Friday, April 30, 2021

Best of the Month: April 2021

How has a month changed things? IndyCar has started. Formula One is in Europe. NASCAR has cracked the double digits in terms of races. We have had our Floridian endurance races. Our European endurance races are just ahead of us. Motorcycles are in action. Junior series are in action. For the next six months we will be enveloped in motorsports. Isn't it lovely? 

A Look at the First-Third
We are at the end of April and a third of the year is already complete. Where does the time go? 

As spring begins to settle in, and winter should be clear for at least another eight months, the motorsports season also begins to bloom, but plenty events took place over these last four months and I think this is a good time to look back at some of the highlights from this period.

We need to look at the drivers who are standing out, the races that remain in our heads and the moments that left us breathless with excitement. 

Top races:

Mazda MX-5 Cup races from Daytona
For the better part of the last decade, I have been saying the best races are on two-wheels and spec Miatas and little did we know the early gem of 2021 would be MX-5 Cup's maiden trip to Daytona International Speedway. 

Nestled into the 24 Hours of Daytona weekend, MX-5 Cup put on not one, but two, incredible races. The first race saw a four-car pack breakaway from the field before a late caution brought the field together for a dash to the line. The two-lap sprint was full of passes all over the place and Gresham Wagner took the victory despite dropping back to 12th at one point in the race. The top seven finishes were covered by 0.399 seconds and less than a second covered the top ten, and this was on the Daytona road course!

And then the second race happened! This saw another breakaway with Wagner leading Michael Carter and Jared Thomas. When an accident occurred in the infield section in the final minutes, Carter made his move on the outside of Wagner off of oval turn two and he completed the pass before the caution came out, giving Carter the victory.

Those two races were great, and neither is the closest finish of the MX-5 Cup season! We will get to that.

24 Hours of Daytona
The main event for that January weekend at Daytona, the 24 Hours was a stunning battle where any of the Daytona Prototype international entries could have taken the victory. 

Cadillac looked ready for a fifth-consecutive victory. The #31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac led early. Chip Ganassi Racing was threatening in its prototype return with the #01 Cadillac. Even the #5 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac led over 100 laps. However, Wayne Taylor Racing, now fielding an Acura, stayed in the mix over the entire race, even though Acura's endurance race record was shoddy. 

The #31 Cadillac had mechanical issues in the middle of the night and the #5 Cadillac was knocked out after an accident. 

This set up a three-car fight between the #10 WTR Acura, the #01 Ganassi Cadillac and the "all-star" #48 Cadillac of Kamui Kobayashi, Simon Pagenaud, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller. The #01 Cadillac lost a rear tire while leading but kept the car on track and in the fight. This gave the #10 Acura the lead, but the Cadillacs remained close. Ganassi appeared set for a late charge until another tire failure in the final hour knocked the team out of contention. 

The #48 Cadillac made a late run for it but Wayne Taylor Racing would pull out its fourth consecutive 24 Hours of Daytona victory.

Diriyah ePrix Race two
Formula E has its detractors, and some of its problems are self-inflicted, but it can put on a smashing race from time to time. The second race of the opening weekend from Saudi Arabia was one of those examples. 

Sam Bird and Robin Frijns went toe-to-toe for the entire race, each making daring passes on one another. Meanwhile, defending champion António Félix da Costa was making up ground from ninth on the grid and he made some audacious moves. Da Costa even got into a physical battle with teammate Jean-Éric Vergne.

Bird and Frijns separated from the field, but the battles within the top ten never stopped. Unfortunately, this race was ended prematurely when Alex Lynn flipped on lap 26, within the final five minutes of the race. Lynn was unharmed, and while it was disappointing not to see this race go the distance, it was one of the best races in the series still short history.

Top racers:

Shane van Gisbergen
The Supercars Championship was going to see a shakeup this season as reigning three-time champion Scott McLaughlin moved to IndyCar. The void McLaughlin was quickly filled with fellow New Zealander van Gisbergen. 

The Kiwi opened the season sweeping the two sprint races around Bathurst, but van Gisbergen was hurt in a mountain biking accident between the opening round and Sandown. He would miss the GT World Challenge Australia season opener at Phillip Island due to a fractured collarbone. Two weeks after that accident, van Gisbergen showed up to Sandown and ended up 17th on the grid for the first race.

A great start saw van Gisbergen pick up four spots quickly. He continued his charged to the front and found himself in the top five in the closing laps. While the top three battled for the top spot, van Gisbergen closed in, making stellar a pass to go from fourth to second with three laps to go. A smart couple of corners brought him side-by-side with Cameron Waters at the start of the final lap. Van Gisbergen took the lead into turn one and pulled away for the victory

Van Gisbergen would go on to sweep the Sandown weekend, win the first race at Symmons Plains to extend his streak to six consecutive victories and he closed that weekend out with a second and a sixth. He currently leads the Supercars championship with 865 points, 139 points clear of teammate Jamie Whincup. Oh... and van Gisbergen won his first race back in GT World Challenge Australia competition at Bathurst.

Cooper Webb
It isn't official, but Webb has one hand on his second Supercross championship entering the finale at Salt Lake City. Webb has been the best rider all season. In most races, he can find another level and close out in the final five minutes while others begin to fatigue. 

The KTM rider has seven victories, including a few late charges to beat championship rival Ken Roczen. That tipped the championship. While Webb has been riding at a level that saw him run off eight consecutive podium finishes in the middle of the season and 12 from the first 16 races, Roczen lacked that sharpness over the entire season. There is still the Motocross season to come. 

Denny Hamlin
Though he has not won a race yet, Hamlin has eight top five finishes from ten NASCAR Cup races this season. He is 87 points clear of Martin Truex, Jr. in the championship and 100 points clear of Ryan Blaney in fifth. He is 229 points clear of the cutline for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. 

He will likely win a race at some point. He will likely win a handful, but he is currently the only driver to average a top ten finish through the first ten races. He is on pace for 28 top five finishes. None of it really matters in the current NASCAR format, but no one has been close to Hamlin's consistency this season. 

Fabio Quartararo
It is hard to gauge people at the end of April because most championships are only a few rounds in. Last year, Quartararo won the opening two MotoGP races and then fell off the face of the planet. This year he has won two of the first three races and leads the championship.

I know it is early and we should be sheepish about the Frenchman after last season, but he deserves credit for bouncing back. It is a long season. Yamaha is bound to have some off races. We could see it all unravel a second time, but as of today, Quartararo deserves praise. 

Top passes:

It was already a three-car battle in the closing laps of Supercars' third race of the season. With Chaz Mostert leading, Cameron Waters and Jamie Whincup traded shots in the waning laps. Waters took the lead on the front straightaway with three laps to go. Mostert and Whincup continued to battle for second.

As these three fought, van Gisbergen closed in and he saw an opening on the inside of turn two. With Mostert and Whincup side-by-side, van Gisbergen took advantage and on the exit into the left-handed turn three he was able to slide ahead of Mostert, into second position, and continue his run to the lead. 

It could have ended in disaster. He could have driven Mostert off the road. It was a clean pass and one he did with a broken collarbone! 

As Sam Bird took the lead from Robin Frijns, the Techeetah drivers António Félix da Costa and Jean-Éric Vergne went side-by-side for third into turn 18. 

This battle continued through the next four corners. Somehow, the teammate remained side-by-side without it all going horribly wrong. Vergne took the outside and edged ahead of da Costa. In turn 21, da Costa had the inside and made notable contact with Vergne, sliding the Frenchman, but Vergne was able to gather it and keep it straight. The two remained side-by-side on the main straightaway but Vergne had the inside and da Costa had to back out. Third went to the Frenchman. 

Unfortunately, because the race ended under the red flag and Vergne had yet to activate his second attack mode, he had a 24-second penalty and dropped from third to 12th. But it was a great pass, and I am not going to let regulations take away what was a great battle.

I am not sure we can call it a pass, but we need to recognize the final lap of the MX-5 Cup's third race of the season from Sebring. 

Gresham Wagner took the white flag in the lead before he went wide in turn one and dropped to third after an off-road excursion in turn four. Michael Carter took the lead but did not drive into the sunset. Selin Rollan remained on Carter's bump and Wagner was able to close back on the top two. 

