Saturday, June 2, 2018

First Impressions: Belle Isle 2018 Race One

1. Nobody was really that concern about Scott Dixon, were they? Winless through the first six races, had not led a lap through the first six races, he had done that before and still ended the season as champion. That is the amazing thing about Scott Dixon. There is very little he hasn't done. He won from 22nd at Mid-Ohio. If he can do that then there is no reason to have any concerns when he sits fourth in the championship despite a lack of victories. Dixon finds away to the top and today was the same.

From the moment he settled into second behind Marco Andretti at the start I knew he was going to win this race. He didn't fall much more than a second and a quarter behind Andretti and at that point he was stalking his prey. He knew he could go a lap longer than Andretti, run a faster in-lap than Andretti, run a faster out-lap than Andretti and on top of it have a faster pit stop than Andretti and that point it was game over and sure enough Dixon came out ahead of Andretti and pulled away.

Now Dixon is tied with Andretti's father for third all-time on 42 victories. He has 99 podium finishes, one behind Michael Andretti for third all-time. A week after we started taking Will Power into serious consideration for best driver of this generation Dixon reminded us he is still kicking (Though I am sure there is a certain Scotsman quietly chuckling in the dark corner of the room).

2. Ryan Hunter-Reay had another impressive day and once again it wasn't enough and it wasn't Hunter-Reay's fault. He had played the three-stop strategy to perfection and got out ahead of his teammates Andretti and Alexander Rossi, both on the two-stop strategy after Hunter-Reay had made his second stop. He was flying and got caught behind Graham Rahal on the alternate tires and the lapped car of Simon Pagenaud (you don't say that often). Unfortunately for Hunter-Reay and I think all of his the local yellow for René Binder's stalled car in the turn seven run-off forced everyone's hand and he couldn't run the three-stop strategy the way he would have had that threat of a full-course yellow not been looming.

I would have loved to see this race stay green and see if Hunter-Reay could make that third stop and then chase down Dixon because I think he could have done it. Unfortunately, when everything was neutralized Hunter-Reay could keep up with Dixon but could not surpass him. He is knocking on the door. He has been knocking on the door. This is his ninth podium finish since his most recent victory at Pocono in 2015. How much closer can he get?

3. With a third place finish, his fourth podium finish of the season, Alexander Rossi will be the championship lead for at least 22 hours before the start of race two from Belle Isle and Rossi flat out deserves it. He has been the best driver this season and he could have opened the season with three consecutive victories. The problem is he didn't do that and he has one victory, a four-point championship lead heading into tomorrow and he needs to start converting these great races and great cars into victories. Dixon likely isn't done this season winning races. Will Power likely isn't done this season winning races. Josef Newgarden likely isn't done this season winning races. The championship lead gives Rossi has a head start on the second half of the season. Now is the time for Rossi to take it and run away from those three championship-caliber drivers.

4. A solid day for Marco Andretti and I am sure he is a bit upset he did not turn his pole position into a victory and is probably a bit peeved he lost the podium late to his teammate but fourth is a really good showing and he honestly had probably the fourth or fifth best car today. He didn't luck into this. He didn't make a timely pit stop and just happened to be at the front with the leaders. This was a solid performance start-to-finish for Andretti. Are there things he could have done better? Yeah, probably. Was a bit off from the top three finishers? Yeah, those guys were hooked up but this is a great spot to build off of from tomorrow.

5. Who had Takuma Sato finishing fifth? He was quiet all day but after his teammate Graham Rahal unfortunately clipped the curbs and slammed into the wall exiting turn 12, Sato was there and he made a few bold moves to get into the top five.

6. Ed Jones had the cautions benefit him but he was in the top ten for a good part of this day. He still has some work to do this season and tomorrow is a great opportunity for him.

7. From Indianapolis 500 winner and championship leader to seventh at Belle Isle and down to third in the championship but only seven points behind Rossi. None of the Chevrolets were close today. Power was the best of the Chevrolets all race and at no point did I think Will Power was going to finish in the top five let alone win this race.

8. Robert Wickens did not have a good second stint and he lost a fair bit of time. The good news is he made that ground up and still finished eighth. I think he will be happy with what he gets and he now has five top ten finishes through seven races in his IndyCar career. He is sixth in the championship and 86 points clear of the next closest rookie. This is a fine result for Wickens.

9. Josef Newgarden was one of the first to go to the three-stop strategy and it worked a bit. If the race had stayed green I think he would have done better than ninth. He had a good run but he wasn't going to be able to take the three-stop strategy and have it work to his favor the way Hunter-Reay did. But, a top ten finish is a top ten finish and he is fourth in the championship, 11 points behind Rossi. You see why it is crucial Rossi starts winning races? The top four are covered by nothing and come tomorrow Newgarden could be leading the championship and Rossi could be down to fourth.

