Sunday, May 27, 2018

102nd Indianapolis 500: First Impressions

1. It was Will Power's race to lose. There are days when one driver and team aren't going to lose. It doesn't matter if hell starting raining down and that was the case today. Team Penske had four horses; none that you were concerned about and Power was going to be the strongest one. He showed it from the start. Simon Pagenaud had a good day but when was he mentioned? Josef Newgarden took a slightly different strategy and found himself in the conversation but when was he mentioned? Hélio Castroneves was having an Hélio Castroneves-esque day running in fifth and sixth until he spun exiting turn four but before that, when was he mentioned?

It was Power's race to lose. His crew nailed pit stops today. They had him not only leapfrog two or three cars after stops but leapfrog two or three cars and then have a two-second gap on the drivers he leapfrogged. When it was go time after the final pit stop Power was gone. He ran down Dixon, who hoped to stretch fuel for the final 40 laps and took the race victory. The same thing happened with the three cars ahead of him who hoped to stretch fuel. Power wasn't going to hope everyone else was going to run out of fuel. He made the passes when they needed to be made and sure enough he pulled away from the rest of the field. 

We have become accustomed to Indianapolis 500s coming down to three cars with less than a second covering them entering the final lap. That wasn't the case today. When Power had clear track ahead of him there was no catching him. Power could only beat himself in this one and he didn't. We had a period where Power did throw races away and in turn threw championships away. Some were out of his control but most weren't. It took a few years for Power to break that. He was plenty quick but the bad days had the worst timing. 

Those days are behind him. This is Power's 34th IndyCar victory. He is tied for seventh all-time with Al Unser. Jr. Power has four more victories than Hélio Castroneves. Since joining Team Penske ten years ago Power has won 31 times while Castroneves picked up only ten victories in the same time period. Also, Power won a championship. This was his fourth 500-mile race victory, tied for the sixth most all-time and he is the eighth driver to win at least four 500-mile races in a career. While only seven of his 34 victories have come on ovals, six of his last 16 victories have been on ovals.

Power was always going to be considered one of the greats. He will likely clear 40 victories and he is already on 51 career pole positions, third all-time. He has a championship. I don't believe an Indianapolis 500 should vault your career a significant amount but it definitely is a boost. People can't say, "Well, he never won Indianapolis." Power has that. He is the only driver to win at Indianapolis on the oval and the road course, granted the Grand Prix of Indianapolis is only five years old. Power might one of the fastest drivers we have ever seen in IndyCar. He is quick. He might not win the fuel-mileage races. He might not turn a 14th place start into a victory but it comes to ball out racing not many are beating Power.

2. I rarely feel bummed for a driver after a race. Ed Carpenter is one of a few drivers I feel bummed for. The one year he wins the Indianapolis 500 pole position and doesn't have something go against him he is only good for second. He didn't put a wheel wrong but Power was better today. Come to think of it, rarely has Carpenter had a good day at Indianapolis even when he didn't start on pole position. This was his 15th Indianapolis 500 and there are fewer Indianapolis 500s ahead of him then are behind him. While Ed Carpenter Racing has that magic for Indianapolis, days like these will be harder to come by for Carpenter. What sucks the most is he wasn't close enough to challenge Power. Carpenter could not get by Scott Dixon when he had to make a pass. There was no chasing Power. Second is good but it could have been better.

3. Mike Hull must have said, "fuck it" prior to the restart with 39 laps to go. He knew who his driver was, Scott Dixon and with most teams getting about 32-35 laps on fuel he must have saw the difference and thought, "yeah, Dixon can make it." And of course he did because Scott Dixon has that special touch and nothing surprises you. We all knew Dixon was going to make it but this was the day when speed beat sophistication with the throttle. Third is a great day for Scott Dixon. He wasn't really in the conversation all race but how many races has Dixon won where he wasn't at the point for the first half of the race?