Heading down the Ullman Straight, Carter swung wide and Rollan took the lead until Wagner went deep into the final corner and ended up in front. Wagner's deep corner forced him wide and coming to the checkered flag, Rollan got to Wagner's inside. Carter had an exceptional exit off the final corner and was able to get to the inside of Rollan. 

The cars were three-wide coming to the line and Rollan in the middle won the race by 0.001 seconds over Carter, to his right along the pit lane wall, and by 0.013 seconds over Wagner on his outside. 

I can't say there was one pass that stood out. The entire lap was incredible. 

Other encouraging moments:
Not everything fits into a category but here are some other good things that happened so far in 2021.

Marc Márquez is back!
After the final 13 races of 2020 and the first two races of 2021, Márquez returned at Portimão. He qualified a respectable sixth and though he finished seventh, he was the top finishing Honda. I expect he will have some rough days and it will take him a few races to get into shape. It would be crazy to suggest he will win five consecutive races at some point this year and take the championship, but I bet he will win a race at some point and be competitive to the rest of the field. 

Formula One might have a championship battle?
There have only been two races, but the victory column has a tally for both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen and Hamilton has a one-point lead over Verstappen thanks to fastest lap at Imola. 

There is a lot of time left in this season and if Hamilton went on a nine-race winning streak to the summer break no one would be surprised, but everyone is excited about the possibility of it being Mercedes vs. Red Bull, Hamilton vs. Verstappen for 23 races. It has been a long time since we have seen the championship ebb and flow between two different teams. We are due but nothing is guaranteed. 

The concerns:
While a lot of positive events and moments have happened, we need to look a few less fun things from the last four months. 

Another Year Without a Canadian Grand Prix
The pandemic continues to cause headaches for the motorsports world and the Canadian Grand Prix will be cancelled for the second consecutive season. Montreal is one of the best venues for Formula One and border restrictions made it impossible for Formula One to enter the country.

It hasn't just been Formula One. IMSA moved its Mosport round to Watkins Glen and the IndyCar race from Toronto could be the next to fall off the calendar. There is also a NASCAR Truck race at Mosport that is uncertain. Things have been improving over the last few months, but we are not in the clear yet and calendar amendments will continue throughout the year. 

No Superbike at Phillip Island
Like Canada and Formula One, the World Superbike championship will not return to Phillip Island in 2021 but plans on returning for 2022. Any time you lose a motorcycle race at Phillip Island it is a bad day. Fingers are crossed MotoGP will be able to visit the circuit in autumn.

Hypercar's Weary Debut
The long-awaited Hypercar class is still in its debut weekend at Spa-Francorchamps but the opening few days have been eye-opening. Hypercars are mixed in with the LMP2 cars, which had been purposely slowed so the Hypercars would end up on top. Everyone is unsure of what to do. The LMP2 cars have already been slowed significantly. Toyota isn't happy. Balance of Performance will likely come into play. This is still developing. Let's wait and see how it turns out. I bet someone will be upset.

May Preview
I have to say it doesn't feel like May is walking through the door tomorrow. It doesn't feel like an Indianapolis 500 is approaching. It doesn't feel familiar. 

I can't put my finger on it. It could be the delayed and condensed start to the IndyCar season. Three weekends and four races? There hasn't been time to think about the Indianapolis 500. Add to it the IndyCar grid has a striking amount of talent. The reigning three-time Supercars champion has joined the series. One of three men to win seven NASCAR Cup championships has joined the series. A driver with over 100 Formula One starts and who just walked away from one of the most horrifying accidents in recent memory has joined the series. 

Oh... and the series already has a 50-time race winner who is fresh off his sixth championship, a two-time champion driving for Team Penske, possibly the greatest qualifier in series history, a 21-year-old American driver that comes off 15 years older than his age and to wrap it up there are another three past series champions and four past Indianapolis 500 winners and that is not including the other three past Indianapolis 500 winners who are only part-time and two of those three also have a series championship and one also happens to be the greatest driver of his generation. 

IndyCar is becoming bigger than the Indianapolis 500 again. I think we are going to need another split. Things are going too well in IndyCar. We need chaos! We need turmoil! Someone must come in and ruin it before IndyCar capitalizes on it! 

We have been living through this pandemic for 13 months now and I am sure I am not alone in saying I have returned to "normal" yet. A lot of things have been getting better. Life has become easier in the last few months, but it is still not normal. I am still off, and it is ok to feel this way. When the world goes on lockdown for two or three months it is not going to return to business as usual in quick time. We are still adjusting and maybe in six months we will feel our lives have gotten back on track. It could be longer than that, but it is ok if you are still off from where you were and where you want to be. 

While there have been improvements, life is still difficult. Some of us have lost jobs, others have seen significant shifts in our professional lives. I am sure some of us went from settled with clearly mapped out long-term plans to everyday feeling like our jobs could disappear and being left with further uncertainty. I am in that boat. That could be a reason why it doesn't feel like an Indianapolis 500 is approaching. There is too much else to be concerned about. 

Despite these concerns, I have been able to find joy in life. I was able to have a lovely Christmas. Super Bowl Sunday still had three pounds of wings and other snacks. When the NCAA tournament started, I was able to fall back immersing myself into four consecutive days of basketball over that final weekend. Each round was compelling. As work has opened up, I have been able to see people for the first time in over a year and the best part of it was it hadn't felt like that long even though the calendar said differently. Seeing these people was not a change in my life but a continuation of my life, though a significantly delayed continuation.  

I am sure the Indianapolis 500 will feel the same way. I am sure once Texas is behind us and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis approaches and practice week begins it will start to feel familiar, perhaps even normal.

Other events of note in May:
Monaco is back! 
Formula E will run the full Monaco circuit for the first time. 
NASCAR will race at Darlington, Austin for the first time and conclude with the Coca-Cola 600.
IMSA has its first race in two months at Mid-Ohio. 
The World Superbike season opens its season at Aragón and Estoril.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Track Walk: Texas 2021

IndyCar begins May with a doubleheader in Texas

The third and fourth rounds of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season take place at Texas Motor Speedway for the first of two doubleheaders this season. This is the second time Texas has hosted a doubleheader, as it hosted a pair of 275-mile races in 2011. This weekend will be different from a decade ago. Instead of having both races in one night, there will be a 300-mile race on Saturday night with a 375-mile race closing out the weekend on Sunday evening. Qualifying times will also set both grids, unlike a draw for position in race two in 2011. After opening the 2020 season, this is the second year Texas is the first oval race of the season. There will be three new drivers on the grid as Tony Kanaan, Pietro Fittipaldi and Ed Carpenter will all make their season debuts. 

Time: Coverage for the first Texas race begins at 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday May 1 with green flag scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. Coverage for the second Texas race begins at 5:00 p.m. ET on Sunday May 2 with green flag scheduled for 5:30 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Marty Snider and Kelli Stavast will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule 
Practice: 12:30 p.m. ET (90 minutes)*
Qualifying: 4:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage) 
Race: 7:30 p.m. ET (212 laps)
Race: 5:30 p.m. ET (248 laps)

* - Practice will be available live on Peacock.

Another Doubleheader
Last year, there were two doubleheaders held on ovals, as Iowa and Gateway each hosted two races. Like last year's doubleheaders, there will be one qualifying session with the first qualifying lap setting the grid for race one and the second qualifying lap setting the grid for race two. With there being one qualifying run to set each race, the overarching concern is having two identical races. Was that the case in 2020?

When it came to qualifying, no driver swept the pole position at either race weekend, but the pole-sitters each started in the top five for both races that weekend. Conor Daly took pole position for the first Iowa race with Carlin but fell to third for race two. Josef Newgarden took pole position for the second race after ending up second for race one. At Gateway, Will Power matched Daly's Iowa qualifying performance, taking pole position for race one before ending up third for race two. Takuma Sato was fifth for the first Gateway race and then took pole position for race two. 

At Iowa, four drivers started in the top five for both races, Daly, Newgarden, Power and Colton Herta. Ryan Hunter-Reay went from 12th to fourth while Alexander Rossi went from fifth to 21st. At Gateway, only three drivers started in the top five for each race, Power, Sato and Patricio O'Ward. Scott Dixon went from third to sixth and Marcus Ericsson went from fourth to seventh. While the Ganassi drivers dropped, Newgarden went from sixth to second and Jack Harvey jumped from seventh to fifth. 

