Sunday, September 3, 2017

First Impressions: Watkins Glen 2017

1. Alexander Rossi gets a well-deserved victory on a day that was probably a lot more hair-raising than he wanted it to be. This wasn't the typical race where the pole-sitter walked away. Nineteen of 21 cars stopped after lap one to switch off the wet tires. Rossi kept the lead but a wiggle on a wet spot gave the lead to Hélio Castroneves on lap two. He would run down the Brazilian but a faulty fuel probe on the second stop forced him to stop early for his third stop. He was faster than everyone but was close to making it on fuel. He made it to the final fuel window and then a caution came out (more on that in a moment). Scott Dixon was on his heels but Rossi beat the New Zealander. Rossi signed a new two-year deal with Andretti Autosport. This isn't a bad start to that new deal.

2. Scott Dixon finished second and thanks to Team Penske stupidity, Dixon is three points behind Josef Newgarden for the championship lead. He was solid but he did get shuffled back early in the race. He drove a smart race and he got a top finish. Dixon is bound to win this championship.

3. Normally I go down the results in order and write about each driver but I need to get to Team Penske, who handed Scott Dixon the championship. Josef Newgarden was in the top ten and could have finished in the top five. On the final round of pit stops he exited the pit lane and Will Power stood on the gas to beat Newgarden out. Newgarden had a lock up, slid into the pit lane wall and was then hit from behind by Sébastien Bourdais, who had nowhere to go. Newgarden finished two laps down in 18th.

Everyone respects Team Penske for letting its drivers race but this was a case where the team should have set Power aside and said he is running block for three drivers today, especially Newgarden. Newgarden was going to lose ground to Dixon today but there is a big difference between leading Dixon by 23 points or 25 points and leading Dixon by three.

Power trailed Newgarden by 83 points entering today. He had a shot at the title but it was a long shot and the Team Penske way has traded a comfortable lead for Newgarden over Dixon and three cars eligible for the title for four cars championship eligible and basically nothing separating Dixon from a championship. Power finished sixth and he trails Newgarden by 68 points. It wasn't worth it. He should have sacrificed his title hopes to help his teammate.

Does Team Penske realize whom it is racing for the championship? This is Scott Dixon. He doesn't put a wheel wrong. Team Penske gave Scott Dixon an inch and Dixon is going to take the championship. Has Team Penske not learned anything over the last 15 years? Team Penske has a history of choking away championship and 2017 appears to be set up for another year of Team Penske finding a way to lose the title.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay deserves a lot of praise for a third place finish. He got to the front and was quicker than every car that qualified ahead of him other than Rossi and Dixon. At one point, it appeared Hunter-Reay might have had a shot to win this race when he had a five-second lead after Rossi had to make his premature pit stop. He has come on strong in second half of the season and Sonoma has been a good track for him.

5. Another side bar, Honda finished 1-2-3 and we all thought this would be a Team Penske dominated race. We know nothing.

6. Hélio Castroneves kept his nose clean, he made up spots when everyone switched to dry tires and he led but he really didn't have the speed in a dry set up. But once again he finds a way to bring the car home in one piece and at the front. He trails Newgarden by 22 points and he will have a shot at a title in what could be his final race of full-time IndyCar competition.

7. Graham Rahal had another solid day. He trails Newgarden by 94 points so even if 25 cars entered, Rahal does would not have a shot at the championship because Newgarden owns the tiebreaker. It has been a solid year for Rahal and last year he was the best Honda at Sonoma.

8. We covered Will Power. He finished sixth.

9. Charlie Kimball was all over the place today. He ran off in turn one, in the bus stop chicane, he had another incident with Conor Daly and he still finished seventh. The man might be a bowling ball but he is making it hard for no one to hire him with results like that.

10. Max Chilton came home in eighth after stopping under the first caution and going off strategy. He might be a lame-duck driver at Chip Ganassi Racing but he got a solid result.

11. Simon Pagenaud really didn't have it today but he finished ninth, trails Newgarden by 34 points, so he is still solidly in it and he has a chance to complete every lap run in 2017. He could become the second driver in IndyCar history to complete every lap in a season. Most years, Pagenaud's season would have him leading the championship entering the final race. In the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, he is fourth.

12. Carlos Muñoz finished tenth, his third consecutive top ten finish, and his teammate Conor Daly was challenging him and he finished 11th. I know this season didn't start well for A.J. Foyt Racing but the drivers have come on strong since the summer break and both these drivers should return for 2018.

13. Spencer Pigot finished 12th and J.R. Hildebrand finished 15th after both benefitted from pitting under the first caution but lost it on the second stint. They stopped about five laps early on their second fuel stint and they went from podium and top five contention to outside the top ten. This day didn't start well for Ed Carpenter Racing but it was looking to turn something magical in the team's 100th race. Unfortunately, they came back to earth just before the halfway point.

14. Ed Jones finished 13th ahead of fellow rookie Jack Harvey. Jones wasn't mentioned at all in this race and Harvey was one of those who stopped under the first caution and was all of a sudden in the top five. Harvey didn't have it today but it was a respectable road course debut for him.

15. Rest of the field: Marco Andretti was running in the top ten in most of this one and then had a problem in the final ten laps that dropped him to 16th. Sébastien Bourdais deserved better than 17th. He had nowhere to go as Newgarden slid into his path. Takuma Sato had a wastegate issue and was off the pace. He finished four laps down in 19th. Tony Kanaan did the same thing Newgarden did only 20 seconds after Newgarden did it except Kanaan hit the wall worse than Newgarden and he retired. James Hinchcliffe had a gearbox issue end his race after five laps.

16. Somehow, this race avoided the rain. It started wet but it was dry after lap one and I am sure everyone would have started on dry tires had the stewards not issued a wet start.

17. We get a week off and then we have the season finale at Sonoma. Where did this season go? It is 4:00 p.m. and the race is over. Plenty of time to start cooking dinner and eat at a decent hour. Thanks IndyCar.