Friday, September 30, 2016

Friday Five: Petit Le Mans, Malaysia, Dover, Corsica and Magny-Cours

The first weekend of October sees the end of the IMSA season and the end of the Daytona Prototype-era in Georgia. The first round of the Chase ends in Delaware. Formula One makes a much later trip to Malaysia than in recent years. France will be busy with a rally on Corisca and motorcycle buzzing around the heart of the country. One person could clinch his fifth championship with another duo go for their third consecutive crown but have teammates in their way.

Petit Le Mans
This year's Petit Le Mans not only marks the final round of the 2016 IMSA SportsCar Championship but it is the end of the Daytona Prototype-era as the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class will be ushered in for the 2017 season.

Three teams are battling it out for the Prototype championship and all three are Corvette DPs. Action Express Racing holds the first two spots in the championship with the #31 of Dane Cameron and Eric Curran leading the class with 285 points, one clear of their teammates and two-time defending champions Christian Fittipaldi and João Barbosa in the #5 entry. The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP of Ricky and Jordan Taylor trails the #31 entry by seven points.

Cameron and Curran won two of the previous three rounds with a second to the Taylor brothers at the most recent round at Austin. The Taylor brothers lead the class with three victories this season. Fittipaldi and Barbosa only victory this season was at Watkins Glen. Both Action Express cars have finished on the podium in seven of the nine races contested this season. Simon Pagenaud joins Cameron and Curran in the #31 Corvette DP while Felipe Albuquerque will be the third driver in the #5 entry. Max Angelelli once again joins the Taylor brothers as their third driver. The #2 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier-Honda returns with Scott Sharp, Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek. ESM won at Daytona and Sebring and were running at the front at Watkins Glen until an engine failure ended their race after 158 laps.

In GTLM, the fight is between four teams but the #4 Corvette of Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner have a good grasp on the championship. Gavin and Milner have 329 points after victories at Daytona, Sebring, Lime Rock and Road America, 11 points clear of the #67 Ford GT of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. The Australian-British pairing won three consecutive races at Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Mosport. The #3 Corvette of Jan Magnussen and Antonio García trail their teammates by 24 points and their only victory was at VIR two races ago. The #912 Porsche of Earl Bamber and Frédéric Makowiecki kept their title hopes alive with a victory at Austin but still trail by 28 points entering the final round.

Porsche famously won last year's rain-shortened Petit Le Mans with Nick Tandy, Patrick Pilet and Richard Leitz. Audi loans factory drivers Marcel Fässler and Mike Rockenfeller to be the third drivers in the #4 and #3 Corvettes respectively. Scott Dixon returns to the #67 Ford.

The Prototype Challenge class is a two-horse race. The #8 Starworks Oreca of Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow won their fourth race of the season at Austin and has 329 points, ten clear of the #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca of Tom Kimber-Smith and Robert Alon. Kimber-Smith and Alon has four consecutive podiums won at Road America two races ago. David Heinemeier Hansson joins van der Zande and Popow in the Starworks entry and Jose Gutierrez joins the PR1/Mathiasen duo.

In the GTD class, the championship is Christian Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan's to lose. The drivers of the #63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari hold a 32-point lead over the #33 Riley Motorsports Viper of Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating. Nielsen and Balzan essentially just need to run the minimum drive time to clinch the title. Should Nielsen do that, she will become the first woman to win a major sports car class championship in the United States. Jeff Segal will be the third driver in the #63 Ferrari with Marc Miller rounding out the driver line-up in the #33 Viper.

Malaysia Grand Prix
After a week off, Formula One is still in the Pacific and will run the Malaysia Grand Prix.

Nico Rosberg took the championship lead with his victory at Singapore. The German leads his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton by eight points. It is the first time Rosberg has held the championship lead since he led by a single point after Hamilton's victory at the British Grand Prix. Mercedes' only victory at Sepang came at the hands of Hamilton in 2014. Hamilton has four consecutive podiums at Sepang. Rosberg has three podiums at Sepang but the only time he has finished ahead of Hamilton at the track was in 2010.

Daniel Ricciardo is third in the championship, 94 points behind Rosberg as the Australian has four podiums in the last five races. Ricciardo heads to one of his worst tracks. The Red Bull driver has one point in four starts at Sepang. Sebastian Vettel sits fourth in the championship, 120 behind Rosberg. Vettel has won four of the last six Malaysia Grand Prix. Vettel has one podium in the last seven races after starting the season with five podiums in the first eight races.

Kimi Räikkönen rounds out the top five in the championship, as he is five points behind his Ferrari teammate. He has three podiums this season with his last coming at Austria after Rosberg and Hamilton came together, dropping Rosberg from the podium, as Rosberg had to limp home with a broken front wing. His last podium at Sepang was in 2008 when he won the race. With 150 points left on the table, Max Verstappen is the final driver mathematically eligible for the championship as the Dutchman trails by 144 points. He has four podiums this season. Last year, Verstappen finished seventh at Sepang and became the youngest-driver to score points in Formula One history in his second career start.

Valterri Bottas is seventh in the championship with 70 points, four ahead of Sergio Pérez. Nico Hülkenberg trails his Force India teammate by 20 points and Felipe Massa rounds out the top ten on 41 points. Fernando Alonso is just five points behind his former Ferrari teammate. Carlos Sainz, Jr. sits on 30 points and hasn't scored in the last four races. Romain Grosjean is two behind Sainz, Jr. and hasn't scored in the last six races. Daniil Kvyat has 25 points and his ninth at Singapore was just his third points finish since switching to Toro Rosso after round four. He had two points finishes, include a third in China in his four starts with Red Bull.

Jenson Button will be attempting to make his 300 Formula One start this weekend. Only Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher are ahead of him all-time.

Dover International Speedway
Kevin Harvick joined Martin Truex, Jr. in the second round of the Chase after his victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend. Brad Keselowski leads the points standings with 2,087 points with Truex, Jr. in second. Kyle Busch is two points behind Keselowski and Matt Kenseth is nine points back. Kenseth won at Dover earlier this season, ending Chevrolet's streak of six consecutive victories at the track. Joey Logano rounds out the top five and is 14 points behind his Penske teammate.

Denny Hamlin is tied with Harvick on 2,071 points. Harvick won last year's Chase race at Dover, his only victory at the track. Hamlin has the second-worst average finish at Dover among the Chase drivers at 18.6. Jimmie Johnson is a point behind Hamlin and Harvick. Johnson has the most victories at all-time at Dover with ten. He has finished 41st and 25th in his last two Dover races. He is two points ahead of his teammate Chase Elliott, who finished third at Dover in May. Elliott and Carl Edwards are tied on 2,068 points. Edwards has failed to get a top ten finish at Dover in his last seven starts at the one-mile oval.

Kurt Busch sits in 11th on 2,067 points and his fifth at Dover in May ended a slump of eight consecutive Dover races without a top ten finish. He is ten points clear of Kyle Larson, who is on the bubble. Larson has the best average finish at Dover among drivers with at least three starts at 6.2. In five Dover starts, Larson has two top five finishes, four top tens and his worst finish at the track is 11th, which came in his first Dover start. He finished second at Dover in May.

Larson is five points clear of his Ganassi teammate Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon. McMurray's fourth at Dover last October was his second top five finish at the track in 26 starts. Dillon has the worst average finish of the Chase drivers at Dover with a 26.7 and he has finished 33rd in the last three Dover races. His best finish at the track is 20th. Tony Stewart is 21 points behind Larson. Stewart has finished outside the top ten in the last four Dover races and has not started in the top ten at the track since the spring of 2006, a race where he had to be substituted for by Ricky Rudd due to injuries. Chris Buescher is 30 points behind Larson. He finished 18th at Dover in May.

Tour de Corse
The tenth round of the 2016 World Rally Championship is the 59th Tour de Corse after Rally China was cancelled.

Sébastien Ogier scored his third victory of the season at Rallye Deutschland and has 169 points, 59 points ahead of his Volkswagen teammate Andreas Mikkelsen. Ogier has seven podiums from nine rallies this season. Despite being a three-times world champion, Ogier has never won Tour de Corse. He did win the Rallye de France Alsace twice. Mikkelsen won Rally Poland earlier this season.

Hyundai teammates Haydon Paddon and Thierry Neuville are tied on 94 points with Paddon holding the tiebreaker. Both driver have rally victories with Paddon winning in Argentina and Neuville in Italy. Pardon holds the tiebreaker after a second in Sweden while Neuville has two third-place finishes. Defending Tour de Corse winner Jari-Matti Latvala has 89 points and his only victory this season was in Mexico.

Dani Sordo finished second at Rallye Deutschland and is now sixth with 86 points. M-Sport Ford driver Mads Østberg is the final driver with a puncher's chance for the championship. The Norwegian driver has 78 points and he finished third at Sweden and Mexico.

Entering the antepenultimate round of the 2016 World Superbike season, three riders have a shot at the title and all are British.

Jonathan Rea leads the championship with 393 points after nine victories and 18 podiums from twenty races. Forty-seven points behind Rea is his Kawasaki teammate Tom Sykes, who has five victories and 14 podiums this season. Ducati rider Chaz Davies is 98 points behind Rea after five victories and ten podiums. Honda drivers Michael van der Mark and Nicky Hayden round out the top five with 203 points and 198 points respectively. Hayden is the only non-British rider to win this season after taking a victory in the wet at Sepang. Hayden is coming off scoring a point in MotoGP at Aragón.

In World Supersport, three riders are alive for the title with three races to go. Kenan Sofuoglu leads with 171 points. The Turkish rider has five victories and seven podiums from nine races. He could clinch his fifth World Supersport title this weekend. His Kawasaki teammate Randy Krummenacher trails him by 53 points. Since winning the opening round at Phillip Island, Krummenacher has two podium finishes and has scored points in all but one race. American P.J. Jacobsen trails Sofuoglu by 62 points. The Honda rider has four podiums this season but has yet to stand on the top step. Jacobsen won last year at Magny-Cours.

1. Over or Under: 3.5 American drivers winning a class at Petit Le Mans?
2. Over or Under: 13.5 points scored for Force India?
3. Over or Under: 1.5 Chase drivers finishing behind Chris Buescher at Dover?
4. Over or Under: 45.5 seconds margin of victory in Tour de Corse?
5. Over or Under: 4.5 nationalities represented in the top five of the World Supersport race?

Last Week's Over/Unders
1. Under: Nicky Hayden scored one point at Aragón.
2. Over: The average green flag run at Loudon was 38.4 laps.
3. Under: One Ligier was on the ELMS podium at Spa.
4. Over: Germans scored 44 points in Budapest.
5. Over: Five Japanese drivers scored at Sportsland SUGO.

1. The entire PC podium finishes ahead of the GTLM race winner.
2. Max Verstappen scores fastest lap of the race.
3. None of the bottom four in the Chase entering Dover advance to round two.
4. Sébastien Ogier wins at least six stages.
5. Two Ducatis finish on the podium in one of the World Superbike races

Last Week's Predictions
1. Aleix Espargaró finishes ahead of Maverick Viñales and in the top five (Wrong. Espargaró finished seventh and Viñales finished fourth).
2. The Loudon race winner leads fewer than 65 laps (Correct. Harvick led eight laps).
3. United Autosport clinches the LMP3 championship but doesn't win the race (Correct. The #2 United Autosport clinched the title and finished second).
4. A driver gets his first DTM podium of the season (Correct. Adrien Tambay and António Félix da Costa both got their first podiums of the season).
5. The average age of the Sportsland SUGO podium will be over 32 years of age (Wrong. The average age of the Super Formula podium was 27.333).
Overall: 3/5

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Dale Coyne Racing's 2016 Season

The second IndyCar team wrap-up takes a look at Dale Coyne Racing. The team entered the 2016 season with a rookie driver and continued the practice of having a rotation of drivers in the team's second entry. Despite finishing toward the bottom of the championship, the Illinois-based team's 2016 season was much better than the year before.