4. Alexander Rossi should be the championship lead because nobody has been better than him through the first six races of the season. He had the best car at St. Petersburg and Phoenix and unfortunately won neither. He thrashed the field at Long Beach and got the victory he deserved. Barber was the one odd weekend with the changing conditions over two days. He wasn't the best at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but was strong and had a fifth place finish. Rossi isn't scared of the outside and he passed at least half a dozen cars on the outside. If he didn't have a puncture on his qualifying run and wasn't starting 32nd he would have challenged Power for the victory. He probably would have been leading before halfway if he started on row four or five. He went from 32nd to fourth. He trails Power by two points in the championship. This guy is going to be in the championship conversation until Sonoma. 

5. Ryan Hunter-Reay finally had a good day, especially at Indianapolis but it seems he can only have good days or bad days. He hasn't had that wondrous day in a while and when he has those days going they all go to hell at some point. He was up front for the entire race. He was the best Honda for most of it and he was giving the Team Penske cars and Carpenter a run for it but he didn't have that little extra. It is a good day and something to build from but I want to see Hunter-Reay close out a great day again.

6. Simon Pagenaud gets a career best finish in the Indianapolis 500 in sixth and he was up front for the entire race but he wasn't the best Penske car today. Oddly enough Pagenaud has not had a top five finish this season in what has been an ok year for him. If he can put together some results he might be a championship contender but I think that will be tough when considering two of his teammates already have two victories this season.

7. Carlos Muñoz should be a full-time driver. He finished seventh, another top ten finish in the Indianapolis 500 and his average finish in this event is 7.5. Out of 250 drivers who have made at least five Indianapolis 500 starts Muñoz has the sixth best average finish all-time behind only Bill Holland, Ted Horn, Jimmy Murphy, Harry Hartz and Dan Wheldon. It is a shame Muñoz has been forgotten. 

8. Josef Newgarden looked as if he might have been in position to win this race had it remained green with about 60 laps to go but a few cautions negated that strategy and he finished eighth, where he probably deserved to be. This was another solid day but it dropped him to third in the championship after the results for Power and Rossi. I wouldn't be concerned though. He trails Power by ten points and I don't think he is going to fade. 

9. Robert Wickens had a good car and he salvaged a ninth place finish after what was a rough two weeks for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He should be Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, barring injury, suspension or a massive change of form from another rookie he will be IndyCar Rookie of the Year. He is seventh in the championship. I am not sure where SPM stands after these last two weeks but if this was just a blip I think Wickens will win a race this year.

10. Graham Rahal rounded out the top ten in what is another impressive result from a shitty starting position. Rahal was in the same boat where it appeared he could have been in contention for the victory if the race remained green for the final 60 laps. That didn't work out but Rahal, along with Rossi, were two drivers who could pass people all race long. If he can start qualifying better I think he will win a race before this season is out. 

11. Another year, another box score J.R. Hildebrand can superglue to John Barnes' front door. Eleventh is solid for Hildebrand and like Muñoz he is another guy who should be full-time in IndyCar. It is unfortunate he lost his ride after one year with Ed Carpenter Racing. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been talking about returning to full-time competition. Hildebrand would not be a bad driver to build around. 

12. Marco Andretti finished solidly in 12th but he was in the top ten for most of this race and unfortunately each year he has a really good car here but when push comes to shove we haven't seen Andretti make an improvement and put himself into the discussion for the victory. This has been a good season for Andretti. He is a solid driver but he is missing something. 

13. Matheus Leist had a solid day and finished 13th. He wasn't in the conversation for the victory, he really wasn't in the top ten much but he was always on the lead lap and was never in the way. Good for him and in some other year he would have been Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year but not this year. 

14. Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing get a respectable result for the pair's sophomore year together at Indianapolis in 14th. Last year was a bit of a fortunate result with ninth but this is just as good. The team ran all 500 miles and gains a lot of information to build on. 