There was far more fluctuation in the grid positions in Iowa. Rossi dropped 16 spots from his first race starting position while Sato dropped 14 spots from sixth to 20th. Álex Palou was the biggest improvement going from 18th for race one to seventh for race two. Five other drivers improved by multiple positions with Hunter-Reay gaining eight, Charlie Kimball made up four, Marco Andretti and Jack Harvey each made up three and Ed Carpenter made up two spots. Seven drivers lost multiple positions (Rossi -16, Sato -14, Santino Ferrucci -5, O'Ward -4, Rosenqvist -2, VeeKay -2, Daly -2).

The biggest improvement at Gateway was Zach Veach, who made up six spots, but he went from 23rd to 17th. Overall, nine drivers made up multiple positions from race one to race two at Gateway, five of which were gains of at least four positions (Veach +6, Pagenaud +5, Ferrucci +4, Sato +4, Newgarden +4). The biggest drop at Gateway was five spots with Carpenter going from 17th to 22nd. Hunter-Reay and VeeKay were the only other drivers to drop at least four positions.

Between the two race weekends, only three drivers started in the same position for both races. One of those was Simon Pagenaud, who was unable to make a qualifying run at Iowa due to a fuel pressure issue and that forced the Frenchman to start 23rd for both races. Veach was 22nd in each Iowa race and Herta qualified tenth for both Gateway races.

At Iowa, seven drivers were in the top ten of both races. Three of those drivers were in the top five of both races. Pagenaud and Newgarden split the victories with Newgarden fifth in race one and Pagenaud fourth in race two. Dixon was second and fifth at Iowa. Oliver Askew was third and sixth in the two races. Marcus Ericsson was ninth in both races, the only driver to finish in the same position for both races. 

Power overcame his accident in the first Iowa race for a second-place finish in race two, a 19-spot gain. The only other drivers to pick up more than five spots were Marco Andretti (22nd to tenth), Graham Rahal (12th to third) and Tony Kanaan (18th to 11th). Six drivers lost at least five spots. Sato was the biggest drop from tenth to 21st. O'Ward saw an eight-spot decline from fourth to 12th after a botched pit stop and the Mexican likely would have finished in the top five had it not been for that error. Ed Carpenter went from 15th to 23rd and Ryan Hunter-Reay went from 16th to 22nd. Ferrucci dropped from 13th to 18th. Daly was the third driver to lost at least five spots from each race and dropped out of the top ten, as he went from eighth to 13th. 

At Gateway, ten drivers made up multiple positions and ten drivers lost multiple positions between the two races. However, like Iowa, seven drivers were in the top ten of both races. Unlike Iowa, only two drivers were in the top five of each race. O'Ward was third and second and Dixon was first and fifth. 

Ericsson was fifth in race one, but a loose rear wing forced him to pit lane late and he lost 18 spots between races. The only other driver to lose at least ten positions was Kanaan going from ninth to 19th. Two other drivers lost at least five positions. Sato went from second to ninth after brushing the wall late in the second race and Kimball dropped from 13th to 18th. 

Like Iowa, Power was the biggest mover again. After ending up 17th in the first Gateway race, Power was third in the second race. Newgarden went from 12th to first at Gateway, the only other driver to make up double-digit positions. Two drivers made up eight spots, Rossi and Andretti, but both drivers were caught in the opening lap incident and the bottom two finishers from race one. 

While looking at the good, it is time to consider the bad. Five drivers were outside the top fifteen in both Iowa races. Power and Andretti were the only drivers to go from outside the top fifteen to inside the top ten. Gateway saw similar results. Four drivers were outside the top fifteen in both Gateway races. Only two drivers finished inside the top ten in race two after finishing outside the top fifteen in the first race, the aforementioned Power, and Ferrucci went from 16th to tenth. 

The numbers look similar in both doubleheaders, but we did not see identical races. The first Iowa race had one caution for 26 laps, but that was really two cautions as Herta and VeeKay got together on a waved off restart following Power's incident. The cautions played heavily into the strategies and it cycled a few faces to the front. It allowed the three podium finishers to come from 23rd, 17th and 14th on the grid while the remaining top ten finishers all started in the top ten. In race two, there were two cautions for 24 laps, but Newgarden and Power started 1-2 and finished 1-2 respectively, but five of the top ten finishers started outside the top fifteen and six of the top ten finishers started outside the top ten.

On top of the opening lap incident, Gateway had a brief spat of rain in the first race to distinguish it from the second. The first race had two cautions for 25 laps. The first 12 laps were under yellow for the accident and then 13 laps were under yellow just after halfway for weather. The second race had the same number of cautions, two, but 20 fewer caution laps. The first lap was under yellow for a waved off start and then the race proceeded with 196 consecutive green flag laps before Sato brushed the wall exiting turn two with four laps to go. The final three circuits were all run behind the pace car after Sato's contact. 

Iowa had 645 passes and 203 for position in the first race, while the second race had 458 passes and 205 for position. The first Gateway race had 125 passes, 65 for position, but it should be noted four drivers were out after three laps, meaning few opportunities for passes to be made. The second Gateway race saw a slight uptick in total passes to 167 and passes for position went up to 105. 

A Different Texas?
Last year's Texas race was constrained to 30-lap stints due to tire concerns. On top of the stint limit, track staining from the PJ1 traction compound used for the NASCAR race made the upper grove slippery, as that part of the surface had about 20% less grip than the bottom line. 

Texas has tried to fix the problem, washing away the PJ1 substance to allow for better racing, however at a preseason test session, drivers were expressing the same concerns over the lack of grip.

The races this weekend will not require the same 30-lap stint limit on tires, meaning the field will be able to run to an empty tank if they wish. The 2018 and 2019 races were setting up to be who could conserve fuel and make it in three stops or who could run hard, expecting the tires to fall off and charge on four stops. Cautions erased the differing strategies in 2018 and the tires never really feel off in 2019, allowing the three-stoppers to come out on top. 

With the first race only 212 laps, it should be a straight-forward three-stop race, however, the extra 36 laps in race two could open multiple possible strategies and we could see teams split into two different game plans. 

The 200-lap race last year had 364 passes, 180 for position. The 2019 race, which was 48 laps longer, had 579 passes, 200 for position. A 24% longer race produced 59% more passes, but only an 11% increase in passes for position. The 2018 race had 688 passes and 242 passes for position. 

Scott Dixon's victory last year was the first time a top five starter had won at Texas since 2014 and it was the first time a front row starter won at Texas since Dario Franchitti won the first race of the 2011 doubleheader. Three of the last six Texas winners have started seventh.

Opening Oval
Texas is the first oval of the season and for the better part of the last decade the opening oval has been the Indianapolis 500. What does the opening oval tell us about the rest of the season?

Dixon's victory last year was the first time the winner of the first oval race of the season went on to win the championship since when Dixon won the 2008 season opener at Homestead. Since reunification, the winner of the first oval race has finished in the top five of the championship eight times and in the top ten in 11 of 13 seasons. The two exceptions are Dan Wheldon in 2011, who was part time and only ran two races that counted toward the championship, and Tony Kanaan in 2013. 

Seven of the 13 champions since 2008 were in the top five at the first oval race with nine of finishing in the top ten. Of the four champions that finished outside the top ten in the first oval race, two finished outside the top fifteen. Dario Franchitti was 18th at Kansas in 2009 and went on to win the championship. Ryan Hunter-Reay was 27th in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 but still took the title.

However, the last seven champions were in the top ten in the first oval race of the season, five of which had a top five finish. 

It should be noted the last three Texas winners have gone on to win the championship. Dixon won at Texas in 2018 and 2020 while Newgarden won in 2019. Since Texas went down to one race weekend in 2005, only three other times has a Texas winner gone on to win the championship, Dixon in 2008 and 2015, and Franchitti after winning the first race in 2011. 

When Texas had two race weekends from 1998 to 2004, there were three other occasions of the champion having won at Texas. Sam Hornish, Jr. won the 2001 IRL season finale at Texas, but he had clinched the title a race early. Hornish would win the 2002 Texas season finale in a title fight that went to the final lap with Hélio Castroneves. Tony Kanaan won the June 2004 race on his way to his only championship. 

