Friday, April 29, 2022

Best of the Month: April 2022

The month of April saw Formula One return to Australia, a popular first-time winner in MotoGP, an American win a grand prix motorcycle race for the first time in nearly 11 years, Long Beach back in April, NASCAR race on Easter, the World Superbike Championship possibly boiling over two rounds in, and there has already been plenty of silly season news to shake your fist at. 

The good news is everyone is pretty much up and running. The major championships are all in season and have long ways to go before we can start talking about championships and the end to seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere, days are getting warmer and the sun is around longer. This is a good time of the year.

A Third of the Way Home
Four months are behind us. There have been plenty of outstanding moments from what we have seen so far this season. This is the best point to highlight what we have seen. We are going to look at the best races, racers, passes and comebacks so far this season. 

Best Races:

24 Hours of Daytona - GTD Pro
The entire 24 Hours of Daytona could be included here, but let's focus on the GTD Pro class. It had been a great battle from the start, but in the closing hour four cars were on the lead lap, the #9 Pfaff Porsche, the #2 KCMG Porsche, the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari and the #14 VasserSullivan Lexus. 

The two Porsches had gapped themselves to the other two, but Pfaff and KCMG remained within touching distance. Mathieue Jaminet led for most of the closing stages in the #9 Porsche, but Laurens Vanthoor kept the #2 Porsche in Jaminet's mirrors. Vanthoor made his move on lap 709 and took the class lead with only two laps to go. Jaminet rallied and on the final lap took the lead in the International Horseshoe. Vanthoor countered in the Western Horseshoe, but could not re-take the lead before re-joining the oval. 

The Porsches ended up side-by-side entering the chicane. Vanthoor went to the outside and both cars were in the grass at the first right-handed portion of the corner. Vanthoor spun. Jaminet returned to the tarmac facing the right direction and KCMG took the victory. The Risi Ferrari slid through to take second, but Vanthoor recovered to salvage third.

Rallye Monte-Carlo
The World Rally Championship is transitioning into its next era, but the 2022 season opener saw its two best competitors of the 21st century put on a show. Sébastien Ogier vs. Sébastien Loeb. 

Ogier, driving for Toyota and coming off his eighth championship, competed in his first race of what will be a part-time program. Loeb, driving for M-Sport Ford, made his first WRC appearance since 2020. The two Frenchman traded blows over the four-day event. Ogier opened with two consecutive stage victories. Loeb won the next four stages and was the overall leader after stage five. Ogier clawed time back and the two drivers were tied after stage ten. 

Ogier took the overall lead after stage 11, and his overall lead was 21.1 seconds at the end of Saturday with four stages remaining. The lead grew to 24.6 seconds after stage 15 with two remaining. A disastrous penultimate swung the lead into Loeb's favor by 9.5 seconds. Loeb sealed his 80th rally victory in the final stage and won by 10.5 seconds over Ogier. Craig Breen was third, over a minute and 39 seconds back. 

4 Hours of Le Castellet
The European Le Mans Series started another banner season at Circuit Paul Ricard, and over four hours, two classes came down to the final lap. 

The overall victory was a runaway in comparison. Prema Racing won on its ELMS debut by 10.936 seconds over Algarve Pro Racing, but in LMP3 the #17 Cool Racing Ligier of Malthe Jakobsen overtook the #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier of Nicolas Pino on the final lap. Though exciting, it was a moot point as the #13 Ligier was disqualified for illegal Belleville washers. 

One final lap battle did stand. In GT, the #32 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari and the #77 Proton Competition Porsche went at it. Nicolas Varrone piloted the Ferrari ahead of veteran Gianmaria Bruni in the Porsche. The young Varrone did not blink and while the cars were side-by-side across the line, Rinaldi Racing held on for victory by 0.120 seconds over the Proton Porsche.

Best Racers:

Eli Tomac
Hands down the top rider in AMA Supercross this season, Tomac moved to Yamaha for the 2022 season and rebounded after a slightly down 2021 season with Kawasaki. With seven victories, Tomac quickly took control of the Supercross championship and for the last month it has been clear the championship would be the Coloradan's for the taking. It has always felt Tomac would clinch the championship early, and he will head to his home race in Denver this Saturday needing only a 14th-place finish or better to seal up his second Supercross championship.

Josef Newgarden
There have only been three races this IndyCar season, but when you are batting two-for-three, with a spectacular last lap pass for a victory and an aggressive in- and out-lap earn you the other, it deserves recognition. Newgarden's Texas and Long Beach races have cancelled out a poor season opener at St. Petersburg, and it feels as if Newgarden could be set up for something greater this season. He fought all race at Texas and overcame traffic to pass teammate Scott McLaughlin to win that race. At Long Beach, he slip ahead of Álex Palou and held off Romain Grosjean. There are many races to go, but with two championships under his belt, 2022 feels like 2017 and 2019 for the Tennesseean. 

Ross Chastain
Two NASCAR Cup victories, a Cup Series leading six top five finishes through ten races, who else could it be but... Ross Chastain? The unexpected darling of the first ten Cup races has been Trackhouse's Chastain, his first year with the team after Trackhouse took over the Chip Ganassi Racing operation. The year started poorly, dead last in the Daytona 500, but Chastain went third, second, second and first from Las Vegas to Austin. He picked up his second victory at Talladega. Despite being one of two drivers with multiple victories and having six top five finishes, Chastain is ninth in points, while the winless Chase Elliott leads the championship with only one top five finish. Go figure? No one has been the clear leader this Cup season, but Chastain is at the front of the group.

Best Passes:

NASCAR does inflate its passing numbers and competitiveness with an excessive number of restarts each race, but from time- to time there is a move that deserves praise. On lap 99 at Las Vegas, Erik Jones had a run on the outside exiting turn two. Ahead of Jones was Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex, Jr. three-wide. Chase Elliott was to Jones' inside. There was a narrow opening for Jones to cut in front of Elliott and Jones went for it. With his speed, Jones passed Elliott and went four-wide into turn three. By the they reached turn one, Jones had only made up one position, the pass on Elliott, but it was a hair-rising move that very well could have seen multiple cars taken out. The aerial does it more justice. In the end, it was a forgotten pass like 97% of them in a NASCAR Cup race, but it deserves it recognition. 

Twenty-four hours should be long enough to decide a winner. As covered above, that wasn't the case at Daytona. Four of the five classes went to the wire. While GTD Pro had the dramatics on the final lap, LMP2 was decided a little earlier, but with just as breath-taking a pass. With just over ten minutes to go, Louis Delétraz led in the Tower Motorsport entry, but Herta was charging. There was some distance between the Swiss driver and the American, but Herta threw his car up the inside entering the bus stop. Déletraz blinked and went into the grass. Herta was through and took LMP2 victory with that move. 

The reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway turned the track from an old surface, tire wear race into a flat out momentum battle. The first NASCAR Grand National Series race at the track went to a green-white checkered finish. Ty Gibbs was fourth at the restart on the outside. After speeds build on the penultimate lap, Gibbs had a run exiting the final corner coming to the white flag. Gibbs cut from the outside to the inside entering turn one and passed Ryan Sieg. Gibbs pulled away scored his second victory of the season thanks to the smooth move.

This race looked settled with five laps to go after lapped traffic separated Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden, but Newgarden closed the gap and was within three-tenths at the start of the final lap. With lapped traffic ahead, McLaughlin was slowed, but the tight nature of Texas Motor Speedway meant the margin for error making a pass was nothing. Newgarden took his chance and ran in what barely existed of the higher lane through turns three and four. He carried the speed and pulled ahead of McLaughlin was barely an inch to spare. Newgarden's car stuck through exit of the corner and the American made it to the finish line 0.067 seconds ahead of the New Zealander. 

Best Comebacks:

Memo Gidley
Gidley's career took a turn in 2014. At 43 years old, Gidley was in a violent accident in the 24 Hours of Daytona when his Daytona Prototype collided with a GT Ferrari that was slowing on track. Gidley suffered a broken back in the accident and it required many surgeries. For the better part of the last decade, he has been out of a race car. He has had a few outings, but not returned to full-time competition. Last year, he drove a few GT America rounds and swept the Sebring weekend. 

For 2022, it was announced Gidley would return to Daytona in the IMSA Prototype Challenge series, his first race at the facility. He was third on his Daytona return with co-driver Alexander Koreiba. Gidley also entered the European Le Mans Series full-time in a GT entry driving for Rinaldi Racing. He won on his ELMS debut with co-drivers Pierre Ehret and Nicolás Varrone. Gidley is hoping to run Le Mans this year. After such a lengthy pause to his career, it is wonderful to see Gidley make the most of this second act.

Robert Wickens
For the last three-plus years, Wickens' comeback story has been on full display for the world to see. After his accident in the 2018 IndyCar Pocono race, Wickens has been an open book on his rehabilitation from a spinal fracture. Regularly sharing videos of his physical therapy, Wickens showed us a person not only looking to return to his highest physical level, but return to a race car. 

That day came on January 28, 2022 in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona. Driving the #54 Hyundai in the TCR class with Mark Wilkins, Wickens ended up finishing third in a highly competitive performance. The duo was 13th at Sebring, but the finish did not match the drive. There are many races left but Wickens fits after so much time out of a race car. 

