Thursday, September 7, 2017

1000 Words: 2007 IndyCar Series Season Finale

Saturday marks the tenth anniversary of a three-way title fight for the Indy Racing League championship. The title fight marked a pivotal time for IndyCar though most of us didn't know what was going to transpire in the coming offseason.

Dario Franchitti had controlled the championship ever since he won the rain-shortened Indianapolis 500 in May. He closed the first half of the season with a pair of victories, the inaugural Iowa race and at Richmond. He had eight top five finishes from the first nine races and six of those finishes were on the podium. However, the tide turned when the calendar switched over to July. Scott Dixon went on a tear, winning three consecutive races at Watkins Glen, Nashville and Mid-Ohio. However, Franchitti kept finding a spot on the podium. While Dixon clawed his way back into the championship fight, Franchitti was preventing Dixon from taking control of the title race.

The gap between the two drivers was 24 points entering Michigan, a race we went over a month ago. Franchitti leading the most laps in that race prevented Dixon from gaining any ground but the next race at Kentucky saw Dixon take a chunk out of the Scotsman's lead. Franchitti had to make an extended pit stop to replace a damaged front wing after hitting a cone entering the pit lane after going side-by-side into the pit lane with his teammate Danica Patrick, dropping him from contention. Tony Kanaan went on to win the race with Dixon finishing second and A.J. Foyt IV finishing third. Franchitti took the checkered flag but as the last car on the lead lap in eighth and not challenging for seventh but Franchitti had not realized he took the checkered flag. By the time he realized the race was over, he ran over the back of Kosuke Matsuura and flipped. Both drivers walked away and Franchitti's lead was down to eight points.

Sonoma appeared to be a chance for Franchitti to extend his championship lead. He led 57 of the first 63 laps. It appeared he would cycle back to the lead during the final pit cycle but a collision with teammate Marco Andretti at the top of the hill in turn two after the American's pit stop put Andretti in the tires and caused significant damage to Franchitti's front wing with Dixon set to be second for the restart. He was a sitting duck and Dixon took the lead with eight laps to go before another caution. Fortunately for Franchitti, he had his teammate Kanaan run block and keep the Scotsman in third. Dixon won the race and took a three-points lead in the championship over Franchitti.

The penultimate round at Belle Isle saw Franchitti once again running better of the two title contenders and he took the lead just before the first caution. However, a flurry cautions shook up the field and Franchitti found himself behind Dixon as the race came to a close. Kanaan led Buddy Rice, who was stretching fuel, Dixon and Franchitti. The frequency of cautions caused the race to become a timed race. Dixon was itching to get by Rice and pick up a few more points on Franchitti. On the penultimate lap, Dixon made a move on Rice in the penultimate corner and slight contact put him into the tire barrier while Dixon spun exiting the corner and momentum caused him to back into Franchitti. However, Franchitti was able to be re-fired and take the checkered flag and Dixon was out of his car. Franchitti would finish ahead Dixon and Rice would be classified ahead of Dixon. Add the bonus points for most laps led and Franchitti had a seven-point lead entering the season finale at Chicagoland over Dixon and Kanaan was mathematically still alive for the championship, 39 points behind his teammate.

Franchitti started on pole position but the Team Penske cars of Sam Hornish, Jr. and Hélio Castroneves went by early and Dan Wheldon and Dixon would be up to third and fourth within 20 laps. One point separated Franchitti and Dixon at that point in the race. Marco Andretti had an accident in turn four bring out the first caution on lap 34. Dixon jumped to second on that round of pit stops while Franchitti remained in fifth. Dixon took the championship lead, seven points over Franchitti.

The race had a really good pace. After the first caution the next 93 laps were run under green flag conditions. Most of the race saw the Team Penske cars leading Dixon, Wheldon and Franchitti in lockstep. It is quite noticeable how processional these races were by the time the IRL reached 2007. This wasn't pack racing at all. Everyone was spaced out. The top five were gone from the rest of the field. They were covered by less than a second but sixth on back were nowhere to been seen well before the halfway point of the race.

Vitor Meira had an accident during the third round of pit stops with 63 laps to go. The Team Penske drivers had already stopped as had Wheldon while Dixon was on the pit lane as the caution was thrown. Franchitti had stayed out and was the leader until he made his pit stop. Dixon had exited the pit lane before Franchitti passed him meaning he remained on the lead lap and inherited the lead when Franchitti came in. The lengthy yellow put drivers into position to try and stretch it on fuel if they decided to top off for fuel. Both Dixon and Franchitti topped off with 52 laps to go and both drivers remained first and second respectively.

Within ten laps after the restart Hornish, Jr. retook the lead while Franchitti lost positions to Danica Patrick, Wheldon and Castroneves. Franchitti would get back by Patrick but was still fifth while Dixon ran second and held a seven-point championship lead. With 17 laps to go Hornish, Jr. made a pit stop, handing the lead to Dixon while Franchitti moved up to third after he passed Castroneves later that lap but Dixon took a 12-points advantage over Franchitti.

