three years since his most recent victory. He has won 11 pole positions since that victory. If life is a numbers game than Castroneves is bound to get a victory but if he hasn't gotten a victory by now, when will he? 

4. Simon Pagenaud finished fourth and had the quietest day of the four Penske drivers. He never really challenged for the lead but never put his nose in a bad situation. 

5. Will Power finished fifth and had the most hectic day of the Penske drivers. He had to give up positions at least twice for blocking. He had a terrible start to the race and found himself just hanging on to the top five after starting on the front row. A good day for Power but definitely disappointing. 

6. I don't know how Charlie Kimball finished sixth but he did. He had a good day after having a mechanical failure ended what seemed to be a promising night at Texas a few weeks ago. 

7. Ed Jones gets another top ten finish, his fifth top ten finish in ten career starts. He didn't light the world on fire but he ran a solid three-stop strategy and came home seventh. 

8. Graham Rahal looked like a stud through turn one on the opening lap going from sixth to fourth on the outside but he fell like a rock after than that and switched to a four-stop strategy. It worked out and he was helped by a few cars getting knocked out of the race. Eighth doesn't seem like a great day but considering how it started, I am sure he will take it. 

9. Max Chilton quietly ran a three-stop strategy and finished ninth. He was in the fight for the top six but he lost a handful of spots after a slow final pit stop. He is coming into his own.

10. Mikhail Aleshin was nowhere near a top ten finish until the end when a handful of cars lost positions because of damage. He had a rough weekend and he leaves with a respectable finish. These days happen and Aleshin is going to run away with a tenth-place finish.

11. Carlos Muñoz finished 11th after making the decision to go to a four-stop strategy questionably late in the game.

12. Spencer Pigot finished 12th in a less than stellar day. 

13. Let's tackle Andretti Autosport all at once. Alexander Rossi appeared to have the four-stop strategy down pat. Then Takuma Sato spun and neutralized Rossi's strategy but he was still in position for a top ten finish when that didn't look likely at the start of the race. Then Rossi had a front wing failure and lost positions and his shot at a top ten finish was over. No problem, Ryan Hunter-Reay was challenging for sixth place and he was finally going to get off the snide. Then he lost a front wing end plate and dropped to 14th. Marco Andretti had a throttle stick and he had to lose a lap to get that fixed. Besides his spin, Sato had a stiff neck the last two days. 

Add to that the rumor Andretti might be going back to Chevrolet. I think Andretti is switching even though it has won the last two Indianapolis 500s. It nearly had engine failures cost the team that race and Honda-related mechanical issues cost them at least one other victory this season while costing all four Andretti drivers a handful of respectable finishes across the first ten races of the year. 

14. Quickly through the field, Conor Daly was 15th and J.R. Hildebrand was 16th. Esteban Gutiérrez looked good until he had some front wing damage drop him to 17th. James Hinchcliffe had a top ten slip away after contact with Power in turn three broke his left front suspension.

15. Tony Kanaan had a hard accident in the kink after contact with Rossi. Some thought Rossi blocked Kanaan. It is tough to rule that because that part of the track is narrow and there isn't much room for two cars side-by-side. There was definitely contact but I wouldn't say Rossi caused the contact. I thought it was a racing incident. Kanaan made a move, Rossi ran the center of the race track, there was slight contact and Kanaan ended up in the barrier. It is unfortunate.

16. Two years, two great crowds at Road America and not to forget to mention wall-to-wall on-track action. You got IndyCar, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, U.S. F2000, Pirelli World Challenge and Global MX-5 Cup. You can't ask for much more than that. 

17. And now another off weekend for IndyCar. It is nice that everyone will be off for Canada Day. After that is Iowa. Team Penske has never won at Iowa and that should change this year unless Ed Carpenter Racing plays spoiler. The Hondas will be competing for, at best, sixth-place.