Monday, September 27, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: 2021 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited

Álex Palou is IndyCar champion. Lewis Hamilton scored his 100th grand prix victory with a brilliant drive on between the two dry tire compounds and then a brilliant strategy call to switch to the intermediates in the closing laps. Drivers are shuffling seats in IndyCar already. We had an American winner in Formula Three, but both Formula Three and Formula Two lost a race due to weather. There was Cadillac on Cadillac violence at Long Beach. 

Sadly, we start with sad news. Dean Berta Viñales was fatally injured in the Supersport 300 race held at Jerez during of the World Superbike round. Viñales was 15 years old. His cousins Maverick and Isaac Viñales compete in MotoGP and World Superbike respectively. Our thoughts and prayers go to the Viñales family. 

2021 IndyCar Predictions: Revisited
It is our annual tradition! The day after the IndyCar season we look back at the predictions made on New Year's Eve to close out the year before. How did this year shape up and how did it compare to previous years?

1. Will Power will at least match Mario Andretti's record of 67 pole positions
Wrong! 

Five pole positions might have sound ambitious for a driver at the start of a season, but Power is not any driver when it comes to qualifying. He had won at least five pole positions in seven of his 14 full-time IndyCar seasons. It might have been a stretch to expect him to do it again, especially after he did it in 2020, but you can never count Power out in qualifying. 

Except this year was Power's second worst year in qualifying. The only year worst was 2008, the reunification season when he drove for KV Racing, also transitioning over from Champ Car, 14 of the tracks were new to him and ten of the tracks were ovals and he had one oval start to his name, the 2006 Champ Car race at Milwaukee. 

This year was surprisingly off for Power. He didn't qualify on a front row until the August IMS road course race, the 12th race of the season. His first pole position was the 13th race at Gateway, the latest his first pole position has come in a season. He failed to make it out of the first round of qualifying three times this year. He qualified 32nd for the Indianapolis 500. 

It was not his year in terms of qualifying. He is within four of Andretti's record. Maybe 2022 will be the year.
 
2. Andretti Autosport drivers will combine for at least four victories
Wrong! 

Andretti Autosport won three races, both at the hands of Colton Herta at St. Petersburg, Laguna Seca and Long Beach respectively. I have to give Herta credit for nearly doing it all on his own. 

Were four victories realistic for Andretti Autosport this year considering Herta carried much of the weight? 

Yes. Herta could have won six races! He was fourth in the second Belle Isle race, but he was chasing down Josef Newgarden and he looked set to pass Newgarden for the lead at some point in the closing laps. Then Jimmie Johnson brought out a caution and Herta did not have the pace on restarts and in the short run, causing him to drop back. 

If Johnson doesn't bring out a caution, Herta wins that race. 

Nashville saw Herta lead the most laps and 41% of the race was behind the pace car. If Nashville was a normal race, I think Herta runs away with that one. Heck, if Herta was a little more patient, he might have caught Marcus Ericsson in the final laps and made a pass for the victory. 

Then there is Gateway where Herta led 101 of the first 183 laps before a broken driveshaft ended his race. Josef Newgarden was going to push Herta, and there was still one pit stop to go, but if Herta's car had not failed him, I think that is another victory. 

Besides Herta, I think Alexander Rossi's best two chances at victory this season were races where early caution shook it up too much, so we can't say with certainty he would have won, but I think the first Belle Isle race and Portland were the two races. If Belle Isle didn't have the cautions or the red flags, Rossi might pull it out. If Portland start goes differently and he makes the corner, it could have been his day. We will never know. And then there is Laguna Seca, where Rossi spun on lap two after a little nudge from Herta. That would not have added to Andretti's total as Laguna Seca was an Andretti victory with Herta, but it could have been Rossi instead.

The only other race I think Andretti Autosport could have won was the Indianapolis 500. Rossi aside for a second and his early electrical issue after running out of fuel before his first stop, Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the top five coming to his final pit stop. Hunter-Reay was in the running with Hélio Castroneves, Álex Palou and Patricio O'Ward. If Hunter-Reay does not speed entering pit lane for his final pit stop, maybe he pulls out a second victory in the famed race and it isn't the dream outcome for Castroneves. 

We will never know, but we know Andretti only won three times and this prediction was wrong.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing's four cars average an entrants' championship position of 11th or higher
Wrong! Damn... 0-for-3, what a terrible start. 

I didn't see Chip Ganassi Racing being this good. Álex Palou was champion, Scott Dixon was fourth and Marcus Ericsson was fifth. I thought Ganassi could get three cars in the top ten, but two would just make it in. I didn't see three in the top six. 

Add those three up and their sum is ten. To average greater than 11th, the sum of the four cars had to be 44 or higher. Guess what? The #48 Honda was not even close to finishing 34th in the entrants' championship. It was 22nd. The average was 8.25. 

Kudos to Chip Ganassi Racing.

4. A.J. Foyt Racing gets its best championship finish since at least 2010
Wrong! O-fer! Oof! 

It looked great at the start fo the season. Sébastien Bourdais was fifth and tenth. Bourdais was sixth in the championship. Then it all went to pieces. 

Bourdais was spun in race one and caught in the start accident in race two. He left 14th in the championship. Ok, not all hopes were lost as he just had to finish 13th. Unfortunately, Bourdais would not get another top ten finish until he was fifth at Gateway. He bounced between 15th and 18th in the championship for the rest of the season. 

He ended up 16th in the championship and once again A.J. Foyt Racing is ending a season looking to shake things up again. Once again folks, the drivers are not the problem.

5. Patricio O'Ward wins at least one race, but his championship position falls
Wrong! (Pushes laptop across the table and walkaway for 25 minutes). 

It was not crazy to think Patricio O'Ward would win a race and finish fifth in the championship. At the start of 2021, fifth in the championship would have been a respectable year for O'Ward. Who would have thought in his second full season he would get better? No one could guarantee that. Have you seen IndyCar? Anyone can win a race and no would have been surprised if Team Penske took the top three in the championship with Scott Dixon in fourth. In that case, O'Ward finishing fifth with at least one race victory would have been a stellar year. 

Instead, O'Ward was better than last year. He rarely made a mistake. There were a few times he was off pace, and he had two penalties at Nashville, but O'Ward was fantastic this season. He won twice. He had five podium finishes and he had nine top five finishes. 

A top five championship season was never going to be a surprise, but O'Ward stood out while others were not as great. 

6. Rinus VeeKay will not be the top ECR finisher in at least five races
Correct! Finally! 

VeeKay was rolling in the first half fo the season. He was the top finisher in five of the first seven races. He was trending where it would be close. Then VeeKay broke his collarbone in a cycling accident, and he was not the same this year. 

Prior to the injury, he had already not been the top ECR finisher in three races. Road America was a gift as VeeKay didn't run so that was four. Conor Daly would be the top ECR finisher in the next three races after VeeKay's return. VeeKay topped Gateway, but Daly got the final three races. 

VeeKay was not the top ECR driver in ten of 15 races

7. Jack Harvey will set a career-high in top five finishes
Correct! Hey! Two in a row! 

Although, this wasn't that impressive as all Harvey needed was two top five finishes. This one was making me sweat after Gateway and then Harvey went out and finished fourth at Portland to confirm this as a correct prediction. His other top five finish was fourth at St. Petersburg. 

The problem is I thought Harvey would get four or five top five finishes this year and he would compete for the top ten in the championship. He wasn't terribly far off the top ten, but he wasn't threatening for it. Too many races were lost due to driver error, mechanical issue, or poor strategy from the team. 

He lost a wheel bearing in the second Texas race and could have gotten a top five finish there. The team had a botched pit stop and suffered a tire puncture on the out lap after that pit stop in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Harvey was battling for a podium finish in that IMS road course race. The team made a baffling strategy choice at Road America and Harvey was in sixth at the team. That could have been a top five finish. The team went off-strategy again at Nashville after starting sixth and it did not work out. 

Harvey has something positive to draw from this year, but it was not a spectacular year.

8. At least two winless droughts over 30 starts will come to an end
Wrong! And the correct streak ends at two. 

We had Marcus Ericsson, whose first career victory came in his 37th start, but we didn't get another long-awaited winner.

Graham Rahal fell short of victory. Ryan Hunter-Reay was never a major threat. James Hinchcliffe was further from victory than Hunter-Reay. Tony Kanaan didn't get a magical day like fellow countryman Hélio Castroneves. Harvey, Conor Daly, and Max Chilton didn't get first career victories. It just didn't happen.

The number of first-time winners and this swing of young winners prevented it from happening.

9. There will be no repeat winners on the ovals
Correct!

Scott Dixon and Patricio O'Ward split the Texas races, Hélio Castroneves took a surprise Indianapolis 500 victory, and Josef Newgarden got his annual short oval race victory at Gateway. 

Four drivers, two from each manufacture, and each oval winner came from a different team. That is good distribution for IndyCar.

10. More than 36 drivers compete in a race
Correct! And this one was blown out of the water!

Forty-three drivers started an IndyCar race this year. We had ten drivers compete in an IndyCar race other than the Indianapolis 500. Two of those were Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson, both of which only committed to the road and street course races at the start of the year and then Grosjean sampled Gateway. 

Both drivers who failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 started another race. Charlie Kimball had already run the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then added Long Beach. RC Enerson made his IndyCar return in the August IMS road course race and it was Top Gun Racing's debut race. 