Matthew Brabham winning on his Indy Lights return
We might have to break up comeback into two parts, one for off-track adversity and another for your basic racing comebacks because nothing on-track can match what Gidley and Wickens have done, but we will acknowledge some other popular comebacks, starting with Matthew Brabham. 

After spending much of the last five years competing in Stadium Super Trucks and sporadically in sports car racing, Brabham decided to return to single-seater competition in 2022 and take another crack at IndyCar. Driving for Andretti Autosport, Brabham was in a prime position for success, but after so many years away against drivers who have spent the last few years dedicated to single-seater racing, Brabham would likely need a few races to find his legs. Fortune broke his way in the St. Petersburg season opener, but Brabham was at the front and when his teammates Hunter McElrea and Christian Rasmussen both fell out of the lead, Brabham swept through and took the victory on his return. 

Kevin Magnussen to Formula One
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions around the world, Haas F1 found itself without a driver. Nikita Mazepin's Russian funding was gone and with an open seat, the team needed to draft in a driver. It turned to a familiar choice. 

With Magnussen's Peugeot hypercar commitments postponed until 2023, Haas brought back the Dane and a familiar face to the team. In the 2020 season with Haas, Magnussen scored one point. In his first race back in 2022, he was fifth. He followed it up with a ninth in Saudi Arabia and a ninth at Imola. Magnussen has made Q3 in three of four races. His 15 points are already only five fewer than his 2019 total and with six more points he will have his third-highest points total in his Formula One career. He is on pace for 82 points, which would shatter his personal best. Nobody saw this coming.

Sébastien Bourdais in the IMSA Long Beach race
IMSA's street races are the shortest on the calendar at only an hour and 40 minutes in length. Any mistake is amplified. Which makes Bourdais' incident less than eight minutes in while leading even more painful. Catching the GTD entry of Kyle Washington, Bourdais shot up the inside of the hairpin, but he didn't have the grip and slid through the corner, forcing the Frenchman to park against the wall and wait until it was clear to engage reverse and straighten the car out. 

Bourdais was 21.5 seconds back once he got back going. In less than 20 minutes, Bourdais was back up to third. It took him another lap before he was back up into second. In less than a half-hour, he was back in the lead. Twenty-three laps. Bourdais was out of the lead for 23 laps. 

With the #01 Cadillac back at the front, the team controlled the race. Bourdais handed over the car to Renger van der Zande in a good position and the Dutchman brought it home, but if it wasn't for Bourdais' spectacular drive, it could have been another disappointing day for this pairing. 

May Preview
Maybe it is a good thing, but there are too many things to preview in May to focus on just one. 

The Indianapolis 500 will get its attention, don't worry, but this May will also feature the Bathurst 12 Hour, the first since 2020. It will likely be a highly Australian-based race, as this year's event falls in the middle of most European seasons, but it will be nice just to see the race again, though there will be less daylight on this race. Due to the later date, this race will have more significant nighttime running, as the sunrise will be later into the race and the sunset will be before the checkered flag comes out. 

The 24 Hours Nürburgring will be Memorial Day weekend. Last two races have been shortened because of red flags. In 2020, nearly ten hours of racing was suspended overnight due to rain and fog. Last year, there was a record-low 59 laps completed due to the weather. We are due for a full race. Porsche is coming off victory with Manthey Racing. This should be the 24 Hours Nürburgring debut for the new BMW M4 GT3.

And Formula One has its inaugural Miami Grand Prix. Ticket prices are through the roof, greater than any other motorsports event I can recall in the United States. The track has one notably long straightaway and a few other promising areas, but we will only find out during the race weekend. This track is brand new. No test events have been on it. Racing aside, it has already captured the buzz.

Other Notable May Events:
There is that Indianapolis 500 we mentioned. That same day will be the Monaco Grand Prix, MotoGP's Italian Grand Prix and the Coca-Cola 600. 
The Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters opens its season in Portimão and has another race at Lausitz.
Formula E is back in Berlin, which is really one of the few staples on the Formula E calendar. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Track Walk: Barber 2022

The fourth round of the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season takes place at Barber Motorsports Park, the first natural-terrain road course of the season. Kicking off the month of May, Barber looks to have something that has never been done before in the track's history. That would be having four consecutive different winners. This is only the second time the track has had a streak of three different winners. Six of the seven past Barber winners are entered this weekend, but there will be 20 drivers looking for their first triumph in Alabama. With 26 entries, this matches the largest Barber grid. Barber had 26 entries for its 2011, 2012 and 2013 races.

Time: Coverage begins at 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday May 1 with green flag scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and James Hinchcliffe will be in the booth. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee and Dillon Welch will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 4:00 p.m. ET (60 minutes)
Second Practice: 10:00 a.m. ET (60 minutes)
Qualifying: 1:00 p.m. ET 
Final Practice: 5:20 p.m. ET (30 minutes)
Race: 1:05 p.m. ET (90 laps)

* - All sessions will be available live on Peacock

Newgarden's Million
Barber Motorsports Park is already one of Josef Newgarden's favorite racetracks, but this year it could make Newgarden significantly wealthier. 

With two victories in the bag, one on an oval at Texas Motor Speedway and the other on the streets of Long Beach, Newgarden is the first driver eligible for the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge $1 million prize.  

PeopleReady, an industrial staffing company, and IndyCar have partnered for the 2022 season and is offering a $1 million prize to the first driver to win on a road course, a street course and an oval. The driver will get $500,000 while the other $500,000 will go to the charity of the driver and team's choice. 

Newgarden is not only the first driver with a crack at the $1 million prize, but he will also get two shots at it as the next two races are on road courses and the earliest he could have a competitor for the prize will be at Belle Isle in June. 

One driver winning on each track discipline is quite common in IndyCar. It happened in six consecutive seasons from 2015 through 2020. Scott Dixon accomplished it in 2015 with victories at Long Beach, Texas and Sonoma, and the Sonoma victory also clinched Dixon the IndyCar championship. In 2016, Will Power did it. Power didn't win until the second Belle Isle race, but he then he won the race after that at Road America before winning at Pocono in August.

Newgarden has already won on each three discipline in a single season, in fact, he has done it twice. His first time was 2017, his first year with Team Penske. His first Penske victory was at Barber. His first street course victory did not come until Toronto, and his oval victory at Gateway put him in control of the championship. Newgarden's second time winning on each track discipline was in 2020. Newgarden won at Iowa and Gateway, but he closed the season with victories on the IMS road course in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and then in the St. Petersburg season finale.  

Alexander Rossi accomplished the triumvirate in 2018 with victories at Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Pocono. Simon Pagenaud first two victories in 2019 were at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, first on the road course and then in the Indianapolis 500. Pagenaud would later win at Toronto. 

If Newgarden was able to complete the PeopleReady Force for Good Challenge at Barber it would be the first time he has won three consecutive races in his IndyCar career. It would also be the fourth time in IndyCar history a driver would have won three consecutive races on a road course, a street course and an oval. 

The first driver to do it was Al Unser, Jr. in 1994 when he won at Mid-Ohio, Loudon and Vancouver. Five years later, Juan Pablo Montoya nearly identically matched Unser, Jr.'s achievement. Montoya won at Mid-Ohio, the one-mile Chicago Motor Speedway and Vancouver. The last driver to achieve such a three-peat was Cristiano da Matta in 2002. Da Matta won at Portland, Chicago Motor Speedway and Toronto. 

Who Needs a Result?
We are reaching the quarter pole of the IndyCar season, and this will be the make it or break it race for many. 

History tells us the fourth race is a seminal for any championship hopes. Every champion since 1947 has had his first top ten finish come in one of the first four races of the season. The only champion to take more than three races to get his first top ten finish was Danny Sullivan in 1988, who was second in the fourth race of that season at Milwaukee. It was also the first of four consecutive podium finishes for Sullivan, and he had five podium finishes in the next six races and six consecutive top five results. Sullivan closed the 1988 season with seven podium finishes and 11 top five finishes in the final 12 races.

Entering Barber Motorsports Park, nine drivers do not have a top ten finish: Felix Rosenqvist, Christian Lundgaard, Conor Daly, David Malukas, Jack Harvey, Callum Ilott, Dalton Kellett, Tatiana Calderón and Devlin DeFrancesco. 

While top ten finishes are important, so are top five finishes, and the only champion not to have a top five finish within the first four races of a season was Gil de Ferran in 2000. De Ferran's first top five result was his victory in the fifth race of the season at Nazareth.

Drivers without a top five finish this year include Rinus VeeKay, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Hélio Castroneves, Jimmie Johnson, Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi and Kyle Kirkwood.

There is a little more wiggle room for podium finishes, but not much. Eighty-five of 90 champions since 1947 had at least one podium finish within the first four races of the season. The exception are Chuck Stevenson in 1952, Jimmy Bryan in 1956, Al Unser in 1985, de Ferran in 2000 and Scott Dixon in 2018. Stevenson, Unser, de Ferran and Dixon all scored their first podium finish in the fifth race of the season. Bryan wasn't on the podium until the sixth race.

Dixon, Patricio O'Ward and Colton Herta are the only drivers with top five finishes in 2022 but who have yet to stand on a podium. 