Conor Daly has a respectable rookie season
Conor Daly
The Noblesville, Indiana-native signed with Dale Coyne Racing in December 2015, a historically early signing for Dale Coyne Racing. Daly started on the final row for the season opener at St. Petersburg but went off strategy and ended up leading 15 laps while running with the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay. A slow pit stop late would drop Daly to 13th in the final results. At Phoenix, Daly was never a factor and finished a lap down in 16th. He was stuck in the middle of the field at Long Beach, where he started and finished 13th. He finished 20th at Barber.

The good results started coming in the month of May for Daly. Once again, Daly went off strategy and found himself leading 14 laps in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He was in contention for a podium but faded to sixth. His second Indianapolis 500 start in his third appearance in the race didn't go to plan as he spun trying to avoid the spinning Mikhail Aleshin and his race ended just 15 laps after halfway. Belle Isle was the sight of Daly's first career top ten finish in IndyCar in 2015 and in 2016 it was the site of Daly's first career podium as Daly ran a hard-charging strategy while the rest of the leaders tried to conserve. In the second race Daly had to start at the back after losing his fastest lap in qualifying but went from 21st to 6th.

Daly was fighting for a top five finish at Road America but a rear suspension failure ended his race in the turn one barrier. His car was difficult to handle at Iowa and he retired early and finished 21st. He started seventh at Toronto but faded to 15th in the race. He got off the snide at Mid-Ohio where a timely caution put him in the lead but he stopped a few laps before the final pit window. He ran another hard-charging strategy and led 22 laps and finished sixth despite having to make his final pit stop with six laps to go.

He finished two laps down in 16th at Pocono. He was involved in the nasty accident at Texas with Josef Newgarden in June and wasn't allowed to restart the race in August. He benefitted from stopping just prior to the Mikhail Aleshin caution at Watkins Glen and nearly had a podium but had to conserve fuel and finished fourth. The offseason began early for Daly as a mechanical failure at Sonoma ended his race just before halfway.

Conor Daly's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 18th (313 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 56
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 18.125
Average Finish: 14.375

Gabby Chaves' abbreviated sophomore season was as clean as his rookie year
Gabby Chaves
Gabby Chaves didn't debut with the team until the Grand Prix of Indianapolis round when he was a late-addition to the entry list. He finished a respectable 17th in the race despite limited seat time entering the race. At the Indianapolis 500, Chaves was the top qualifier of the four Dale Coyne Racing entries in 21st position. He ended up finishing a lap down in 20th. While Daly finished on the podium, Chaves finished 12th in race one at Belle Isle. He rounded out the weekend in 13th.

Chaves had a less than stellar weekend at Road America when he finished 19th. He finished seven laps down at Iowa in 17th. He completed the Texas race and ended up 14th, three laps down.

Gabby Chaves' 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 22nd (121 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Best Finish: 12th (Belle Isle 1)
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 19.285
Average Finish: 16.0

Luca Filippi's stint with Coyne was respectable but left a lot on the table
Luca Filippi
The Italian got the call for the first four races of the IndyCar season. He was running in the top ten but then got hit from behind by Marco Andretti when the American was trying to make an ambitious move for position. Filippi ended up in 20th and he finished 20th in his oval debut at Phoenix after a lazy spin off the dogleg but he finished seven laps down. At Long Beach, Filippi made the second round of qualifying but ended up in 17th. He made the second round of qualifying again at Barber but once again faded to 18th in the race.

Filippi returned for the Toronto round. He qualified a season-best 11th and finished a season-best 14th.

Luca Filippi's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 26th (61 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Best Finish: 14th (Toronto)
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 13.4
Average Finish: 17.8

Despite jumping into the deep end, RC Enerson stayed afloat
RC Enerson
The 19-year-old Floridian made his IndyCar debut at Mid-Ohio after an abbreviated Indy Lights season. He qualified 19th but worked his way into the top ten. He stalled on his second pit stop after running low on fuel and it put him a lap down. He returned for the Watkins Glen round and qualified 11th. He was running sixth after missing the first turn lap one incident with Sébastien Bourdais and Juan Pablo Montoya. He got caught out by the Aleshin caution but switched up the strategy toward the end, which allowed him to run harder while others conserved and he finished ninth. In the season finale at Sonoma, Enerson started 22nd and finished 19th.

RC Enerson's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 28th (55 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 17
Average Finish: 15.6

Other Drivers
Pippa Mann ran the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono for the team. She started 25th at Indianapolis and was the top Dale Coyne Racing finisher in the race by coming home a lap down in 18th. At Pocono, she started 21st and finished three laps down in 17th.

Bryan Clauson contested the Indianapolis 500 in a partnership with Jonathan Byrd's Racing and Dale Coyne Racing. He started 28th and spent most of the day in the middle of the pack only to lead three laps under caution after staying out while everyone else made pit stops. Clauson ultimately settled for a 23-place finished two laps down.

Eighteenth in the championship seems a bit harsh for Conor Daly. If the 9-6-4-3-2-1 system was used, he would have finished 13th. He definitely had a better season than Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti, two drivers that finished ahead of him in the championship and I think you could argue he had a better year than Mikhail Aleshin. Unfortunately for Daly is his career is now back in limbo. He had a really good season and you could argue he deserves to retain his seat if not get a promotion but few teams hire straight up front and most promotion come with a driver needing to find the money.

I am not sure Daly could get better results at AJ Foyt Racing or as a second-entry at KV Racing or as a second-entry at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Unless Penske, Ganassi, Andretti or ECR come calling, he might be better off staying at Dale Coyne Racing.

The team made the right decision in hiring Daly but the rotation in the second seat may have to stop if this team wants to take another step forward. If Daly had a teammate, preferably one with experience, to bounce setups off of, the team could contend for race victories. Coyne struggles mightily at ovals and that is one key area the team needs to improve on.

I thought Filippi, Chaves and Enerson all did good jobs in the #19 Honda this season. Filippi never had impressive results but when you consider he qualified ahead of Daly four out of five times, Filippi has speed but needs a longer leash. Chaves was good and continued on what he did so well as rookie and that was bringing the car home in one piece. He was running at the finish of every start and completed all but 12 laps. Enerson became the 11th-youngest driver to start an IndyCar race and in his three starts he never looked out of place.

With Sébastien Bourdais' name being heavily linked to returning to Dale Coyne Racing it appears three names are fighting for that final seat at Coyne and two of Daly, Enerson and Chaves will end up without a chair when the music stops. Daly has the results, Enerson has the money and Chaves is good and someone the team could count on bringing the car home in one piece. A Bourdais-Daly is a tantalizing partnership but money will likely decide it and that is something Daly doesn't have a lot of. Things are looking good for Coyne heading into 2017 but changes are inevitable for this team.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Indy Lights: Graduate vs. Dropout

During the IndyCar season it is hard to miss the occasional plug for Indy Lights' success in providing drivers for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

You hear the numbers almost every other race. Fourteen IndyCar drivers have Indy Lights experience or fifteen drivers have Indy Lights experience. This many IndyCar drivers won an Indy Lights race and so on. There is nothing wrong with those numbers, as they are factually correct. The Indy Lights series has done a good job getting drivers to IndyCar but it is the rhetoric used that bothers me. Maybe bothers isn't the right word but it gets me thinking.

James Hinchcliffe is described as an Indy Lights graduate. Josef Newgarden is described as an Indy Lights graduate. Conor Daly, RC Enerson and Spencer Pigot are labeled as Indy Lights graduates. However, some of those drivers aren't graduates.

The dictionary definition of graduate is "a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college or university." Of course, drivers aren't attending schools and they don't get diplomas but they can earn something and that is a championship. If you win the Indy Lights championship, you get a scholarship to run three IndyCar races. However, it is only one prize. Can only one driver be a "graduate" each year? No but just because a driver moves up to the next level doesn't make him or her a graduate.

Take RC Enerson, who made his IndyCar debut this season at Mid-Ohio and ran three races. Enerson started out 2016 in Indy Lights but dropped out after the Freedom 100 to save his funding. He took his funding and got an IndyCar seat at Dale Coyne Racing. He isn't a graduate. He didn't complete the course load. He dropped out after his sophomore year and went out and made it on his own. The same can be said of Conor Daly. Daly won the Star Mazda title in 2010 and then ran a handful of races in Indy Lights the following year but his entrance into IndyCar wasn't because of success in Indy Lights. Daly went to Europe and ran in GP3 and GP2 and has more starts in those two series (68) than he does in Road to Indy series (32). Daly isn't an Indy Lights graduate. He dabbled in Indy Lights but ultimately transferred abroad.

I would argue Jack Hawksworth is an Indy Lights graduate. Though he didn't win the title Hawksworth used he experience in the Road to Indy system to get an IndyCar seat. Carlos Muñoz is an Indy Lights graduate, though he did spend a few years in Formula Three, because it was his Indy Lights success that landed him an IndyCar ride. Charlie Kimball is an Indy Lights graduate, who just like Muñoz had a fair amount of Formula Three experience before joining Indy Lights. Marco Andretti wouldn't be an Indy Lights graduate. He ran a handful of races and won a few but showing up for the equivalent of a semester doesn't make you a graduate. Max Chilton would be an interesting one. He raced in GP2 and Formula One before contesting one season in Indy Lights with Carlin and then moved up to Ganassi. The Road to Indy system can't claim that he is a driver it developed. Chilton developed in Europe and then spent a semester in Indy Lights before transferring to the big time. He wouldn't be an Indy Lights graduate.

It will be interesting in the next few years as drivers, such as Dean Stoneman, Félix Serrallés, Kyle Kaiser, Santiago Urrutia and Ed Jones, look to move to IndyCar. Jones just won the Indy Lights championship and his Indy Lights experience is greater than his Formula Three experience. Stoneman won the Formula Two championship and raced in Formula Renault 3.5, GP3 and GP2 before joining Indy Lights. He really hasn't been developed here. Serrallés is another one with a fair amount of Formula Three experience. Urrutia had one season of GP3 under his belt before he joined Pro Mazda in 2015 but notably for Urrutia is he has clearly advanced his talent in the Road to Indy system compared to when he was a 17-year-old in GP3. Kaiser just completed his second season of Indy Lights after running two seasons in Pro Mazda. He is a great example of the success of the Road to Indy system but if he feels his money would be better spent attempting the Indianapolis 500 and a few other races than running another full season of Indy Lights or he pulls an Enerson in 2017 and jump up midseason, I am not sure we could call Kaiser a graduate.

As much as IndyCar and Indy Lights promote the graduates they should also promote and embrace the dropouts. We live in a world where college education is monumentally important for the future of a young adult but college isn't for everybody. Some try it and drop out because it is either not for them or because of financial reasons. I think embracing some of the drivers as dropouts can actually speak to a segment of the population and show that despite not following the clear-cut path and not earning some certificate you can still make it and be successful.