Oliver Askew was a substitute on two occasions with two different teams and then ran the final three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. 

Then we had plenty of surprise debutants. Kevin Magnussen made his debut filling in for the injured Felix Rosenqvist at Road America and Magnussen led on debut, albeit during a pit cycle, but Magnussen did well. Ryan Norman ran his home race of Mid-Ohio. Cody Ware got to play IndyCar driver for three races. 

And then you had Alpine F1 Academy driver Christian Lundgaard run the August IMS road course race with RLLR, as the Formula Two schedule had a two-month gap in its schedule and Lundgaard could do it with no conflicts. On top of all that, Ferrari test driver and Alfa Romeo reserve driver Callum Ilott started the final three races with Juncos Hollinger Racing, returning to IndyCar for the first time since 2019. Now Ilott will be full-time with JHR in 2022!

You cannot say 2021 was boring. We had at least two-dozen cars start every race and there were six races outside the Indianapolis 500 that had 26 starters or more! 

11. There will be one minor issue that leads to a circuit alteration in Nashville
Wrong! 

The Nashville track might not have been perfect, but I don't recall any circuit alteration. There were a few worrisome areas, but nothing happened that caused a scramble for a track change. I think IndyCar was one incident in turn five away from a logjam that would have caused a circuit re-think. 

Even though the race went off with a hitch that doesn't mean there should not be any adjustments for 2022.

12. Marco Andretti improves his average finish by at least 5.5 positions
Wrong! 

I made this prediction before we knew Andretti was not going to be full-time. He only race the Indianapolis 500 and he finished 19th. He could have still made this prediction correct if he had finished 13th or better. He never had it and seeing at how Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe drove this year, I doubt Andretti would have lowered his average finish enough in a fifth full-time Andretti car to make this prediction correct. 

This is my worst year by far... four for 12. 

This was a step backward

2020: 8/11 (one prediction was about Richmond, which never happened)
2019: 5.5/12
2018: 6/12
2017: 8/12
2016: 6/12
2015: 8/12
2014: 10/14

That is bad. You have to hit on at least half of these. I don't feel as bad for the Andretti one because he didn't run full-time, and how was I supposed to know Ganassi would put three cars in the top six of the championship, something the team had never done before and it would have to do it with a new driver to the organization in his sophomore IndyCar season? 

I must be better next year. This is plenty of motivation to get back on track. 

Champions From the Weekend
You know about Álex Palou, but did you know...

Dennis Hauger clinched the FIA Formula Three championship with a runner-up finish in the first race from Sochi.

The #32 Team WRT Audi of Charlie Weerts and Dries Vanthoor won the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup championship. The #32 Audi won four of ten races with seven podium finishes.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Colton Herta and Lewis Hamilton, but did you know...

Dan Ticktum and Oscar Piastri split the Formula Two races from Sochi. Logan Sargeant and Jack Doohan split the Formula Three races.

The #31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac of Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy won in GTLM. The #1 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow won in GTD.

Denny Hamlin won the NASCAR Cup race from Las Vegas, his second victory of the season. Josh Berry won the Grand National Series race, his second victory of the season. Christian Eckes won the Truck race, his first career victory.

Toprak Razgatlioglu swept the World Superbike races from Jerez and extended his championship lead over Jonathan Rea. Dominique Aegerter won the World Supersport race, his tenth victory of the season. World Superbike's SuperPole race and the Saturday World Supersport race were cancelled after Dean Berta Viñales' accident. 

The #6 Mercedes-AMG Team Toksport WRT Mercedes of Luca Stolz and Maro Engel swept the GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup races from Valencia.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP will be in the United States and returns to the Circuit of the Americas. 
NASCAR hits the halfway point of the playoffs at Talladega.
World Superbike concludes its three consecutive weeks of races at Portimão. 
World Rally Championship returns to Finland about two months later than usual. 
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters has its penultimate round at Hockenheim. 


Sunday, September 26, 2021

First Impressions: Long Beach 2021

1. It is always difficult to end a season, but we will start with another race winner and Colton Herta put together champion-esque speed and just cracked the top five of the championship. Today was Herta at his best. After getting strategy wrong in qualifying and not advancing from round one, Herta was a man on a mission and he put together one of the best drives we have ever seen at Long Beach, moving up from 14th to first.

He ended the season with two consecutive victories and he led the most laps in each race. While Herta finished with three victories, tied for the most of the season, there were too many errors and too many races that got away. He knows that. But this could have been a year where he won five races, possibly even six. The good news is he looked confident after today and we all expect Herta to be a consistent challenger in 2022.

2. Josef Newgarden started the race the way he had to, leading laps and staying at the front, but the early cautions kept the field together and Newgarden had nothing for Herta. Second in the race and second in the championship, there are many places Newgarden left points on the table.

The biggest in my mind is Road America. He was leading at the restart with two laps to go, directly ahead of Álex Palou, set for a +14 day on the Spaniard. Then the gearbox glitched. Palou took the lead and the victory. Newgarden fell to 21st. It went from +14 Newgarden to +38 Palou in that one moment, a 52-point swing. Newgarden lost the title 38 points.

Every race counts toward the championship, and many love to point at the double points in the Indianapolis 500 as the reason Newgarden finished so far behind Palou, but Road America played a bigger role than the Indianapolis 500 in this case.

3. Scott Dixon at least gets to end the season as the top Chip Ganassi Racing finisher in the season finale. It is a consolation prize for what was a good season, but no greater than that. It was a good season for Dixon. He can't win the championship every year. Ninety-five percent of the grid would take Dixon's season.

It was an odd year. Dixon did not look dominant as we are used to this season. And yet he led the most laps and was fourth in the championship. Over the last few races, I wondered if we have seen the last of the dominant Dixon, especially with the youthful surge we saw in 2021. I don't think Dixon is done quite yet, but Father Time is undefeated. That day is coming.

4. And now our champion. Álex Palou deserved this championship. He showed it today with a drive that did not look like someone playing it conservative while ahead. Palou had all the room in the world to feel he could live with a 13th-place finish and win the championship. Instead, Palou went forward and got himself into the top five. 

It is an impressive story. Palou was in the Formula One ladder system, won in the GP3 Series while driving for one of the worst teams on the grid, and then struggled in his second GP3 season. I remember the surprise when he won that race in Abu Dhabi, and I watched as his career headed to Japan. Palou was never high up any Formula One team's wish list. Japan is a place where a driver can catch the eye of a manufacturer and be set for the next 15 years. 

Then Palou nearly won the Super Formula championship. He jumped on the IndyCar radar and through former IndyCar driver Roger Yasukawa he ended up testing for Dale Coyne. Coyne takes chances on drivers. Some are nothing but a paycheck. But every so often he finds a gem. Coyne doesn't make a fortune on these drivers. They move on to larger operations and the success comes there for the driver. Palou is no different. 

But Coyne's loss is IndyCar's gain and it is a gain for Coyne as well. IndyCar has a young champion, someone who does not appear to have his eyes on Formula One. After decades of being seen as a last resort, IndyCar is gaining traction. Drivers are seeing they cannot only make a living but find happiness in IndyCar. Some are finding that out at an older age and may regret not making the move sooner. Palou has done it in his mid-20s.

It feels like 2021 is a watershed moment for IndyCar. The age and experience is clashing with the newer, young talent. The grid is growing at a breathtaking pace. IndyCar is becoming more international. It will be another ten years before we really know where 2021 stands in shaping the IndyCar landscape, but it feels like Palou's championship will be a point we all consider crucial to guiding IndyCar for the remainder of this decade.

5. Simon Pagenaud likely made his final start with Team Penske and he drove hard to finish fifth. The last two years were not Pagenaud's strongest seasons. Something felt off. He had speed, but not quite at the same level as before. He was still getting top ten results, but this year in particular the top five results were not occurring. He got one today, and now he begins this next chapter of his career, shifting from IndyCar's most storied teams to likely one of IndyCar's newest teams.

6. Alexander Rossi was sixth. He wasn't quite as good as Herta and for the second consecutive season Rossi did not have a victory. Something has to change. He only led two laps. He did make the top ten in the championship, but Rossi went from top Andretti driver and championship hopeful to second in the team and a second-tier IndyCar driver in two seasons.

I believe Rossi still has the ability to be champion, but at some point it is no longer bad luck or bad strategy as the reasons why he is not winning races. There comes a point where he and Andretti Autosport just have to figure it out.

7. Jack Harvey ran a slightly alternate strategy and it got him from 25th to seventh. It is odd that we have seen Harvey run so well from deep starting positions and yet not get results when starting at the front.

I am sad to see Harvey leave Meyer Shank Racing. I think Harvey can win races. The speed is there. MSR did make a few questionable strategic gambles this season. They cost Harvey some results. Harvey had a few errors as well. At least they part on a good note.

8. Sébastien Bourdais went from stopped at the end of lap one to eighth finishing position. Bourdais is one of the few drivers to pull this result off. This season was not as good as we hoped for Bourdais and A.J. Foyt Racing. They may stay together for most of next year, though it sounds like sports cars will be Bourdais' first priority and he will miss conflicting IndyCar races. It sounds like 2022 will be it for Bourdais in IndyCar. Let's hope Bourdais ends on a high note.

9. The story of Takuma Sato's season is an unspectacular ninth-place result. It feels like every other race Sato was eighth, ninth or tenth and we have no clue what he did in the race. Today was another example of that. Sato was ninth. What did he do? They are good results. Sato still has it in IndyCar, but he was not running much higher than the backend of the top ten this year.

