Monday, April 23, 2018

First Impressions: Barber 2018

1. Josef Newgarden had this race in the bag even when it appeared he didn't. No one really pushed Newgarden today or yesterday. He pulled away from Will Power yesterday and today he was gone from Sébastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay. He was gone and could afford to switch to wet weather tires a few laps earlier than everyone else. After the condition worsened to the point where Bourdais could no longer stay out on slicks Newgarden cruised to victory, running almost two seconds slower than Hunter-Reay in second and he still won by over nine seconds. He has yet to hit a rough patch at Team Penske and he is back in the championship lead. Now Team Penske sits on 199 IndyCar victories and right now Newgarden is the only one that seems capable of getting #200.

2. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a bit of a rebirth in the rain at Barber. After everything but the pace car ran into him at Long Beach he narrowly missed Power yesterday when the Australian hydroplaned on the front straightaway. This put him in third and he wasn't challenged for this position. He was set for a podium finish and the decision to go to wets while Bourdais slid as far as he could on slicks got Hunter-Reay a runner-up finish. This has been a good year for Hunter-Reay and he is keeping himself in the championship conversation but he is going to need to pick up a few victories.

3. Another race and another top five for James Hinchcliffe and even better than a top five as he finished third. Hinchcliffe had a good car and put himself in a good position to get on the podium. This is refreshing because for the last few seasons we got used to seeing Hinchcliffe have stop-start seasons where he would get a result and then have two or three poor finishes. It is still early in the season but this is the best I have seen Hinchcliffe in IndyCar.

4. One of the reasons for Hinchcliffe's improvement has to be Robert Wickens, who finished fourth. I was rough on Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Hinchcliffe in the preseason preview because this team had been underperforming and Hinchcliffe was pretty much allowed to hand pick his teammate. That seems to have worked out and the results are coming in. Wickens has been marvelous this season and if it weren't for a bump at St. Petersburg and gearbox issues at Long Beach I bet he would be ahead of Hinchcliffe in the championship and not three positions behind his countryman.

5. Sébastien Bourdais might have deserved a podium finish today but his roll of the dice didn't go his way. Fortunately it wasn't snake eyes, as he only fell to fifth. Bourdais is third in the championship and has led a lap in every race this season. I am still skeptical to say he will be a championship contender because it is still early in the season but nothing is pointing toward a decline for Bourdais. He is motivated.

6. Scott Dixon finished sixth, which somehow hurts his average finish at Barber. I don't want to say something off for Dixon but it seems Chip Ganassi Racing is currently the fifth-best team on the grid behind Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Dale Coyne Racing. That sounds crazy but we have yet to see Dixon challenge for a victory this season while three of those four teams have won a race and SPM has had two podium finishes and four top five finishes from four races. Ganassi has some work to do in May.

7. I am not sure how Graham Rahal finished seventh but he did. He pulled out a good result on what was looking to be a tough day.

8. Takuma Sato sets a career best finish at Barber in eighth and once again I am not sure how he did it. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been a little disappointing considering the preseason testing pace but Rahal is fourth in the championship, tied with Bourdais with Bourdais holding the tiebreaker and this is Sato's first top ten finish of the season. Things might not be that bad but it feels like it should be better.

9. Simon Pagenaud finished ninth in what was an odd day for him. The call to allow cars to refuel before the restart cancelled out the alternate strategy Pagenaud had but he still had a great restart but he still finished behind the likes of Rahal and Sato, two drivers he appeared to be better than. He is still 15th in the championship after today. It is odd to see him struggle this much.

10. Marco Andretti rounded out the top ten and he, like Pagenaud, had his alternate strategy cancelled out when refueling was allowed before the restart. He started seventh, finally a good starting position, and he spun exiting turn eight. I bet he thinks he should have done better.

11. Alexander Rossi tried to stretch it on slicks and went off, costing him a surefire top ten finish and he probably should have finished in the top five. He drops to second in the championship but he has done a fine job through four races. He will rebound from this result.

12. Rounding out the cars that finished on the lead lap: Matheus Leist survived to finish 12th. Zach Veach faded after great positioning at the end Sunday's portion of the race and finished 13th. Jordan King had a few squirrelly moments, went off late and still finished 14th.

13. Rounding out the field: Spencer Pigot went too damn long on slicks and spun. René Binder finished 16th, how about that? Gabby Chaves did something to piss off Simon Pagenaud. Tony Kanaan had a mechanical issue followed by a penalty for unapproved pit work cost him. Zachary Claman De Melo lost two laps for unapproved work on the car under the first red flag and he set fastest lap in the race. Ed Jones race ended early after a mechanical issue. Will Power got some laps in today after his accident yesterday but still finished 21st. Carlin had a disastrous end to what appeared to be a promising weekend. First, Charlie Kimball was spun and Max Chilton broke down before the restart, lost his position and only completed 48 laps.