And then there are race victories, where there is much greater breathing room, but it is still important to win early. Sixty-three of 90 champions had a victory by the fourth race of the season. That is 70% of champions. Of the other 30%, six of those 27 drivers were on the podium in the first race of the season. Another four were in the top five in the first race of the season. However, ten of those 27 champions that took at least five races to score their first victory of the season finished outside the top ten in the season opener. 

Since reunification, ten of 14 champions won within one of the first three races of the season. The other four champions all took six races or longer to get their first victory. In 2010, Dario Franchitti didn't win until the sixth race at Indianapolis. Two years later, Ryan Hunter-Reay scored his first victory of the season in the eighth race of the season at Milwaukee. Dixon didn't win until the 11th race of 2013 at Pocono and still won the championship. Five years later, Dixon won his fifth championship despite not getting his first victory until the seventh race, the first Belle Isle race of the 2018 season. 

A Year Removed From Victory
Dixon has overcome adversity before, but this weekend's Barber race marks an unsavory milestone for the all-time great. Sunday's race will fall one year to the day of his most recent IndyCar victory. 

On May 1, 2021, Dixon led 206 of 212 laps from third on the grid at Texas Motor Speedway to pick up his 51st career victory, putting him one behind tying Mario Andretti for second all-time. At the time, Dixon's ascension into second felt inevitable, and at some point in 2021 we would see him ahead of Andretti in the record book. 

One year later, and Dixon has not budged. He has gone 16 races without a victory, his longest drought since the 16-race stretch from the final two races of 2013 through the first 14 races of 2014. Dixon ended that streak with a victory at Mid-Ohio. If Dixon does not win this weekend at Barber it will be the first time Dixon has gone more than a full calendar year without IndyCar victories since his over two-year drought between his 2003 victory at Richmond and his 2005 victory at Watkins Glen. 

Since Dixon's most recent victory, there have been ten different winners, with Newgarden leading the way with four victories. Álex Palou, Patricio O'Ward, Marcus Ericsson and Colton Herta have each won twice. Rinus VeeKay, Hélio Castroneves, Will Power and Scott McLaughlin have each won once. In the last 16 races, Dixon has three podium finishes, seven top five finishes and 12 top ten finishes, and while he has led 221 laps since that victory, 163 of those laps led were in the second Texas race in the 2021 doubleheader. In the last 15 races, he has led only 58 laps and in only two races has he led greater than 10 laps.

If there was ever a fitting place for this drought to end it is one of Dixon's best tracks, although he has yet to win here. Dixon is arguably one of the best drivers ever at Barber Motorsports Park. In 11 starts, Dixon has nine podium finishes. His worst two finishes are tenth and sixth. He has made it to the Firestone Fast Six every year at Barber Motorsports Park. He has completed all 961 laps run at Barber, but he has only led 46 laps in 11 starts and 38 of those came in 2012.

A victory this weekend would make 2022 the 20th season Dixon has won an IndyCar race. It would also extend Dixon's record of consecutive seasons with a victory to 18 and a Barber victory would tie Dixon with Mario Andretti for most different tracks with a victory at 26. 

A Victory, One Year Removed
While Dixon is a year removed from a victory, Dixon's Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Álex Palou is returning to the track of his first career victory, which occurred a little over a year ago. 

On his Ganassi debut, Palou led 56 of 90 laps from third on the grid at Barber and held off Will Power to open the 2021 season with a surprising victory. It was the first spark in a bright season as Palou went on to win the 2021 championship in his sophomore season. 

Palou returns to Barber continuing to ride the high. He is currently third in the championship with two podium finishes this season. Palou also has six consecutive top ten finishes, four of which were podium results and five have been top five finishes. 

His third-place finish at Long Beach gave Palou ten podium finishes in 19 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing. In Scott Dixon's first 19 Ganassi starts, Dixon had only two podium finishes, a second at Denver and a victory at Homestead. Dario Franchitti had nine podium finishes in his first 19 Ganassi starts, five of which were victories, slightly better than Palou's output. Even Juan Pablo Montoya had only nine podium finishes in his first 19 Ganassi starts, but Montoya won seven of those 19 starts. Jimmy Vasser had only a measly five podium finishes in his first 19 Ganassi starts and only one of those was a victory. 

Comparing Palou to the current IndyCar crop of drivers, his ten podium finishes in the last 19 races are the most in IndyCar. The next closest is Josef Newgarden with eight podium results since the start of the 2021 season. Only Patricio O'Ward, Scott Dixon, Colton Herta and Will Power have at least five podium finishes in that timeframe. 

With 11 podium finishes in 33 career starts, Palou's batting average of 0.333 is the third best in IndyCar behind only Dixon's 0.358 and Power's 0.338. The likes of Hélio Castroneves and Newgarden are only batting 0.261 and 0.257 respectively, while the likes of past champions Juan Pablo Montoya, Sébastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay have respective podium batting average of 0.273, 0.254, 0.201, 0.200 and 0.163. 

Some of Palou's contemporaries aren't even close to him with Patricio O'Ward and Herta both around the Mendoza line. O'Ward is above it, batting 0.219 while Herta is only hitting 0.176. Rinus VeeKay is at 0.093. Romain Grosjean is batting 0.25 though he has made just less than half the number of starts at Palou.

Road to Indy
After over two months off, all three Road to Indy series return to competition this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park. 

Indy Lights had a stunning season opener at St. Petersburg. Matthew Brabham took the victory in his first Indy Lights race since 2015 after Andretti Autosport teammates Hunter McElrea had an accident while leading and Christian Rasmussen dropped out of the race from the lead when he ran out of fuel with two laps to go. 

Brabham heads to Barber with the championship lead on 51 points and 11 points clear of Benjamin Pedersen in second. Pedersen was runner-up at Barber last year in the first race of the season. Linus Lundqvist was third at St. Petersburg and he is 16 points behind Brabham. Lundqvist was first and second at Barber last year.

Sting Ray Robb scored his best career Indy Lights finish with a fourth at St. Petersburg ahead of Danial Frost and Manuel Sulaimán. Ernie Francis, Jr. was seventh on his Indy Lights debut ahead of Antonio Serravalle and Christian Bogle. Rasmussen ended up 12th in St. Petersburg, but his laps led earned him enough bonus points to put him tenth in the championship, 30 points behind Brabham. 

Jacob Abel sits on 20 points, one ahead of Kyffin Simpson. Hunter McElrea has 18 points and James Roe, Jr. rounds out the championship on 17 points. 

The 35-lap Indy Lights race will be held at 10:55 a.m. ET on Sunday May 1.

Nolan Siegel holds the Indy Pro 2000 championship lead after finishes of fifth and first at St. Petersburg. Siegel has 50 points, two points ahead of Louis Foster, who was third and second at the season opener. Josh Green won the first St. Petersburg race but was 11th in race two after a broken toe-link in the second race from contact. Green sits on 42 points, one ahead of Braden Eves, who was fourth and third. 

Kiko Porto rounds out the top five in the championship on 34 points, one ahead of Enaam Ahmed, who was second in the first St. Petersburg race, but his contact with Green left him 13th in race two. Jack William Miller has 28 points, three ahead of Wyatt Brichacek and Reece Gold, who are tied on 25 points. Yuven Sundaramoorthy rounds out the top ten on 24 points. 

Gold led the Indy Pro 2000 Barber test last month with a lap of 77.539 seconds, nearly a quarter second ahead of Brichacek. Siegl, Foster and Ahmed all had their fastest laps in the 77.8-second range. Eves, Green, Colin Kaminsky and Jordan Missig were around 77.9 seconds. 

Eves won the first Barber race last year in Indy Pro 2000 with Hunter McElrea taking the second race.

Indy Pro 2000 will race at 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday April 30 and at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday May 1. 

Jace Denmark's consistency has him leading the U.S. F2000 championship with 57 points from St. Petersburg. The first and second place finishes has the Denmark 17 points ahead of New Zealand's Billy Frazer, who was second in race one and sixth in race two. Michael d'Orlando's pair of fourth-place finishes has him on 38 points. 

Myles Rowe's victory in race two after his final lap accident battling for the victory with Thomas Nepveu in race one has the Georgia-born driver on 35 points, tied with Jagger Jones, who was eighth and third in the opening weekend. Bijoy Garg and Simon Sikes are tied on 28 points. Spike Kohlbecker sits on 24 points. 

Nepveu could only recover to fifth in the second St. Petersburg, and he has 23 points, tied with Jackson Lee, who opened the season with a 12th and a seventh.

Nepveu, Garg and Rowe had eight-thousandths of a second cover their fastest aps at the U.S. F2000 Barber test last month. Nepveu was quickest at 82.114 seconds while Garg had a 82.121-second lap and Rowe ran an 82.122. Denmark was 0.088 seconds off Nepveu's time. Frazer and Sikes were each in the 82.3-second range. Jones led the likes of Christian Weir and Dylan Christie in the 82.5-second range.

Race one of the U.S. F2000 weekend will be at 4:20 p.m. ET on Saturday April 30. Race two is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. ET on Sunday May 1.

Fast Facts
This will be the sixth IndyCar race on May 1 and first since Scott Dixon won last at Texas. Prior to Dixon, the 2011 São Paulo race started on May 1, but finished on May 2 due to weather. Will Power won that race. Scott Dixon also won on May 1, 2010 at Kansas.