10. Will Power ends the season with a tenth-place result. Each year gets a little more odd for Power since 2016. He can win races, but more often he will run ninth and not be a factor or he will qualify 14th and be stranded in the middle of the field. It does feel like a second championship will not be in the cards. It could happen but we need to see Power be more consistent. A lot of top IndyCar drivers only have one title. Power should not feel too bad.

11. Scott McLaughlin pulled out rookie of the year with an 11th place finish after Romain Grosjean slapped the barrier in the middle of the race. McLaughlin had his growing pains this year. He still has a few things to work out, but he acquitted himself well to a full season of open-wheel racing. There is room to improve but this was a wonderful start.

As for Grosjean, he struggled on street courses. The speed wasn't missing, but too often he got into the barrier or another car or something went wrong. He was tremendous this season, but street courses will be an area for improvement.

12. Ed Jones finished 12th, but this is where we will cover Patricio O'Ward because Jones spun O'Ward in the hairpin at the end of lap one. Jones got the corner wrong at the worst possible time. He could have hit Palou as well. It just happened to be O'Ward that was his victim.

That was the beginning of the end for O'Ward. He already had to claw his way from the front while hoping Palou would not gain ground. Then O'Ward ground to a halt in the middle of the first pit cycle. The championship was over there. O'Ward's impressive run of always having consecutive top five finishes is over. O'Ward has not had many bad days in his IndyCar career and he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Today was worse than that even though his championship hopes were slim. O'Ward had things go wrong today, all of which were out of his control. McLaren had a day from hell on two different sides of the world.

13. Let's quickly go through some of these: Felix Rosenqivst was caught out when O'Ward stopped on circuit and he couldn't really fight back into the top ten. James Hinchcliffe was strong for the first half of the race and was running up in fourth. After Hinchcliffe's second pit stop, he fell off the edge of the Earth and finished 14th. I think Hinchcliffe still has a place in IndyCar. IndyCar might disagree. I actually wouldn't mind if Hinchcliffe tried NASCAR. What does he have to lose?

14. Max Chilton was 15th. That's as good as we can ask for. Graham Rahal appeared to have the O'Ward caution fall at the right time and he ended up leading all the cars that made a pit stop prior to the caution, but Rahal stopped on lap three. Then the cautions didn't fall for Rahal and he was shuffled back. It probably should have been a top ten result today for Rahal. Jimmie Johnson matched his career best finish in 17th. At least Johnson isn't spinning in every race. Charlie Kimball had a good run and then dropped back to 18th. Dalton Kellett somehow finished on the lead lap in 19th. Hélio Castroneves was caught out when O'Ward stopped on track. Then Castroneves kept going, didn't under the Marcus Erisson caution and then had to stop under green at lap 34. That ruined his day and destined him for 20th.

15. Damn these 28-car fields are huge!

16. What has happened Ed Carpenter Racing? Both cars were out of the top twenty. Conor Daly ended up 21st and had zero top ten finishes this season. How the hell is the United States Air Force going to justify continuing to sponsor him? Did we not learn anything from the last decade of military sponsorship? Rinus VeeKay broke down and finished 25th, his eighth consecutive finish outside the top 15. This was a strange collapse for this team.

17. Oliver Askew didn't have a great audition in the #45 Honda. Askew had slight contact with Daly put him in the barrier late. It wasn't a bad three-race stretch, but of the three drivers to run that car, Askew was third. Once again, he wasn't bad, but he wasn't the best to drive that car. That says more about Santino Ferrucci and Christian Lundgaard.

18. Of all the endings for Ryan Hunter-Reay, having contact with Colton Herta cut his tire at the start is the worst way for Hunter-Reay to end his time with Andretti Autosport. Couldn't Hunter-Reay at least get a fond farewell? It was incidental, but couldn't Hunter-Reay one final race to showcase his talent without it being tarnished from the drop? Damn! And yet, why would Hunter-Reay's time with Andretti end any differently?

19. Callum Ilott broke down after 47 laps. Ilott described these three races as a test period for him as he got used to the IndyCar. It better be a test and Juncos Hollinger Racing better work out its kinks.

20. Oh yeah, Marcus Ericsson was in this race and ended up in the turn one tire barrier not long after the restart after the O'Ward caution. Unfortunately, Ericsson's worst day came at the worst time. It cost him fifth in the championship by 20 points to Herta, he lost his nine-race top ten finish streak and he hurt his wrist in the process. Hell of a way to end a season.

21. And that will do it for 2021. It was odd ending at Long Beach. Kind of like IMSA ending with the 12 Hours of Sebring last year, this should be a one-time thing. Just because we made it work this year doesn't mean it should become the norm.

Anyway, there will be plenty of reviews coming over the next few days and weeks. Stay tuned.



Morning Warm-Up: Long Beach 2021

Josef Newgarden is off to a great start at Long Beach

Josef Newgarden remains alive for the championship after he won his fourth pole position of the IndyCar season with a lap of 68.2241 seconds in qualifying at Long Beach. Newgarden trails Álex Palou by 47 points and Newgarden must win with at least three bonus points and have Palou finish 25th or worse with no bonus points or Newgarden must win with the maximum four bonus points and have Palou finish 24th or worse with no bonus points or 25th or worse with only one bonus point to have a shot at winning the championship. Newgarden has won the championship in two of his four seasons with Team Penske. Newgarden enters Long Beach on 99 top ten finishes in his career. His first top ten result was a ninth at Barber in 2013, the 16th start of his IndyCar career.

Scott Dixon will look to aid his teammate Palou from the second starting position. This is only the third time Dixon has qualified on the front row this season. Dixon has only one victory this season, which would be his fewest in a season since 2017 when he only won at Road America. He currently has four podium finishes, and regardless of the result, this will be his fewest podium finishes in a season since four in 2016. The only time Dixon has won the season finale was 2015 at Sonoma, which won him his fourth championship on tiebreaker. 

Hélio Castroneves ended up a stunning third, by far Castroneves' best starting position of his partial season, and his best starting position since he started third at Gateway in 2017. Castroneves is the last South American driver to win at Long Beach, which was back in 2001. He has finished outside the top twenty in his last three starts, his worst stretch since Laguna Seca, Houston, and Surfers Paradise in 1999. He has never finished outside the top twenty in four consecutive starts.

Simon Pagenaud qualified next to his former Team Penske teammate in fourth. This matches Pagenaud's best starting position of the season. He has finished in the top six of the last five season finales. He has not had a top five result in his last nine starts, his longest drought since a nine-race stretch spanning the final eight races of 2020 and the first race of 2021. He has never had a ten-race top five finish drought in his IndyCar career. 

Felix Rosenqvist will start fifth. This is the fourth time in the last seven races Rosenqvist has been the top qualifying Arrow McLaren SP driver. He has finished worse than his starting position in eight of the last nine races after opening the season with finishes better than his grid spot in the first four races. He has not started and finished in the top five since Portland 2019 when he went from fifth to second. 

Romain Grosjean will finish his Dale Coyne Racing stint starting sixth at Long Beach. Grosjean announced he will move to Andretti Autosport's #28 DHL Honda full-time in 2022. Grosjean could become the third consecutive European driver to win IndyCar rookie of the year. European drivers have never won rookie of the year in three consecutive seasons. A Long Beach winner has never started sixth before.

James Hinchcliffe picked up his best starting position of the season in seventh and it is the first time Hinchcliffe has been the top Andretti Autosport qualifier. It is the first time Colton Herta or Alexander Rossi is not the top Andretti starter in 2021. Hinchcliffe has four consecutive top ten finishes at Long Beach, but he has only led in one Long Beach start, his victory in 2017. 

Patricio O'Ward qualified eighth and O'Ward will have some work to do to win the championship. He cannot finish worse than second and that would still require Palou to finish 25th or worse with no bonus points for O'Ward to take the title. If O'Ward were to win with the minimum 51 points for a victory, he would need Palou to finish 15th or worse. O'Ward was fifth place at Laguna Seca last week. He has always followed a top five result with another top five result. 

Ed Jones starts in the top ten for the second time in the last three races in ninth. This is his fourth top ten start of the season. This is his most top ten starts in an IndyCar season. Jones was third at Long Beach in 2018, the second podium finish of his IndyCar career. 

Álex Palou sits pretty in tenth on the grid. If Palou finishes 23rd or better, Newgarden cannot win the championship no matter and if Palou finishes 11th or better, O'Ward cannot win the championship no matter. Palou could become the first driver to bookend the season with victories since 2006 when it happened in both Champ Car and the Indy Racing League. Chip Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon did it in the IRL with victories at Homestead and Chicagoland respectively, but Wheldon lost the championship on tiebreaker to Sam Hornish, Jr. In Champ Car, Sébastien Bourdais won at Long Beach and Mexico City and took his third consecutive title.

Ryan Hunter-Reay starts 11th. Hunter-Reay will be making his 282nd IndyCar start this weekend, which will move him into tenth all-time in starts. He made his debut at St. Petersburg in 2003, where he started 12th and finished 16th after an accident ended his race. This will be his 197th start this weekend with Andretti Autosport. He has only led four laps this season. He only led four laps last season as well. This is the ninth time Hunter-Reay has start 11th in his career and he has never finished better than seventh when starting 11th. That was at Edmonton in 2012, when he won pole position, but he had a ten-spot grid penalty for an engine change. 