10. Spencer Pigot gets his first top ten finish in 364 days and boy did he deserve it. He was keeping up with Wickens and Newgarden in this one. Ed Carpenter Racing needed this result today and the good news for Pigot is he is now three points ahead of his team owner in the championship despite running five more races than Carpenter! It is a good day but Pigot needs more days like these and more for the rest of the season.

11. James Hinchcliffe finished 11th and that seems about right for him today. He was on the edge of the top ten but other than Jones I am not sure Hinchcliffe should have finished ahead of any of the other cars in the top ten. This is the start of the rebuild after last month.

12. Zach Veach had a mid-pack car all race and he finished 12th. Most years for a rookie that would be great and it is still good for Veach because he was running with some veterans and holding them off but everything Veach does this season is squished by Wickens.

13. Quickly through the rest of the field. Sébastien Bourdais just didn't have it today and finished 13th. Tony Kanaan made some good moves but that Binder caution caught him out and instead of maybe pulling off a top ten finish in his 350th start, he finished 14th ahead of his teammate Matheus Leist, who I do not think was mentioned once on the broadcast. Jordan King was at the back all day. Simon Pagenaud got the strategy wrong today and he seems to have at least one off day at Belle Isle but always seems to have a good day cancel it out. Gabby Chaves was quiet and finished 18th.

14. Let's talk Carlin because this was a promising day with Max Chilton starting tenth but he was down to 18th within the first five laps in this one. Charlie Kimball looked good and I don't think he would have finished in the top ten but maybe he could have finished 12th. He got caught out by the Binder caution and then ran into the back of Kimball. I like Kimball. He is a fan-friendly driver and signs a ton of autographs and at the racetrack fans gravity toward him but boy does he make it easy to dislike him. He flat ran into the back of Santino Ferrucci today. Kimball is the villain perfect for IndyCar but unfortunately for IndyCar Kimball isn't competing for race victories. He is a mid-pack driver and that is ok. Somebody has to be a mid-pack driver but when you are a mid-pack driver and irk as many people as Kimball does, you are not a villain, you are a pest. If he was winning races or constantly at the front he would be the Draymond Green of IndyCar but instead he is the Lance Stephenson of the series.

15. Let's talk René Binder because I think it is important we talk about IndyCar standards. IndyCar has been fortunate during the DW12-era not to have many if any drivers that are ridiculously off pace and a hazard to other drivers on track. The 105%-rule has kind of been forgotten in recent years as we don't have Milka Duno and Marty Roth on the entry list nor do we have Lotus entries that are woefully behind in terms of development. But Binder was not within 105% of the fastest time on Friday and he was not within 105% of the pole position time today and he still raced.

Binder hasn't been a hazard. He hasn't been foolish. Has he made mistakes? Yes but he hasn't put other drivers in jeopardy or been erratic when cars on the lead lap are passing him. He has given lead lap cars courtesy, which is something Duno and Roth were not known for. However, what is the point of having the 105%-rule if it is not going to be enforced? He might have been smart with his driving but he is not within the standard set.

I understand Juncos Racing is piecing together a season and hopes to be full-time soon and I understand Binder brings money and he will be in the car for two races after this but there has to be line drawn. It is nothing against Juncos Racing and it is nothing against Binder. I have no problem with Binder bring money and he should be on the grid but Binder should be on the grid if he meets the performance standard set.

Telling Juncos Racing its car cannot compete because Binder was a few tenths outside of 105% is hard but there series needs to hold itself to a certain standard. Binder will be back for tomorrow and two races later this season. Just because he was not within 105% today doesn't mean he will not be within 105% tomorrow nor does it mean he will not be within 105% at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. However, I think the performance standard should be enforced and it is unfortunate if a driver doesn't meet it but life isn't fair.

16. I want to talk about the two drivers that had accidents. Santino Ferrucci did really well today. He wasn't going to finish in the top ten but he was keeping up with his teammate Sébastien Bourdais and likely would have had a top fifteen finish. I was impressed. Graham Rahal might have been on the podium, if not he would have at least been in the top five had he not clipped the curbs. We do not see many accidents like that but Rahal was pushing it with a potential full-course caution pending for Binder and he had to make up as much ground as he could. Unfortunately, he ended up being the full-course caution.

17. Let's do it again tomorrow, though it appears rain is very likely. Let's see how those new Firestone wet weather tires perform.