This will be the first Barber race not to take place in the month of April.

Every Barber podium finisher has started in the top ten, and 25 of 33 podium finishes have started in the top five. Every Barber podium has had at least two drivers start in the top five, including the last three races which have seen all three podium finishers start in the top five. 

Only five out of 55 top five finishers at Barber have started outside the top ten. All five of those drivers started outside the top fifteen.

Chevrolet leads all manufactures with six Barber victories. 

Honda has won the last two Barber races, but it has never won three consecutive times at the track. 

Team Penske has six Barber victories. It has failed to win the last two Barber races. Only once has Team Penske failed to win three consecutive Barber races.

The average starting position of a Barber winner is 3.181 with a median of third. 

Every Barber race has been won from an odd-numbered starting position.

Five of 11 Barber races have been won from pole position.

The worst starting position for a Barber winner is ninth. Will Power won from that position in 2012. 

The average number of lead changes in a Barber race is 6.909 with a median of seven. 

Eight of 11 Barber races have had six lead changes or more. 

Eight of 11 Barber winners have led at least half the laps in the race. 

The average number of cautions in a Barber race is 2.363 with a median of two. The average number of caution laps is 9.181 with a median of eight. 

There has never been a caution-free Barber race, but nine of 11 races have had two cautions or fewer. The 2016 race had only one caution for one lap when the initial start was waved off.

The most cautions in a Barber race was six in 2011, which was also the only Barber race not to feature a lead change.

It finally happens. Scott Dixon wins at Barber Motorsports Park and he wins from an even-numbered starting position. At least one podium finisher starts outside the top five. Graham Rahal will end up finishing at least seven spots better than his starting position. This will be a caution-free race, but there will be at least one spin of a driver in a notable position. Colton Herta will not hit any barriers, but Andretti Autosport will botch a pit stop for one of its drivers. Jimmie Johnson will not hit any barriers, and all his bones will remain intact. Álex Palou does not leap up two positions during a pit cycle. At least two rookies advance from the first round of qualifying. Sleeper: Simon Pagenaud.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Stolen Victories

Joe Roberts became the first American to win a grand prix motorcycle race since Ben Spies in the 2011 Dutch TT in a shortened Moto2 race at Portimão. Besides Roberts, the French had a good day in Portugal. Imola was packed for its first attended Formula One race since 2006, and Max Verstappen had a grand slam, the second consecutive grand slam in Formula One. Ferrari was in shambles. There was another sprint qualifying race and people are trying too hard to make them stick. IndyCar did some testing. The pit exit access road caused a few scares at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Supercross will likely crown a hometown champion next week. The Vancouver Formula E round was cancelled, clearing up Canada Day weekend for many. The NASCAR race was a mess. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Stolen Victories
For the second consecutive weekend, the NASCAR Cup race saw the winner lead only the final lap. When Kyle Busch won last week at Bristol after Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe came together in the final corner, it was quickly labeled as a stolen victory, and Busch was one of the first to admit it fell in his lap. 

It balances out over the course of a career. There are probably a half-dozen if not more Cup races that Kyle Busch can point to as ones that got away from him that were surely his. At the same time, he has at least six or seven victories that he won went it wasn't necessarily his day, but he was in the right place at the right time. Bristol ended up falling in that latter category. 

Stolen victories are nothing new, and every great driver has a few. Some lesser drivers even got away with robbery. With theft on our mind, why not look over some of the most notable stolen victories? 

Even royalty isn't above it.  

The 1979 Daytona 500 is drilled into our minds because NASCAR said so, but the final lap accident between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison led to a stolen victory. With the top two in the grass on the inside of turn three at Daytona, Richard Petty swept through for his sixth Daytona 500 victory ahead of Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt. Petty did lead 12 laps today, but prior to taking the checkered flag in first position he had not led since lap 71. 

In the closing laps, a victory was a distant thought. He was also behind Foyt at the start of the final lap, only for Foyt to lift forgetting NASCAR allowed drivers to race back to the start/finish line for their positions when the caution came out. Either way, it still counts to his 200-victory total, and to think if Yarborough and Allison had just played nice or if one of them was able to stay on track, Petty would be stuck on 199. 

From one Daytona 500 to another, the 2011 race saw 15 cars involved in accidents within the first 30 laps of the race. Such a high attrition race opened the door to many. Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer were the only two drivers to lead over 30 laps of the race, but they were caught in an accident with three laps to go. With a green-white-checkered finish set, David Ragan held the lead, but Ragan had an improper restart, changing lanes before taking the green flag. While another accident occurred behind the leaders, forcing another attempt at a green flag finish, Ragan was penalized and dropped to the rear of the field. 

Trevor Bayne, who was making this second career Cup start inherited the lead. Bayne led the final six laps and held off Carl Edwards, David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte to become the youngest Daytona 500 winner. While Petty might have been stuck on 199 without the 1979 finish, Bayne would likely still be on zero if it weren't for how the 2011 race played out. It remains Bayne's only Cup victory. He wouldn't get another top five finish in the Cup Series until 2016 and in 187 starts he has only five top five finishes. His last Cup start was in 2018 at 27 years old. 

The Daytona 500 is littered with these type of winners. But Derrike Cope won the race because Dale Earnhardt hit a seagull entering turn three on the final lap and it cut down Earnhardt's tire. Cope won the race ahead of Terry Labonte. Earnhardt limped home in fifth despite leading 155 laps. Cope led five laps, though four of those laps came in the final 21 laps, he was even leading with five to go before Earnhardt passed him on the final restart. 

We have seen the good and we have seen the bad, but the middle also steals victories.

Joey Logano's first career Cup victory at Loudon came when the team decided not to pit because of impending race. The race restarted but three laps later the caution was out for weather. It was a complete wash and Logano entered his name in the record books. Prior to that race, Logano's best finish was ninth in his first 19 starts and he had only led 25 laps in his career.

Bobby Labonte's final career Cup victory should have been Bill Elliott's final career Cup victory. Elliott had won the race prior at Rockingham and Elliott was looking to close out the 2003 season and his full-time Cup career with consecutive victories. Elliott led 189 laps at Homestead, but he had a tire failure on the final lap exiting turn two. Labonte shot through and took the victory. It was the only lap Labonte led. 

NASCAR aside, what about IndyCar? 

It is arguable Josef Newgarden stole the Texas race this year with his last lap pass on Scott McLaughlin. Newgarden did have to run down McLaughlin and made a bold move to the outside of turn four. McLaughlin didn't give it away, nor did an unfortunate set of circumstances lead to Newgarden winning, but it didn't look like it was going to be Newgarden's day until the final set of corners. 

A real steal is Carlos Huertas. The Colombian driver was making his ninth IndyCar start in the first race of the Houston doubleheader in 2014. Rain made it a timed race and Dale Coyne Racing ran a strategy to get to the end of the two-hour window. As the rest of the field made pit stops, Huertas inherited the lead. Late cautions meant Huertas stayed first and with fewer laps being run, it meant Huertas had a shot of victory with a late restart coming. 

The race was going restart in the final minutes, and it looked like two laps were possible. Huertas was low on fuel, and it would be close if he could make it, but before the green flag could even be displayed, Graham Rahal ran over Tony Kanaan coming to the restart. With the cars spun out on course, the race remained caution. But as the track was being cleared, time ran out. Huertas won the race leading a Colombian sweep of the podium ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Muñoz. It should be noted that after the race, Huertas and Dale Coyne Racing were found to have won with an illegally large fuel tank and an illegal rear wing. The victory still stands. 

Later that season, Tony Kanaan was dominating the Iowa race. He was approaching 250 laps led when a late caution came out for an accident between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ed Carpenter. The race was going to restart with about ten laps to go. A few teams at the back took on new tires and were hoping to pull something out. 

Little did we realize the advantage new tires would be. The race restarted and with each lap Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden made up positions. Neither driver had been in the discussion all night. Kanaan and his Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon had been 1-2 practically all race. It became clear Hunter-Reay and Newgarden would get ahead of the Ganassi drivers. With two laps to go, Hunter-Reay overtook and led his first lap of the night. Hunter-Reay's second lap was the checkered flag, and he took an unexpected victory with Newgarden in second. 

There are a few sour, but still stolen victories in IndyCar. Does Surfers Paradise 2002 come to mind? Terrible rainstorms led to near impassable conditions. The race still started and Adrián Fernández and Tora Takagi were both injured in an accident. The race did go green on lap three, but it only lasted until lap ten due to the weather. For 30 laps, the field was behind the safety car, but the weather never improved. Cars had to make pit stops because they had burn through so much fuel under caution. 

Mario Domínguez took the lead on lap 37, the fifth lead change under caution. Four laps later, the race was due to the weather and dwindling daylight. It was Domínguez's 17th career start and his first career victory despite starting 18th. Prior to that weekend, his best career finish was eighth. 

The Indianapolis 500 has a few stolen winners, and it starts with the second ever race. Ralph DePalma thrashed the field. The Italian-born driver blew the doors off the field and DePalma's Mercedes had a five-and-a-lap lead at the start of lap 197 of 200. Then the car started to fail DePalma. It misfired and stopped on course with a lap and a half to go. 