Labeling drivers such as Enerson, Daly and Andretti might not necessarily cause an influx of fans to IndyCar races or bloat TV ratings but a simply wording change can show acceptance of an otherwise isolated group. IndyCar wants to show the ladder system is a success but acknowledging the different paths a driver can take to make it to the top shows that success can come in many forms.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: The Grass is Always Greener and More Talented

Marc Márquez took a comprehensive victory at Aragón and the title could be his in three weeks at Motegi but he will need some help for that to be the case. There was a two-wheel championship locked up this weekend. Kevin Harvick locked a spot into the second round of the Chase after a late charge at Loudon. American teams had a great day in Belgium. Audi had a great day in Hungary and Marco Wittmann's title charge was stunted by a disqualification. A new manufacture and driver won in WTCC. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Grass is Always Greener and More Talented
I don't know where we exactly are with IndyCar silly season. I think all signs point to Josef Newgarden heading to Penske and Alexander Rossi is working on an extension with the Andretti-Herta partnership and who knows about Tony Kanaan, Sébastien Bourdais, Conor Daly and Juan Pablo Montoya.

When Rossi's name entered the ring for the Penske seat sometime during the Watkins Glen weekend, I think many were taken aback by it. Sure Rossi is fresh off an Indianapolis 500 victory but I think we can all agree it was a race won more by circumstance than sheer skill and there is nothing wrong with that. You take a victory anyway you can get it. Outside of that victory, Rossi's 2016 season was good but not Penske good. He made Will Power blink during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He carried the Andretti Autosport baton at Iowa. Rossi wasn't spectacular. His rookie season won't mistaken for the rookie seasons of Juan Pablo Montoya, Alex Zanardi or Nigel Mansell but in an era where testing is non-existent, Rossi was respectable and there was a noticeable improvement from when the season began in the last weekend of winter and ended on the last weekend of summer.

This seat has been destined for Newgarden's since 2012. Heck, Newgarden was linked to a Penske seat during that 2012 season despite him failing to score a top ten finish that season. Newgarden didn't jump into the deep end with Penske in 2012 and instead tweaked his game for five seasons driving for Sarah Fisher and Ed Carpenter. He has become a championship contender for a small team. Newgarden has gone toe-to-toe with the big boys and has proven he is good enough to come out on top. This year only Penske drivers finished ahead of Newgarden.

We have literally watched Newgarden go from a driver who couldn't be recognized in the fan village at Long Beach to being arguably the American face of the series (yes, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay, you both can make an argument for). Then how could Rossi's name be in the conversation?

The truth is most American race fans hadn't seen Rossi's compete prior to his breakthrough with Manor last year in Formula One. We have been watching Newgarden for six years. Newgarden has been a fly in our ear since 2011 in Indy Lights. Prior to Newgarden's Indy Light championship season in 2011, he and Rossi were on the same path. Both participated in the inaugural GP3 season in 2010. Rossi finished fourth in the championship behind ART Grand Prix teammate Esteban Gutiérrez, Robert Wickens and Nico Müller. He finished ahead of Rio Haryanto, Roberto Merhi and Dean Smith. Smith was Newgarden's teammate at Carlin. Newgarden finished 18th in the championship on eight points.

While Newgarden returned to the United States, Rossi went to Formula Renault 3.5 and finished third in the championship between Wickens and Jean-Éric Vergne. He would continue on to GP2 where he finished second in the championship last year. All those years Rossi spent in Europe appear to have counted for something to Penske if the rumors are true but Rossi's anonymity likely also played a role. Most in the U.S. didn't see Rossi's missteps like we did with Newgarden. We didn't see his accidents and good results thrown out the window. The results on paper show he wasn't just some driver coming over to IndyCar, he was a driver who had respectable runs against stiff competition and arguably stiffer competition than what is seen in the Road to Indy but paper leaves out some of the details.

The best comparison I can come up with is the NBA Draft, where international players are drafted in the top five or ten picks while some of the best college players are passed over. Take the 2015 NBA Draft where Latvian secret Kristaps Porzingis was drafted fifth by the New York Knicks but Frank Kaminsky, fresh off being the Naismath College Player of the Year went ninth to the Charlotte Hornets. Both are seven-foot centers and Kaminsky's success at Wisconsin was well documented where he help defeat an undefeated Kentucky team in the semifinals before a hard-fought loss against Duke in the championship game. However, Porzingis was consistently rated ahead of him. Porzingis and Kaminsky are still early in their careers but Darko Miličič, Yi Jianlain and Jan Vesely are all examples of top ten draft picks from foreign countries that never lived up to the potential.

While Newgarden had to claw for half a decade, Rossi's near immediate ascendance to IndyCar's top team shows those years in Europe were not all for naught. His Indianapolis 500 triumph and respectable rookie season also helped increase his value. However, it is not a certain thing. Conor Daly followed a path more similar to Rossi than Newgarden and also had success in GP3 but Daly has always been in IndyCar circle due to competing in Star Mazda and Indy Lights before diving into Europe. Despite his familiarity and respectable IndyCar rookie season, Daly's career is in limbo. He was also just too close to IndyCar for his own good.

Rossi might just be proof the grass is greener and more talented. The European ladder system might be less connected than the Road to Indy but it is a deep talent pool from all corners of the globe, some with funding of countries and oil companies and others who are winging it and hoping hard work forces someone to open up a checkbook. The Road to Indy has respectable grids and Indy Lights has seen the likes of Felix Rosenqvist, Max Chilton, Dean Stoneman, Jack Harvey and Luiz Razia in recent years (by the way, what the hell happened to Luiz Razia? He was a Marussia F1 driver for all of 15 minutes and then ended up in Indy Lights and has been heard from since) but it is nowhere near as coveted a training ground as the junior single-seater series of Europe.

We have seen the likes of Matthew Brabham, Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot and Tristan Vautier light the Road to Indy on fire but the likes of Penske weren't calling when they reach the top rung, except for Karam who got a dozen races with Ganassi and was then shown the door. The Road to Indy does a great job getting drivers to the next level but not necessarily getting drivers to the mountaintop.

Champions From the Weekend
South African rider Brad Binder clinched the Moto3 championship with his second place finish at Aragón.

The #2 United Autosport Ligier-Nissan of Alex Brundle, Christian England and Mike Guasch clinched the European Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a second-place finish at Spa-Francorchamps.

Chris Windom clinched the USAC Silver Crown championship with his victory at the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Raceway.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Marc Márquez and Kevin Harvick but did you know...

The #21 Dragonspeed Oreca-Nissan of Nicolas Lapierre, Ben Hanley and Henrik Hedman won the ELMS race at Spa-Francorchamps. The #9 Graff Ligier-Nissan of Paul Petiti, Enzo Guibbert and Eric Trouillet won in LMP3 for the second consecutive race. The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Rory Butcher and Robert Smith won in GTE for the third consecutive race.

Edoardo Mortara and Mattias Ekström split the DTM races from Hungaroring.

Yuhi Sekiguchi won the Super Formula race from Sportsland SUGO from pole position.

Sam Lowes won the Moto2 race at Aragón. Jorge Novarro won in Moto3.

Elliott Sadler won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Kentucky. William Byron won the Truck race from Loudon.

Thed Björk won the first WTCC race from Shanghai, his first career victory and the first for Volvo. José María López won the second race of the weekend.

Rico Abreu won the USAC midget race at the 4-Crown Nationals. Justin Grant won the USAC sprint car race. Ian Madsen won the All Star Sprint race.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Malaysia Grand Prix is a little later than what we are accustomed to.
Petit Le Mans closes out the IMSA season.
The final race of the first round of the Chase takes place at Dover.
Barcelona rounds out the Blancpain Sprint Series season.
World Rally runs Tour de Corse.
World Superbike will also be in France but at Magny-Cours.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Five: Aragón, Loudon, Spa, Budapest, Sportsland SUGO

Five championships take place this weekend in five different countries. Three championships head to their penultimate rounds of the 2016 season. One will be returning to a historic race track. Another could see a champion be crowned for a second time. The third will be going to the wire regardless of the results this weekend. Nicky Hayden returns to MotoGP this weekend. NASCAR heads to New England.

Aragón Grand Prix
With five races remaining in the 2016 MotoGP season, six different riders have a shot at the title and eight different riders have won the last eight races dating back to the Italian Grand Prix in May.

Marc Márquez leads the championship with 223 points but has not won since Germany in the middle of July. Despite having only one podium in the last four races, Márquez has finished every race this season and has one finish outside the top five after having retired from four races at this time last season. Márquez has had accidents the last two years at Aragón. In 2014, he fell while leading in the wet but prior to switching bikes and last year he had an accident on lap two while running down Jorge Lorenzo.

Valentino Rossi has three consecutive podium finishes and has finished ahead of Márquez in the last four races but Rossi trails Márquez by 43 points. Rossi has two podiums in six starts at Aragón and has finished outside the top five in three starts with one retirement. Jorge Lorenzo is third in the championship, 51 points behind Márquez despite winning three of the first five races. Since his victory at Mugello, Lorenzo has two podiums and two races where he failed to score points. Lorenzo has won the last two years at Aragón and has five consecutive podium finishes.

Dani Pedrosa jumped up to fourth in the championship after his victory at Misano and trails his Honda teammate by 78 points. Pedrosa has one victory and four podiums in six Aragón starts. He has not won consecutive races since winning at Spain and France in 2013. Suzuki rider Maverick Viñales finished fifth at Misano after winning at Silverstone, 87 points behind Márquez. Viñales won at Aragón in Moto2 in 2014. Andrea Dovizioso is championship-eligible by one point. The Ducati rider could extend the streak to nine different riders to win the last nine consecutive races.

Nicky Hayden makes his MotoGP return substituting for Dutch TT winner Jack Miller, who is recovering from a fractured wrist. Hayden finished third in the inaugural Aragón Grand Prix in 2010. Last year, Hayden finished 15th and score one point at Aragón. In World Superbike this season Hayden has one victory, four podiums and sits fifth in the championship.

Bad Boy Off Road 300
The second round of NASCAR's Chase takes place at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. After his victory at Chicagoland Speedway last week, Martin Truex, Jr. leads on points and has advanced to the second round of the Chase. It was Truex, Jr.'s third victory of the season. He has one top ten finish in his last five starts at Loudon.

Brad Keselowski is second in the championship with Kyle Busch three points behind him in third. Keselowski's only New Hampshire victory came in July 2014. Busch won the summer race at Loudon last year. Keselowski has led one lap in ten consecutive Loudon races. Busch led 133 laps at Loudon in July only to finish eighth. Denny Hamlin is a point behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Hamlin has the best average finish among the Chase drivers at Loudon at 10.2. Joey Logano rounds out the top five. Logano has four consecutive top five finishes at Loudon.

Chase Elliott is sixth in points and he finished 34th, seven laps down in his Loudon debut in July. Matt Kenseth won the July race and is a point behind Elliott. Kenseth has won the last two races at Loudon and has six top ten finishes in seven Loudon starts with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jimmie Johnson is a point behind Kenseth and has not won at Loudon since June 2010. Carl Edwards trails Johnson by five points. Edwards has one top five finish in his last 15 Loudon starts. Kurt Busch rounds out the top ten in points. Since 2011, Kurt Busch has two top ten finishes in 11 starts.

Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart are currently the final two drivers that would advance to round two. McMurray is three points to the good while Stewart is only one point ahead of Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon in 12th. Kyle Larson is four points behind Stewart and Chris Buescher trails by 14 points.

4 Hours of Spa
The penultimate round of the 2016 European Le Mans Series season takes place at Spa-Francorchamps. It is the first time the series has visited the Belgian circuit since 2011.

Six teams are fighting for the title in LMP2. The #46 Thiriet by TDS Racing Oreca-Nissan of Mathias Beche, Pierre Thiriet and Ryō Hirakawa has won the last three and leads the championship with 77 points. Hirakawa missed the most recent round at Circuit Paul Ricard due to Super GT commitments. The #38 G-Drive Racing Gibson-Nissan of Giedo van der Garde, Simon Dolan and Harry Tincknell won the season opener at Silverstone and trail the #46 Oreca by nine points. The #32 SMP Racing BR01-Nissan has 60 points after finishing second at Paul Ricard and the team will see a driver change as former Formula One driver Vitaly Petrov replaces Julián Leal as the third driver alongside Stefano Coletti and Andreas Wirth.

The #33 Eurasia Motorsport Oreca-Nissan of Nick de Bruijn, Tristan Gommendy and Pu Jun Jin has 40 points, nine clear of the #21 Dragonspeed Oreca-Nissan of Ben Hanley, Henrik Hedman and Nicolas Lapierre. The #40 Krohn Racing Ligier-Nissan of Tracy Krohn, Nic Jönsson and Olivier Pla has 26 points.

In LMP3, three teams are still alive but the title could be wrapped up this weekend. The #2 United Autosports Ligier-Nissan of Alex Brundle, Christian England and Mike Guasch sits on 90 points after winning the first three races and finishing third at Paul Ricard and a victory would clinch the title for the team.

Thirty points behind the #2 United Autosports Ligier is the #19 Duquiene Engineering Ligier-Nissan of David Hallyday, Dino Lunardi and David Droux after the all-French team finished fourth in the first two races and second in the later two. The #9 Graff Ligier-Nissan of Paul Petit, Eric Trouillet and Enzo Guibbert won at Circuit Paul Ricard and is 38 points back.

All eight GTE teams are still alive for the championship. The #66 JMW Motorsport Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Rory Butcher and Robert Smith has won the last two races and has three consecutive podiums, giving the team 68 points and the championship lead. Five points behind the #66 Ferrari is the #99 Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Alex MacDowall and Andrew Howard. The #99 Aston Martin won at Silverstone and finished third at Paul Ricard. The #56 AT Racing Ferrari finished the first three races on the podium before a fourth at Paul Ricard giving the team 60 points. Belorussians Alexander Talkanitsa Sr. and Jr. will be joined by Alessandro Pier Guidi in the #56 Ferrari for Spa. The Imola winning #77 Proton Competition Porsche of Mike Hedlund, Wolf Henzler and Marco Seefried rounds out the top four on 46 points.

The #60 Formula Racing Ferrari and #55 AF Corse Ferrari are tied on 34 points. The all-Danish lineup of Johnny Laursen, Mikkel Mac and Christina Nielsen hold the tiebreaker over the trio of Duncan Cameron, Matt Griffin and Aaron Scott. The #88 Proton Competition Porsche of Christian Reid, Gianluca Roda and Matteo Caroli has 31 points while the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of Rui Águas, Marco Cioci and Piergiuseppe Perazzini is a point behind the #88 Porsche.

DTM Budapest
Ten drivers head to the penultimate round of the DTM season at the Hungaroring with a shot at the title but the 2014 champion Marco Wittmann has a firm grasp on the lead. The BMW driver has 170 points and has won two of the last three races. Wittmann has finished in the points in 12 of 14 races this season. Wittmann won the only DTM race ever held at Hungaroring in 2014

Edoardo Mortara trails Wittmann by 33 points and won the most recent race of the DTM season at Nürburgring. The Audi driver has three victories, as many as Wittmann but has failed to score points in four races this season. Mercedes-Benz driver Robert Wickens is third in the championship, 50 points behind Wittmann. Wickens has two victories and five podiums but has failed to score points in six races.

British drivers take the next three spots in the championship. Jamie Green sits on 119 points with Paul di Resta on 100 points and Tom Blomqvist has 93 points. Green won at Zandvoort in July and has five podiums this season but has six finishes outside the points. Di Resta won the second race at the opening round at Hockenheim but only has two podiums since his victory. Blomqvist has four second-place finishes this season, the most of any driver. Blomqvist won last year at Oschersleben.

Mattias Ekström has 82 points and has not won since the infamous "Schieb Ihn Raus" round at the Red Bull Ring last year. Swiss driver and Norisring winner Nico Müller sits on 78 points and has scored in the second race in six of seven rounds this season but has failed to score in the first race of a weekend in the last four rounds. Two points behind Müller is Maxime Martin. The Belgian driver has two podium finishes this season. Gary Paffett rounds out the top ten in the championship on 73 points. Paffett's most recent DTM victory was Lausitzring in 2013.

Sportsland SUGO
With two rounds remaining in the 2016 Super Formula Championship, nobody is mathematically eliminated from the championship as 29 points remain on the table.

Yuji Kunimoto is coming off his first career Super Formula victory at Okayama and he leads the championship with 23.5 points. Kunimoto finished second in the first race of the Okayama weekend and second at the season opener at Suzuka. He leads defending Super Formula champion Hiroaki Ishiura by 4.5 points. Ishiura won at Okayama in May and finished third at Motegi and in the second race of the Okayama September weekend.

André Lotterer sits on 18 points and is third in the championship. The German's only podium this season was second at Motegi. Lotterer won at Sportsland SUGO last year. Yuhi Sekiguchi won at Motegi and he has 17 points. Sekiguchi's only other finish in the points was a third at Fuji. McLaren reserve driver Stoffel Vandoorne sits fifth in the championship on 16 points. He won the first race of the Okayama weekend and has scored in the last three races.

Season opener winner Naoki Yamamoto has not finished on the podium since his victory at Suzuka. He has 15.5 points and Kazuki Nakajima sits on 15 points with the Toyota-factory driver having two runner-up finishes this season. Fuji winner João Paulo de Oliveira has 12.5 points and finished eighth and fifth at Okayama. James Rossiter and Koudai Tsukakoshi are tied on 11 points.

1. Over or Under: 1.5 points scored by Nicky Hayden at Aragón?
2. Over or Under: 32.5 laps being the average green flag run at Loudon?
3. Over or Under: 1.5 Ligiers on the overall podium at Spa?
4. Over or Under:  33.5 points scored by German drivers at Budapest?
5. Over or Under:  4.5 Japanese drivers in the points at Sportsland SUGO?

1. Aleix Espargaró finishes ahead of Maverick Viñales and in the top five.
2. The Loudon race winner leads fewer than 65 laps.
3. United Autosport clinches the LMP3 championship but doesn't win the race.
4. A driver gets his first DTM podium of the season.
5. The average age of the Sportsland SUGO podium will be over 32 years of age.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

IndyCar Wrap-Up: AJ Foyt Racing's 2016 Season

Another season is in the books and it is time to look back on the teams and drivers that participated in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Each week another team will be profiled and we will start with A.J. Foyt Racing. Let's just get it over with.

Takuma Sato's IndyCar career in one photo
Takuma Sato
Sato completed his seventh IndyCar season and it started off pretty well. Despite a flat tire early at St. Petersburg, he ended up finishing sixth. After a less than stellar 15th at Phoenix, Sato was the top Honda at Long Beach with a fifth-place finish after passing the likes of Will Power, James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan and was challenging Juan Pablo Montoya for fourth. A 13th at Barber ended Sato's first quarter of the season.

A blend line violation in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis ended any chance of a respectable finish. He slapped the wall in the Indianapolis 500 and he ended the first half of the season with uninspiring but decent runs at Belle Isle with finishes of 11th and tenth. Sato was in the running for a top ten finish at Road America but a pit lane speeding penalty relegated him to 17th in the final results. He finished 11th at Iowa.

Sato turned it around at Toronto by going off strategy and getting another top five finish. He would have had another top five finish at Mid-Ohio had Sato not made contact with Sébastien Bourdais and run off course, dropping him to a still respectable ninth. He qualified on row two at Pocono and then the wheels came off, literally as Sato spun exiting turn three on lap one. He had an accident in the warm-up session prior to Texas and couldn't do better than 20th in the race. He went off strategy at Watkins Glen and was on the verge of a top ten finish before spinning in the closing laps and ended up 17th. He finished 14th at Sonoma.

Takuma Sato's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 17th (320 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 14.1875
Average Finish: 13.6875

Jack Hawskworth's career hits a crossroad after three seasons
Jack Hawksworth
The best race of Jack Hawksworth's 2016 season was the first race of the season but time would show that it is probably the most painful for the British driver. He started ninth and was running most of the race around the top ten but faded to 11th. He struggled at Phoenix and finished 19th and retired at Long Beach. Unfortunately, the most notable thing Hawksworth did in the 2016 season was get in the middle of the battle for the victory at Barber between Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal that prevented Rahal from getting Honda's first victory of the season.

He started fourth at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis after Josef Newgarden and Rahal had times disallowed but he could make nothing of the start on the second row and finished 20th. He started on the last row for the Indianapolis 500 but he just kept plugging along and ended up completing all 500 miles and finished 16th. A mechanical issue kept Hawksworth from starting the first race at Belle Isle and he started ninth in race two but a driveshaft failure ended another day early.

Despite a pit lane speeding penalty at Road America, just like his teammate, Hawksworth recovered to finish 11th. He struggled again at Iowa, hit the wall while contending for a top ten finish at Toronto (maybe because of some help from Simon Pagenaud) and had a large shunt at Mid-Ohio. He completed all 500 miles at Pocono and finished 14th. He was never a threat at Texas but getting caught in Mikhail Aleshin's accident was just salt in the wound. He went from ninth to 16th at Watkins Glen. He started 17th and finished 18th at Sonoma.

Jack Hawksworth's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 20th (229 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 0
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 3
Average Start: 15.4375
Average Finish: 17.5

I think we all expect there to be two changes at A.J. Foyt Racing this winter. Alex Tagliani led the team in laps led in 2016. He ran two races. That is how poor A.J. Foyt Racing was in 2016. By the way, quick run down of Alex Tagliani's 2016 season: Ran the two Indianapolis races. Was nonexistent in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Spun in Indianapolis 500 qualifying. Led 11 laps in the race, finished 17th.

I think Sato has run his course with the team and maybe in IndyCar as a whole. Hawksworth on the other hand was constantly in the top five on Fridays in practice. Bad drivers aren't in the top five in practice sessions. However, it is pretty difficult for a full-time IndyCar in this era to NOT get a top ten finish in a season. Something wasn't carrying over for this team from one day of a weekend to the next. It wasn't that long ago Hawksworth was the hidden gem in IndyCar. Now it appears his career is on the verge of ending before he turns 26 years old. Maybe an opportunity as the road course driver in the #20 Ed Carpenter Racing entry could revive Hawksworth's career but Hawksworth isn't a desired prospect like he was this time two years ago. You could hire him for a ham sandwich.