15. The second guy I feel bummed for is Stefan Wilson. With four laps to go he had to pit for fuel from the lead. He had no business winning this race but man did it seem like a fairy tale. I never thought Wilson was going to make it but to be fair to Wilson he has been solid all month. He never looked off the pace. He wasn't ever in the lead group but he was respectable. Wilson is one of these drivers who unfortunately hasn't had the pieces fall into place for a real career to form. The history book will not tell a full story for him. I wish he could get a few races a year in IndyCar. I wish he could get a shot at a few road courses, a few street courses and another oval. It likely won't happen but I do hope Wilson helped his chances of getting a ride for next year's race.

16. Jack Harvey was in the same boat as Stefan Wilson but I think completing all 500 miles is good enough for him and Meyer Shank Racing. This team has pieced together a solid part-time schedule and the team is working its way to full-time. Harvey is an underrated driver but it is nice to see there is a group behind him that believes in him.

17. Oriol Servià was the third of the trio with Wilson and Harvey who were at the front but couldn't conceivably make it to the end. At the same time, this was another good showing for a new team with Scuderia Corsa partnering with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. This would have been a feel good story for the diehards. 

18. Charlie Kimball had a good race going and was in the top ten for a good portion of it but pit strategy did not go his way at the end and he was the final car on the lead lap. The good news is for Carlin, this is a good result and something to build on because these two weeks were positive for the new team. Max Chilton didn't have it today and it seemed like he was a lap down for most of it. He finished two laps down in 22nd but for Carlin, this isn't a bad day and at least he didn't tear up equipment.

19. Zachary Claman De Melo led laps in the Indianapolis 500. He is a solid driver. I don't know if he is going to be a great driver but he gets the jump done. He showed good pace and I think he could be full-time next year.

20. Spencer Pigot had a pit lane speeding penalty ruin his race. He never recovered after being in the top ten early and he was competitive. I don't know if he was going to win but he was at least going to be fighting for a top ten finish.

21. After what was a frantic qualifying weekend, Conor Daly finished 21st one lap down. This was as good as it was going to get for Daly and another dubious note for Daly, of drivers with five Indianapolis 500 starts (even though he failed to take the green flag one year but what the hell) he has the worst average finish at 27. 

22. Zach Veach will be remembered for exiting the pit lane in a ball of fire. He finished two laps down in 23rd. 

23. Jay Howard completed 193 laps but I don't know what caused him to be so many laps down. He was never a factor in this one. 

24. Tony Kanaan looked good before he suffered a tire puncture not long after a pit stop. He got himself back into the top ten but one spin took him out of it and it is a shame. 

25. The third driver I feel bummed for is Sage Karam because he worked his way to seventh and looked to at least be in the top ten. Then his rear end steps out exiting turn four and he clips the wall just enough to end this race. Like Muñoz and Wilson, Karam needs more than one race a year. Karam is fast and while he might tear up equipment he hasn't been given enough time. Sixteen starts over five seasons isn't enough to form a picture of a driver. I wish Dreyer & Reinbold Racing could return full-time with Karam and Hildebrand as drivers but that is asking a lot. Karam is in a similar boat to Daly. In five Indianapolis 500 starts, his average finish is 25.4, the sixth worst of drivers with at least five starts in this race. 

26. Hélio Castroneves' one-off ended with an unfortunate spin exiting turn four. He wasn't going to win this one but he was set up for an Hélio Castroenves-esque day in fifth or sixth.

27. Sébastien Bourdais just lost it when running up on Rossi. He was in the picture for a top ten finish. It has been a solid year, he has lost some ground in the championship but he could win a few more races this year and get himself back into it.

28. I am going to wrap up four drivers in quick succession. Kyle Kaiser's race ended because of a mechanical issue but at least he didn't tear up a race car. However, his four-race Indy Lights scholarship is up and it is a shame this appears to be it for him. Juncos Racing will continue as it has René Binder and Alfonso Celis, Jr. scheduled to be in the car but neither is as inspiring as Kaiser. Ed Jones had a hard hit exiting turn two. It has been a rough first year with Ganassi. If he keeps it up it will be his only year with Ganassi. Takuma Sato ran into James Davison but neither driver did anything wrong. Davison held his line but he was struggling with a jammed anti-roll bar. Sato drifted up a bit and with how difficult these cars were to handle Sato couldn't just pull the wheel and avoid Davison. If Sato had done that he was going to spin anyway.