Who Needs a Good Weekend?
It is early in the championship, but drivers need results, and a slow start does not make for a strong title push. There are five notable names outside the top fifteen in the championship that need to make up ground this weekend. 

Alexander Rossi opened 2021 with a ninth at Barber, but his tire puncture from contact with Graham Rahal ended what could have been a top five day in St. Petersburg. Instead of climbing spots in the championship, Rossi dropped to 16th on 31 points. The Californian had consecutive podium finishes at Texas before last year's race when an electrical issue on the grid forced him to serve a drive-through penalty and a subsequent pit lane speeding penalty put him two laps down. He would end up a lap down in 15th. Rossi has finished outside the top ten in his last three oval starts and he has not had a top five finish on an oval since his runner-up result to Newgarden at Texas in 2019. 

Conor Daly has a pair of 16th-place finishes from the first two races and Daly will move over to the #59 Gallagher Chevrolet for Carlin at Texas, a similar arrangement he had last year with the team. Carlin has also had a rocky start as Max Chilton was 20th at Barber and a hydraulics issue took Chilton out of St. Petersburg after 18 laps. Daly had four top ten finishes in five starts with Carlin last year. His best result was sixth at Texas. It is also Carlin's best result on an oval. 

Felix Rosenqvist drove a quiet race at St. Petersburg and ended up 12th, but after a 21st-place finish at Barber and his teammate Patricio O'Ward thoroughly displaying a quicker pace through two rounds, Rosenqvist is 18 points and seven spots behind his Mexican teammate in the championship. Last year, Rosenqvist drove up from ninth to second at Texas. He was challenging Dixon in the closing laps for the victory before an ambitious move to the outside of the lapped car of James Hinchcliffe put the Swede on the slick, PJ1 tarnish lane, sending Rosenqvist into the turn two wall. The good news for Rosenqvist is he was in the top ten at both Gateway races last year, his first top ten finishes on ovals. 

Ryan Hunter-Reay finds himself in a precarious situation. For only the third time in his career, Hunter-Reay has opened a season with consecutive finishes outside the top ten. The last time that happened was 2011 when he did not get a top ten result until the seventh race of the season, a ninth in the second Texas race. Hunter-Reay has three consecutive top ten finishes at Texas, and he led a race-high 90 laps in 2019. Hunter-Reay has not won on an oval since Pocono 2015, and he hasn't had a podium finish on an oval since Iowa 2017.

Fast Facts
The last time an IndyCar race was scheduled for May 1 was São Paulo in 2011, however, a rainstorm forced that race to finish on May 2. Will Power took the victory. 

Saturday's race will be the sixth IndyCar race scheduled to take place on May 1. The last one to start and finish on that day was Kansas 2010 where Scott Dixon took victory. 

Sunday's race will be the third IndyCar race scheduled for May 2. The last one to start and finish on that day was at Nazareth in 1999 where Juan Pablo Montoya took victory.  The only race to take place on May 2 was at Trenton in 1976, where Johnny Rutherford took victory. 

The average starting position for a Texas winner is 5.1875 with a median position of third. 

The pole-sitter has not won at Texas since 2010 with Ryan Briscoe. 

Four Texas races have been won from outside a top ten starting position. Justin Wilson's victory from 17th in 2012 is the worst starting position for a Texas winner. 

Three drivers have scored their first career victory at Texas: Billy Boat, Mark Dismore and Jeff Ward. It is the only IndyCar victory for all three drivers. 

Team Penske leads with ten Texas victories. Chip Ganassi Racing has six Texas victories. Panther Racing has five Texas victories ahead of Kelley Racing on four victories. Those are the only four teams with multiple Texas victories. 

A.J. Foyt Racing won the second Texas race in June 1998. Andretti Autosport has not won at Texas since June 2004. Wilson's victory is Dale Coyne Racing's only oval victory. Ed Carpenter won with his own team in 2014. Graham Rahal won the 2016 race by 0.0080 seconds over James Hinchcliffe to give Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing its first Texas victory. 

The average number of lead changes in a Texas race is 13.8125 with a median of 13.5. 

Last year's race was the tenth to have fewer than ten lead changes. The fewest lead changes in a Texas race were four in 2013. 

The average number of cautions in a Texas race is 4.375 with a median of four. The average number of caution laps is 34.40625 with a median of 31.5. 

The second race of the 2011 doubleheader is the only caution-free Texas race. 

The most cautions in a Texas race were nine in 2017, a race where IndyCar threw two competition cautions late in the race over concerns with the tires. The most caution laps in a Texas race were 78 in the October 1999 race. 

Possible Milestones:
If Scott Dixon wins this race, he will become the first driver in IndyCar history to win a race in 19 different seasons. 

Will Power is one victory away from becoming the fifth driver to win 40 IndyCar races. Power would also break a tie with Al Unser for fifth all-time in IndyCar victories.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 58 laps to become the fifth driver to reach the 6,000 laps led milestone. 

Sébastien Bourdais needs to lead 43 laps to reach the 2,700 laps led milestone.

Josef Newgarden needs to lead one lap to become the 23rd driver to reach the 2,500 laps led milestone. 

Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead 51 laps to reach the 1,600 laps led milestone.

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

Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon continue their stretch of Texas dominance and split the weekend. We will not see a handful of Hondas fail to start on the grid. Alexander Rossi will be the top Andretti Autosport finisher in at least one of the races. Scott McLaughlin will pick up his first top ten finish in IndyCar. At least 15 drivers get a top ten finish this weekend. Rinus VeeKay will complete more than 100 laps in each race and not have an accident. Conor Daly will finish ahead of VeeKay in both races. Sébastien Bourdais will get A.J. Foyt Racing its first top five finish at Texas since June 2002. At least one race is delayed either due to weather or due to weepers. At least three drivers will fall out of the top ten of the championship after this weekend. Takuma Sato will not have an accident in qualifying. Sleepers: Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

2021 FIA World Endurance Championship Season Preview

It is crazy to think but it has been 20 months since the last FIA World Endurance Championship preview. Back then we were preparing for our second winter-spanning season that was due to start at Silverstone in September and end at Le Mans in June. 

Flash-forward 20 months and a global pandemic later and the WEC is back on the traditional spring-to-autumn schedule. The LMP1 class has been retired and the Hypercar class is here. The LMP2 class has set up a Pro-Am Cup classification for teams with a bronze-driver. Meanwhile, Aston Martin has left the GTE-Pro class after taking the top two spots in the championship last season. The GTE-Am class is the largest class with 13 entries.

The Prologue test has been completed and the results are jaw-dropping. LMP2 is the fastest class despite measures taken to slow down those cars and allow the Hypercar entries to come out on top. Ahead of the season opener, it is safe to save we have no clue how this season will shake out.

Six rounds are scheduled for this season. 

Spa-Franchorcamps retains its spring date, but it will be the season opener on May 1. With a few events being shifted around, Portimão makes its debut on the WEC calendar and it will host an eight-hour race on June 13. Only month later, Monza makes its long-awaited WEC debut with a six-hour race on July 18. Portimão and Monza will become the 12th and 13th different tracks to host a WEC event. It will be WEC's first visit to Portugal and Italy as well. 

The 24 Hours of Le Mans was pushed back to August 21-22 in hopes of having a crowd for this year's race. It will be the fifth time the 24 Hours of Le Mans is not held in June. The inaugural race was on May 26-27, 1923. The 1956 race was delayed seven weeks due to track renovations after the 1955 Le Mans disaster saw nearly eight-dozen fatalities. The 1968 race was held in September after civil unrest and last year's race was held in September due to the pandemic. 

Fuji is scheduled to host the penultimate round of the season on September 26 and the 8 Hours of Bahrain returns in the season finale slot on November 20.

Toyota Gazoo Racing
#7 Toyota GR010 Hybrid
Drivers: Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, José María López
What to expect: Let's get something out of the way, the FIA and ACO will make sure the Hypercars are on top, or at least they will try. They tried ahead of the season with LMP2 entries forced to use the low downforce, Le Mans aero package at every round. At the Spa-Francorchamps Prologue test, LMP2 was still quicker. We are going to see more done. It might be too late for Spa-Francorchamps, but LMP2 is a pro-am class. While the professionals might have put those cars on top, the amateur drivers could put these cars behind the Hypercars and, despite what testing has shown, the premier class could still come out on top. 