As for A.J. Foyt Racing itself. Who are they going to hire? Tony Kanaan's name has been floated as an option but that is a massive roll of the dices for Kanaan. It could be the move that ends his career. Does a Sage Karam or Gabby Chaves take the seat just to keep their careers going but run the risk of following in Hawksworth's footsteps? More importantly, does anyone want to go to Foyt? Maybe a guy like Luca Filippi would jump at the chance. It isn't a sexy team. It seems to be lacking on the engineering front. Despite Larry Foyt having more control over the team, it is still stuck in the mindset of A.J. Foyt and while it sounds great to look out for your buddies, it doesn't mean success on the race track. A.J. Foyt is a name that is becoming as synonymous with failure as it was success. If you are thirty years old or younger, you never saw the Foyt name as a model for success. It has been a name that symbolizes stubbornness.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

More Thoughts on the 2016 IndyCar Season

I guess these few days after the IndyCar season are just like the days after camp has ended. All you can do is talk about it and wish it never ended.

Yesterday, I wrote about how 2016 finally felt like IndyCar had a winning season. Throughout 2016 I would tweet IndyCar finally felt like a proper racing series when you consider it returned to Phoenix, Road America and Watkins Glen, tracks that are the backbone of American motorsports and wasn't running on the streets of Baltimore, NOLA Motorsports Park and the streets of Boston. I was half joking but I was also kind of serious. How many races this year had a practice session televised, a qualifying session televised or both? And how many of those practice and qualifying sessions were televised live?

After years of IndyCar getting a fraction of the coverage compared to Formula One, let alone NASCAR, this year IndyCar got a fair shake. NBCSN showed practice at noon on a Friday instead of a fishing show. Even when NBC's portion of the NASCAR season began IndyCar still could squeeze in a practice session or qualifying session. I am sure some want more and want every IndyCar session broadcasted live on television with a weekly IndyCar talk show breaking down the news. That isn't going to happen, at least not in 2017 or 2018 or even 2019. The series still has a way to go in terms of growth to reach that level of exposure but the steps made in 2016 are good signs for IndyCar's future.

On track, there is no mistaking Chevrolet's dominance despite Honda being gifted a mulligan and chance to catch up on aero kit developments during the previous offseason. I am not sure how Honda could have wasted an opportunity such as the one they were given. Honda won two races, only a third of its 2015 total when the Honda teams appeared really lost. The only races Honda didn't win where it appeared they should have won were Barber and Pocono and even if you gave Honda those victories it still would have had less than 2015. It had two drivers in the top ten of the championship.

There is no way you can spin 2016 as a positive step for Honda. It wasn't. Many fret over 2017 since aero kit development has been frozen before the 2018 universal kit is introduced but I think the Honda teams are going to be throwing things at the wall to gain ground on Chevrolet. This year alone it appeared the Hondas were sacrificing fuel efficient for speed at the ovals. That kind of bit their teams at Pocono as it allowed Will Power to work his way to victory but Honda needs to try everything it can. Since Chevrolet returned in 2012, the American manufacture has won 57 of 84 races, four of five drivers' championships and five of five manufactures' championships. Chevrolet wins two out of three races and if that continues in 2017, Honda would get five victories. Five victories aren't good enough.

I expect Honda and its teams to make up some ground next year but gaining ground on barely acceptable isn't saying much. I am not sure Honda can have a driver in championship contention late in 2017 unless Graham Rahal goes on another dream run or Andretti Autosport really takes a step forward but winning four or five races should be the minimum for Honda next season.

This was another year where the championship went to the final race, the 11th consecutive season of the title coming down to the wire. However, I don't think anyone would have been disappointed had Simon Pagenaud locked up the title at Watkins Glen. He was that good this season. The only time he put a wheel wrong was at Pocono. He had engine bugs bite him in the Indianapolis 500 and Road America. The only other mistake was running out of fuel in the first Belle Isle race, which dropped him from seventh to 13th. He was that good. Eventually an IndyCar season will see the champion decided before the final race. Double points kept Will Power alive for the Astor Cup and you had a half a dozen drivers competing for third in the championship and Juan Pablo Montoya jumped six positions from 14th to eighth, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but weighing two races heavier than the rest feels like it skews the championship a bit. Although, here is what the championship would have looked like had Indianapolis and Sonoma offered just a maximum of 54 points:

Simon Pagenaud- 570
Will Power- 470
Hélio Castroneves- 433
Graham Rahal- 420 (+1)
Scott Dixon- 419 (+1)
Josef Newgarden- 399 (-2)
Tony Kanaan- 396
Juan Pablo Montoya- 376
Charlie Kimball- 363
Ryan Hunter-Reay- 350 (+2)
Sébastien Bourdais- 347 (+1)
Carlos Muñoz- 343 (-2)
James Hinchcliffe- 331
Alexander Rossi- 327 (-3)
Mikhail Aleshin- 302
Conor Daly- 289 (+2)
Marco Andretti- 278 (-1)
Takuma Sato- 277 (-1)
Max Chilton- 226
Jack Hawksworth- 200
Spencer Pigot- 148
Gabby Chaves- 98

A handful of drivers would change positions but no one would have a drastic move. Alexander Rossi drops three positions as his success at Indianapolis and Sonoma wouldn't be as heavily weighed but Rossi dropping from 11th to 14th wouldn't have been that big of the deal. On the other end of things, Conor Daly, who retired from both Indianapolis and Sonoma would have two move positions in the championship as he wouldn't have lost nearly as many points to the rest of the field had those races been normal points. Once again, Daly moving from 18th to 16th isn't that big of a deal. Comparing the two championship tables, it is actually kind of surprising how similar the results would have been. It makes you wonder if double points are really that big of deal. Despite a few drivers voicing displeasure with double points, I don't see it going anywhere.

Now we wait for the first moves of silly season to be made. That deserves its own post and watch out for it in the next week or so. As great as it is to have IndyCar competing on track, this offseason is shaping up to be just as unpredictable.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Musings From the Weekend: 2016 IndyCar Review and Predictions Revisited

The final weekend of summer saw an IndyCar champion be crowned, Daniel Ricciardo left it all out on the race track and two Chases were set in Chicago while another was kicked off. Audi chocked like a dog in Austin. Johnny O'Connell crushed a teenagers dreams but a teenager had his day in the GTS class. A damaged Holden limbed home to victory in the Sundown 500. World Superbike raced for the first time in two months. Another champion was crowned at Nürburgring. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

2016 IndyCar Review
For the previous six seasons, IndyCar has felt like a football team stuck in mediocrity. The Randy Bernard-era was always painted in optimism and things got done. The ball got rolling on the DW12 chassis after years of series officials dragging their asses. Two new manufactures joined the series after years of Honda gulping down victories and championships to brag about on television commercials only to fail to tell the general public the success was from uncontested competitions. He brought back Milwaukee after a year hiatus. He got Loudon, Fontana and Pocono back on the schedule. He revived doubleheaders.

However the Randy Bernard-era was littered with hostility. He butted heads with team owners. Lotus flamed out as a manufacture. Milwaukee struggled to gain its footing. Loudon was one-and-done. The Las Vegas finale didn't go as planned. The aero kits were delayed multiple seasons. The tire bill went up. More teams left the series than joined. He burned bridges with Phoenix and had an attempt to race in China crumble on him in the 11th hour. Ultimately, he pissed off John Barnes and Chip Ganassi enough to get him sacked.

Enter Mark Miles. The veteran of running tennis and a Super Bowl committee came in and tried to be a visionary for IndyCar. He made a massive hack to the schedule. The October season finale at Fontana, which saw anywhere from 25,000-30,000 show up, was moved to the heat of Labor Day weekend and the crowd shrunk. The condensed schedule wore down teams. Miles promised international races to start the season and all he produced was a half-renovated race track in Brasilia and rumors about Dubai. Houston vanished. New Orleans came and went. Milwaukee died a second time. His Hail Mary for Fontana was to move the race to late-June and that fell to the ground like a dead duck. Boston was a clusterfuck.

But for all of Mark Miles stubbed toes, he got Phoenix and Road America back on the schedule. Watkins Glen became an emergency race to replace Boston. Gateway is returning next year. He made smart hires in Jay Frye and C.J. O'Donnell. He has been able to achieve 100% retention rate of a schedule from one year to the next. Aero kits were ushered in under the reign and while it wasn't a whopping success it was better to try aero kits than for aero kits to be put in the IndyCar box of headlines never to see the light of day like the Hawaiian Super Prix, the Falcon chassis and a half of dozen races in the Asian-Pacific.

And most importantly, ratings are improving under Mark Miles. They are incremental increases and aren't noticeable to the naked eye especially as it is still difficult for teams to stay in the series but IndyCar is on the right path to becoming a more desirable series for manufactures and sponsors. And Mark Miles has been able to calm a series that had been unstable for two decades. Has there been a calmer season than 2016? Maybe 2008 after reunification when everyone was still in the honeymoon phase but this season has been nothing but calm waters. Aero kits have been settled and no one has chewed Miles out for his decision. He has loosened his belief on the season ending by Labor Day and the schedule is now settled allowing IndyCar to plan for long-term growth. Maybe a third manufacture is in the works.

IndyCar, to me, has been a football team stuck at 8-8 for the last six years. The only difference between Bernard and Miles was Bernard won flashy, come-from-behind games and Miles won divisional games against the most despised opponents. If IndyCar was a football team, I think they went 10-6 this year, maybe even 11-5. It was a really good year but can they do it again in 2017 or will they fall back to 8-8 or take an even larger step back? With Jay Frye as Miles' right-hand man, IndyCar shouldn't take a drastic step back in 2017. If anything, IndyCar is more likely to make another step forward.

2016 IndyCar Predictions Revisited
Another season is in the bag and it is time to look at predictions made last December during the season of sugar cookies and gingerbread houses.

1. Hélio Castroneves Wins the 100th Indianapolis 500
Wrong! Although for a moment, after Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay took each other out and James Hinchcliffe faded and it became clear the race would come down to fuel mileage, it appeared Castroneves was lining up to steal the 100th Indianapolis 500 and join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears at the most exclusive table. There is always 2017 for Castroneves.

2. Honda Wins At Least Two Pole Positions
Correct! Honda won three pole positions this season and all on ovals. James Hinchcliffe won pole positions for the Indianapolis 500. His teammate Mikhail Aleshin took a surprising pole position at Pocono. Carlos Muñoz was the fastest qualifier at Texas. What amazes me is all of Honda's pole-sitters in 2016 were first time pole-sitters. I don't know if this shows Honda's lack of veteran presence or if these were just quick drivers finally breaking through. I will go with the latter. Hinchcliffe was a long-time coming. Muñoz has been a darling on ovals since his debut in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. Aleshin's bravery appears to have to no limit. Granted, three pole positions from 16 races isn't great but after getting shutout for an entire season, it is a step in the right direction. Now if only they could win a pole position on a road or street course.

3. James Hinchcliffe Finishes in the Top Ten in the Championship
Wrong! Unfortunately. Hinchcliffe fell from seventh after Mid-Ohio to 13th after Sonoma. Hell, he lost a position in the championship after finishing second at Texas. How does that happen? He seemed to have a much better season than 13th in the championship. Unfortunately, he ended up on a low note.