For over ten minutes, DePalma led the race while pushing the car on the circuit. Eventually, Joe Dawson overtook DePalma and won the race in the #4 National, over ten minutes clear of Teddy Tetzlaff. 

Ninety-nine years later, Indianapolis again had an unexpected driver take victory, albeit in quicker time than Dawson. The cautions fell in the 2011 race where some teams decided to stretch fuel over the final 40 laps. Others were hoping for another caution and felt stopping under the lap 158 caution for the Townsend Bell-Ryan Briscoe would not get them to the end. 

Over the next 20 laps, the leaders made their final pit stops as scheduled, but other cars took the lead. Danica Patrick took the lead but never had enough to make it. Bertrand Baguette took the lead and was saving fuel, but it was clear the Belgian would fall a few laps short. He stopped with three laps to go. 

J.R. Hildebrand took over the lead and he had enough to make it and no pressure from behind. At the start of the final lap, second place was not in his mirrors. It looked as if Hildebrand could run out of fuel exiting the final corner and could still coast to victory.

The race to the line was not between a car out of fuel and one charging at full bore. Hildebrand got wide in turn four and into the marbles, his car smacked the barrier and slid down the wall toward the finish line. With all the pit stops, no one was sure who was second place, but then it was picked up. It was Dan Wheldon and Hildebrand was not far enough ahead to skid to victory. Wheldon swept through and beat Hildebrand to the line by 2.1086 seconds. Wheldon only led the final lap, the fewest laps led for an Indianapolis 500 winner.

These were just in North America, but they happen everywhere. There is a recent 24 Hours of Le Mans and a Belgian Grand Prix that has happened within the last calendar year that deserve a mention. Maybe we can look at international thefts at a later date, but they happen, they happen in the biggest races, and no one is above them. We will see a few more this year in all likelihood. Some will stick in our minds. Others will quickly be forgotten.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Joe Roberts and Max Verstappen, but did you know...

Fabio Quartararo won MotoGP's Portuguese Grand Prix. Sergio García won the Moto3 race, his second victory of the season.

Ross Chastain won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega, his second victory of the season. Noah Gragson won the Grand National Series race.

Nobuharu Matsushita won the Super Formula race from Suzuka, his first career Super Formula victory. 

Kalle Rovanperä won Rally Croatia, his second victory of the season.

Jonathan Rea won the first two World Superbike races from Assen, but he retired in the final race and Álvaro Bautista won the third race to retain the championship lead. Dominique Aegerter swept the World Supersport races.

Jason Anderson won the Supercross race from Foxborough, his fifth victory of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar reaches the quarter-post of its season at Barber Motorsports Park.
MotoGP completes its first back-to-back of the season with the Spanish Grand Prix from Jerez.
A week after MotoGP was at Portimão, the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters open its 2022 season there. 
IMSA moves North to Laguna Seca. 
NASCAR moves North to Dover.
Formula E is in Monaco.
Supercars head to Perth. 
The GT World Challenge Europe Sprint Cup has its opening round at Brands Hatch.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Ten Overreactions From Indianapolis 500 Testing

This week's Indianapolis 500 testing has gotten the blood flowing. We are over a month from the 105th edition of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," and that first on-track session in preparations always has everyone's attention. It has been basically 11 months since an Indianapolis 500-related session took place. The motorsports world is ready for its ready.

However, as we all know, the Indianapolis 500 winner is known on April 21 every year. We all know that. We know everything about the Indianapolis 500 after the first test session of the year. There is no point in even running the race. 

People love taking this session and using it as gospel when it really shouldn't be the case. We need to walk people back from the edge of the cliff. There is still a lot of on-track to come. We truly know nothing, but that isn't stopping some from overreacting.

Here are ten overreactions from the recent two-day test and why they are foolish.

1. Jimmie Johnson is going to win the Indianapolis 500
Oh Jimmie Johnson! IndyCar's messiah has ridden into IndyCar Jerusalem, and he is here to fulfill IndyCar scripture. 

The seven-time NASCAR champion's long-awaited Indianapolis 500 debut is upon us, and testing could not have started much better. Two days, no issues, and Johnson finished the test eighth overall with his fastest lap being at 227.900 mph. 

Johnson has significantly more oval experience than any other driver he will run against in the Indianapolis 500. He has also won four Brickyard 400s, plus an IROC race at Indianapolis. Based on his NASCAR results and his IndyCar oval debut last month at Texas, there is a growing portion of people penciling him for a top ten run. After being eighth through the first two-day test, Johnson will soon creep into the conversation for possible race winner. 

Testing looked good, but it has been two days. There are many other great drivers in the field. Three of his four Chip Ganassi Racing teammates were ahead of him, plus it is only testing. We don't know what every team was working on. The track conditions will be different in May. It should be warmer. It was a good test, but it is early. 

2. Team Penske is going to run away with this season
Josef Newgarden topped the test session with a lap at 229.519 mph. Scott McLaughlin rounded out the top five, just under two-tenths of a second off Newgarden's top time. 

Team Penske is already three-for-three in 2022 and it thoroughly dominated two races. Penske isn't going to lose this season. It is going to win at Barber and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis 500 will surely be their race as well. 

If Penske is this damn good, it is going to win 13 races. Newgarden already has two victories and he will likely end up with six. McLaughlin will pick up another three and Will Power will end up with at least three victories of his own. The championship will be clinched before we even get to the month of September. 

But, again, this was only a test. And Penske did dominate two of the first three races, but Long Beach very well could have been an Andretti Autosport or Chip Ganassi Racing victory. 

Penske had a down year in 2021 with only three victories. It was bound to pick up from that total in 2022. Team Penske struggled at Indianapolis last year, but it doesn't stay down for long at the Speedway. 

Penske will likely end up with the most race victories this season, and it could easily take the Indianapolis 500 and championship, but other teams are going to win. Ganassi will win a few. Andretti Autosport should be able to do enough to get one victory this year. Arrow McLaren SP will have its day. Meyer Shank Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are still around and get put something together. 

We are going to see different winners and it will not be a lost season.

3. Andretti Autosport is in big trouble
Four of five Andretti Autosport cars were outside the top fifteen in the two-day test. The top Andretti Autosport driver was Marco Andretti in fifth. Unfortunately, Andretti isn't the driver you want leading the team leading the speed charts when the rest are struggling. His pole position and subsequently poor race in 2020 is fresh in all our minds. 

This is another case of Andretti Autosport stepping in the wrong direction. After poor strategy choices and a lackluster Indianapolis 500 in 2021, Andretti is going to mirror Penske's 2021 output. It is going to have all the cars in the middle of the field, none are going to be a threat, one might be on the last row. This will be a black eye for the team.

Or, Andretti Autosport wasn't focused on putting up a big lap (sans Marco Andretti, of course), and the team is hoping to have better race pace after last year's race unraveled quickly on the team. 

Many concerns follow Andretti Autosport, and it is likely this will not be an Andretti-dominant month of May with four cars in the Fast Nine and a combined 100 laps led in the race, but someone will be competitive. 

4. Santino Ferrucci is going to shock the world
Through three Indianapolis 500 starts, Ferrucci has finishes of seventh, fourth and sixth. In each of those races he has started 19th or worse. He has completed all 600 possible laps in his three starts, and he ended up 12th in testing at 227.489 mph. 

It was a strong test for both Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entries, as Sage Karam was directly behind Ferrucci at 227.425 mph. Only 0.0111 seconds separated the teammate. 

Based on Ferrucci's history, if he has any speed in the car and can start at the front we are looking at a second consecutive year of a part-time entry winning the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci will stun the world and show he should be full-time in IndyCar.

Although, we aren't sure if Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is the real deal. Recent history points to the team struggling. Last year, Karam ended up in the top ten, but the team regularly does not go the distance at Indianapolis. We are also accustomed to seeing one team look competitive in testing or practice not be in the fight come race day. 

Life is also a number's game. Ferrucci has been strong in each of his first three Indianapolis 500 starts, but eventually one goes against a driver whether the driver likes it or not.

5. Hélio Castroneves is in for a comeback story
The biggest story from this test was the three separate incidents that occurred with cars spinning out in the warm-up lane exiting the pit lane. In two incidents, cars spun onto the racetrack. One of those was Castroneves, who lost it on the access road inside turn two, cut through the grass and smacked the outside barrier. 

Castroneves was the only serious incident at the test, and the day one incident prevented the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner from participating in day two. Adding insult to injury is Castroneves' car was the same one he drove to victory last year. 

But isn't this the story meant for the first five-time Indianapolis 500 winner? Adversity from the start. A rebuild. Proving everyone wrong. Castroneves can turn this around and make history. 

Castroneves is just one of a long list of drivers to have an accident at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The team will repair the car and it will be as good as new. Castroneves could win the race, but he could be in the middle of the field again. This is a tough race to win and there are a lot of drivers out there. Teammate Simon Pagenaud will be a tough intra-team hurdle to clear. Castroneves just got his fourth after 12 years of waiting. Getting his fifth in his first attempt at it is highly unlikely.