The #7 Toyota was fantastic last season. Both Toyota cars were flawless, but we are not sure how the Toyota GR010 Hybrid will do. I expect teething problems. Both cars had no serious issues at the Prologue. Both cars have veterans who can figure it out. Both cars should win a few races. If recent history tells us anything, the #7 Toyota will control the 24 Hours of Le Mans only for a blip in the final six hours to knock it back to second and put the #8 Toyota on top.

#8 Toyota GR010 Hybrid
Drivers: Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima, Brendon Hartley
What to expect: The #7 Toyota might have won the championship, but the #8 Toyota was first or second in every race, and it won Le Mans. Only five points separated the two cars in the championship. It is hard to separate the two teams. If you ranked the six Toyota drivers, I think the #8 team has three of the top four. In that case, the #8 Toyota is the favorite on paper. Buemi and Nakajima could each join Tom Kristensen as the only drivers to win four consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans. I would not be surprised if that happened. 

Alpine Elf Matmut
#36 Alpine A480-Gibson
Drivers: Nicolas Lapierre, André Negrão, Matthieu Vaxivière
What to expect: Prior to testing, I thought Alpine could spoil the entire party with the grandfathered Rebellion R13 chassis, rebadged as the Alpine A480. We know what this car can do. It won two races, four pole positions and finished on the podium in all seven WEC races it started last season. However, after testing, Alpine has more than Toyota to worry about. 

Let's say adjustments are made to put the Hypercar class comfortably on top, if Toyota has to work out some bugs, Alpine will be there and this lineup can win races. Lapierre might be the most underrated prototype driver in the world. Negrão and Vaxivière have proven themselves in LMP2 cars. On top of the LMP2-Hypercar disparity, you have Alpine running an old LMP1 car against a true Hypercar. Even if the FIA gets Hypercar on top, I don't think the FIA will allow Alpine to get too far ahead of Toyota. Alpine might have days where it is flat better than Toyota, but that will not be a regular occurrence.

Glickenhaus Racing
#708 Glickenhaus 007 LMH-Pipo Moteurs
Drivers: Gustavo Menezes, Oliver Pla, Richard Westbrook*
What to expect: We were all hopeful of the Glickenhaus effort would make the opening race, but a testing accident and other development issues means the team will miss the Spa-Francorchamps. We have no clue about Glickenhaus and history does not favor those cars that are slow in development. Add to it that Hypercar is mixed in with LMP2, it could be tough to watch if the team debuts at Portimão. 

#709 Glickenhaus 007 LMH-Pipo Moteurs
Drivers: Ryan Briscoe, Pipo Derani, Romain Dumas, Franck Mailleux*
What to expect: Neither of the Glickenhaus driver lineups are confirmed, but credit to the team for picking up some of the top North American-based drivers with the LMP1 experience of Dumas and Menezes. Hopefully we do get to see these drivers out there because there are plenty of competitive combinations. 

Richard Mille Racing Team
#1 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Tatiana Calderón, Sophia Flörsch, Beitske Visser
What to expect: This team was not able to have a stable European Le Mans Series last year, as Katherine Legge was supposed to compete before she broke her leg in testing. Flörsch joined midseason. The results were nothing to brag about in the ELMS. I think a top five finish in class would be an achievement for this team. 

High Class Racing
#20 Oreca 07-Gibson (Cup)
Drivers: Dennis Andersen, Anders Fjordbach, Jan Magnussen
What to expect: Andersen and Fjordbach have a lot of experience together, but they have not been regular contenders in LMP2 competition. Magnussen is probably the best driver Andersen and Fjordbach have partnered with. Magnussen will be contesting the full WEC season for the first time. Kevin Magnussen will replace Andersen at Le Mans. I don't see this team finishing in the top half of the class.

DragonSpeed USA
#21 Oreca-Gibson (Cup)
Drivers: Ben Hanley, Henrik Hedman, Juan Pablo Montoya
What to expect: Hanley and Montoya are a strong combination, however, DragonSpeed always finds itself just off that top level in LMP2 competition. Hedman isn't a flashy amateur driver. This could be one of the top three Cup teams, but it might only be the seventh best car in LMP2 overall.

United Autosports USA
#22 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Filipe Albuquerque, Philip Hanson, Fabio Scherer
What to expect: Albuquerque and Hanson thrashed the LMP2 field in multiple championships last year and while their third driver has changed with Scherer replacing Paul di Resta, I expect United Autosport to continue to be a force in this class. Albuquerque was at the top of testing and Hanson was not far off either. Scherer was the slowest of the three drivers, and he was 13th among the 43 LMP2 participants. I don't expect the same level of dominance, but it is hard to imagine this team falling far in the championship.

Jota Sport
#28 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Tom Blomqvist, Sean Gelael, Stoffel Vandoorne
What to expect: Blomqvist and Gelael won the two Asian Le Mans Series races they ran together while Gelael and Vandoorne were second in one of their starts together in the 2021 ALMS season. WEC is a considerable jump from ALMS, and I do not expect them to be on top from the start, but I would not be surprised if this team had multiple podium finishes and was fighting for a race victory. 

#38 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Anthony Davidson, António Félix da Costa, Roberto González
What to expect: This could be the championship winner. Davidson, da Costa and González have built some rapport and they could win multiple races. Da Costa will be splitting his season with Formula E responsibilities, but he had the same schedule last year and it worked out. This trio was third in the championship last year and they had five podium finishes in the final six races.  

Racing Team Nederland
#29 Oreca 07-Gibson (Cup)
Drivers: Frits van Eerd, Giedo van der Garde, Job van Uitert
What to expect: Last season started well, but Racing Team Nederland had some pedestrian results. Van Uitert is stepping up into a full-time role after a great ELMS season in 2020 with G-Drive Racing. He was the team's strongest driver in testing, ranking fourth. I think this is the top Cup team and it would not be a surprise if this team won the LMP2 class in a race or two.

Team WRT
#31 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Robin Frijns, Ferdinand von Habsburg, Charles Milesi
What to expect: Team WRT opened the European Le Mans Series season with a victory. That is a high bar to meet for its first WEC effort. Frijns is a talented driver with plenty of success in GT3 and open-wheel competition. His only prototype start was the 2018 24 Hours of Daytona with Jackie Chan DCR Jota. Habsburg is coming off a championship in the Asian Le Mans Series. Milesi is still a rather under-developed driver. I think Frijns and Habsburg will carry this lineup but that unproven third driver will keep them from winning races.

Inter Europol Competition
#34 Oreca 07-Gibson
Drivers: Alex Brundle, Kuba Śmiechowski, Renger van der Zande
What to expect: Brundle and van der Zande have loads of experience as Inter Europol Competition transitions to the world championship. While Śmiechowski won races and a championship in LMP3 machinery, he has not found success in LMP2 cars. Brundle and van der Zande are the best co-drivers he has had in this class. I think this team can compete for podium finishes.

ARC Bratislava
#44 Ligier JS P217-Gibson (Cup)
Drivers: Miro Konôpka, Darren Burke, Tom Jackson, Oliver Webb
What to expect: It is the weakest team in this class. Burke is filling in for Webb at Spa-Francorchamps, as Webb had a scheduling conflict. Burke and Konôpka won at ALMS race in the LMP3 class in 2017. Jackson has raced in British GT and was second in the Porsche Sprint Challenge GB championship last year. Konôpka is experienced but far from the top amateurs. This car will be toward the bottom of the class in every race. 

Realteam Racing
#70 Oreca 07-Gibson (Cup)
Drivers: Loïc Duval, Esteban Garcia, Norman Nato
What to expect: Garcia moves up after winning a race in the ELMS LMP3 class last year and finishing third in that championship. His rookie WEC season comes with two capable co-drivers in Duval and Nato. Duval is a past world champion, and he won the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. Nato won two races last season with Rebellion Racing and he was third in the championship. Garcia is an unknown, but I would not be surprised if Realteam Racing won the LMP2 class overall once this season. 