4. There Will Be Four Indianapolis 500 Rookies
Correct! Alexander Rossi, Max Chilton, Matthew Brabham, Spencer Pigot and Stefan Wilson all made their Indianapolis 500 debuts. We all know about Alexander Rossi's stunning victory. This was a pretty good rookie class but with how difficult it is to get a full-time race seat in IndyCar, I am not sure we will ever see the full potential of most of these drivers. Brabham lit the world on fire in the Road to Indy but he can't break through. Pigot turned three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing into seven races with Ed Carpenter Racing and he got two top ten finishes with a team he had no experience with before his first practice session with the team at Belle Isle. However, Pigot's future is still grey. IndyCar has quite a few drivers knocking on the door. Now someone needs to answer.

5. Conor Daly Finishes Worse Than 14th in the Championship
Correct! He finished 18th in the championship but his best race finish was second, he had two top five finishes and five top ten finishes. He finished behind Takuma Sato but I think we can all agree he had a better season than Sato and probably even Marco Andretti, who finished 16th in the championship. Hopefully he can build on his 2016 season next year.

6. Three Drivers That Didn't Win in 2015 Win in 2016
Wrong! Surprisingly wrong. There were only two new winners in 2016. One was Pagenaud; the other was Alexander Rossi. Who saw that coming?

7. At Least Three Races Will Be in the News For Not Returning in 2017
Wrong and I am glad. I am not sure we saw any stories headlined "Pocono's IndyCar Future in Doubt" or "Eddie Gossage Reconsidering IndyCar" or "Road America Disappointed With IndyCar's Return." We had the opposite of that and all 15 tracks from 2016 will return for 2017. That doesn't mean IndyCar is golden. Pocono, Texas and Iowa are all races that need work on the crowd. Sonoma could also be put in that boat. Phoenix needs to make gains after year one. Toronto is teeter tottering with a beat up race track and city infrastructure suffocating the roads of Exhibition Place and making it more difficult for an IndyCar race to take place there. This year wasn't so bad but 2017 could see our worst fears come to light.

8. There Will Be At Least Three Moments Where Race Control Leaves Us Scratching Our Heads
Wrong... I think? Other than the blend line kerfuffle at Long Beach and the interference penalties in qualifying at Watkins Glen, race control did a really good job not being the storyline in 2016.

9. There Will Be a Delayed Session at Boston
Umm... Boston never happened. So were any of its seasons ever "delayed?" Regardless, I think we are all happy IndyCar ended up at Watkins Glen instead of Boston.

10. Scott Dixon Breaks the Record for Most Consecutive Seasons With a Victory Before Texas
Correct! It took Scott Dixon two races to become the first driver to win a race in 12 consecutive seasons. He added his 40th victory at Watkins Glen and is now in sole possession of fourth all-time in IndyCar victories. Michael Andretti is two ahead of him. Third seemed destined to be his by this time next year.

11. At Least Two 2015 Championship Contenders at Sonoma Will Finish Outside the Top Eight
Wrong! Of the top six from 2015, only Juan Pablo Montoya finished outside the top eight and he finished ninth. The other five finished second through sixth in the championship this year. That is surprising.

12. There Will Be No Serious Injuries or Fatalities
I am not going to say Josef Newgarden's broken collarbone and fractured wrist aren't terrible injuries but he didn't miss any races and frankly, just from looking at the championship, you would never guess that Newgarden drove a handful of races with screws in his arm. I am counting this on in the correct column.

Champions From the Weekend
The #58 Garage 59 McLaren of Rob Bell, Shane Van Gisbergen and Côme Ledogar won the Blancpain Endurance Series championship despite not scoring points at the season finale at Nürburgring.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Simon Pagenaud but did you know...

Nico Rosberg won the Singapore Grand Prix and took the championship lead away from Lewis Hamilton.

The #1 Porsche of Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard won the 6 Hours of Circuit of the Americas, their third consecutive victory after the #7 Audi had an accident late in the race. The #36 Signatech Alpine of American Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Stéphane Richelmi won in LMP2 for the fourth time in 2016. Aston Martin swept the GTE classes with the #95 Dane Train of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sørensen won in GTE-Pro while the #98 of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda was victorious in GTE-Am.

Johnny O'Connell swept the Pirelli World Challenge GT races weekend at Sonoma with a last-lap pass on Austin Cindric. Nate Stacy and Brett Sandberg split the weekend in GTS.

The #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP of Ricky and Jordan Taylor won IMSA's leg of Lone Star Le Mans. The #8 Starworks Oreca of Renger van der Zande and Alex Popow won in PC. Earl Bamber and Frédéric Makowiecki won in GTLM driving the #912 Porsche. The #96 Turner Motorsport BMW of Jens Klingmann and Ben Curtis took top honors in GTD.

Martin Truex, Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race at Chicagoland. Erik Jones won the Grand National Series race. Kyle Busch won the Friday night Truck race.

The #16 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini of Rolf Ineichen, Christian Engelhart and Mirko Bortolotti won the Blancpain Endurance Series finale from Nürburgring.

Garth Tander and Warren Luff won Supercars' Sandown 500.

Chaz Davies and Jonathan Rea split the World Superbike races from Lausitzring. Kenan Sofuoglu won his third consecutive World Supersport race and fifth of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP will be in Aragón.
The second race of the Chase will be at Loudon.
European Le Mans Series returns to Spa-Francorchamps.
DTM's penultimate round of 2016 will be at the Hungaroring.
Super Formula heads to Sportsland SUGO.
Shanghai hosts WTCC.
The 4-Crown Nationals take place at Eldora Raceway.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

First Impressions: Sonoma 2016

1. Simon Pagenaud won the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship in style with a race victory at Sonoma. It was never in doubt this weekend. After his slip up at Pocono, it appeared the pressure may have been getting to him but he put the accident behind him, got a top five out of nowhere at Watkins Glen and drove a smart race at Watkins Glen while Will Power ended up in the barrier. Today, Pagenaud wanted to show his might. He wanted to show that there was no doubt he was the best driver of the 2016 season and he won from pole position and led 76 laps in the process. Will Power's engine failure made the final two-thirds of the race an exhibition of Pagenaud's strength.

For a few years, Pagenaud was a mystery man. He ran Champ Car in 2007 and then was left on the sidelines after reunification. He drove in ALMS, he drove for the factory Peugeot LMP1 program, he drove everything under the sun until he got a fewer IndyCar races as a substitute in 2011. He returned in 2012 with Sam Schmidt's team and he took a good team and made them great. He was fighting with the big boys despite a much smaller budget and fewer resources.

When Pagenaud joined Team Penske, it seemed like the beginning of the end. How could a team that had Pagenaud, Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and Hélio Castroneves not win 13-14 races a season? It didn't happen in 2015 when we all thought it would. This year, Pagenaud won five races, Power won four and Montoya won one. Pagenaud, Power and Castroneves went 1-2-3 in the championship, matching the feat accomplished by Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy in 1994. Team Penske's 50th anniversary couldn't have been better. Ok, a Indianapolis 500 victory would have been nice.

Pagenaud's years of waiting paid off. It is kind of similar to Ryan Hunter-Reay, who lost his ride in Champ Car, leaving his career in doubt. Pagenaud could have casted IndyCar off. He could have focused on sports cars and probably been in Austin this weekend driving for Porsche, Audi or Toyota. In a world where IndyCar is a shell of its former self and most are frustrated to barely be getting by despite succeeding in a "premier" motorsports series, Pagenaud could have gone elsewhere and have a much better living but he came back to IndyCar, became a must-have talent and is now champion.

2. Graham Rahal ended his 2016 season on a much higher note than 2015. He had another battle with Pagenaud but it wasn't Barber-esque. It was a hard earned second-place finish. Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are almost there but they need a second car and a second car is not cheap to run. If they could get Carlos Muñoz or Josef Newgarden or even Sébastien Bourdais (since he appears to be on the market) in, that team could take that next step. It was an impressive year nonetheless for the single-car team.

3. Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the podium and it was kind of symbolic. He was over 14 seconds behind Rahal and 11 seconds ahead of fourth-place. He was alone, just him and his thoughts in the closing laps. His career is at another crossroads. He has been successful but Penske doesn't want him anymore. IndyCar is in a state where Montoya won't just be paid to show up and drive. He is turning 41 years old in two days and will likely need to raise some money to keep his career going. Remember when we all thought Montoya would never come back to IndyCar? Now he doesn't want to leave. I don't think we want him to leave either.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay had his worst season since joining Andretti Autosport but ended with a fourth place finish. No victory, 12th in the championship and a handful of painful misses. Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Texas. He wasn't terrible. Heck, double points are making his season appear worse than it was. He has a long-term contract with Andretti Autosport until 2020. Can he perform a Pagenaud-esque rebound in 2017? He will need Andretti Autosport to improve.

5. Alexander Rossi ran out of fuel in the closing laps and finished fifth. He was ahead of Hunter-Reay most of this race. He improved greatly over the course of the season. He went from starting outside the top fifteen to constantly qualifying in the top ten. He was struggling for top ten finishes and was in contention for the top ten in almost every race at the end. He is Rookie of the Year, 11th in the championship and it appears Penske may be interested. If he goes, he will win. If he stays at Andretti, all he is guaranteed is question marks. Is Formula One still interested? Is anything across the pond worth it? Rossi had a really good rookie season. He and Montoya are at crossroads. Montoya has hindsight. He has gone down the same path Rossi is on. Rossi should pick his ear.

6. Josef Newgarden held on for sixth and finished fourth in the championship. It appeared Penske was his but Rossi might be the shiny, European-trained American to steal Newgarden's destiny. Newgarden wasn't always the American kid driving for the small, family-run team but he has taken on that moniker and if he could have one season without a handful of catastrophic results, he might have been in the championship fight today. Newgarden is proving Ed Carpenter Racing can fight for championships but that team isn't financially stable, other than Penske, which teams are? Newgarden isn't at a crossroads but a beach chair is in his future.

7. Hélio Castroneves finished seventh and got third in the championship. Was he really the third best driver in IndyCar this season? His season appeared to be lackluster. He was consistent but he can't boss a race like he once was able to. When will he lose that next tenth? When will he be struggling to get top ten finishes? Time is running out on Castroneves. Montoya appears to be on his way out. Castroneves can't be too far behind.

8. Marco Andretti got his second top ten finish of the season with an eighth. This was a rough season but he wasn't that far off. In how many races was Andretti on the edge of the top ten? He needs to improve. He needs to go back to driver coach. The high downforce aero kits haven't suited him like the much more forgiving Dallara aero kit. The Honda kit is going to be around for another season. Andretti needs to improve or 2017 will be even longer than 2016.

9. Charlie Kimball finished ninth and it was his 11th top ten finish of the season. He is the younger, American Hélio Castroneves except he doesn't have three Indianapolis 500 victories and we don't know about his history paying taxes. Kimball is at an age where I am not sure he can make that next step and go from a driver who can constantly bring the car home in a good position to constantly bringing the car home in the top five and being a championship threat. Kimball is a really good driver. Is became a great driver out of reach?

10. Sébastien Bourdais rounded out the top ten and ends the 2016 season with four consecutive top ten finishes. He joins Montoya and Rossi at a crossroads except he is in a similar position to Montoya. Bourdais turns 38 years old in February. KV was a good team for him but not good enough to get him back to fighting for the championship. Penske isn't calling. Ganassi isn't calling. Dale Coyne Racing reportedly is a step up for the Frenchman. He wants to stay in IndyCar. He wants to win more than just one race a year.

