Sunday, April 8, 2018

First Impressions: Phoenix 2018

1. Penske finds a way to win races and Josef Newgarden has been something special in his two seasons with Team Penske. This is the third time in two seasons he has won from seventh on the grid despite being the worst Penske qualifier. He did it at Barber and Toronto last year and he did it at Phoenix. He has done it on a road course, a street course and an oval. Who else can do that? Will Power was labeled at the start of his Penske career as a guy who could only succeed if he started at the front. Newgarden isn't winning from the back but he isn't dominating races from the point. He has not be fazed by the change of scenery nor by the shoes he filled.

He has had some breaks. In that Barber race, Power had to make an unscheduled stop for a tire puncture and he caught a timely yellow at Toronto. Tonight he made a pit stop at the right time and leapfrogged the leaders. Then he made the right call to get tires before the final restart and on a tricky track for passing he made a move to the outside of Robert Wickens to get the victory. Last year, he won in the third race of the season. This year he won the second race of the season and he already has the championship lead. He isn't going to relinquish the crown easily.

2. Second career start and first career podium finish as Robert Wickens finishes second in what was a bit of a stunning race for him. I expected him to be off a bit. He had been out of single-seater racing for over six and a half years. That hasn't stopped him from competing with the big boys of IndyCar. He should have had a podium in the first race of the season and probably should have won it. He deserved a podium tonight. When is he going to have an off day? And the next race is at Long Beach, one of the tracks Wickens has experience at.

3. Alexander Rossi hit a pit crew member on a pit stop, restarted outside the top twenty, was then handed a drive-through penalty, fell a lap down, got his lap back under green flag conditions, made two passes for position in the successive laps after getting back on the lead lap and within three minutes was within nine-seconds of the leader. This was a hell of a drive and third is incredible considering where he was after his first stop. He was the one guy who could make passes tonight and he was balls out for the entire race. Two races, two podium finishes and he was in contention for the podium last year at Long Beach. Look out for Rossi.

4. Scott Dixon started 17th and finished fourth as his crew had a great first pit stop to get him into top ten. From there he waited and waited and made his pit stops at the right time to leapfrog drivers. You cannot be surprised when Dixon does this because he does it once a season.

5. Ryan Hunter-Reay did what he does on starts and restarts and made up at least two positions each time on the outside and he ran in the top five for most of the race and he finished fifth. He stayed out probably five laps too long before the second round of green flag pit stops and that cost him a lot of track position. He might have deserved a podium finish but this is only the second time in his career he has started a season with two consecutive top ten finishes and this year starts with a pair of fifth place finishes. He should take the result and run with it.

6. James Hinchcliffe restarted in second with seven laps to go and he was the only one to fall like a rock on the older tires. Despite that, it was a good day for Hinchcliffe. He probably deserved a top five but sixth is respectable. The good news is he has a teammate that will keep him honest. No longer does Hinchcliffe have a teammate that is lagging behind in 15th most race weekends. Or so it appears. This was only Wickens' second race.

7. Ed Carpenter did next to nothing all night and finished seventh, matching his career-best finish at Phoenix, which he set last year. This is what Carpenter needed, a night where he kept his nose clean, completed all the laps and got a top ten finish. Ed Carpenter Racing didn't look competitive this weekend. The team has to make up ground to return to contending for race victories.

8. Tony Kanaan finished eighth and that seems right. He really didn't factor in this one.

9. Graham Rahal finished ninth and that has to be a bit disappointing consider how good Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was in the test. It could have been worse but the team knows this weekend could have been much better.

10. Simon Pagenaud had a slow first pit stop, it dropped him to the middle of the field and he couldn't get out of that rut and the same thing happened at St. Petersburg. The difference is he gets a top ten finish this week. This could have been a much better night for the Frenchman.

11. Takuma Sato finished 11th, kept his nose clean, completed all 250 laps but like his teammate Sato should be ticked off a bit because this team was on top of Phoenix in February.

12. Marco Andretti had a fuel issue and handling issues before qualifying and he started 20th but like Hunter-Reay he made up four spots right at the start. He ran well but one of these races he has to qualify near the front to get a respectable result.

13. S├ębastien Bourdais stalled before rolling off for the pace laps. Fortunately, he got the car fired and led comfortably. Then he slid into a crew member on the first pit stop. He didn't lose as much ground as Rossi but still had to serve a penalty. He didn't have the car Rossi did but he did get to the front of the lapped cars. He lacked that extra bit to get back on the lead lap.

14. Quickly through the field: Spencer Pigot was off all night. Gabby Chaves was 15th. Zach Veach was stuck in at the back. Carlin has a long way to go. Matheus Leist has already been poisoned by A.J. Foyt Racing.

15. Four retirements in this one: Ed Jones was second after the third round of pit stops and he was trailing Newgarden but got into the marbles when behind the lapped car of Pigot. Ganassi doesn't like wrecked race cars in general but to tear one up while running in a podium position is an extra mark against Jones. Kyle Kaiser was doing well and then brushed the wall in turn four. He completed 174 laps so it is a good start to a career. Will Power got caught in the marble when Rossi blew pass him. Power was upset by the move but what else could Rossi do? Pietro Fittipaldi's debut ended after 40 laps. He was running 11th when it happened. Not sure we can take much away from this one for Fittipaldi.

16. The first 150 laps were a dud but the final 100 laps made it interesting. IndyCar was saved by Rossi and the game of cat and mouse over fresh tires. I am disappointed in how IndyCar has handled Phoenix. The first year was acceptable. It was the first time the series had been to the track since 2005 and you are not sure how it is going to race but after year one it was clear something had to be done to improve the racing. Nothing was done in year two and while the introduction of the universal aero kit was a massive overhaul compared to the previous two years IndyCar still had to take a swing and try something different.

IndyCar has two different boost levels for road/street course races and oval races but half of the ovals run the same high downforce aero package as the road/street course races. It would make sense to me if instead of assigning boost levels based on track configuration the series would pair it with aero packages or IndyCar should make the low downforce package mandated at all ovals instead of Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono.

The series also tried to lay down rubber in the top groove in the corners but when you look at what it used and compare the results to NASCAR at Texas it is disappointing how far IndyCar was off. Texas used the tire dragon and before Friday practice the turns were black even the back straightaway was rubbered in. At Phoenix, you couldn't tell anything had been done to the track at all. I understand there needs to be a preseason test but next to nothing can be taken from an afternoon session in February. Would it make more sense for IndyCar not to have the February test but give the teams all the tires they need to run for four consecutive hours starting at 5:00 p.m. local time the Thursday before the race to rubber in the racetrack? Something has to be done in year four because it is frustrating to watch the top three be covered by a second or a second and a half for 50 consecutive laps but nobody attempting to make a pass.

Even after tonight, I am not sure IndyCar gets a year four at Phoenix. IndyCar needs Phoenix more than Phoenix needs IndyCar and the track says it wants IndyCar but is it really worth it after the initial three-year deal was wasted? IndyCar's future at Phoenix will not be decided tonight, tomorrow or by the end of April but if things are quiet in August and September then I think it will be safe to say there will be an opening in the 2019 calendar.

17. Remember how everyone was peeved about the off time between St. Petersburg and Phoenix? Well there is a race in a week from Long Beach and the week after that is Barber. You are going to be tired of IndyCar before you know it. Sweet dreams.