Will Power brought out a local yellow in the second round of qualifying and lost his fastest lap. This relegated Power to 12th on the grid. He won from 12th at Long Beach in 2012 after being handed a ten-spot grid penalty in that race for an engine change. Power has led 99 laps this season. The last time he did not lead 100 laps in a season was 2008, when he led 84 laps, 81 of those laps led were in the final Champ Car race at Long Beach, which Power won. 

Scott McLaughlin will start 13th after missing out by 0.0035 seconds. Regardless of who wins rookie of the year, this will be the seventh different nationality to win rookie of the year in seven consecutive seasons. If Josef Newgarden were to win the championship and McLaughlin win rookie of the year, it would be the first time a team has won the championship and rookie of the year with two different drivers since 1996 when Chip Ganassi Racing had Jimmy Vasser win the championship and Alex Zanardi take rookie of the year. 

Colton Herta was the fastest driver in both practice sessions, but he could not get out of group two in round one, and he was over two-tenths off advancing. Herta had started in the top ten of every race this season prior to Long Beach. Herta could become the first driver to end a season with consecutive victories since Will Power did it in 2013. Power followed that up with a championship the following season. 

Alexander Rossi did not advance from round one as well and Rossi will start 15th. Rossi has won the last two Grand Prix of Long Beach. He could join Al Unser, Jr. and Sébastien Bourdais as the only drivers to win three consecutive Long Beach races. Rossi's car owner Michael Andretti won the 2002 race from 15th on the grid. It was Andretti's final victory as a driver. The good news is the last three street course winners in IndyCar started 15th, 16th and 18th respectively. 

Takuma Sato ended up 16th in qualifying and Sato will end this season without starting in the top ten. Sato has won a race in each of the last four seasons. The only drivers with longer active streaks are Scott Dixon (17 seasons), Will Power (15 seasons) and Josef Newgarden (six seasons).

Marcus Ericsson has nine consecutive top ten finishes and Ericsson rolls off from 17th. Another top ten result would make this the ninth time a Ganassi driver had ten consecutive top ten finishes. Scott Dixon ended last season with ten consecutive top ten finishes and Dixon had five top ten finishes to open the season. The 15-race top ten finish streak is the longest in Chip Ganassi Racing history.

Callum Ilott will be making his first IndyCar street course start this weekend and he will do it from 18th on the grid, Ilott's best starting position in his young career. Ilott never scored a point on a street course in his Formula Two career with his best finish being 14th in the 2019 features races at Baku and Monaco. He has made five starts in the Macau Grand Prix with his best finish being fifth and he was in the top ten in three of four years. He started on pole position in Macau in 2017, but contact early in the race caused damaged and he finished two laps down. Ilott will drive the #77 Chevrolet full-time next year for Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Graham Rahal will start 19th. Rahal has won from 19th starting position once before in his career. He did it at Fontana in 2015. That ended a 124-race winless drought. Rahal is currently on a 72-race winless drought. He has finished in the top five the last two years at Long Beach. He has never led a lap at Long Beach.

Charlie Kimball is back for his second start of the season, and he rounds out the top twenty next to his former Chip Ganassi Racing teammate. Kimball had his best Long Beach finish in his last start on Shoreline Drive. He was tenth in the 2018 race driving for Carlin. 

Conor Daly is looking to avoid the dubious distinction of going a full season without a top ten finish, and he will have some work to do from 21st on the grid. Daly has been the top Ed Carpenter Racing finisher in his last five starts with the team. His average finish on street courses this season is 13.75, over 2.5 positions better than his average finish over the entirety of this season.  

Sébastien Bourdais qualified 22nd and it is only the second time Bourdais has not been the top qualifier for A.J. Foyt Racing this season. The other time was when J.R. Hildebrand started ahead of the Frenchman in the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais has finished in the top ten of the last five season finales. He won the season finale three times in Champ Car. The worst starting position for a Grand Prix of Long Beach winner overall was 22nd when John Watson won the 1983 Formula One race for McLaren. It was Formula One's final Long Beach appearance.

Max Chilton had made it out of the first round of qualifying in the last two races. Unfortunately, that streak ended with Chilton picking up his worst qualifying result at Long Beach in 23rd. He had never started worse than 20th in this race. Chilton has made four Long Beach starts and he has finished 14th in three of them. 

Rinus VeeKay's second half skid continued in Long Beach qualifying. VeeKay wound up 24th. Ed Carpenter Racing has not had a top ten finish at Long Beach since Spencer Pigot was eighth in 2017. ECR's only top five finish at Long Beach was Mike Conway's victory in 2014, the team's first road/street course victory. 

Jack Harvey lost his fastest two laps in qualifying for bringing out a red flag and he will start 25th. This is Harvey's worst starting position on a road/street course in his IndyCar career. The only race he had started 25th or worse in prior to this weekend was the Indianapolis 500 on three occasions. Harvey will be making his 49th career start. No driver has ever had their first IndyCar victory come in their 49th career start.

Dalton Kellett joins Harvey on row 13. Kellett has never finished on the lead lap in a road/street course race in his IndyCar career. His two lead lap finishes came this season in the first Texas race and at Gateway last month. 

Jimmie Johnson was the bottom of group one in round one of qualifying and he will start 27th. Johnson's average finish in four street course starts this season is 22.5. He does enter Long Beach with three consecutive top twenty finishes. 

Oliver Askew will start 28th after bringing out a red flag in his qualifying group. Askew made 12 street course starts in his Road to Indy career. He won twice, stood on the podium seven times, and had nine top five finishes. 

NBCSN's coverage of the 46th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach begins at 3:00 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 85 laps.


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Track Walk: Long Beach 2021

Long Beach is back and it decides the IndyCar championship

The 16th and final round of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is the grand return of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. After taking place for 45 consecutive years, Long Beach was unable to take place in 2020 due to the global pandemic. However, Long Beach is back and for the first time it is the season finale for an IndyCar season after traditionally taken place in April at the start of the season. It is the second consecutive season the IndyCar championship will be decided on a street course. Long Beach becomes the 48th different track to host the season finale. 

Coverage
Time: Coverage begins at 3:00 pm ET on Sunday September 26 with green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee and Marty Snider will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule 
Friday:
First Practice: 6:00 p.m. ET (45 minutes)*
Saturday:
Second Practice: 12:00 p.m ET (45 minutes)*
Qualifying: 3:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage)*
Sunday:
Warm-Up: 12:00 p.m. ET (30 minutes)
Race: 3:30 p.m. ET (85 laps)

Championship Picture
And then there were three. For the 16th consecutive season, the NTT IndyCar Series has the championship going to the finale, and three drivers remain in the fight the Astor Cup. Two drivers are going for their first championship. The other is looking for his third championship. 

Álex Palou leads the championship with 517 points. Palou also leads IndyCar with three victories, and he picked up his IndyCar leading eighth podium finish at Laguna Seca when he finished second. No other driver has more than five podium finishes. One of those drivers with five podium finishes is Patricio O'Ward and O'Ward is 35 points behind Palou entering the finale. Josef Newgarden is the last man standing for the championship, trailing Palou by 48 points. 

An 11th-place finish or better will guarantee Palou his first championship. Palou has finished 11th or better in 11 of the first 15 races. 

O'Ward cannot win the championship unless he finishes second or better. If O'Ward wins the race with only 51 points, Palou must finish 14th or better. With each possible additional bonus point, Palou's finish must improve by one position until he hits 11th with a maximum 54-point victory for O'Ward. Palou owns the tiebreaker if the two drivers finish level on points. Both drivers could have three victories, but Palou has two runner-up finishes to O'Ward's one runner-up finish at Gateway.

O'Ward can still win the championship with a runner-up finish, but that means Palou's margin of error increases to Palou needing to finish 25th or better, and O'Ward would need to score at least one bonus point if he finishes second, as Palou owns the tiebreaker. Like with an O'Ward victory, Palou's finish must improve by one position to clinch the championship with each additional bonus point until O'Ward scores 44 points, meaning Palou would need to finish 21st. 

Newgarden cannot win the championship unless he wins the race. If Palou starts the race, he will be guaranteed a minimum 522 championship points. Newgarden can only tie or surpass that margin with either 53 points or a maximum 54-point victory. Unlike O'Ward, if Newgarden were to finish level with Palou, Newgarden would own the tiebreaker. Both drivers would be tied on three victories, but Newgarden would have three runner-up finishes to Palou's two runner-up results. 

There are two possible outcomes for a three-way tiebreaker. 

The first is if Newgarden wins the race with 53 points, O'Ward finishes second with no bonus points and Palou finishes 25th or worse. All three drivers would be tied on 522 points and Newgarden would be champion. 

The second is if Newgarden wins with 54 points, O'Ward finishes second with one bonus point and Palou finishes 24th or Palou finishes 25th or worse with one bonus point. All three drivers would be tied on 523 points and Newgarden would be champion.

Street Course Results
Four street courses have taken place this season and the past could tell us something about what we could see in the finale. 

St. Petersburg was the first street course of the season at the end of April. All three of the championship contenders started in the top ten, but only Newgarden remained at the front. Newgarden started third and was in second for most of the race. He had a few restarts to challenge pole-sitter Colton Herta. Newgarden couldn't make it through, but he kept Herta honest taking second. 

While Newgarden was on the podium, both O'Ward and Palou went backward. O'Ward started sixth but could not manage his tires properly and ended up falling back to 19th. Palou had a similar problem, but the Spaniard finished ahead of O'Ward, only dropping from tenth to 17th. 