11. Mikhail Aleshin just missed the top ten with an 11th-place finish, just ahead of his teammate James Hinchcliffe. Aleshin had a good season but should he return for a third season in 2017, he is going to need to make a bigger step forward. Hinchcliffe had a disaster final two races. He went from surefire top ten finisher in the championship to 13th in the championship. His season was much better than that.

12. Tony Kanaan finished 13th after stalling in turn seven on lap one after spinning Alehsin. He had a really good year and unlike Castroneves, Kanaan is still showing he has the pace. Could he stay at Ganassi, could he move to Foyt? Kanaan has another year under his belt.

13. Takuma Sato finished what had to be his final race with A.J. Foyt Racing in 14th. Carlos Muñoz finished 15th but still ended up tenth in the championship, the best Andretti Autosport driver in the championship. Max Chilton was 16th, which was typical for him in 2016. Scott Dixon had a radio issue and he could only manage 17th. Jack Hawksworth didn't get a top ten in 2016 and was 18th. RC Enerson finished 19th but he had three impressive starts in 2016. You know about Will Power's engine issue that cost him a fight for the title. Conor Daly had exhaust problems and now his career is back in flux. Spencer Pigot had a gearbox issue end his race after 35 laps.

14. IndyCar has raced at Sonoma since 2005 and I think it is safe to say IndyCar mind as well try the NASCAR circuit because there is no way it could produce less exciting action than this course. We would lose the carousel but is one corner really worth it? Everything isn't long enough in this layout for passing. The straightaway to turn four isn't long enough. The straight into the turn nine section isn't long enough. The straightaway into the faux-hairpin isn't long enough. Just run the NASCAR circuit once. NASCAR turn four and the Chute might produce some really good action and run the actual hairpin. Sonoma could be a much better track if it just used what it has instead of running some half-assed hairpin. I can't believe IndyCar and Sonoma Raceway aren't as bothered with the racing as the rest of us.

15. I didn't mind the start time of this race. It was after the 1:00 p.m. ET NFL games and most of the 4:05 p.m. ET games were near over. The crowd was better than I thought. It was on par with other past Sonoma races. I have to imagine it is a tough sell considering the race didn't end until almost 6:00 p.m. local time and if you are coming from the Sacramento-area, you might be lucky to get home by 8:30 p.m. tonight. Sonoma will be the season finale in 2017 and I expect the race to be the same time. I am sure the track will talk it over this autumn and winter and crunch numbers and watch how renewals go and by next year's Indianapolis 500 have an idea whether or not they will want Sonoma to be in the middle of September come 2018.

16. The season is over. It didn't feel as short as 2015 but didn't feel like it was very long. Maybe it was in the Goldilocks-zone of being just the right length. Maybe a race or two in autumn would also be just right. We will review 2016 over the next couple of months and wait patiently to find out what driver is heading where and hold our breath that no teams fold or sponsors bail.

17. There are 175 days until the 2017 IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg.

Morning Warm-Up: Sonoma 2016

Simon Pagenaud is a step closer to hoisting the Astor Cup
Simon Pagenaud started his potential coronation weekend with a valuable pole position. The Frenchman took the top spot and one championship point with his final lap of the qualifying session, a 76.2565-second lap. He set the Sonoma track record in the first round of qualifying with a lap at 76.2530 seconds. This was Pagenaud's seventh pole position of the season and ninth of his career. This is the 23rd time a driver has won at least seven pole positions in a season. He has won from three of his six pole positions this season entering Sonoma. The last driver to win four races from pole position in a season was Will Power in 2011. Joining Pagenaud on row two will be his teammate Hélio Castroneves. This is Castroneves' first front row start at Sonoma since 2011. He finished second in that race. He has seven runner-up finishes since his last victory at Belle Isle in 2014.  

Juan Pablo Montoya starts third for the fourth time this season. He won from third on the grid at Phoenix, finished ninth from third at Phoenix and finished third from third in the first Belle Isle race. After leading 100 laps in the first two races of the season, Montoya led 23 laps in last 13 races. He has led in the last two natural terrain road course races. Will Power rounds out the sweep of the top four by Team Penske. After Pagenaud's pole position, Power trails the Frenchman by 44 points. This will be the worst starting position of Power's career at Sonoma. His previous worst starting position at the track was third in 2008 and 2013. He finished 25th in the 2008 race and won in 2013. Power has won three times in his career from fourth in the grid including at Toronto earlier this season. 

Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay round out an all-Honda row three. This was the fifth time this season Graham Rahal made the Fast Six session, the most of any Honda driver. It was Hunter-Reay third time making the session this season. In all previous four appearances by Rahal he ended up finishing in the top ten. This is Rahal's first top five starting position since Pocono last year. This is Hunter-Reay's first top ten starting position since starting fourth at Mid-Ohio. He finished 18th after having a refueling issue and needing to conserve fuel to make the end of the race. Hunter-Reay has finished second the last two years at Sonoma. He finished second in 2014 from tenth on the grid. He has led nine laps in nine starts at Sonoma. 

Scott Dixon just missed out on the final round of qualifying after having to change brakes before the second round of qualifying. The New Zealander and winner of the last two Sonoma races will start seventh. His victory from ninth last year is the furthest back any driver has won from at Sonoma. Alexander Rossi's eighth-place effort in qualifying gave him his best career start on a road/street course. He has started in the top ten in three of the last four races but has only one top ten finish in the previous three races. The only other time Rossi made it to the second round of qualifying was Mid-Ohio where he started 12th and finished 14th. 

Sébastien Bourdais qualified ninth and will start in the top ten for consecutive races for only the second time in 2016. He enters with three consecutive top ten finishes and goes for four consecutive top ten finishes for the first time since 2013 with Dragon Racing. Josef Newgarden rounds out the top ten. He has finished outside the top twenty in three of four Sonoma starts. Mikhail Aleshin and Charlie Kimball will start on row six. Aleshin has finished in the top ten in both his Sonoma starts. Kimball is ninth in the championship, which would match his career-best. He has finished sixth in the last two races. 

Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti both barely missed out on the second round of qualifying and they will start on row seven. Kanaan went from 11th to fourth in last year's race. Andretti was fastest in the final practice session. He matches his best start of the season on a road/street course, which came in the season opener at St. Petersburg. Takuma Sato starts 15th with Carlos Muñoz on his outside in 16th. Sato's average finish in the last three races is 19.667 after finishing fifth and ninth at Toronto and Mid-Ohio in consecutive races and from 20th on the grid in both races. Muñoz has started on row eight or worse in eight of 16 races in 2016. 

Jack Hawksworth and Max Chilton will start on row nine. This is the fourth time the two British drivers have started on the same row. Chilton is coming off his second top ten finish of the season while Hawksworth is still looking for his first top ten of 2016 and will try to avoid being shut out in the top ten column at Sonoma. Hawksworth has finished 15th and 19th in his two Sonoma starts. Chilton makes his Sonoma debut. Spencer Pigot starts 19th for the final race of his rookie season and James Hinchcliffe joins him on row ten. Pigot finished seventh at Mid-Ohio from 19th on the grid. Hinchcliffe had qualified in the top ten in his four previous Sonoma starts. Dale Coyne Racing's Conor Daly and RC Enerson will start on the final row. Daly began the year by starting 21st at St. Petersburg. Enerson won at Sonoma in 2014 driving in U.S. F2000. 

NBCSN's coverage of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 6:50 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 85 laps.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Track Walk: Sonoma 2016

After 15 races, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power battle for the Astor Cup
The final round of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season takes place at Sonoma Raceway for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Simon Pagenaud and Will Power are the last two drivers standing in the battle of the Astor Cup.  Pagenaud leads Power by 43 points after the Frenchman held on for seventh at Watkins Glen while Power's race ended in the barrier after contact with Charlie Kimball. Pagenaud is chasing his first title while Power looks for his second in three years. Last year, Power finished third in the championship behind Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya while Simon Pagenaud finished 11th.

Time: Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday September 18th. Green flag at 6:50 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN.
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee, Jon Beekhuis, Kate Hargitt and Robin Miller will work the pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m. ET (75 minutes).
Second Practice: 5:45-7:00 p.m. ET (75 minutes).
Final Practice: 2:00-3:15 p.m. ET (75 minutes. NBCSN will show the session tape-delayed at 5:00 p.m. ET).
Qualifying: 6:05 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage of this session).
Warm-Up: 10:30-11:00 a.m. ET (30 minutes).
Race: 6:50 p.m. ET (85 laps).

The Scenarios
If Simon Pagenaud finishes fourth-place or better, he will be champion regardless of what Will Power does and how many points he scores.

If Simon Pagenaud finishes in fifth-place and Will Power wins the race, he will need Power to score at least three bonus points to be champion.

Will Power must finish in the top five to have a shot at the championship or finish sixth while scoring maximum points if Pagenaud finishes in last place and gets no bonus points.

Simon Pagenaud currently holds the tiebreaker. Both drivers have four victories but Pagenaud has three second-place finishes to Power's two. If Power finishes second and ends up tied with Pagenaud on points, Power would be champion with both drivers equal on victories and second-place finishes and Power having one third-place finish to Pagenaud's zero.

Pagenaud vs. Power – Tale of the Tape
Simon Pagenaud started the season with five consecutive podiums including three consecutive victories heading into the Indianapolis 500. He became the first driver with five podiums to open the season since Sébastien Bourdais in 2006. After engine problems in the Indianapolis 500 held Pagenaud to only a 19th and running out of fuel in the first Belle Isle race dropped him to 13th, he rounded out the first half of the IndyCar season with his sixth podium from eight races after a second in the second Belle Isle race.

Pagenaud's second half of the season started off with an engine blip keeping the Frenchman from what seemed to be a surefire podium to a 13th-place finish. He would recover with a fourth at Iowa and a less-than-stellar but satisfying ninth at Toronto. He got back to the top step of the podium after a hard fought battle with Will Power that saw the teammates touch on what ultimately ended up being the pass for the victory. His streak of running at the finish of 23 consecutive races ended at Pocono in the turn one wall but he was a late charger at Texas and ended up fourth when it appeared he was looking at best a seventh-place finish. At Watkins Glen, Pagenaud failed to make the final round of qualifying for the first time all season but was in the top five before the end of lap one and ahead of Power after the first round of pit stops. He would settle for seventh while Power's race ended prematurely.

Will Power's season started with a pole position but an inner-ear infection kept him from starting the first race of the season and led to Oriol Servià substituting for the Australian. He made his season debut at Phoenix and ended up on the podium in third. At Long Beach, he was stuck in the middle of the top ten all day and fell to seventh. He had a better showing at Barber with a fourth-place finish but took a step back at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis where he started tenth and spun early after being challenged by Alexander Rossi. All Power could manage was 19th. A penalty for unsafe release from the pit lane set him back in the Indianapolis 500 but he went 36 laps on his final stint and finished tenth. A loose wheel nut ended Power's first Belle Isle race prematurely but he rebounded with a victory in the second race.

The Belle Isle victory was the start of six consecutive podiums for Power. He dominated the Road America race, leading 46 of 50 laps from pole position. He charged to second at the end of Iowa ahead of Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud. Power had great fortune at Toronto, pitting just before a caution and it vaulted him to the victory. He couldn't hold off Pagenaud at Mid-Ohio but he held on for second. At Pocono, Power's car improved with each lap and he went from a driver who was looking at an eighth-place finish to race winner. Power's car didn't improve as the race went on at Texas like it did at Pocono and all he could manage was eighth. He started ahead of Pagenaud at Watkins Glen but after falling behind after pit stops, Power was chasing his teammate and ended up falling to the clutches of the rest of the field and ended up in the barrier after contact with Charlie Kimball exiting the esses.

