Sunday, July 9, 2017

First Impressions: Iowa 2017

1. It only took Hélio Castroneves three years and a month to get back to the top step of the podium and ironically it comes on the weekend when the reports start to leak out that the Brazilian's full-time IndyCar career is on its last legs and he will be heading to sports cars full-time with Team Penske and become an Indianapolis 500 one-off from 2018 going forward. It didn't seem like he led 200-plus laps today. It was a solid performance but after the last three years, it just felt like you were waiting for this one to slip away from Castroneves. It didn't, even though it appeared it was when he was third with just over 30 laps to go. He now finds himself second in championship, eight points behind Dixon. I don't think this is the floodgate opening. I think this is it. I think this is Castroneves' final IndyCar victory. Maybe he wins the championship if he can solidly finish fifth and sixth like he has become known for doing but that will require Scott Dixon slipping up and I don't see that happening.

2. J.R. Hildebrand has to be kicking himself. He has to be kicking himself. He stopped first for final pit stops and when things cycled around he leapfrogged four drivers and had a three-plus second gap on Castroneves and was set to take the lead. He then got caught behind the lapped car of Alexander Rossi and the leader, Marco Andretti, who was running about six to eight miles per hour slower than him and Castroneves blew past him. Hildebrand couldn't get by the lapped cars and he couldn't run the Brazilian down. Hildebrand missed the one golden opportunity at a victory possibly of his career let alone this season. The entire Ed Carpenter Racing team hasn't been there on road and street courses. The Chevrolet edge on the high downforce short ovals is gone when universal aero kits are introduced next year. He may get one final shot at Gateway but this was the day for Hildebrand to get that IndyCar victory that has eluded him for six-plus years and it didn't happen.

3. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third, in what I can only say was a surprising result. Honda has struggled on short ovals but Hunter-Reay earned this podium finish. He passed a dozen cars to get in that position. It appeared it would be another frustrating weekend for him and Andretti Autosport but the team took a swing at the set up and he had the speed over the long runs that could compete with the Chevrolets.

4. Will Power finishes fourth. It was a solid result but he could only ride the coattails of his teammate and then he dropped a few positions and found himself only fighting for a podium and not a victory. It was a good day but he has to be slightly bummed after seeing his teammate end up on top.

5. Graham Rahal finished fifth and like Hunter-Reay he earned this finish. It wasn't a case of a few Chevrolets having problems and opening the door for a few Honda drivers. Rahal was arguably the best Honda for majority of this race before Hunter-Reay passed him late. He now has five consecutive top ten finishes and four top five finishes in the last five races.

6. Josef Newgarden seemed a little lost for the first third of the race before he made up some ground. He went slightly off strategy and it got him in a great position for the final round of pit stops. He started 16th and sixth is a great result.

7. Simon Pagenaud didn't have the pace of the leaders for most of the race but like Newgarden he went slightly off strategy and he found the speed for that final run. He finished seventh, bottom of the four Penske drivers but it is still a really good day for the defending champion.

8. Scott Dixon was lost all day. He went off strategy like the two drivers that finished ahead of him and he was able to finally break into the top ten on the final stint. For most of this race it appeared he was going to finish 12th to 15th and lose the championship lead. He turned a mediocre day into a good day by finishing eighth and he will be the championship leader as IndyCar crosses the border.

9. Tony Kanaan was only slightly better than Dixon for most of this day. The only difference is he finished ninth, second best of the Ganassi cars. Kanaan didn't look like he could be any better than seventh in this one.

10. James Hinchcliffe finished tenth, which is actually a position worse than where he started, but this was a good day for him. He actually was on the edge of the top five for most of this race and was the third-best Honda behind Rahal and Hunter-Reay most of the day.

11. Alexander Rossi finished 11th, which seems about right for him because he wasn't great in this one but wasn't awful. While Hunter-Reay found something, the rest of the Andretti Autosport team was lost. Takuma Sato kept dropping like a rock and Marco Andretti never had the speed to run in the top fifteen.

12. Ed Carpenter finished 12th and this has to be another frustrating day for him. His teammate finished second but Carpenter was up there for most of the race and then he fell off a cliff in the final third of the race. He could have had a top five finish and the same could have been said for Indianapolis and Texas, both races he finished 11th. This is better than last year for Carpenter but it could be much better than the results show.

13. Esteban Gutiérrez makes his oval debut, completes 299 of 300 laps, actually led at least one or two laps during the final pit cycle and he finished 13th, ahead of his teammate Ed Jones. Oval racing is easy. Gutiérrez will improve as the season goes on.

14. Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball rounded out the top fifteen. They really didn't have it. This wasn't the greatest day for Chip Ganassi Racing.

15. A.J. Foyt Racing can't catch a break. Both cars brush the wall and were done before lap 200. Mikhail Aleshin does what Mikhail Aleshin does, qualify at the front and steps over the line too early in a race and ends up in the barrier.

16. This was a really good race but this was a late start time for a Sunday and it wasn't a holiday weekend with most people getting Monday off. The track said ticket sales were up 10% from last year on Sunday morning but the grandstands told another story. This race has had four different start times in the last four years. It couldn't be on a Saturday night this year because the NASCAR race was last night. I wrote something for tomorrow that makes a few scheduling suggestions. A lot of people want Iowa to return to a Saturday night but the track wants this Sunday date. I actually think Iowa is the perfect track to try a Thursday night race in July, preferably the Thursday night after the MLB All-Star Game when there is nothing going on. I doubt the track wants to take that kind of risk but I can't imagine it will continue to defend a Sunday evening race after this one.

17. IndyCar heads to Toronto next week. Honda has swept the street course races so far in 2017 and all those teams have to be feeling good after what was a much more competitive weekend at Iowa than they all were probably expecting.