AF Corse
#51 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: James Calado, Alessandro Pier Guidi
What to expect: There are only four full-time GTE-Pro entries. There is a good chance each one will win a race. Calado and Pier Guidi had a tough season last year. They were constantly fourth. They did win at Shanghai. I am sure they will have a few good days, but I do not get the sense they could control the championship. 

#52 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Miguel Molina, Daniel Serra
What to expect: If Calado and Pier Guidi were underwhelming last season, Molina's results with Davide Rigon were abysmal. They had two podium finishes but were fifth or worse in the other six races. Serra moves up from Le Mans third driver. Serra has tremendous Le Mans results. Perhaps the Brazilian lights a fire under this team.

Porsche GT Team
#91 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Gianmaria Bruni, Richard Lietz, Frédéric Makowiecki
What to expect: If you were skeptical about the Ferraris, the #91 Porsche was somehow worse than both Ferraris last season. It won the season opener at Silverstone and finished outside the top five in five of the final eight races. Bruni and Lietz had three podium finishes but were seventh in the championship. They can only improve because there are four cars in the class, but championship finish alone will not dictate if this will be a better season. Makowiecki will be the third driver at Le Mans.

#92 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Kévin Estre, Neel Jani, Michael Christensen
What to expect: Porsche has taken its best team from the championship and broke it up. Jani joins the Porsche GT program full-time in place of Christensen, who will run at Le Mans. Estre and Christiansen won twice and had four runner-up finishes last season. Jani does not have much GT competition and I only believe that knocks this team down a few pegs. Estre was fastest at the Prologue and Jani was fourth out of nine drivers. It might not be notable drop off but if it was Estre and Christensen I would crown them clear favorites.

TF Sport
#33 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Felipe Fraga, Ben Keating, Dylan Pereira
What to expect: TF Sport is coming off a strong season where it lost the championship in the final race. Keating and Fraga have a good relationship with one another having run together at Le Mans and in IMSA competition. Pereira was second in Porsche Supercup last year. The team had a big accident in testing, but it would not be a surprised if TF Sport found itself in another championship fight. 

Team Project 1
#46 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Dennis Olsen, Anders Buchardt, Axcil Jefferies 
What to expect: This team will miss the opening round after an accident in testing. For the full season, Olsen is a capable driver, but this is the biggest stage for both Buchardt and Jefferies. Jefferies has plenty of endurance race experience from 24H Series competition. I don't think this car will be competing for podium finishes. 

#56 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Matteo Cairoli, Egidio Perfetti, Riccardo Pera
What to expect: Perfetti was the class champion two seasons ago. Pera is coming off a respectable couple of seasons with Dempsey-Proton. Cairoli has won multiple races in WEC and the European Le Mans Series. This car was quick in testing. This is one of the class favorites. 

Cetilar Racing
#47 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Roberto Lacorte, Giorgio Sernagiotto, Antonio Fuoco
What to expect: Lacorte and Sernagiotto move to GTE-Am from LMP2. Fuoco won the Italian GT Endurance Championship with AF Corse. The team had the fastest lap in the first test session and was competitive for the rest of the test. I am uncertain it can put together a full season of results, but it could have a few encouraging races.

AF Corse
#54 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Francesco Castellacci, Giancarlo Fisichella, Thomas Flohr
What to expect: These three have raced with each other regularly over the last few seasons. The car showed good pace over testing. No one would be surprised if AF Corse won races, however this trio didn't even finish on the podium in WEC last season. I think that will change, but I will hold off on thinking it will be a threat over the entire season. 

#83 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Nicklas Nielsen, François Perrodo, Alessio Rovera
What to expect: Nielsen and Perrodo are defending the championship while Rovera replaces Emmanuel Collard, who is going back into retirement. Collard contributed greatly and Rovera is stepping up from winning the Italian GT Endurance Championship. Testing was promising. I am not sure that team can repeat, but it should be respectable. 

Iron Lynx
#60 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Matteo Cressoni, Andrea Piccini, Claudio Schiavoni
What to expect: Piccini and Cressoni were both in the top ten in testing. Schiavoni was the fourth slowest in testing. Cressoni won the 2021 ELMS season opener at Barcelona with Iron Lynx. This could be the sleeper of the season.

#85 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo
Drivers: Rahel Frey, Katherine Legge, Manuela Gostner
What to expect: Legge and Frey were almost equal in testing, while Gostner was toward the bottom. Frey and Gostner had three podium finishes in ELMS last year. Legge has won races in IMSA in the GTD class. I think it will be a tough and this car could get a few top five finishes.  

Dempsey-Proton Racing
#77 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Matt Campbell, Jaxon Evans, Christian Ried
What to expect: Dempsey-Proton Racing had slightly decline last season, but I do not expect this team to be down for long. Campbell has a new young co-driver in Evans. Ried is tried and trusted. There are many good cars in this field, but I think the #77 Porsche should win at least one race. It would be no surprise if it was in the championship conversation.

#88 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Andrew Haryanto, Alessio Picariello, Marco Seefried
What to expect: The #88 Dempsey-Proton Porsche has a history of rotating drivers. I expect that to continue. Picariello was 11th among all GTE-Am drivers at the Prologue and won the ELMS GT championship last year with Ried. 

GR Racing
#86 Porsche 911 RSR-19
Drivers: Ben Barker, Tom Gamble, Michael Wainwright
What to expect: GR Racing has been a regular mid-class car in GTE-AM over the last few years. The team did have a podium and top five finishes in half the races last season. I am not sure it can improve on that, but if it replicates that success, it will still be an acceptable season. 

Northwest AMR
#98 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Augusto Farfus, Marcos Gomes, Paul Dalla Lana
What to expect: The #98 Aston Martin has been one of the staples of the GTE-Am class and it had four podium finishes last year but didn't win a race. With Farfus and Gomes in this car, I think it will be fighting at the front and should breakthrough to get a victory. If enough results fall the right way for this team, it could be hoisting silverware in Bahrain. 

D'station Racing
#777 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Drivers: Tomonobu Fuji, Satoshi Hoshino, Andrew Watson
What to expect: An Asian Le Mans Series regular, D'station is leaping to the world stage and I think it will be a tough year. It should be a learning season with the goal to make progress over each round. The Aston Martin is a good car and could help the team get a few results. If the team can pick off a few top five results that will be a successful season. 

Practice begins with a 90-minute session on Thursday April 29 at 9:30 a.m. ET. Another 90-minute session will follow on Friday April 30 at 3:30 a.m. with a one-hour practice at 8:00 a.m. Qualifying will close out Friday at 12:20 p.m. with the GTE classes going first before the prototypes.

The 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps will begin at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday May 1. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Fixing the Criteria

Colton Herta has as many IndyCar victories as his father. Alexander Rossi cough up more points. IndyCar showed patience with the yellow flag. The Indianapolis 500 will have 40% capacity... or 135,000 spectators. Formula E announced the remainder of its schedule and had a blunder of a race. Formula One has a contract to race in Miami. Reminder, we are currently in the ninth year of the ten-year contract with the Weehauken, New Jersey race. How is that going? Ken Roczen blew another opportunity. Joey Logano had a scare. Suzuka's 130R again proved to be hair-raising. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Fixing the Criteria
The biggest news entering NASCAR's Talladega weekend was who was not going to be there. 

After it was previously announced Jennifer Jo Cobb would make her Cup Series debut at Talladega driving for Rick Ware Racing, NASCAR announced six days before the Talladega race Cobb would not be approved to compete at the 2.66-mile oval. Rick Ware Racing put J.J. Yeley in its #15 Chevrolet instead. 

NASCAR not approving drivers to run on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega is nothing new. It has long required drivers to run lower division races at those tracks before approving them for competition in NASCAR's series. However, Cobb was not some inexperienced driver hoping to run a Cup race, and after other drivers had been approved to compete, Cobb's rejection raised a few eyebrows. 

Cobb has made 217 NASCAR Truck Series starts, tied for 13th all-time in that series, and she has started every Truck race this season. She has started 16 races at Daytona and Talladega in a truck, including at Daytona earlier this season where she completed all 101 laps and finished 18th. She also led 16 laps at Talladega last year. Cobb has also made 31 starts in NASCAR's second division, but her two starts at Daytona were in 2010 and 2011 and she ran at Talladega in 2011 and 2018. Her 2018 Talladega appearance is her last start in the second division. 

