Sunday, June 24, 2018

First Impressions: Road America 2018

1. Another race, another pole position for Josef Newgarden and another beat down. He whooped the field in a rain-delayed, dry to wet race at Barber Motorsports Park and he led 53 of 55 laps today from pole position, as he took his third victory of the season, leading all drivers in the all-important category. It wasn't an easy race, Ryan Hunter-Reay was on his back all race and one bobble, one hiccup, one lockup and the 2012 champion would have put the 2017 champion in his mirrors. But as we have come to expect from Newgarden the Tennessean does not blink. Nobody scares him. He ran his race and he had it in the bag from the start.

2. Speaking of Ryan Hunter-Reay, it was a great showing but it was a little frustrating to see him run the same strategy as Newgarden. Three stops and on all three stops Hunter-Reay stopped on the same lap as Newgarden. I thought it would have been beneficial to stop a lap early and try and leapfrog him with a solid out lap and put pressure on Newgarden and his crew. Team Penske pit crews do not miss a beat and that was Hunter-Reay only hope. He was within a second of Newgarden for majority of this race but did not have that extra little bit to beat him today. It was still a good showing and he now has a five consecutive top five finishes and eight top five finishes from ten races. It has been a stout year but Hunter-Reay needs to be a little bit better because...

3. Scott Dixon is on fire. This is his fifth podium finish in the last six races and his other finish was fourth. Dixon leads Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi by 45 points with seven races remaining. Hunter-Reay took a chunk out of Dixon's lead and 45 points is not a lot of points with seven races to go but if Dixon keeps finishing on the podium then Hunter-Reay and the rest of the field is in trouble. He now has 101 podium finishes in IndyCar and is in sole possession of third all-time. This is his 18th year and this feels like one of his best yet.

4. Hey! Takuma Sato finished fourth in what was a quiet performance. He got up to fourth from seventh before the end of the first stint and it was a hard battle for fourth in this one with Sato taking on a handful of different drivers. This was a really good day and not only for Sato. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had a solid weekend for both cars. 

5. Robert Wickens has four top five finishes through ten career starts, as the Canadian finished fifth today. He was clean again and wasn't befallen by a mechanical issue or another aggressive driver. He hasn't clinched rookie of the year yet but we can start stenciling his name onto the trophy or plaque or whatever the rookie of the year gets. 

6. Graham Rahal went from ninth to sixth in another impressive Road America race. He has nine top ten finishes this year but he is falling back in the championship. That little extra is missing. He needs to be making the Fast Six on road and street courses and that will put him into the fight for victories and in turn the fight for the championship. Time is running out and he needs to win at least two but probably three of the final seven with at least three other top five finishes to have any hope of the title.

7. Simon Pagenaud missed out on the second round of qualifying by 0.0003 seconds and he had to start 14th. He worked his way to seventh. That is how close this season has been. If Pagenaud made the second round he might make the Fast Six and if he didn't he might start seventh or eighth and this is an entirely different race for him. Like Rahal, Pagenaud has been excellent but the championship needs him to beyond superb. 

8. Spencer Pigot was in the top ten for a great majority of this race and he was aggressive. He earned this eighth place finish in what was a big confidence boost for Pigot and Ed Carpenter Racing. He is still going to a lot of unfamiliar venues. He has not raced in an IndyCar on any of the remaining three ovals and Portland is a new track for him as well. I think it could be a difficult end to the year but this could be something to build on.

9. Ed Jones finished ninth in what was a quiet day for him. He has put together some good results. 

10. James Hinchcliffe got another top ten finish. This year will be remembered for one thing but don't let that whitewash what has been a very respectable year otherwise for Hinchcliffe.

11. Quick through the rest of the field: Marco Andretti deserved 11th. He could have been tenth, he could have been 12th but 11th is good. Jordan King didn't hit anything this weekend and finished 12th. S├ębastien Bourdais had a gear selection issue and had to make a long pit stop, costing him a shot at a top five finish. Tony Kanaan's four-stop strategy did not work because he didn't have the pace on the second stint. Matheus Leist completed all 55 laps but could only manage 15th.

12. Alexander Rossi would have been on the podium had he not suffered a problem with his left front camber and force him to stop early and in turn force him to stretch his fuel and run a 17-lap final stint. This is another day he cough up points but this time it wasn't his fault. It was a bit of bad fortune. I think he could do what Newgarden did today and bounce back with a victory in one of the next few races. He trails Dixon by 45 points but he coughed up 21 points at Belle Isle in the second race and if he had finished second at St. Petersburg instead of third that would have been another five points to Rossi. And then there was today. Instead of scoring 35 points he leaves with 14 points. Rossi has been the best driver this season and yet he is third but quite some distance heading into July.

13. Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball finished 17th and 18th respectively as Carlin has another rough day. The team is growing. It will find its legs.

14. Gabby Chaves' four-stop strategy was nullified when he had to serve a drive-through penalty for hitting his own equipment and I find that odd because I could swear there have been incidents earlier this season where teams hit their own pit equipment and it was only a monetary fine. It begs the question of does severity play into it? Does slightly tapping a tire on entrance to the pit box warrant a fine but running over the air hose call for a drive-through? I have to look back and see other cases because maybe I am wrong. 

15. Alfonso Celis, Jr. was respectable today. He stayed out of the way and finished one lap down. He wasn't miles off the pace. Zachary Claman De Melo had something go wrong. Zach Veach had the same problem as Rossi and it cost him a lap and then he lost more time for a blend line violation but his pit exit look no different than the pit exit of the leaders so who knows. 

16. And we have reached Will Power, who had his race end before it started. A cracked header and exhaust issues left him in a vulnerable position at the start and he was dead last before the field reached turn five for the first time. Power has escaped the brain fades that cost him titles at the start of this decade but he has now run into a stretch of seasons hampered by retirement of all shapes and sizes. It seems to get him early with the final few blows coming after a remarkable run of results. There is a lot of time left for Power. He could win the next four races but that is unlikely and this might be another year he finishes fourth or fifth in the championship.

17. We get a week off and then comes Iowa. Seven races remain and 65 points cover the top four in the championship. We have no clue what will happen next.