Belle Isle was the next street course round, and the doubleheader began with the disjointed first race that saw two red flags, one for Felix Rosenqvist's heavy accident during a pit cycle in the turn seven.

Palou was the first driver this season to take a grid penalty for an engine change this and that came in this race. With an already poor qualifying effort of 21st, Palou had to start dead last in 25th and all he could manage was 15th. O'Ward started on pole position but only led the first two laps before making his first pit stop on lap three. Despite all the events of this race, O'Ward would get back in the top five and finished third. Newgarden brushed the barrier at one point and lost a lap, but the number of cautions got him a wave around and he ended up finishing tenth. 

In the second Belle Isle race, Newgarden started on pole position and led 67 of 70 laps, but his race was thrown for a loop when Dalton Kellett stopped at pit exit and was thought to be in position to draw a caution. Newgarden proactively made his pit stop, but the caution never came out. Newgarden stopped a few laps earlier than intended, meaning he would need to stop a few laps earlier for his final stop and run extra laps on the less-desired alternate tire. 

Newgarden saw Colton Herta closing on him in the final stint before a Jimmie Johnson spin brought out a caution. Newgarden held on in the first restart, but soon the caution came out for Romain Grosjean stopping on track. The final restart came with eight laps to go and O'Ward was masterful on the two restarts, working his way from fifth to second. With three laps to go, O'Ward took the lead and won ahead of Newgarden. Palou moved up to third ahead of Herta. 

The inaugural Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville will be remembered for its incidents and incredible turn of events that saw Marcus Ericsson go from airborne to victor over the 80-lap race. Even before the race there was plenty of drama. Palou had to take another grid penalty and was dropped from third to ninth. Newgarden had an accident in round two of qualifying, preventing him from advancing to the Fast Six and slotting him 12th on the grid. O'Ward started eighth. 

In the race, Palou had a poor start and made contact with Johnson in the turn 11 when Simon Pagenaud had his accident. Newgarden went off strategy and gained some ground, but the cautions were not going to fall his way to turn Nashville into a podium result. O'Ward caused headaches for race control, first being penalized for unsafe driving around a safety vehicle under a caution. Then O'Ward ran into Alexander Rossi in turn four battling for a top ten position with less than 30 laps to go. The contact earned O'Ward his second penalty, and he could only recover to 13th.

Palou left Nashville with a respectable seventh-place finish. Newgarden was tenth in his home race. 

Newgarden has been the most consistent of the championship contenders on the streets with finishes of second, tenth, second and tenth, giving him a sixth-place finish. O'Ward has a victory and averaged a finish of ninth with Palou third of the three averaging a finish of 10.5. 

On points, Newgarden is on top again with 124 points from the four street races, ahead of O'Ward's 116 points and Palou's 90 points.

Long Beach is a new track for Palou, the sixth new track he has raced at this season. O'Ward's only Long Beach start was in 2019 with Carlin, where he qualified eighth, but finished 12th, one lap down. Newgarden has nine Long Beach starts and he has finished in the top five in the last five Long Beach races after not finishing in the top ten in his first three Long Beach starts. Newgarden has started in the top ten in eight Long Beach races. He has finished on the podium in two of his three Long Beach races with Team Penske. 

Meanwhile, In the Middle of the Field
There will be 25 other cars on the streets of Long Beach this weekend, bringing the total entries to 28, the largest Long Beach field since 2001. It will be the 11th time the Grand Prix of Long Beach has featured 28 cars or more.

Scott Dixon will not successfully defend his championship this year and he will not be the top Chip Ganassi Racing driver in the championship for the first time since 2011 when Dario Franchitti won the championship. The one issue Dixon faces is he could be the third best Ganassi driver as Marcus Ericsson sits on 430 points, only 15 points behind Dixon. 

Head-to-head this season, Dixon is up eight to seven on Ericsson. Dixon was ahead of Ericsson in the first five races of the season, but Ericsson has been on top ten seven of the last ten races, including in five of the last six races. 

Colton Herta is just outside the top five in the championship after his Laguna Seca victory. Herta trails Ericsson by 28 points. Herta was third in the championship last year. While Herta has six top five finishes this year, he has only had consecutive top five finishes once when he was fourth in the second Belle Isle race and second at Road America.

Graham Rahal is the top driver in the championship without a victory in seventh. Rahal is comfortably in seventh, 28 points behind Herta and 21 points ahead of Simon Pagenaud. The worst Rahal could finish in the championship in ninth, meaning he is guaranteed a top ten championship finish for a seventh consecutive season. He has seven top five finishes this season, one behind his most in a season. 

Simon Pagenaud has 353 points and Team Penske teammate Will Power is 16 points behind the Frenchman. This looks like it will be Pagenaud's final race with the Team Penske organization. Pagenaud enters Long Beach with 112 starts at Team Penske. He has won 11 races and stood on the podium 26 times since joining the organization in 2015. Power's streak of 11 consecutive seasons finishing in the top five of the championship will end. He is currently only 34 points inside the top ten. The best Power can finish in the championship is seventh. 

Alexander Rossi leads a tight fight for tenth in the championship sitting on 304 points, one ahead of Rinus VeeKay and one ahead of Takuma Sato. Rossi was 25th after his second lap spin in Laguna Seca. He has finished outside the top twenty in three races this season. Since Mid-Ohio, he has been alternating top five finishes with results outside the top ten. His last six results are fifth, 17th, fourth, 17th, second and 25th. 

VeeKay has finished outside the top fifteen in his last seven starts. In the last eight races, has scored 47 points, the 24th most in IndyCar. The only driver VeeKay is ahead of who has also started at least seven races is Jimmie Johnson, who has scored 41 points. Sato has one victories, two top five finishes, four top ten finishes and six finishes of 18th or worse at Long Beach.

Jack Harvey will be making his final start with Meyer Shank Racing this weekend. Forty-six of Harvey's 48 IndyCar starts have come with the organization. Harvey finds himself 14th in the championship, which would be a personal best for him, but he is also in a rookie sandwich, five points behind Scott McLaughlin and 15 points ahead of Romain Grosjean.

Another driver saying goodbye to a team this weekend is Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will be making his final start with Andretti Autosport. Hunter-Reay's first of 15 victories with the team came at Long Beach in 2010. He ranks first all-time in Andretti Autosport victories.

Sébastien Bourdais could be a third driver saying goodbye this weekend. Bourdais has made 223 starts since his debut at St. Petersburg in 2003. He ranks 21st all-time in starts. Bourdais' 37 victories are seventh most all-time. He is one of five drivers with at least four championships. He is also a three-time Long Beach winner. The only drivers with more Long Beach IndyCar victories are Al Unser, Jr. and Paul Tracy. Mario Andretti won Long Beach three times in IndyCar, and he also won the 1977 race, which was a part of the Formula One season. 

Rookie of the Year Battle
With Romain Grosjean's third-place finish at Laguna Seca, the Rookie of the Year honor will go to the final race as Scott McLaughlin has a 20-point advantage over the Frenchman entering the finale.

McLaughlin can clinch the honor with a finish of third or better. He could clinch it with a fourth-place finish if Grosjean were to win the race and score the minimum 51 points for victory. If Grosjean were to score two bonus points while winning, then McLaughlin would need at least one bonus point while finishing fourth. If Grosjean were to score three bonus points while winning then McLaughlin would need to score at least two bonus points while finishing fourth. If Grosjean were to have a maximum 54-point victory, McLaughlin would have to finish third. 

Grosjean cannot finish seventh or worse to earn Rookie of the Year unless he were to score at least finish eighth with at least one bonus point or ninth with at least three bonus points with McLaughlin finishing 25th or worse with no bonus points.

With two runner-up finishes this season, Grosjean owns the tiebreaker over McLaughlin. 

In their 12 shared starts this season, Grosjean holds the edge head-to-head seven races to five. In the 12 shared starts, Grosjean has outscored McLaughlin in points with 266 points to McLaughlin's 202 points. 

However, Grosjean has scored 20 points more than McLaughlin in only two races this season, both were Grosjean's runner-up finishes on the IMS road course. He scored 44 points to McLaughlin's 24 in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and in the August race Grosjean scored 40 points while McLaughlin had only seven points. 

McLaughlin is attempting to become the first Team Penske driver to win IndyCar Rookie of the Year. Grosjean would become the third Dale Coyne Racing driver to earn Rookie of the Year after Alex Lloyd in 2010 and Ed Jones in 2017. 

McLaughlin would be the second New Zealander to win rookie of the year after Scott Dixon was top rookie in the 2001 CART season. Grosjean would be the sixth Frenchman to win rookie of the year, the first since Tristan Vautier in 2013. Grosjean would be the first rookie of the year with Formula One experience since Alexander Rossi in 2016, and the 11th since the inaugural CART season in 1979. 

Honda Tops Manufactures' Championship
The manufactures' championship has already been claimed. For the fourth consecutive season, Honda has come out on top. This is Honda's tenth manufactures' championship. Chevrolet opened the DW12-era with six consecutive championships. 

Entering Long Beach, Honda has won nine races, including the last two. Honda has swept the podium in three races this season, including the last two events. Its best outing was a top seven sweep at Nashville. Honda has taken 26 of 45 podium finishes and 46 of 75 top five finishes this season. The only race Honda was not on the podium for was Gateway, where Chevrolet swept the top five. 