Her performance also does not scream Cup talent either. Her only top ten finish in the Truck series was sixth at Daytona in 2011. She has only 11 lead lap finishes in 217 truck starts and has zero lead lap finishes in 31 starts in NASCAR's second tier. 

While I do not believe Cobb is qualified to race in the Cup Series, NASCAR has already set the bar at a level where she should have been allowed to compete this weekend at Talladega. 

Derrike Cope drove that same #15 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet in the Daytona 500 and while Cope was the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, he had not competed in a Cup races since 2018. His last start on a superspeedway was the July 2015 Grand National Series race at Daytona where he completed only 15 laps. He had not run a superspeedway in the Cup Series since October 2006 at Talladega and since that Talladega race Cope had only made 19 Cup starts in 15 years. Cope has not had a top ten finish in any of NASCAR's three national touring series since he was fifth in the 1997 Cup finale at Atlanta.

There comes a point where Cope's success from over 30 years earlier no longer fills the requirement for eligibility in 2021 and Cope isn't the only driver that set a precedent that should have allowed Cobb to compete. 

Mark Thompson ran the autumn 2017 Talladega Cup race and started the 2018 Daytona 500. His Daytona 500 start came when he was 66 years old. His only Cup start prior to that was at Pocono in 1992. His only four starts in NASCAR's second division all came between 2015 and 2017 and all four were at either Daytona or Talladega. In two of them, he retired about halfway through due to an engine failure. 

Thompson never ran a Truck race, but he was a regular competitor in ARCA at Daytona and Talladega. He was second in the 2010 ARCA race at Daytona and was fifth in that same race in 2012, but he had finished outside the top 25 in four of the five Daytona ARCA races leading up to his Daytona 500 debut. He had two top ten finishes in ten ARCA Talladega starts between 2007 and 2017. He wasn't lighting the world on fire in his senior years and yet NASCAR let him compete in its top division. 

Cope and Thompson might be two older examples, but for the last few season the NASCAR Cup Series has had at least three or four drivers competing who arguably lack the résumé to be in the top series. 

B.J. McLeod is running majority of the Cup races for Live Fast Motorsports in 2021, the team he co-owns with Matt Tifft, but McLeod has never had a top ten finish in 156 starts in NASCAR's second division. McLeod has never had top ten finish in his 40 Truck starts. McLeod made his first Cup superspeedway start in the 2019 Daytona 500. Going into that race he had one Truck start at Talladega in 2011, but he had four Daytona starts and two Talladega starts in NASCAR's second division. His average finish in those six races was 27.667 with three retirements. He was in the top twenty for only two of those races, but he was 11th in the July 2017 Daytona race. 

Joey Gase has made 77 Cup starts since 2014, but in 244 Grand National Series races he has one top five and three top ten finishes. That top five was at Talladega in 2015 and he was in the top ten for both Daytona races in 2017. However, his overall record in that series is not too dissimilar to Cobb's Truck record. Gase has only 28 lead lap finishes in those 244 starts. His career average finish is 27.3. Gase has also only made four Truck starts and one ARCA start at Iowa in 2010. Gase's first superspeedway race was the 2012 season opener for NASCAR's second division at Daytona. 

Quin Houff had ten starts in NASCAR's second division when he made his Cup debut in 2019. Houff had two lead lap finishes. His only superspeedway starts were at Daytona in ARCA and he was in accidents in both of them, leaving him with finishes of 27th and 32nd. Houff is in the middle of his second full season in Cup. 

Even Corey LaJoie has a questionable path to his current spot in the Cup series. 

LaJoie's career at a-glance:

2012: Second in the NASCAR East Series with five victories
2013: Three victories and four top ten finishes in five ARCA starts. One start in NASCAR's second division
2014: Two Truck starts and one NASCAR second division start before he made his Cup debut at Loudon. He would run four more races in the second division and the Cup race at Charlotte
2015: Two NASCAR Modified starts and one NASCAR East Series start
2016: Ten NASCAR Second division starts, including the July Daytona race, the first superspeedway race of his career. Two top ten finishes, a tenth at Bristol and sixth at Dover 
2017: 32 NASCAR Cup Series starts, including his Daytona 500 debut. Six starts in NASCAR's second division. It is the last time LaJoie has run in one of the two lower national touring series
Since 2018: 106 Cup starts with four top ten finishes and he is competing in his third full season. 

LaJoie had a good year in 2012 in the East Series, but outside of that, what did he show to become a regular Cup competitor in 2017 after only 18 starts in the lower two divisions and basically taking all of 2015 off?

It is odd to see a driver such as Gase be allowed to dive straight into a race for NASCAR's second division at Daytona when he was 19 years old and yet six years earlier, IndyCar champion, Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One grand prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya had to run the ARCA race at Talladega before he was to be approved to run at Daytona for the start of the 2007 season. IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti had to do the same thing the year after that. Even Danica Patrick had to run the 2010 ARCA race at Daytona before she could compete at Daytona in NASCAR's second division. 

NASCAR should have a minimum-criteria for competition, but over the last decade it has clearly changed and not been as consistently applied to all drivers attempting Cup races. 

James Davison was also not approved to compete last year at Talladega and one of the reasons cited was the lack of practice, which is one of the same reasons Cobb was not allowed to compete. If that is the case then for the sake of competition NASCAR must do one of two things, either bring back practice for the superspeedway events or NASCAR needs to have a rookie orientation test session like IndyCar does every season. 

To compete on an oval in an IndyCar, a driver has to complete rookie orientation, and this is not Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation. In recent years, Texas Motor Speedway has been a place for these tests. Ahead of the 2020 season, rookies Rinus VeeKay, Oliver Askew, Álex Palou and Scott McLaughlin all completed their rookie test at Texas. 

If NASCAR is going to continue to have practice-less weekends, it must at least give rookie competitors a chance to prove they are capable of competing at these tracks. NASCAR needs to have a rookie test ahead of the season at Daytona and allow anyone who hopes to compete in the superspeedway races earn approval. One test needs to be ahead of Daytona and there could possibly be one ahead of the first Talladega race. 

This would just be a limited test for drivers who need approval, not a free-for-all with 40 cars and full-time drivers participating. It would be two opportunities to get approval early in the season. If a driver does not compete in either of these tests, and NASCAR does not feel that driver is fit to run superspeedways then that driver will have to wait until the following season for approval. 

Superspeedways aside, it is time for NASCAR to publicly state the minimum standard to compete in the Cup Series. Majority of the drivers in the top division have unquestionable qualifications, but the standard is for those final four or five drivers on the grid who may or not be ready to enter the top division. 

I don't want NASCAR to fully embrace an FIA Super License point system model because that would possibly prevent the likes of Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton from sampling the Cup Series while competing full-time in the second division. It also gets tricky when taking into consideration drivers that are coming from different disciplines and that was a frequent thing in the 2000s and early 2010s. It is difficult to weigh one series results over another.

The door should be left open a little for the top young drivers and be flexible for drivers switching disciplines, but the minimum standard should weed out drivers who otherwise are not ready for a Cup seat and raise the bar higher than its current level.

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

Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas split the Indy Lights races from St. Petersburg. Braden Eves and Christian Rasmussen split the Indy Pro 2000 races. Christian Brooks swept the U.S. F2000 races.

Nyck de Vries and Jake Dennis split Formula E races from Valencia. 

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega. Jeb Burton won the rain-shortened Grand National Series race, his first career victory in the series.

Tomoki Noriji won the Super Formula race from Suzuka, his second consecutive victory to open the season. 

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross race from Salt Lake City, his first victory since Seattle 2019.

Sébastien Ogier won Rally Croatia, his second victory of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
May begins with an IndyCar doubleheader at Texas.
GT World Challenge America will also be in Texas, Austin specifically, for a doubleheader. 
Formula One has another Portuguese Grand Prix. 
MotoGP heads to Jerez.
The FIA World Endurance Championship opens its season at Spa-Francorchamps. 
Supercross concludes its season in Salt Lake City. 
Super GT has a 500km race at Fuji.
NASCAR is in Kansas. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

First Impressions: St. Petersburg 2021

1. Another flawless drive from Colton Herta has him as the second race winner of the 2021 season. Herta didn't do anything wrong today. He led from the drop of the green flag and the only time anyone was close was Josef Newgarden at the end of the first stint and because of the two late cautions. 