6. Hélio Castroneves is done
But Castroneves' accident could be the beginning of the end. The other four-time winners didn't have many great cracks at the fifth. Foyt went over a decade, but his later years were far from his highest level. Al Unser won his fourth as a substitute. Unser's career was already winding down when fate smiled on him in 1987. His fourth victory likely gave his career as second breath of life and an additional two or three Indianapolis 500 starts. Rick Mears only made one attempt at a fifth Indianapolis 500 victory before calling it a career. 

Castroneves does turn 47 years old on May 10. Only Unser was older when he won his fourth. Father Time is undefeated, and just after Castroneves experienced the greatest high of his career, it could be over. This accident could be the sign that a fifth isn't going to happen. He is on borrowed time, and he will spend the next three or four years trying but not quite ascend to a higher level meant exclusively for him. 

Or... Castroneves had one accident. Yes, he is getting older, and he has fewer Indianapolis 500 starts ahead of him than behind him. A fifth will be difficult to achieve, but this doesn't mean it is over. Castroneves could still fight at the front. He showed there is still something there last year. Castroneves will be fine. He could be in the middle of the field this year, but that doesn't mean he is going to be one of the slowest drivers out there.

7. Felix Rosenqvist is going to resurrect his IndyCar career
Leading the Arrow McLaren SP trio during the test was the Swede Felix Rosenqvist, finishing up in ninth and he was one of only three Chevrolets in the top ten along with the two Penske drivers. 

Rosenqvist has been quick in a few races this season, qualifying well at Texas before a botched pit stop took him out of contention for a tremendous finish, and a subsequent mechanical issue was the dagger to end his day. At Long Beach, Rosenqvist was the top AMSP qualifier, making the Fast Six, but his opening stint on the alternate tire was woeful, dropping him down the order. He was able to recover in the latter portion of the race, but the damage had been done and he could only climb to 11th at the checkered flag and after a handful of drivers ahead of him retired from the race. 

The Swede has been there in this crucial season for his IndyCar future. A top result at Indianapolis, leading AMSP at Indianapolis and possibly contending for victory would save his career. A victory could secure his future for the next ten years. It could be to Rosenqvist's career what Simon Pagenaud's 2019 Indianapolis 500 meant to the Frenchman's future. If Rosenqvist can get that second breakthrough, he could finally see the driver we have all been waiting for.

However, this doesn't feel likely. Rosenqvist has two top ten oval finishes in his IndyCar career, both at Gateway in 2020. His Indianapolis 500 finishes have been 28th, 12th and 27th. He has started 14th the last two years, but I don't see Rosenqvist being the guy this year. He could have a good day and could finish in the top ten, but that isn't going to necessarily change minds.

8. Tony Kanaan is going to be this year's notable old guy
Back with Chip Ganassi Racing for the second consecutive year, Tony Kanaan shows he still has it. The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner wrapped up the test third quickest at 228.767 mph, the top Ganassi driver, directly ahead of Scott Dixon and with some daylight between him and defending champion Álex Palou as well as the previously mentioned IndyCar messiah. 

Kanaan has been one of the best drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the turn of the 21st century. He could have been a multi-time Indianapolis 500 winner if it weren't for bad weather, mechanical failures or accidents, and while that pace has not dropped as Kanaan has gotten older, his last few years have not been in the best equipment. He made the most of his few years at A.J. Foyt Racing. 

But back with Ganassi, Kanaan has one final shot to prove he is one of the top drivers all-time in this race. We are in a stretch of veteran triumph. Takuma Sato picked up his second Indianapolis 500 victory in 2020. Last year, Hélio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 at 46 years old, and as a part-time driver. Kanaan is 47 years old, and an Indianapolis one-off. If Castroneves can do, Kanaan can do it as well.

Kanaan could have a good day, but victory? It is possible. He is with a proper team, but the part-time winners are infrequent, in fact, the hit-rate is about one in ten because before Castroneves' victory in 2021 the last Indianapolis one-off to win was Dan Wheldon in 2011. Before Wheldon, the next part-time driver to win at Indianapolis was Castroneves in 2001, albeit Castroneves was full-time in CART, but no the Indy Racing League. 

It is rare, not impossible, but not in Kanaan's favor either. 

9. We are going to see some of the fastest qualifying speeds ever
The top speed from the opening test was 229.519 mph in April. We haven't even started thinking about the turbo boost going up for qualifying and we are already flirting with 230 mph. If that is the case, we must be thinking we could see 234 or 235-mph laps during qualifying. 

Not so fast my friend. Yes, Newgarden topped the overall timesheet with a lap at 229.519 mph, but that came with a draft and if you look at the no-tow report the top lap was 221.314 mph, which Rinus VeeKay set.

You can hold off on expecting anyone challenging Arie Luyendyk's track record. We could see some big qualifying speeds and pole position being over 230 mph, but we aren't going to witness history this qualifying weekend.

10. There isn't going to be a 33rd entry
Thirty-two cars were able to participate in the Indianapolis 500 test. That 33rd entry still isn't close to getting off the ground. Considering the advantage the first 32 teams have gotten, does any 33rd entry stand a chance? Is any driver really going to be interested in such a seat? 

Taking into consideration all the uncertainty over driver, team and funding a month out and with 32 cars accounted for, this could be a tradition in jeopardy of not happening in 2022. 

But there is going to be a 33rd entry. It doesn't matter that Ryan Hunter-Reay said no and we could see some three-headed monster entry with three different teams pitching together to get that final car on the grid, we are going to get a 33rd entry. 

It will not be competitive. It will likely not be memorable, but it will be there. Even if it is only a glorified start-and-park car. 

There you have it. Everyone can calm down now. These testing results will mean nothing once actual practice starts in May, and then we will have another set of overreactions to deal with. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Dirty Thoughts

Easter night brought more than discarded eggshells and chocolate wrappers this year. While the sun had set, family dinners dispersed and attention turned to another work week, there was an unfamiliar holiday guest in the form of a NASCAR Cup race. 

Year two of the Bristol dirt race saw the race move to the holiday weekend, a break from NASCAR's usual observance of the holiday with the teams getting time off. Using the holiday as a chance to springboard the race into the national conversation while also being the first time the new car has hit the dirt; this past Sunday's Bristol event carried a greater significance. 

As NASCAR remains in the early days of its scheduling revolution, it is still figuring out whether a dirt race is in its future. After a flawed, but completed first event in 2021, NASCAR entered this year with a playbook on necessary improvements. With another 250 laps behind us, it is time to review how this year played out and cover three many areas: How did this year's race go? What could be done in the future? Is this race worth continuing in the future?

How 2022 Went
There was plenty of good and bad from the 2022 edition from the Bristol dirt race. 

The track raced much better than in 2021. It was wider for a longer portion of the race. Drivers could fight back as the track changed. We had some good battles at the front of the field. The cars looked more suited for dirt. It still isn't the most elegant thing ever put on a dirt track, but it wasn't as clunky as the year before. There was also a good crowd, better than recent spring Bristol races, but still far from a sellout and matching what the summer race has been getting for the last few decades.

However, the track was starting to become a single lane, this time around the top unlike last year, which was single-file around the bottom. In the middle of stage two, the track was notably drying out and the rain showers throughout the second half of the race saved it from matching last year's event. 

This race was also more disjointed than 2021. There were 14 cautions, four more than last year, for 82 laps, up from 39 caution laps in 2021, and there were three fewer laps run in this year's race. Of the 15 green flag periods during the race, five lasted five laps or shorter. The longest green flag run was 25 laps with the average green flag period lasting only 11.2 laps. 

Of course, there was the finish, which will snuff out most unpleasant memories of this race. Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe went toe-to-toe over the closing laps before Briscoe's desperate attempt for the lead entering turn three on the final lap led to both cars spinning and Kyle Busch sneaking through to win by 0.330 seconds over a recovering Reddick.

Let's also not forget to mention the crisis averted at the end of stage two where many were not sure who the leader was and who would win the race if it was unable to continue due to weather. 

Ideas For the Future
It sounds like we will be getting another Bristol race in 2023, and after two years there are still plenty of adjustments that need to be done. 

For starters, remove the windshields. Visibility was not as big of an issue as we saw in 2021, but it is still the one thing holding back the Bristol dirt race. Drivers have been calling in each of the first two years to remove windshields and replace them with a metal screen. Though NASCAR tested a car without the windshield in the lead up to the dirt race, it did not implement it for 2022. 

Windshields are the first of a few technical things that could be changed. A few drivers experienced overheating issues, but those decreased after the opening laps when the mud was kicked up off the surface and the track started drying out. Radiator changes have not been floated. 

It must be addressed the scale of the Bristol dirt race. It is a 250-lap race. Most dirt race main events are 30 laps. Some are 50 laps. ARCA runs 100 laps around Springfield and DuQuoin, but those are one-mile tracks. NASCAR has pushed the limits of a dirt track. It is trying to cross the Pacific Ocean in an inner tube. 

The race format is not conducive to a good dirt race. The track is always bound to dry out with the length and the number of cars out there.

However, we saw good periods for 25 to 50 laps on Sunday night. It is just when the race gets beyond that point and no serious track work has been done does the race quality fall off a cliff.

A 250-lap race straight up isn't the best answer. NASCAR has fooled around with the rulebook enough to make the Bristol dirt race happen, could it change the format even more? 