Chip Ganassi Racing carried the weight for the Japanese manufacture with six victories. Herta's Laguna Seca triumph for Andretti Autosport was the team's second victory this season. Meyer Shank Racing took the biggest race of them all, winning the Indianapolis 500 with Hélio Castroneves, and it was MSR's first IndyCar victory to boot. It was also Honda's 14th Indianapolis 500 victory, and fourth in the last six years. 

Chevrolet put up a respectable season with six victories and it saw three teams win a race after Team Penske had been the only Chevrolet team to win since 2016. Chevrolet's first victory of 2021 came with Patricio O'Ward and Arrow McLaren SP in the second Texas race. It was the first victory for the driver, the first victory for McLaren since it returned to IndyCar and the first victory for the entire Arrow McLaren SP organization since 2018. 

Ed Carpenter Racing took Chevrolet's second victory in the next race at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It was Rinus VeeKay making it the second consecutive first-time winner and the third first-time winner of the season. O'Ward would add another victory for the Bowtie Brigade in the second Belle Isle. 

Team Penske would not get on the scoreboard until Mid-Ohio in July, the tenth race of the season. Josef Newgarden's victory was the latest first victory in a season for Team Penske since it had consecutive winless seasons in 1998 and 1999. Will Power would win the August IMS road course race and Newgarden picked up his second victory at Gateway. 

Currently, Honda has the edge in the top five of the drivers' championship three to two, but the two manufactures are evenly splitting the top ten with five drivers apiece. 

IMSA
Long Beach is not only the season finale for the NTT IndyCar series. It is also the penultimate/antepenultimate round for IMSA's WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. For the Daytona Prototype international class, it is the penultimate round before the Petit Le Mans season finale on November 13. For the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes, it is the antepenultimate round as both classes will race at Virginia International Raceway on October 9 before finishing at Petit Le Mans. 

Twenty-six cars are entered for Long Beach, six in DPi, three in GTLM and 17 in GTD. 

In the top class, the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Acura of Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque are coming off its third victory of the season and the lead the championship with 2,765 points, 100 points ahead of the #31 Whelen Racing Cadillac of Pipo Derani and Felipe Nasr. Derarni and Nasr have won two of the last three races. 

The #55 Mazda of Oliver Jarvis and Harry Tincknell are 168 points back in third. Kevin Magnussen and Renger van der Zande won the only other street race on the schedule at Belle Isle in June and the Danish-Dutch duo has Chip Ganassi Racing's #01 Cadillac 238 points off the championship. 

Meyer Shank Racing led its fair share of laps in the most recent race at Laguna Seca, but pit strategy dropped the #60 Acura of Dane Cameron and Olivier Pla to fourth. MSR has two podium finishes and trails its cousin Acura by 375 points. Since winning the 12 Hours of Sebring, Loïc Duval and Tristan Vautier have not finished on the podium in the #5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac. The French pair is 433 points behind Wayne Taylor Racing. 

The #3 Corvette of Antonio García and Jordan Taylor has finished first or second in every race expect for Sebring this season. This has the 2020 GTLM champions leading the 2021 championship with 2,562 points. The sister #4 Corvette of Tommy Milner and Nick Tandy won at Laguna Seca, its first championship victory of the season. The #4 Corvette has four consecutive podium finishes and it is 187 points behind the #3 Corvette. 

Cooper MacNeil has 2,314 points in third with victories at Sebring and Road America in the #79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche. Both those victories have come with Matt Campbell as co-driver, and Mathieu Jaminet was a part of the Sebring team. Jaminet is back in the car for Long Beach. 

GTD has the #96 Turner Motorsport BMW of Bill Auberlen and Robey Foley on top with 2,242 points. Turner Motorsport has two victories this season. Zacharie Robichon and Laurens Vanthoor have won the last two races and three total victories this season and that has the #9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche second in the championship, 27 points behind the #96 BMW. The #23 Heart of Racing Aston Martin of Ross Gunn and Roman de Angelis dropped to third in the championship, 52 points off the top spot. 

Paul Miller Racing has the #1 Lamborghini of Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers fourth in the championship, but the familiar duo has not won this season. Snow and Sellers are 86 points back of Auberlen and Foley. Patrick Long is fifth in the championship on 2,038 points and he will share the #16 Wright Motorsports Porsche with Trent Hindman. Jack Hawksworth and Aaron Telitz are sixth in the championship, and won the Watkins Glen sprint race, but they are 404 points back. 

Cadillac is unbeaten at Long Beach since the start of DPi-era and General Motors has won five consecutive IMSA races at Long Beach. GM cars have also won 11 of 13 street races in IMSA since the merger in 2014. Acura has four overall Long Beach victories dating back to the American Le Mans Series races. The #4 Corvette has won two of the last three Long Beach races in GTLM. This will be the first time GTD is competing at Long Beach since 2017 when Cooper MacNeil won in a Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Gunnar Jeannette.

The IMSA race will take place at 5:06 p.m. ET on Saturday September 25. The race is scheduled for 100 minutes.

Fast Facts
This will be the eighth IndyCar race held on September 26 and first since 1999 when Paul Tracy won the CART race on the streets of Houston and Sam Schmidt won the Indy Racing League race at Las Vegas. It was Schmidt's one and only IndyCar victory. 

Long Beach will become 13th different track in IndyCar history to host the season opener and season finale. Long Beach has hosted the season opener six times (1984-86 and 2004-06). 

At the 16th race of the season, this is the latest the Grand Prix of Long Beach has been held in an IndyCar season. Prior to this year, Long Beach had never been later than the fourth race of the season. It was also never later than the fourth race of the Formula One season during its eight years on the world championship's schedule.

Álex Palou would become the sixth driver to win an IndyCar championship for Chip Ganassi Racing. It would also be the 14th championship for Chip Ganassi Racing. It would be the third time Chip Ganassi Racing has won consecutive championships. On the previous two occurrences, Chip Ganassi Racing won four consecutive championship (1996-1999 and 2008-2011). 

Palou would become the first Spaniard to win the IndyCar championship. He would be the ninth European champion joining Gaston Chevrolet, Nigel Mansell, Alex Zanardi, Kenny Bräck, Sébastien Bourdais, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Simon Pagenaud. 

Palou could become the third consecutive champion to have won the season opener.

Patricio O'Ward would become the second youngest champion at 22 years, fourth months and 20 days old. Sam Hornish, Jr. won the 2001 IRL championship at 22 years, three months, and four days old. 

O'Ward would be the first non-Penske/Ganassi/Andretti Autosport champion in this series dating back to Sam Hornish, Jr.'s second championship in 2002 with Panther Racing. 

It would be McLaren's first IndyCar championship. It was runner-up in the championship in three consecutive seasons with Johnny Rutherford from 1974 to 1976. 

Spain or Mexico would become the 11th different country to produce an IndyCar champion. 

Josef Newgarden would become the 13th driver with three IndyCar championships. 

Newgarden would tie Rick Mears for most IndyCar championships with Team Penske. 

A Newgarden championship would be the 83rd IndyCar championship for an American driver. 

Four drivers have had their first career victory at Long Beach (Michael Andretti 1986, Paul Tracy 1993, Mike Conway 2011, and Takuma Sato 2013). 

The last driver to score a first career victory in a season finale was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2003 at Surfers Paradise, though that was not the scheduled finale. Surfers Paradise became the finale after Fontana was cancelled due to wildfires. 

This year's race occurs 45 days and 363 days after the inaugural Grand Prix of Long Beach, a Formula 5000 race, which Brian Redman won ahead of Vern Schuppan, Eppie Wietzes, Chris Amon and David Hobbs.

McLaren won the final two Grand Prix of Long Beach when it was a Formula One event with Niki Lauda and John Watson in 1982 and 1983 respectively.

The average starting position for a Long Beach winner is 4.1388 with a median of 2.5. 

The last two Long Beach races have been won from pole position. Prior to 2018, the pole-sitter had not won at Long Beach since 2007.

The pole-sitter has never won at Long Beach in three consecutive races in the IndyCar-era. The only time the pole-sitter has won three consecutive Long Beach races was during the Formula One-era from 1978 to 1980. Carlos Reutemann, Gilles Villeneuve, and Nelson Piquet were the winners. 

If Colton Herta does not win at Long Beach, it will be the first IndyCar season with at least one driver winning consecutive races since 2015. 

The average number of lead changes in a Long Beach race is five with a median of 5.5. 

The five of the last six Long Beach races have had exactly six lead changes.

The most recent Long Beach race with no lead changes was in 2001 when Hélio Castroneves won. 

The average number of cautions in a Long Beach race is 2.8055 with a median of three. The average number of caution laps is 11.3888 with a median of 12. 

The 2016 Long Beach race was the most recent caution-free race at Long Beach. The 2016 race was also the fastest Long Beach race ever, averaging 100.592 mph, the only Long Beach race to break the 100-mph average and only one of five races to average greater than 95 mph.

Possible Milestones:
Scott Dixon is one victory away from tying Mario Andretti for second all-time with 52 victories.

Alexander Rossi is one podium finish away from his 25th podium finish. 

Will Power needs to lead 80 laps to surpass Dario Franchitti for eighth all-time in laps led.

Josef Newgarden needs to lead 21 laps to surpass Tony Bettenhausen for 19th all-time in laps led. Newgarden could also surpass Dan Wheldon with 30 laps led.