Herta pulled away on the opening stint on the alternate tires. Many struggled about halfway through the race and yet Herta was gone from the field. Newgarden closed in, but after that first stop and both cars were on the primary tires, Herta flew away from the field. I don't know the record for largest margin of victory at St. Petersburg, but if it wasn't for the late cautions Herta likely would have broken it. 

At 21 years old, Herta might be the most poised driver in IndyCar. It's either him or IndyCar. With many young drivers, especially those who enter in their teens, we have seen speed, but temper get in the way. We have seen those young drivers lose their cool. Herta is still 21 years old, but at the start of year three we haven't seen him have a tantrum. With Herta's relaxed attitude and consistent pace, he is going to challenge for the top spot multiple times this season and he will likely factor into who lifts the Astor Cup at Long Beach.

2. For a moment, last year's St. Petersburg race came to mind. When Colton Herta was presented the lead late in the going, a few mechanical issues knocked him down and Josef Newgarden slid through to take victory. With Newgarden on Herta's gearbox for two restarts, it felt like Newgarden was set to steal another one. Herta was clean and Newgarden had to settle for second, but IndyCar is in great hands. 

Newgarden also could fit most poised in IndyCar and it looks like he and Herta could be going at it for another decade. Both drivers were done after one lap at Barber. Both came back and got a result. They put last week behind them and put their heads down for race two. I think we are going to see these two drivers battle regularly this season.

3. Simon Pagenaud had not had a good day in a while, and even today he was forgotten because of Herta's dominance and Newgarden's challenge. Pagenaud has been off the last year and a half. I can't figure it out because for his entire IndyCar career he has been reliable and for the last year or so that speed hasn't been there. 

I want to say he has figured it out, but I need to see more than one race. He needs to be a regular top ten qualifier and really in or close to the top five in most races. This was the type of day Pagenaud needed though, and he deserves to celebrate.

4. Jack Harvey got a top five finish! Harvey struggled on the alternate tire, but he did not slip that far down the order. He was able to keep the car in the top five and he finished fourth. Too many times last year Harvey started in the top five and then ended up eighth or was caught out due to a caution and was 17th. He needs to convert that qualifying pace into results. If he can do that half the time, he will be in the top ten of the championship. If he does that 2/3rds of the time, he will be in the top five. 

5. Scott Dixon was fifth. He never really challenged the for the front, but Dixon got a top five result, and he can move onto Texas with confidence. He is fine. There is no need to worry about him. It is ok to just finish fifth. 

6. Takuma Sato was a big mover today. He looked strong from the start of the race and it did not take long for him to get into the top ten. This was a good day for him in sixth. 

7. Just like Sato, the man that joined him on row eight also look impressive today, and Marcus Ericsson went from 16th to seventh. Ericsson had a few of these races last year. He was a regular top ten finisher last year. If Ericsson can improve his qualifying pace, he will challenge for podium finishes and possibly even a victory. 

8. The weekend did not start on the right foot for Will Power, but his car improved, and he got into the top ten with some aggressive passes. It could have been a much worse weekend after Power ended up 20th. It was such a good day that Power is leaving St. Petersburg second in the championship. Most probably didn't think that was possible after qualifying.

9. Rinus VeeKay lost some spots early on the first stint and he struggled on the alternate tire, but it was not all lost. VeeKay kept the car in the top ten and he finished ninth. These aren't flashy finishes, but he doesn't have to be flashy. He is getting top ten results and Ed Carpenter Racing has not had a regular top ten finish since Josef Newgarden left. Also, VeeKay is still only 20 years old! He needs these days for his development.

10. Sébastien Bourdais had radio issues before rolling off pit lane for the pace laps and then he had contact put a hole in his front wing at the start. Despite these hardships, Bourdais kept it in the top ten. He lost positions late and finished tenth. Not bad, but it could have been better. A.J. Foyt Racing should be happy though.

11. Scott McLaughlin quietly finished in 11th. Sometimes as a rookie, going unnoticed can be a good thing. McLaughlin will build off this result. 

12. Felix Rosenqvist kept his cool on a day where neither Arrow McLaren SP entry was great. Romain Grosjean brushed the wall on at least three occasions and finished 13th. Ryan Hunter-Reay had a good start, but he lost some speed on the alternate tire at the end of that first stint and he slipped out of the top ten. Fourteenth is a little disappointing for him. 

13. Graham Rahal got caught out when his contact with Alexander Rossi in turn four cut Rossi's right front tire. When it came to turn five, Rossi couldn't make the corner, Rahal was stuck on the outside and Rahal got blocked off. Instead of pushing for a top five, Rahal was shuffled back to the tail of the field. This was a much better day and Rahal looked competitive. It was an unfortunate turn of events for both drivers. Rahal recovered somewhat and he was 15th. 

14. Conor Daly did nothing and ended dup 16th. I am not sure what happened to Álex Palou as he ended up 17th but maintains the championship lead.  Patricio O'Ward lost his cool in this one. He struggled on the alternate tires at the start and the car didn't have the balance on the primary tires either. He lost ground, he had contact with Ed Jones and he ended up 19th. When you see the composure of Herta and then see O'Ward for the second race boil over, for all the pace we have seen from O'Ward you have to think Herta is going to come out on top more often. 

Speaking of Ed Jones, I am surprised he has been this far off. He has been behind Grosjean both weekends. He was one of the slowest all weekend. I am surprised. It would be one thing if Grosjean was 11th and Jones was 14th and a quarter second was between them. That's not the case though. 

15. For how much contact we saw in today's race, what was the likelihood the only cut tires would be two Andretti Autosport cars after contact from two Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing cars? First, it was James Hinchcliffe when Takuma Sato got to the inside of turn one. Second, it was Alexander Rossi after exiting pit lane when Graham Rahal had a head of steam up the inside of turn four. 

I thought both were racing incidents. Hinchcliffe really wasn't challenging Sato. He should feel a little upset after that one. Rossi should have lived to fight another day. I think he could have gotten Rahal a little later in that stint. Either way, both drivers find themselves in a slight hole after St. Petersburg. 

16. Jimmie Johnson's IndyCar experience continues. He just went a little too hot into the final corner and stalled after nudging the barriers. About 52 laps later, Johnson spun exiting turn three. Johnson deserves credit for taking a chance. He is really challenging himself. He hasn't been awful through two races. He is at least within touching distance to the rest of the field in practice, but the race is another animal. 

Also, Max Chilton retired due to a gearbox issue.

17. Credit to IndyCar. It let Johnson sit on the outside of the track and try to get the car going before throwing a caution. It did the same with Rossi's incident and Rossi got back going. Dalton Kellett pulled off course and parked in the open tarmac between turn one and the pit exit, and IndyCar didn't throw a caution for that. I am happy the series allowed the drivers to race and trusted them to respect the local yellows. 

18. New item to force push to pass usage: A driver must use a specific amount by a certain lap. If a driver does not meet that minimum usage, the team must serve a five-second penalty on its next pit stop. 

Let's take St. Petersburg as the example. Each received 150 seconds of push to pass for the race. Let's say a driver had to use at least 30 seconds by the end of lap ten. If you don't use 30 seconds, then it is a five-second penalty on your next stop. Then, let's say the teams must use another 30 seconds by lap 50. If a team doesn't, it is another penalty on the next pit stop. 

One, you force the teams to use it early. Two, you set the lap requirement early enough the drivers will have to face a penalty. The halfway point is a good limit. Everyone will have to make a stop in the second half of the race. It will be very difficult to circumvent the rule and if a team does, just add the five seconds to the finishing time. 

It forces more action early and it could mix up the strategies. It might force teams off a two-stop strategy and on a three-stop strategy. The penalty isn't too harsh, but it is harsh enough that drivers would just use push to pass to avoid it. I think that would be a good thing. There should be nothing wrong with encouraging aggressive strategies. 

19. And now a Texas doubleheader awaits. What a three-week stretch to open the season.