Franchitti was concerned that he was not going to be able to make it with out another caution while Dixon was trying to conserve fuel while in the lead before he let Wheldon by and settled into second position but cutting his championship advantage to two points as Franchitti ran in third. Wheldon ran out of fuel entering turn one with seven laps to go and later that lap Patrick spun entering pit lane causing a caution with six laps to go. The events of those ten laps left Dixon and Franchitti as the only two cars on the lead lap when the race restarted with two laps to go.

Dixon held the lead while Franchitti ran on the high line for the majority of the penultimate lap. On the final lap, Franchitti settled behind Dixon on the back straightaway and caught a draft into turn three only to have Dixon run out of fuel and forced Franchitti to make a quick move to the outside to take the lead and win the race and the championship. Dixon coasted to second.

It is interesting to see how the last ten years have gone. I don't think anyone thought after that race that Franchitti would go on to win two more Indianapolis 500s and three more championship.  After that race it seemed the consensus was Franchitti was on his way to the Acura sports car program with then-Andretti Green Racing and then came the surprise NASCAR deal with Ganassi. Of course, the NASCAR stint didn't go as planned and by the end of 2008 he and Dixon would be teammates.

Ten years later, Scott Dixon heads to another IndyCar season finale sitting second in the championship by a handful of points. He has since added another three championships and another 30 victories, including an Indianapolis 500 and a half-dozen fuel mileage races that went his way. He will go down as one of the all-time greats in IndyCar history and he could have the second-most IndyCar championship in a week in a half (depending on how you look at the history books and if you consider Rick Mears a six-time champion because he won the Indianapolis 500 two years when it was the only round of the USAC Gold Crown Championship).

Sam Hornish, Jr. would also be heading to NASCAR after the 2007 season and he has not raced in IndyCar since. I am not sure anyone expected Hornish, Jr. to stay in NASCAR for as long as he has. I don't think Hornish, Jr. gets enough credit for how respectable of a NASCAR driver he has become. It took sometime but he did become a competitive driver and he had a championship slip out of his hands in the then-Nationwide Series. He has gone on to win five races in NASCAR's second division and he has become somewhat of a super one-off driver. It is kind of a shame that he moved on completely from IndyCar and hasn't come back to do the Indianapolis 500 as a regular one-off. Hornish, Jr. left before reunification. I wish we got to see him compete against this current quality of a grid.

That Chicagoland race was the debut for Hideki Mutoh, who would finish eighth. His IndyCar career was respectable but not overwhelming successful. I doubt Mutoh thought that day at Chicagoland ten years later he would be teammates with Jenson Button. While this race would be the debut for Mutoh and the farewell for Hornish, Jr., it would also be a farewell to P.J. Chesson, who drove for Roth Racing in this race.

The 2007 season finale had 22 cars; pretty similar to the grid size we will see at Sonoma this season. It is hard to argue that the quality of the grid hasn't gotten better. Gone are Marty Roth and Milka Duno. We don't have any drivers we scratch our heads over. Everyone has had success and has raced well in a junior series. There isn't a driver on the grid that you can pencil in as being the slowest and be a second off the second-slowest car on the timesheet. IndyCar has come a long way, even if it doesn't feel like it. Reunification helped.

While not being the greatest oval race ever, even at an average Chicagoland race there is a clear difference in feelings and nerves when ending a season on an oval to a road course. At an oval, there is more of a chance of the deck being shuffled up or a car coming from the back and at the start of the race a driver could be looking good only to have a pit cycle or two see them slide down the running order and find themselves losing the championship. At a road course, the variance isn't there. Cars don't jump from the back to the front as often and most of the time it only happens when a caution comes during the middle of a pit cycle to shuffle everything up.

This was the last season where Team Penske didn't have a driver in championship contention entering the season finale. That is a pretty good record but when you consider in the last ten seasons that team has only won two championships, it makes you scratch your head.

On second viewing of this race, it wasn't as good as I remembered it. Before watching it I had thought it was one of the more underrated race in IndyCar history, a hidden gem because of the split. The racing itself wasn't that great and I think at the time the championship battle and the fact that the two drivers going for the championship were running first and second with two laps to go and were the only cars on the lead lap is what made me believe it was a great race. Don't get me wrong, the climax couldn't have been scripted any better and for those final 50 laps my heart was firmly placed in my throat and even second time watching I felt my heart rate go up but when you consider what happened on the race track, it is hard to say anything happened. The top five ran away from the field and remained pretty much in that order. There might have been great racing going on from sixth to last but ABC didn't show any of it. If that was the case, it felt like the director at that time really mailed it in and decided just to stay on the front five.

There is something I miss about those days even though they were segmented, spec and sub-optimal. If you didn't pick a side, the split was kind of fun. You got to enjoy 31 American open-wheel races in a year. That is never going to happen again but this is where you take quality over quantity. They might not be our favorite days in IndyCar history but this is all we have to look back on and for some this is what they grew up with and they didn't know about the politics and loved it because it is all they had. It might not have been pretty but it was fun nonetheless.