On Saturday night, NASCAR ran heat races to set the starting grid. At the Clash in February, NASCAR ran heat races to determine the A-Main, ran a last chance qualifier to fill the final spots and ran a 23-driver main event. A Clash-format would work for the Bristol dirt race. The first hour could be the heat races. There could be a 20-minute break before the last chance qualifier and the final hour could be the main event. 

It would allow for proper track preparations before each phase of the night, and a 50-lap finale would maximize the level of racing before the track conditions wore out. It could possibly be 75 laps in length. It would really depend on how many cars were on the track. Around 100 laps in with nearly 40 cars on track takes its toll. A 20-car field could mean the track could last 100 laps without many issues. 

However, if the race is going to be that disjointed and unlike the rest of the schedule, doesn't the Bristol dirt race make more sense as an exhibition race? No one is dying over whether or not a dirt race counts toward the championship, but an exhibition race, the All-Star Race if it were, would be a better option for shortened distances, heat races and technical changes to the cars. 

Scheduling of this event also needs to be addressed. NASCAR is selling the Bristol dirt race as a race tied to Easter Sunday. However, the problem with Easter is not the holiday itself, but the unpredictable weather patterns of the first month of spring. This has been a Bristol problem for a long time with many rain-delayed or shortened races. This was the second consecutive year and fourth time in six years weather interfered with the Bristol spring race.

Easter Sunday will not be kind to NASCAR over the next two years. Next year, Easter is April 9, a week earlier than this year. In 2024, Easter is March 31. Bristol is not in the right location to guarantee reasonable weather in the first few weeks of spring. Weather delays are only going to follow this event should it remain tied to Easter. 

NASCAR made the right choice to move this to a night race, as it prevented the sun from accelerating the track drying, but this race needs to move further back in the schedule. It needs to be at least a month later. That would take it off the Easter date, but it would likely guarantee less concerns about weather, drive up attendance and it could be paired with the Coca-Cola 600 to give two marquee events in consecutive weekends, a chance to Fox to end its portion of the NASCAR season on a high.

If it does become an exhibition race, what does that mean for Bristol? Bristol starts preparing the dirt track in early January. If it takes a few months to set up, there is no way Bristol could have a normal spring race in late-March or early April and then an exhibition dirt race in May or June. It is also unlikely NASCAR would lay down the dirt, run Easter Sunday, have one normal Bristol race in June or July and then have the night race in September. It is also highly unlikely Bristol will have three separate race weekends.

No one seems to mind Texas having only one championship race and having its other weekend be the All-Star Race, but I doubt anyone would want only one Bristol race counting toward the championship.

Is it Worth Continuing?
There was a sense even before this year's race took place that some were over the dirt race, and after the checkered flag waved Sunday night there seemed to be more noise over wanting to move on from the dirt experiment. 

However, Bristol has already made it known that it plans on having the dirt race return in 2023. But should it? 

This year's race was an improvement over 2021, but there is only so many ways NASCAR and the track can improve the race in the current format. It can get better, but the same problems will still pop up every year between the track drying out and the overall quality of driving. 

This year's race had an average speed of 34.973 mph, down from 46.313 mph the year before. At some point the audience will notice the lack of pace, especially if a green flag run cannot last longer than 25 laps. 

While NASCAR has adopted a new philosophy of schedule openness, it must ask what it wants to be. The Cup Series went 50 years between dirt races. No one was particularly demanding a dirt race, but NASCAR and Bristol added one to the schedule. This race is completely different from the rest, and it is hoping this is what will grab people's attention. It is why this race was Easter Sunday. But it is an odd tentpole event to promote to any new viewers when no other race all season looks like it. It is like if Starbucks promoted its coffee one week and then sold only beet juice the rest of the year. 

NASCAR and Fox is hoping to tie itself to Easter Sunday and become as synonymous with the holiday as football is to Thanksgiving, the NBA is to Christmas Day and college football is to New Year's Day, but this year's results suggests it didn't draw that larger causal audience it was hoping for. 

Bristol had 4.007 million viewers, only slightly up from Atlanta a month ago, which had 4.003 million viewers. Of the 2022 races, Bristol is behind the Daytona 500, Fontana and Las Vegas in terms of viewers, and Bristol even had fewer viewers than the Clash. By NASCAR terms, it was a good audience, but it fell right in the middle where NASCAR always falls. It didn't draw more than the core audience that is already watching. You cannot call that a success. 

I doubt how much the Bristol dirt race can carry NASCAR, especially if NASCAR is reluctant to modify the cars to perform at the highest level on dirt. Easter weekend moves around and tying the Bristol dirt race to the holiday keeps the race in the fluky weather window that has hurt the spring Bristol weekend for the last ten to 15 years. 

The 100,000-pound gorilla in the room will always be the Bristol dirt race is taking away a regular Bristol race, and even the spring Bristol races were highly competitive and memorable. Consider the last three spring races before the dirt event. It was the Kyle Busch bump-and-run on Kyle Larson with six laps to go, Kyle Busch overcoming an accident on lap two of the race to win, and then the Joey Logano-Chase Elliott battle that opened the door and allowed Brad Keselowski to take the victory. All notable races, but one was delayed to Monday, and another was during the pandemic. The Bristol spring races weren't lacking in action, just chamber of commerce weather.

It appears nothing is going to stop year three of the Bristol dirt race from taking place. NASCAR and Bristol are going to jam this square peg into a round hole the same way it has done with stage racing, the current playoff format and how it told us everyone wanted a low horsepower and high downforce technical package. But 2023 could be the breaking point if the right adjustments are not made for this event.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Two of Each, Please

Kyle Busch became the ninth driver to win 60 NASCAR Cup races after he swept through to win the Bristol dirt race when Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe spun on the final lap. It was the first time in 223 NASCAR national touring division races Busch has won a race with only one lap led. Bristol wasn't the only place to have a wild final lap. Bristol also wasn't the only place where Toyota was on top. The GT World Challenge America season began, and it was business as usual. Alexander Rossi might have an orange future ahead of him. Paretta Autosport is looking to a run a few road course races. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Two of Each, Please
During last week's IndyCar race at Long Beach, NBC flashed a graphic about strategy just after the first caution of the race. It was pretty straightforward. A two-stop strategy had a 99% chance of winning. A three-stop strategy had a one-percent chance. 

The windows were still large enough to allow for different strategies though everyone was on a two-stopper. Scott Dixon was able to come in early and leaped forward, positioning himself for a sixth-place finish, but because of Dixon's strategy choice, he had to pay later on in the race and conserve fuel. 

Tire regulations mandate that each driver use at least one set of the primary tire compound and alternate tire compound during a race. IndyCar race distance alone means every road/street course race will be at least two stops, meaning it is matter of does a team fulfill the tire requirement after its first stop or its second. If it is a three-stopper, does a team wait until the last one? 

Romain Grosjean did not use his new alternate tires until the final stop at Long Beach, and it worked to his advantage combined with the late caution periods. Grosjean was able to turn what was likely only going to be a top five result into a runner-up effort, falling short of victory despite late pressure on Josef Newgarden. 

The fuel windows and tire compounds keep races open-ended, but for a split moment during Long Beach, it felt like we were going to see a stagnant race. Gaps opened up in the field and it looked like Colton Herta was going to run away with it. Then Herta had a slow stop, Álex Palou jumped from third to first and the fight amongst the top three became compelling. The rest of the field was left in the dust, but it at least wasn't over before we had even reached halfway. 

However, while watching the race and seeing how everyone was racing to a lap number, I was thinking about the tire regulations and wondered why IndyCar didn't make everyone use each tire compound twice. It would be a simple change and all the teams have enough tires to make it possible. Some teams used a new set of the primary compound and a used set of primary tires as well as the alternate compound. Other teams went with a new set of alternate tires and a used set of alternate tires. They all have the necessary sets of tires that it wouldn't be a big strain on the teams.

Using two sets of each tire compound would decrease the importance of fuel strategy significantly. The goal would be to still make the final stop as early in the window as possible, but because of the necessity of an extra pit stop, it would change up how teams approach a race. Does a team squeeze the first two stops in before the final window opens and then makes its final stop as early as possible, or would that team lose too much time early on? Does a team run as hard as it can and make its final stop later in the race, running the risk of a caution catching them out? 

IndyCar has had some good road and street course races lately but mandating each tire compound be used twice during the race seemingly increases the likelihood for more risks taken, both on-track and on the pit stand.

We want the teams and drivers encouraged to race hard. In the case of Dixon, instead of holding on for a 32-lap stint, he could push harder because he and the rest of the field would need to make another pit stop, and in Dixon's case he would get to end on the alternate compound. 

Running each compound tire would change how a race is approached at many tracks. There are plenty of places where one compound is notably worse than the other and teams will suffer through a stint, most likely the opening stint, before being able to finish the race on the preferred tire. Imagine if each teams had to use that undesirable compound twice. It would be a monkey wrench thrown into race strategies. Some teams could do two quick stints to get rid of that compound. Some teams might split it up to balance the detriment of the worse compound. Some teams might decide to use the preferred compound in the opening two stints and go long on those stints in an effort to run away from the field so it could end with two quick stints on the bad compound.

IndyCar races would become more interesting if teams had to use each compound twice. There would be no cut-and-dry way to tackle a race, and a team taking a chance would have a greater chance to pull out a great finish and possibly a victory. 