Sébastien Bourdais needs to lead 20 laps to reach the 2,700 laps led milestone.

Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead 47 laps to reach the 1,600 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead 19 laps to reach the 800 laps led milestone.

Graham Rahal needs to lead 10 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone. 

Predictions
Josef Newgarden wins the race, Patricio O'Ward finishes third, but Álex Palou finishes ninth and wins the championship. Alexander Rossi will not make contact with a teammate. Scott McLaughlin will hold on and win rookie of the year, but Romain Grosjean will finish within single-digit points of the New Zealander. Hélio Castroneves will finish inside the top twenty, but not inside the top fifteen. There will not be a caution in the first five laps. Ed Carpenter Racing's top ten slump will continue into 2022. At least one driver will get his best finish of the season. No cars will park in the flowerbed at the fountain. Sleeper: Jack Harvey. 


Monday, September 20, 2021

Musing From the Weekend: About Two Weeks Ago...

Colton Herta continued his Laguna Seca dominance and Álex Palou has a championship in his grasp. The Indy Lights champion continues to flip. MotoE had a championship decider for the ages. World Superbike had another championship leader with allegedly four race weekends left, but only two we can count out. Mercedes and Red Bull are still bickering. Andrea Dovizioso will return to MotoGP full-time with Yamaha's satellite team next year. NASCAR had a banner weekend at Bristol for all its national touring series. Chase Elliott needs some thicker skin. It is raining calendars, and that is where we will start this week. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

About Two Weeks Ago...
Two weeks ago, I wrote about IndyCar's 2022 schedule and what we knew, what we didn't and what we could expect. Let's just say the actual 2022 schedule had a few more shifts and changes than first expected.

IndyCar will have its earliest start since the 2003 CART season when St. Petersburg was the first round on February 23. In 2022, St. Petersburg opens the IndyCar Series season on February 27, the first time IndyCar has raced in February since Sam Hornish, Jr. won on Leap Day in 2004. 

Texas makes a surprise leap forward to March 20, the second round of the season after being ending April and starting May with a doubleheader this year. This move has raised the most eyebrows, as Texas moves to find an open network television window, but this race would fall the day after the 12 Hours of Sebring, a race many IndyCar, crew and other team personnel have participated in. 

Those are two of the bigger schedule shifts. Long Beach will be April 10. Barber shifts back to May 1, its latest date in event history but it shifts back due to Easter Sunday and the NASCAR Talladega race being the final two weekends in April. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 remain on their respective May weekends, May 14 and May 29. Belle Isle returns to being a single race for the first since 2012 and it moves back to the weekend after the "500" on June 5. Road America concludes the first half of the season on June 12. Road America will also conclude a five-consecutive week stretch at a racetrack for the teams. 

IndyCar will get a slight break before starting the second half on July 3 at Mid-Ohio. Toronto's tentative return is scheduled for July 17 and that is the first of four consecutive weekends on track. The Iowa doubleheader follows Toronto on July 23-24. The IndyCar/NASCAR combination weekend on the IMS road course moves up to the final weekend of July before the Nashville street race on August 7. 

The final three races remain the same. Gateway is scheduled for Saturday August 20. Portland moves back to Sunday of Labor Day weekend on September 4. The Laguna Seca season finale shifts up to September 11. 

Fourteen of the 17 races will air on network NBC. Belle Isle and Gateway will be on the USA network with Toronto streaming exclusively on Peacock. While the broadcasting schedule is the best IndyCar has ever had, it is more of the same for IndyCar but even when things are the same, they are not quite identical, and some people are angry. Some of those things are out of IndyCar's control. 

IndyCar is not a series that can just add four to six race weekends and fill out the spring window and pad the schedule into October. This is what IndyCar is at the moment, but there are still puzzling moves. 

For a series that preaches the importance of date equity, it does change its race dates a lot. I am not talking about one- or two-week shifts. Those shifts are understandable. Road America is the same time of year, as are Portland and Laguna Seca, but Texas has gone from an early June date from 1997 through 2019 to May in 2020 and now March in 2021. Part of that move was facilitated when NASCAR moved its All-Star Race to Texas and what had been the IndyCar weekend this year. The IndyCar race had to move somewhere. Now it is moving for the second time in as many years. 

June was never going to be an option for IndyCar in 2022, as Texas will host the NASCAR All-Star Race on May 22 and IndyCar's June is packed, but we have seen this play before with IndyCar and oval races in particular. The race bounces to three different race weekends in a three-year span and then it falls off the schedule. 

We saw it with Kentucky over its final three years go from its traditional August date to Labor Day weekend and ending up the first Sunday in October the year after that. We saw it with the Fontana's second stint on the IndyCar schedule when it had four different race weekends in four different months in four years. Milwaukee could not find a suitable weekend in its final years, and it went from Father's Day weekend to July to August. Texas is repeating those same steps. 

Next year is the final year of the Texas contract. One year after IndyCar returns to Iowa, it appears the series will be searching for another oval in 2023 because unless mid-March is a hit. A lackluster showing March date likely means 2022 will be the final time IndyCar visits the Dallas Metro Area for a while. 

Even the St. Petersburg move is a little questionable. The race was originally planned for March 13. I get that Florida is just as warm in February as it is in March, but we have been sold that St. Petersburg is a spring break race. It is when people can take off from work and travel with their families. February is not spring break time. It seems like St. Petersburg is sacrificing its identity and one of its main drawing points to maintain its identity as the IndyCar season opener, the wrong identity for the long-term health of this event. 

We all want the IndyCar schedule to start a little earlier but moving St. Petersburg up to create a two-week gap doesn't really solve the problem. It just creates another. It makes more sense for St. Petersburg to remain March 13 with Texas on March 20 and have a back-to-back to build momentum early in the season. March 6 would even be a better date for St. Petersburg than the last Sunday of February. 

These schedule changes are the consequences of a good thing. NBC is putting 14 IndyCar races on network television in 2022, one more than its contractual agreement states. It has fewer options and cannot pick the races that best fit the windows to show on big NBC. This contract required races moving around. As I have been saying, IndyCar must get along with all the other sports properties. NBC has many golf tournaments, it has NASCAR, the French Open, Premier League, Notre Dame football and Sunday Night Football. IndyCar will get the weekend it wants for the Indianapolis 500, and a few other events, but other weekends will have to fit in with NBC's other tentpole events.

We saw this year how tough it is for sports properties to fit in. The men's French Open final went five sets. The first half of the second Belle Isle race was seen on CNBC. The Olympics put IndyCar on break for two weeks in August. The Long Beach finale will not be on NBC next week because the Ryder Cup will take place. There are some weekends that will be out of the question. NBC has the U.S. Open golf tournament the third weekend in June. The Tour de France takes place over three weeks in July and there is also the British Open in July. 

These conflicts will still exist in 2022 and IndyCar will have races that follow tennis, golf, lacrosse, and many other sports. There will be races pre-empted, but there will also be times when IndyCar runs long into another event's time, like we saw with the first Belle Isle race this year. It will even out, but we cannot lose sight of IndyCar's position in NBC's portfolio. 

Fourteen races on network NBC are a great thing for IndyCar, but IndyCar had to meet the network halfway. If that means moving St. Petersburg to February, Texas to March, Road America up a week in June and Portland and Laguna Seca up a week in September, IndyCar plays the game hoping to come out a winner. Some of these moves could turn out to be big gains for the series, but some tracks will be forced to adjust and battle to maintain successful events.

However, if IndyCar is going to end the season on the first NFL Sunday, it should move the final races up sooner and end on Labor Day weekend. Nearly a decade ago, Mark Miles preached how he wanted IndyCar's championship decider synonymous with Labor Day weekend. Since Miles took over, IndyCar has ended on Labor Day weekend once and that was in 2014. Since 2016, the IndyCar finale has fallen during the NFL season.

I want IndyCar to race into October and there are many lovely weekends in autumn for races, but there are not enough weekends for IndyCar to justify going deep into autumn. On top of Laguna Seca, IndyCar needs at least three, if not four more weekend to justify running into football season. Until then, IndyCar should just jam in the end of the season before the first Monday in September. That isn't ideal, but IndyCar's current situation does not allow for the season to spread out over eight months.

At least IndyCar will be starting earlier next year. We might have our issues with gaps in the schedule, but people are going to be joyous to have an IndyCar race in February when that is normally a time when we are a month away from the first race. January will be filled with more urgency. We can make it through a couple of down periods early on. There will be a few busy stretches when it gets warm. Those will satisfy us until another season ends next September. 

Champion From the Weekend
Jordi Torres won the MotoE championship for a second consecutive year after a victory in race one and a 13th in race two from Misano after Dominique Aegerter was penalized 38 seconds for making contact with Torres while battling for first on the final lap of the season. The 2019 MotoE champion Matteo Ferrari claimed race victory in the second race after Aegerter's penalty.

The #41 Team WRT Oreca-Gibson of Robert Kubica, Yi Yifei and Louis Delétraz clinched the European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship after it won the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, its third victory of the season. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Colton Herta, MotoE and Team WRT, but did you know...

Francesco Bagnaia won MotoGP's San Marino and Rimini Riviera Grand Prix, his second consecutive victory. Raúl Fernández won the Moto2 race, his second consecutive victory and sixth victory of the season. Dennis Foggia won the Moto3 race, his second consecutive victory and fourth victory of the season. 

Kyle Kirkwood swept the Indy Lights races from Laguna Seca.