Entering Sonoma, Power is tied with Scott Dixon on victories at the track with three. He has five top ten finishes in six starts at the track and his worst starting position at the track is third. He has won five pole positions at Sonoma. Power has led at least 16 laps in the last six Sonoma races. Pagenaud has five starts at Sonoma with his best finish being third in 2014. He has two top five finishes and three top ten finishes. Last year, Pagenaud finished a career-worst 16th at Sonoma after starting a career-best fourth at the track. He has never led a lap at the track.

Battle For Third
Any driver third through 14th in the championship has a mathematical possibility to finish third in the championship behind Pagenaud and Power and four drivers could actually jump Power for second in the championship. Third through eighth in the championship are covered by 49 points.

Scott Dixon is level on points with Hélio Castroneves for third in the championship on 451 points. Dixon owns the tiebreaker with two victories while Castroneves is approaching two and a half seasons since his most recent IndyCar victory. Dixon has won the last two Sonoma races and won last year's race from ninth on the grid, the furthest starting position on the grid a Sonoma winner has started from. Dixon and Power are tied for best average finish at Sonoma of drivers that have made at least three starts at 6.7. Castroneves' average finish at Sonoma is 9.1 but his last two finishes there is 18th and 15th. He has led 51 laps at the track and all those came in his 2008 victory.

A second-place at Watkins Glen has moved Josef Newgarden into fifth in the championship and he looks for a career-best finish in the championship. He trails Dixon and Castroneves by five points He has four podiums this season and he finished in the top ten on all natural-terrain road courses except for the IMS road course where he finished 21st. In four Sonoma starts, Newgarden's best finish is sixth and he has three finishes outside the top twenty. He has started on the front row the last two years. Tony Kanaan has 427 points after he suffered his second-worst finish of the 2016 at Watkins Glen after suspension issues. He won the 2005 Sonoma race and his average starting position and average finish are equal at 9.3. His fourth-place finish last year came after two consecutive 13th-place finishes.

One point separates Graham Rahal and Carlos Muñoz for seventh in the championship with Rahal on 403 points. All seven of Rahal's top ten finishes have been top five finishes while Muñoz is level with Rahal on top ten finishes but has two podiums, which are his only top five finishes this season. Rahal finished in the top ten in four of his first five Sonoma starts but he has finished outside the top ten in the last three Sonoma races. Muñoz's two finishes at Sonoma are 19th and 22nd but has completed 169 of 170 laps.

Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, Sébastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya are covered by 26 points. Kimball has six top tens in the last nine races but hasn't finished in the top five since Indianapolis. Hinchcliffe had five consecutive top ten finishes before running out of fuel at Watkins Glen and stopping on track on the final lap. Rossi leads the Rookie of the Year standings and finished eighth at Watkins Glen. Bourdais and Hunter-Reay are tied on 364 points. Bourdais has two top fives in the last three races. Hunter-Reay has one top ten finish in the last six races. Montoya hasn't finished on the podium since his third at the first Belle Isle race.

Rookie of the Year Battle
The 2016 IndyCar Rookie of the Year will either be Alexander Rossi or Conor Daly. Rossi sits on 370 points with Daly sitting on 295 points. If Rossi doesn't start, Daly needs to finish first or second to surpass Rossi in the championship. If Rossi starts at Sonoma, Daly has to win the race to pass him in the championship. If Daly does win the Sonoma race, Rossi has to finish 15th or better if Daly scores the maximum 104 points or 103 points. If Daly only scores 102 points or 101 points, Rossi will have to finish 16th or better.

Last Chance Saloon
This is the final chance for a driver to tally a victory in 2016. Castroneves, Kanaan, Muñoz, Kimball, Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay and Aleshin are all the drivers in the top fifteen of the championship who have yet to win this season and three of those drivers won a race in 2015.

We know about Castroneves' drought but Kanaan has gone over two years since his last victory (Fontana 2014). His Sonoma victory in 2005 is his only victory on a natural-terrain road course while his only street circuit victory was Belle Isle in 2007. Kanaan is coming off a 19th-place finish at Watkins Glen. Only two of Kanaan's 17 IndyCar victories have come in races after finishing outside the top fifteen. His first career victory at Michigan in 1999 came after an accident at Toronto dropped him to 17th. His Indianapolis 500 victory in 2013 followed a 21st-place finish in São Paulo.

Like Kanaan, Muñoz has two podiums this season, one on an oval and the other on a natural-terrain road course. He led three laps at Watkins Glen, the first laps he has led on a natural-terrain road course and the second time he has ever led on a road/street circuit, the other time of course being his victory at Belle Isle last year. Kimball could fail to finish on the podium in a season for the first time since his rookie year in 2011. He finished third last year at Sonoma after his previous best finish at the track was 20th.

Hinchcliffe has two top ten finishes in four Sonoma starts and he had started in the top ten in all four of those starts. He did finish third at Sonoma in Indy Lights in 2010. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has won at least one race in the last three seasons. Hunter-Reay is in danger of having his first winless season since 2009 when he split it between Vision Racing and AJ Foyt Racing. His best finish that year was second in the season opener at St. Petersburg. Hunter-Reay has finished second at Sonoma the last two years and he was fastest in the test at Sonoma last week. Aleshin has made two starts at Sonoma and has finished seventh and tenth in those respective races. Pocono is the only other tracks the Russian has multiple top ten finishes.

Conor Daly, Marco Andretti, Takuma Sato, Max Chilton, Jack Hawksworth, Spencer Pigot and RC Enerson are all also looking for their first victory of the 2016 season. Andretti and Sato are the only two of those seven drivers with IndyCar victories. Andretti is the only driver to score his first career victory at Sonoma.

Pirelli World Challenge
The penultimate round of the Pirelli World Challenge season takes place this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

In GT, Wright Motorsports Porsche's Patrick Long took the championship lead by 23 points over K-PAX Racing McLaren's Álvaro Parente after Long scored a pair of third-place finishes in Utah while Parente failed to finish in the top ten at either race. Cadillac's Michael Cooper trails Long by 65 points and Cooper's teammate, four-time defending PWC GT champion Johnny O'Connell is 162 points behind Long in fourth. RealTime Racing Acura's Ryan Eversley rounds out the top five in the championship, 202 points behind Long.

Nissan's Bryan Heitkotter swept the Utah weekend and jumped up to sixth in the championship, 36 points behind Eversley. CRP Racing Audi's Kyle Marcelli is 100 points behind Eversley and Team Absolute Bentley's Adderly Fong is eighth in the championship, nine points behind Marcelli after a pair of second-place finishes at Utah. James Davison returns to competition after being suspended for Utah. He is ninth in the championship. Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing McLaren's Jon Fogarty rounds out the top ten in championship. K-PAX's Austin Cindric and Calvert Dynamic Porsche's Michael Lewis are just outside the top ten.

There will be two additionally entries in GT as Alex Job Racing has entered two Porsches for Gunnar Jeannette and GT-A's Cooper MacNeil. This team is moving over from IMSA after displeasure in balance of performance in the GT Daytona class.

The first GT race will be at 4:45 p.m. ET on Saturday and with the second race at 4:15 p.m. ET on Sunday.

In the GTS class, KTM driver Brett Sandberg leads the championship with 1,280 points, 66 points ahead of Blackdog SpeedShop Camaro's Lawson Aschenbach. Ginetta driver Parker Chase is 135 points behind Sandberg. Roush Racing Ford's Nathan Stacy is the final driver in championship contention, 167 points behind Sandberg. Lotus driver Scott Dollahite rounds out the top five in the championship on 980 points.

SIN driver Scott Heckert won the most recent race at Utah and he is now sixth in the championship ahead of Jack Roush, Jr., who has withdrawn from two of the last three rounds. Maserati driver Mark Klenin, Blackdog's Tony Gaples and KTM driver Martin Barkey round out the top ten of the championship. KTM driver Anthony Mantella won the first race from Utah.

GTS will race at 7:50 p.m. ET on Saturday and 1:15 p.m. ET on Sunday.

Fast Facts
This will be in first IndyCar race held on September 18th since 2011 when Scott Dixon won the final race at Twin Ring Motegi and the only time IndyCar used the road course at Twin Ring Motegi after the oval was damaged from the earthquake that hit Japan earlier than year.

Chevrolet has won all four Sonoma races since returning to IndyCar in 2012.

Since the Sonoma race was extended to 85 laps in 2012, all races have taken over two hours to complete.

Team Penske will win its 13th driver championship this year.

Simon Pagenaud became the 11th driver since 1946 to open a season with at least five consecutive podium finishes. Of the previous 10 drivers to do it, only Bill Holland in 1947 failed to win the championship. Holland finished second in the 1947 championship to Ted Horn by 310 points.

Will Power has led 276 of 567 laps at Sonoma.

Scott Dixon has completed 884 of 885 possible laps since Sonoma returned to the schedule in 2005.

Since returning to the IndyCar calendar in 2005, all 11 Sonoma races have been won by Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing or Andretti Autosport.

Juan Pablo Montoya won at Sonoma in 2007 driving in the NASCAR Cup Series. He could join Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart as the only drivers to win at a track in the NASCAR Cup series and IndyCar. Gurney won in both at Riverside, Foyt at Ontario and Stewart at Loudon. Sam Hornish, Jr. won at Phoenix in IndyCar and NASCAR's Grand National Series.

Dan Gurney and Marco Andretti are the only American drivers to win at Sonoma in IndyCar.

The average starting position for a Sonoma winner is 2.833 with a median of 2.5.

The average number of lead changes in a Sonoma race is 5.583 with a median of six. The last two Sonoma races have featured a record ten lead changes.

The average number of cautions in a Sonoma race is 3.09 with a median of three. The average number of caution laps is 9.727 with a median of ten.

Possible Milestones:
Simon Pagenaud could become the third French driver to win a IndyCar championship joining Gaston Chevrolet and Sébastien Bourdais.

Will Power could become the 23rd multi-IndyCar champion.

Hélio Castroneves needs to lead 12 laps to reach the 5,600 laps led milestone.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 1 lap to reach the 4,900 laps led milestone.

Tony Kanaan needs to lead 4 laps to reach the 4,000 laps led milestone.

Sébastien Bourdais needs to lead 43 laps to reach the 2,500 laps led milestone.

Juan Pablo Montoya needs to lead 24 laps to reach the 2,400 laps led milestone.

Marco Andretti needs to lead 10 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Josef Newgarden needs to lead 21 laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 58 laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead 59 laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

Takuma Sato needs to lead 64 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone.

Should he take the green flag, Charlie Kimball will be making his 100th IndyCar start.

Simon Pagenaud wins the championship in style with a race victory. Will Power finishes on the podium. Josef Newgarden jumps Hélio Castroneves in the championship standings. Spencer Pigot gets a top ten finish. Sébastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay jump into the top ten of the championship. There will be a caution for an incident in turn two. Both Dale Coyne Racing cars will go off strategy and it will only work for one of the teams. Sleeper: Alexander Rossi.