29. I end with Danica Patrick. It is disappointing it ended this way. A victory was always going to be unlikely and she deserves praise for the career she had. She isn't one of the all-time greats. She isn't the best never to win the Indianapolis 500 but she was a damn good driver with six top ten finishes in eight Indianapolis 500 starts. Her average finish in this race was 11.375. She definitely made it hard to root for her. It was always about her and she lacked awareness at times. Maybe she catches the bug and wants to come back down the road. I would be happy to have her back. I doubt it but you never know how much you are going to miss it until it is gone.
30. Let's talk about the car. This wasn't the slingshot, draft-happy races we saw the last six years in the Indianapolis 500. It was difficult to pass, not impossible. It was frustrating to watch at times but when passes were made they were earned. I would love to see a tweak made for next year especially if it means we don't see so many accidents with drivers all by themselves. It was different and different doesn't mean bad. If the temperature was five to ten degrees cooler maybe the race would have been more similar to what we have seen the last six years. It is a delicate balance but this wasn't the worst race. However, after treating people with slingshot passes and forcing them to use the edge of their seats it is hard to get them to sit back and watch a chess match.

31. ABC's coverage. There were hits and misses. I am glad they brought the live driver introductions back after completing fucking it up last year however the pre-race show made no sense. It went from a preview to talking to Ed Carpenter to talking to a driver not even in the race to the Snake Pit to glamping. Other than Carpenter, who had no idea what to expect or what the championship looked like.

This has me thinking that the pre-race show is not long enough to cover it all and that is fine but it is something to consider with NBC taking over next year. The Kentucky Derby coverage went from 2:30 p.m. ET until 7:21 p.m. ET. The race didn't start until 6:48 p.m. ET. There were other races sprinkled in but a lot of the coverage is features and bouncing around Churchill Downs. The Indianapolis 500 is just as big of an event when it comes to the auxiliary features but the race isn't going to have a five-hour pre-race show. Maybe NBC starts coverage at 10:30 a.m. ET or maybe even 10:00 a.m. ET if it wants to have Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir in the Snake Pit and The Today Show people on the red carpet and then also have actually pre-race features on drivers, team owners and crew members but I cannot see that happening. It comes down to what do we want to see and what is important to the race. Plenty of race fans don't care about the Snake Pit or the red carpet or glamping but that is part of the event and part of what makes it interesting. How many other sporting events have a concert with 30,000 to 40,000 people? It can't be ignored but how can you give it the time it deserves? We will have to wait and see. 

I liked Nicole Briscoe as host and I am glad she got to do it. She knows what it is like to cover this race and she knows what it is life to have a personal connection to this race. She brought multiple perspectives and got to show them in this broadcast. The booth wasn't terrible but it just seemed ABC never knew what it wanted the Indianapolis 500 to be and that goes back to the pre-race coverage. Nothing ever seemed flushed out. The pre-taped features were off. What the fuck was that Oliver Platt crap? Nothing against Oliver Platt but it was a waste of a 90-second or two-minute part of the pre-race that didn't really add anything. 

32. The championship is interesting now. Power has 243 points and leads Rossi by two points while Newgarden is ten points back. Dixon is only 25 points back but then the gap grows to 57 points between Power and Hunter-Reay. Rahal is 60 points back with Wickens 65 points back. Bourdais dropped to eighth in the championship and trails by 75 points. Pagenaud finds himself 88 points back in ninth and despite not being in the race James Hinchcliffe is still in the top ten, 99 points behind Power with Andretti three points outside the top ten and Carpenter is 12th on 118 points. 

Honda dominated the first two street course races this season and Rahal swept the weekend last year at Belle Isle. Chevrolet has won the last three races and it will be a great opportunity for Honda to retake control of the championship.

33. 364 days until the 103rd Indianapolis 500.