Sunday, June 3, 2018

First Impressions: Belle Isle 2018 Race Two

1. It was about damn time for Ryan Hunter-Reay to get a victory and he got it with hustle. He knew from tenth on the grid he had to use the three-stop strategy and yesterday it worked for him, only he didn't get the victory. He did it again and everything fell in place. He set fastest lap after fastest lap and avoided getting caught in slower traffic. He erased an eight-second gap to Rossi before you knew it and Hunter-Reay was going to win this race even before Rossi out-braked himself going into turn three.

Hunter-Reay showed what is capable when you use the three-stop strategy and after his performance the last two days and Simon Pagenaud at Sonoma last year you have to wonder if this could be the new norm. Forget trying to make as few stops as you can; go like hell and open the gap. When you start up front it makes sense to try and make as few stops as possible and I doubt we will see things change but wouldn't it make as much sense to just set qualifying lap after qualifying lap and open a gap to the rest of the field and make the field match your pace? I know the fear of a caution negating the strategy looms but we have seen in IndyCar the last few seasons not many cautions flip a race. They still happen but it seems not as much as they once did.

Today was a great race because multiple strategies worked and the alternate tires could not last. You would get a few good laps but within the halfway point of a stint a driver was dying to get new tires and that is what we want. Hunter-Reay and his crew knew how it could win this race today and sure enough it worked. 

I don't know if Hunter-Reay can be a championship contender. He seems to have thinks bite him out of nowhere and he hasn't been immune this season but through eight races he has a victory, three podium finishes and six top ten finishes. This is the best he has looked since 2012-2014. 

2. It wasn't a great day for Will Power, it wasn't a great weekend, but he finished second today and exits Belle Isle with the championship lead after it appeared he wasn't going to have that honor. These are the days championships are built on. Power kept the nose clean, ran his race and got the result. Power has developed into this driver where he isn't reaching for a result. Today wasn't going to be his day but he didn't chase it and over step the line. Another driver overstepping the line is what got Power the championship lead today.

3. This was a solid weekend for Ed Jones as he picked up his third career podium finish. He wasn't mentioned much today but he didn't fade after qualifying fourth. He held off Scott Dixon today. It hasn't been a great year for Jones. He has had plenty of poor results, some of his own making. Jones has done well on street circuits and he has finished in the top ten in all four street course races this season. He is going to have to transfer this success over to road courses and ovals soon if he wants to take that next step forward.

4. Fourth isn't a bad day for Scott Dixon but his 100th podium finish will have to wait at least another six days. Dixon is five points out of the championship lead and he is in prime position. His worst finish is 11th and that was because of something that was out of his control. He has seven top ten finishes this season. He is going to be in the hunt all summer. 

5. Graham Rahal recovered after an accident on Saturday to finish fifth today. He was quick once again but he wasn't close to Hunter-Reay and Rossi. The good news is you can afford one bad race but a second could be a much bigger blow to his championship hopes and he is going to need to start winning races.

6. Robert Wickens faded on the three-stop strategy. He started strong but he just lost a bit over the final two stints. It still got him a sixth place finish and he continues to runaway with Rookie of the Year, as he holds a 99-point gap over the next closest newbie. I think Wickens will win a race this season. He hasn't put a wheel wrong through eight races. 

7. Tony Kanaan went from 22nd to seventh and was barely mentioned. I am not sure how he did it other than he went to the three-stop strategy early but good for him. It is a shame he was out of qualifying before he could set a lap but I do not think he would have started better than 14th or 15th and starting this far back forced his strategy and it was probably beneficial for him in a crazy way.

8. Charlie Kimball went from 21st to eighth and was barely mentioned. The good thing is he didn't run into any one today. I am glad Kimball is getting Carlin's result even though they are not coming easy. The team is building and these results will go a long way.

9. Marco Andretti was quick at the start and made up quite a bit of ground early but the two-stop strategy might not have been the right choice for him considering he started behind Hunter-Reay. I think if he had done that he might have gotten into the top five. This has been a good season for Andretti and it was a respectable weekend.

10. Simon Pagenaud finished tenth and through eight races this season he does not have a top five finish, which is on to say and for some reason worrying to me. It doesn't seem right that Pagenaud has not had a good day this year. 

11. Shout out to Max Chilton who finished 11th today, his best finish of the season. He is still behind Ed Carpenter in the championship but it is baby steps with this new team. 