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup race from Bristol, his sixth victory of the season. A.J. Allmendinger won the Grand National Series race, his fourth victory of the season. Chandler Smith won the Truck race, his first career victory and it advanced him to the semifinal round in the Truck playoffs. 

The #4 DKR Engineering Duqueine M30 - D08-Nissan of Laurents Hörr and Jean-Phillipe Dayrault won in the LMP3 class at the 4 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, its third consecutive victory. The #88 AF Corse Ferrari of François Perrodo, Emmanuel Collard and Alessio Rovera won in the GTE class, its third victory of the season.

Scott Redding, Jonathan Rea, and Michael Ruben Rinaldi split the World Superbike races at Barcelona. Randy Krummenacher and Manuel González split the World Supersport races. 

Liam Lawson and Lucas Auer split the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters races from Assen. 

The #3 K-Pax Racing Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper split the GT World Challenge America races from Watkins Glen. 

The #52 AutoTechnic Racing BMW of John Capestro-Dubets and Tom Capizzi and the #11 Classic BMW of Toby Grahovec and Stevan McAleer split the GT4 America races from Watkins Glen. Charlie Luck and Jeff Burton split the GT America.

Coming Up This Weekend
Long Beach is back and it ends the IndyCar season. 
IMSA tags along to Long Beach. 
Formula One will be in Sochi. 
NASCAR begins another playoff round in Las Vegas.
World Superbike remains in Spain and heads south to Jerez. 
GT World Challenge Europe closes out its Sprint season at Valencia.


Sunday, September 19, 2021

First Impressions: Laguna Seca 2021

1. Colton Herta drove a sensational race and, like his father Bryan, Herta has turned his home track of Laguna Seca into a personal paradise. Two races, 185 laps run, 174 laps led, two pole positions, two checkered flags and Herta has reached five career victories in three seasons, surpassing his father's total.

This was a lost year for Colton Herta. There were too many mechanical issues, too many poor strategies, too many mistakes for him to be a championship contender, but plenty of times we saw Herta put on a clinic and look untouchable arguably more than anyone else this season. The only problem is something tripped him up, whether it was unfavorable cautions at Nashville, which forced him to drive over the edge, or a broken driveshaft at Gateway.

There is a world where Herta has four victories, maybe even five and he is heading into his other home race of Long Beach either leading the pack or with all the momentum in the world to stage a championship comeback.

Maybe next year, but this year is ending on a high note for Herta.

2. Álex Palou has a hand on the Astor Cup after a runner-up performance at Laguna Seca. In a near-flawless drive, Palou separated himself from the rest of the championship hopefuls and he increased his wiggle room heading into Long Beach.

We started this three-race stretch wondering if Palou's inexperience could cost him. Instead, he won Portland, was second in Laguna Seca and has a 35-point championship lead over Patricio O'Ward entering the finale after trailing O'Ward by 10 points two races ago.

This should be Palou's title. He has had one bad race all season, St. Petersburg. In the first Belle Isle race, he started at the back with a grid penalty. An engine expired while he was in the top five of the August IMS road course race and he was taken out at Gateway. He just needs one "ok" day and he will be champion.

3. Romain Grosjean is going to win races in IndyCar. He had a great start to jump into the top ten and Grosjean was just as good as Herta and Palou today. It felt like he never lost time on a stint. If only he had advanced from round one, then he could have won this race. Though he finished third, I think Grosjean was stronger than Palou today.

Grosjean made a few bold moves, two of note into the Corkscrew, one for position on Scott Dixon and another on the lapped car of Jimmie Johnson. He was spectacular today and I am glad he is loving IndyCar. It is nice to see a career revival

4. Graham Rahal had another strong race and he improved over each stint. Unfortunately, he started 12th again and couldn't compete for the victory because Herta was in another zip code by the time Rahal cracked the top five. Rahal wasn't as flashy as Grosjean, but he drove a smart race and after the disappointment of Portland, this was a good bounce back, even if the winless drought continues.

5. Patricio O'Ward gave it his all, but at another track that is hard on tires, O'Ward struggled and it cost him. He lost positions in the opening stint and Palou had the advantage from the start. O'Ward could never challenge to decrease his deficit. It has been the story of O'Ward season and it seems like in almost every race O'Ward had the balance wrong on the different compounds, Palou was on top.

At Barber, O'Ward started on pole position but he struggled with degradation and Palou won the race. O'Ward led early at Portland, but could not make his tires last at the start. Palou went on to win. Now today. O'Ward is still alive, but those three races in particular have made his life harder at Long Beach.

6. Marcus Ericsson quietly finished sixth. Ericsson may have finished fifth if he didn't go wide on the pit lane exit lane after his final pit stop. It was a good day for Ericsson, but while he has won two races this year, he does have a lot of these finishes from sixth to tenth. He needs to take a step forward and get more top five finishes.

7. Josef Newgarden needed to charge today and Tim Cindric decided to put Newgarden on a four-stop strategy. It didn't get him a victory and it didn't decrease his gap to Palou, but he kept his championship hopes alive. He was able to climb to seventh, 48 points behind Palou, which keeps him alive by a point.

Newgarden has to be perfect at Long Beach and have Palou be at the very bottom to have a prayer for a third championship. Newgarden deserves to at least be in the championship conversation. Forget the opening lap Barber spin for a second, Newgarden is one rushed pit strategy at Belle Isle and a gearbox failure at Road America away from having two more victories and this championship would have looked completely different. I think he has been better than O'Ward this season.

8. Simon Pagenaud was a good teammate and finished eighth today. That point keeps Newgarden alive. Pagenaud did stop early on a three-stop strategy. He looked competitive, but he was watching out for his teammate today.

9. Oliver Askew earned a respectable result in ninth. Askew lost some time at the start, but he drove smart and battled in the top ten all race. We need to give Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing credit because between Santino Ferrucci, Christian Lundgaard and Askew, all three drivers have been competitive in the #45 Honda, a part-time entry. Askew did himself wonders today. I am not sure if this seat is his. Ferrucci put up a strong case. The team could go with someone else, but Askew is one of a half-dozen drivers on the periphery who should be full-time in IndyCar.

10. Ed Jones had a good day and finished tenth. Jones was on the same strategy as his teammate Grosjean, but Jones did not have the same pace. That is fine. Grosjean is a significantly better driver, but Jones made it a double top ten day for DCR at a track where the team had a combined two top ten finishes in all its previous Laguna Seca races entering today.

11. Ryan Hunter-Reay drove himself into the top six and then he had a re-fueling issue on one stop, it cost him time and he settled for 11th. This day should have been better and it is tough to watch possibly the final races of Hunter-Reay's career play out like many other standout moments in his career, the worst possible break coming at the worst possible time.

This hasn't been a great year for Hunter-Reay and there have been plenty of races where he has not had it, but between the Indianapolis 500 where he was in the top five late and possibly could have been in the battle for the lead late only to speed entering pit lane on his final pit stop, contact at the start of Mid-Ohio, electrical issues at Portland and today, Hunter-Reay's season is a few results away from being good. It was never going to be great, but it should be better than this.

12. Scott McLaughlin had a good handle on Laguna Seca this weekend. McLaughlin jumped into the top ten at the start with Grosjean and he was running with Pagenaud for much of this race, before McLaughlin settled into 12th.

13. Scott Dixon's championship hopes ended when Takuma Sato spun in the Corkscrew and caught Dixon. Even before that incident, it seemed Dixon was resigned to aiding Palou get the championship today, even though Dixon was still alive. It has been a strange year for Dixon, not a bad year, but you have to wonder if we are seeing his final races as the undisputed best in IndyCar.

14. Let's run through the field: Sébastien Bourdais did all he could to finish 14th. Jack Harvey was stuck at the back and ended up 15th. Ed Carpenter Racing continues to languish with Conor Daly in 16th and Rinus VeeKay in 18th. Jimmie Johnson got his best IndyCar finish in 17th, but this was genuinely Johnson's best race. He beat a lot of guys on pace today. Felix Rosenqvist had his share of spins and ended up 19th. James Hinchcliffe was 20th, fitting for his season.

15. Max Chilton made the most of that top ten starting position, finishing 21st. Callum Ilott had an accident in the morning warm-up, so I think 22nd with 94 laps completed is a good day. At least Ilott was a position ahead of Dalton Kellett. I am not sure what Helio Castroneves did today other than finish 24th. Are we sure Meyer Shank Racing is making the right call having Castroneves return full-time?

16. Alexander Rossi had a good look on Herta into turn five on lap two after Herta went wide, but damn talk about misfortunate, as Herta nudged into Rossi, sending Rossi spinning off. Herta wasn't dirty, it was slight contact, costing Rossi a promising day. Too often has this happened to Rossi over the last two seasons.

17.  Then you had Will Power with mechanical problems within the first 11 laps. Two years ago, Power was the only driver who could run with Herta. This year, Power started second and once Power was out no one got close to Herta except for when Herta was battling traffic.

18. Takuma Sato was running strong early after committing to what was likely a four-stop strategy considering Sato stopped on lap three under the Rossi caution and Sato was ahead of Newgarden. And then Sato threw it away with a spin in the corkscrew, clipping Dixon. A lot of drivers spun in the Corkscrew this weekend. It was kind of strange. It was also strange with all the spins and wheels dropped off course we didn't see a second caution in this race.

19. And now we move onto Long Beach. This is it. One race left. One week left. Where did the season go?