14. Let's go over the decision to allow cars to refuel prior to the restart. Nothing in the rulebook says a car cannot be allowed to refuel and change tires as long as IndyCar approves it and that is the key distinction. Making a change under a red flag under a team's own volition could be a penalty but if IndyCar approves it then it is ok.

It makes sense for teams to be allowed to change tires after a red flag especially after the track conditions have changed. It makes no sense to force everyone to go out on wet weather tires on a completely dry racetrack and force everyone to do one lap before everyone had to dive into the pit lane for changes and vice versa. If a red flag had come out when the track was dry for a large accident that needed clean up or barrier repairs and then it started pouring rain the teams shouldn't be forced to run a lap on slicks and hope to make it back to the pit lane in one piece. This is where common sense should prevail.

Refueling under a red flag makes less sense but Jay Frye made a statement over why it was allowed and IndyCar had no way of impounding the cars and assuring a team would not take advantage of the situation. I hope that could be rectified for future situations. Resetting the race took something out of it and it would have been interesting to see how it would have played out if everyone restarted on the fuel loads they had at the end of yesterday.

15. Are rainstorms getting rainier? I was disappointed the race was not completed on Sunday but it does feel like we have more road/street course races get called because of rain than ever before. It is not that there isn't a thing as too much rain for a wet race. There is but it seems to occur more frequently than ever. We had St. Petersburg in 2010, São Paulo in 2011, Toronto in 2014, NOLA and Belle Isle in 2015 and now this year at Barber where races were significantly hampered because of rain. It isn't unprecedented. Bobby Unser once won a race that was called after six laps at Mosport due to rain and full points were awarded for that race.

So are rainstorms rainier or are wet tires worse or are drivers softer or are drainage systems less sophisticated? Yesterday didn't look that bad compared to some other wet races. Toronto in 2014 didn't look that bad. NOLA was a shit show because of standing puddles and cars on slicks. Belle Isle 2015 is the one race I understood calling because of standing water and lightning was in the area.

It isn't popular to say this but sometimes we worry too much about safety. I think race control should put its foot down and say we are going to go racing and if you do not feel comfortable partaking then park the car. No one is forcing the drivers to compete and you had a lot of drivers that wanted the red flag but a handful wanted to keep going yesterday because it made no sense to stop because it wasn't going to get better. Why red flag an event and wait for the conditions to improve when the conditions aren't going to change? If it is going to continue to rain then the water running across the racetrack isn't going to get better. It isn't going to only rain over the grassy areas and allow the track to remain dry.

We talk so much about bravery in motorsports and testing the limits. Yesterday seems to contradict that. Sometimes you have to compete in adverse conditions. The Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts played a game in December with snow up to players' ankles. It was not the greatest conditions, it was not the greatest game and you could say it was dangerous to play in those conditions but the game went on, the fans that could make it went and it was the talk of the following Monday. Yes, I know football is different from motorsports and yes, one is more dangerous than the other but something inside me says not competing is not always the correct decision.

16. Excluding Indianapolis and Pocono, I would have to say Barber is one of the top three or four events I would like to attend most on the IndyCar schedule and I have been a fan of the track from the start. It is more than the racing. I want to go for the facility and for nine years Barber has impressed us. First off, the racing is better than we ever thought it was going to be when the track was first put on the schedule and second, it is a well attended event. Over 34,000 people were there for Saturday and unfortunately because of the rain we will not know how many were at the track Sunday but every year Barber has been on the schedule it seems like the Sunday draws about 45,000 people and it might have pushed 50,000 this year. Kudos to the track for allowing free admission to today's resumption of the race.

There are at least seven or eight other events on the IndyCar schedule that do not draw 34,000 for the race. Nobody thought an IndyCar race in the South would be this successful let alone in Alabama and the success of this race has me thinking maybe IndyCar should have a few more races in the South. Though it is billed as NASCAR country the truth is the South is full of motorsports fans. Petit Le Mans is a very well attended sports car race in Georgia and IMSA also races at Virginia International Raceway. The NHRA makes a handful of stops in the South.

IndyCar would probably fare better in some places more than others. Atlanta did not work for IndyCar but when you look at last year's ratings and consider that three of the top five metered markets for IndyCar over the entire season were Richmond, Greenville and Greensboro there are a few areas that could probably draw a good crowd. Richmond did well during the IRL-era and Baltimore, though two and a half hours up the road, Baltimore drew well in the mid-Atlantic region. Charlotte hosted a race during the early days of the IRL and yes, that race ended under terrible circumstances after three fans were killed but that was nearly two decades ago. I think there are untapped areas for IndyCar to explore in the South and done right there could be another one or two successful events with healthy crowds, something I bet the series would love to have.

17. Now we get two weeks off before we head to Indianapolis.