12. And now onto Alexander Rossi. He was a sitting duck and locked up the left front on two consecutive laps into turn three. The second time it not only cost him the lead but he rejoined in fourth but the tire blew and he had to stop. He was able to get 12th out of today. 

However, this is why team orders aren't a bad thing. Instead of being coy and saying "think big picture" the team has to be tough on the radio and lay it out for him by saying, "Hunter-Reay is nearly two seconds faster than you, on fresher tires and with less fuel. Let him got, sacrifice ten points but leave with 43 points and extend you championship lead." Tell him what is on the table. Don't bullshit him. Lose the battle but go for the war. Instead of sacrificing ten points he went coughed away 22 additional points and went from championship leader with a 16-point lead to third in the championship and trailing by 11 points. 

He is still solidly in the conversation but the IndyCar season is a quick one and when you have a shot to extend the championship lead you better make you execute. Power and Dixon aren't going to cough up 22 points. Rossi now has to work from behind. 

13. Zach Veach did well but really settled into the mid-pack and finished 13th and kind of gave Rossi 12th on the final lap. Matheus Leist had another good day, finished 14th and on the lead lap but I want to see if Leist can have a great day and he hasn't seemed close to it yet. 

14. Josef Newgarden just didn't have things go his way today. This is the first time I remember him have a rough day from start to finish with Team Penske. He will bounce back but it was an uncharacteristic day for him. 

15. Quickly through the rest of the field: James Hinchcliffe was not heard from the entire race. Neither was Takuma Sato. Jordan King finished 18th. Gabby Chaves continues to struggle but not struggle. It is weird. I don't have high expectations for a single-car team in year one but Chaves hasn't had even one inspiring day yet this season. Santino Ferrucci coughed up a possible top ten finish when he spun on cold tires exiting the pit lane but good on him for keeping the car running and nursing it home with a front wing dragging along. I like what I saw from Ferrucci even though the results weren't there. Sébastien Bourdais was going to finish in the top ten and maybe the top five had he not spun in turn one after a suspension issue with his left rear. René Binder's car broke on him after the pace car crashed and he finished four laps down. Spencer Pigot spun on his own on lap one, broke his suspension and he could never recover.

16. Let's get the pace car crash out of the way because it was ridiculous. It wasn't IndyCar's fault either. It was bad enough that Mark Reuss, Executive Vice President of Global Production Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain for General Motors spun the car literally 100 yards after exiting the pit lane for the first pace lap. It is even worse Chevrolet released a statement saying it was because of track conditions and weather! No, you bozo, you were too damn cocky with the gas pedal in a Corvette. At least IndyCar will get on SportsCenter. It takes wrecking the pace car and James Hinchcliffe pissing himself, not Ryan Hunter-Reay running qualifying laps for an hour and a half.

17. I want to give IndyCar kudos for letting this race play out when Ferrucci and Bourdais spun. In previous years I think we would have seen a caution and this race get jumbled up and strategies negated. There were two incidents, race control let the driver try and correct it because not many other drivers were endangered and the race was able to continue undisrupted and that is what we should want. We should want green flag racing and speed decide the race.

18. I am not going to shit on ABC as it heads out the door. I will say I was a bit sad with how the broadcast ended. ABC was IndyCar's home for decades and all we got was a quick goodbye, a simple "This is it for us." I hoped we would have had a passionate goodbye because a lot of great IndyCar moments happened on ABC and ESPN. So much of what we love and cherish is because of ABC and ESPN. Paul Page, Bobby Unser, Bob Jenkins, Delta Force, Side-by-Side, different on-board angles and other race introductions. ABC gave IndyCar its first prime time network broadcast! It wasn't pretty, especially at the end but ABC did a lot for IndyCar. 

I guess you could say ABC said goodbye at the Indianapolis 500 with the feature narrated by Paul Page and in some ways that sums up ABC's relationship with IndyCar: It was all about the Indianapolis 500. And that is a shame because a lot of great IndyCar moments haven't occurred in the Indianapolis 500 and in some ways glossing over those and only focusing on what happened each Memorial Day weekend has held the series back. 

My hope is this new voyage for IndyCar will allow the entire series, every race and championship battle to get the exposure it deserves as well as what happens in that great race that is oh so far away from occurring again. 

19. On to Texas and it will be interesting to see if Chevrolet's big oval advantage carries over or if Honda's lack of pace was only at Indianapolis. It will also be interesting to see how the racing differs from last year and the early years of the DW12-era.