This is something simple enough that IndyCar could try it at any road/street course race weekend and not have to change much to its operation. It shouldn't cost the teams any extra money. IndyCar might decide to give its teams an extra set of tires, but it would appear they already have enough tires to make this happen. Honda and Chevrolet wouldn't have to change anything. This isn't like IndyCar deciding to institute a Drag Reduction System and force Dallara to develop new rear wings and in turn force the teams to spend thousands of dollars. This is using another set of tires already in the team's possession. 

There is no sense IndyCar is looking down this avenue for an improvement to its road and street course events, but I think it would be worth trailing at one event, perhaps Nashville would be best setup for it. There would be no loss for trying it. If it works then that means people got to see a great race and IndyCar could look to implementing this at other races. If it doesn't work, it likely doesn't turn a race into a disaster, and I don't think anyone would notice more than every team made an additional pit stop and IndyCar could then just return to its current tire regulations for all future events.

This is the kind of thing IndyCar should be ok experimenting with, and the series should try different things every now and then. This isn't adding stages or having green-white-checkered finishes up the wazoo or putting dirt on top of an otherwise fine oval. It would be adding an extra pit stop to a race, something people are already accustomed to seeing. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Kyle Busch, but did you know...

Jason Anderson won the Supercross race from Atlanta, his fourth victory of the season.

The #14 TGR Team Eneos Rookie Racing Toyota of Kazuya Oshima and Kenta Yamashita won the Super GT race from Fuji. The #56 Kondō Racing Nissan of João Paulo de Oliveira and Kiyoto Fujinami won in GT300.

The #9 Prema Racing Oreca-Gisbson of Louis Delétraz, Ferdinand Habsburg and Lorenzo Colombo won the 4 Hours of Le Castellet. The #17 Cool Racing Ligier-Nissan of Mike Benham, Malthe Jakobsen and Maurice Smith won in LMP3. The #32 Rinaldi Racing Ferrari of Pierre Ehret, Memo Gidley and Nicolás Varrone won in GTE.

The #1 K-PAX Racing Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper swept the GT World Challenge America races from Sonoma. Jason Daskalos and Jason Harward split the GT America races. The #18 RS1 Porsche of Eric Filguieras and Stevan McAleer swept the GT4 America races.

Ben Rhodes won the NASCAR Truck race from Bristol.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One has its first European round at Imola. 
MotoGP has its first European round at Portimão.
NASCAR heads from dirt to Talladega. 
Super Formula is back on track at Suzuka. 
World Superbike will be at Assen. 
Supercross has its antepenultimate round in Foxborugh, Massachusetts.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

IndyCar's Degrees of Separation

I am not sure what brought this to mind. It could be the recent passings of Bobby Unser and Al Unser. It could be that this year marks the 30-year anniversary of A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears' final IndyCar starts, but I was thinking about the distances between this grid and those legendary drivers of the 20th century. 

None of the current drivers raced against the Unsers, Foyt, Mears and Mario Andretti. Many of these drivers weren't even alive when those men raced. It is the circle of life. Nothing lasts forever and a new generation is populating the grid, paddock area and grandstands. 

IndyCar's golden era is becoming less present. This is a time many of us have long thought about because nothing lasts forever. IndyCar is in a better place than it could have been when the series underwent this change, but it is still difficult to accept. 

Considering the grid in 2022, I started wondering how separated are the present drivers from those heroes of the past. Who was the last driver to compete in IndyCar that raced against A.J. Foyt? Mario Andretti? The Unsers? And so on. 

It feels more distant, but after going through the record book, the past isn't as far from the present as we think. 

And it is all because of one man. 

None of the current drivers competed directly against Foyt, Andretti, Al Unser, Mears and so on in IndyCar. That is not a surprise. But mean drivers are only two degrees of separation away. 

And it is all because of Buddy Lazier. 

Buddy Lazier made his IndyCar debut on June 24, 1990 at Portland. His Indianapolis 500 debut was in 1991, Rick Mears' fourth victory and penultimate Indianapolis 500 start. Lazier ran until the 2017 Indianapolis 500, meaning the separation is much smaller than we would have thought. 

Ten of IndyCar's current full-time drivers are only two degrees of separation from Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Mears, as well as Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Willy T. Ribbs to name a few other drivers. Those ten current drivers also do not take into consider Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter and J.R. Hildebrand, drivers who are all planned entrants into this year's Indianapolis 500. 

That means 15 possible Indianapolis 500 starters will only be two degrees of separation from those greats. Not to mention, they are only three degrees separated from the likes of Tony Bettenhausen and Rodger Ward.

What about some other drivers? 

Jacques Villeneuve went nearly 20 years between IndyCar starts, but when he returned for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 he gave 32 drivers who otherwise would have never raced against him the opportunity to make that connection. Of those drivers, only Hélio Castroneves, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud (who was Villeneuve's teammate in that race), Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal are still full-time. There are a handful of other drivers who will be part-time that were in that 2014 race, but Villeneuve makes those seven drivers only two degrees separated from a few drivers. 

Because Villeneuve had not run since 1995 before he returned to the Speedway in 2014, that makes Villeneuve the last driver to compete against Danny Sullivan to run an IndyCar race. Villeneuve is only the last driver to compete against Dick Simon to race in IndyCar. 

When I was first thinking about this, I thought John Andretti would be the answer for some of these, but Buddy Lazier steals a lot of the thunder. Andretti does have a few interesting names. He was the last driver to compete against Johnny Rutherford to start an IndyCar race. He was also the last driver to race against Derek Daly to compete in an IndyCar race, as well as Josele Garza and Dale Coyne. 

Graham Rahal, Dixon, Power, Castroneves and Sato are the only active drivers two degrees from Rutherford, Daly, Garza and Coyne, and that means Conor Daly is three degrees separated from his father. 

Dixon is a lot closer to his team owner than some will realize. Dixon raced against Roberto Moreno during the 2001 CART season and in the 2006 St. Petersburg race. Moreno is the last driver to race in IndyCar that raced against Chip Ganassi. Moreno is also the last driver to race against Randy Lanier and Alan Jones, who made only one IndyCar start at Road America in 1985. 

Dixon is two degrees away from Ganassi, Lanier and Jones, as are Rahal, Power, Castroneves, Sato. By the way, Moreno raced against Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti and Marco Andretti. How many drivers can say that? I am sure it is a longer list than we realize, but we can tackle that on another day. 

Castroneves is the last link to a few notable drivers. He is the last driver to race against Bobby Rahal to be competing in IndyCar. He is the last driver to race against Jan Magnussen in IndyCar that is still competing. Coincidentally, Castroneves has two degrees of separation to Kevin Magnussen in IndyCar because Castroneves was not in the Road America race last year. Castroneves of course has competed against Kevin Magnussen in IMSA sports car competition. 

Castroneves is also the last driver standing to race against Tony Stewart in an IndyCar and Castroneves is the last one to share a grid with Scott Goodyear. 

Because Castroneves came up in the late 1990s, and not long after him Tony Kanaan and Dixon began their careers, they are all a part of an exclusive club. They are the last drivers to compete against Alex Zanardi and Greg Moore still on the grid. Castroneves and Kanaan are the last drivers remaining that raced against Arie Luyendyk. 

We have covered a lot of drivers here, but what about Bobby Unser? Who was the last driver to compete against Bobby Unser to run an IndyCar race? 

While the likes of Foyt, Andretti and Al Unser raced into the 1990s, Bobby Unser called it a career after his third Indianapolis 500 victory in 1981. John Andretti was the last driver to start an IndyCar race in the 1980s standing when he retired after the 2011 season, and Andretti's first IndyCar start was in 1987, over six years after Bobby Unser's final start. 

So who is it? The recently departed Danny Ongais. 

Ongais was in that 1981 Indianapolis 500, finishing 27th, his fifth Indianapolis 500 start. Ongais' final IndyCar start was January 25, 1997 at Walt Disney World Speedway. Ongais was the final driver to start a race in the 1970s to compete in IndyCar. Ongais is the last link for a few notable drivers. He was the final driver to compete against Roger McCluskey to start an IndyCar race as well as Lloyd Ruby, Wally Dallenbach, Janet Guthrie and Clay Regazzoni.

None of the current IndyCar grid raced against Danny Ongais. 

But you know who was the last driver to start an IndyCar race who had competed against Ongais? 

Buddy Lazier. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Musings From the Weekend: Who Should be the Indianapolis 500 Start-and-Park Entry?

Josef Newgarden picked up his first Long Beach victory and Team Penske now has as many IndyCar victories through three races in 2022 as it had in the entire 2021 season. Elsewhere, but I guess in the same place, Chip Ganassi had a reason to be happy on Saturday. It rained and snowed at Martinsville. There was a grand slam performance at Melbourne. Max Verstappen broke down again. The track changes at Albert Park were bland, though the Supercars had a few incidents. World Superbike had a good season opener. Ducati dominated the MotoGP show in Austin. Marc Márquez stayed on the bike. Jimmie Johnson broke his wrist. The Indianapolis 500 a topic of conversation and there is an open spot at that table of 33. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Who Should be the Indianapolis 500 Start-and-Park?
Irony is not lost on anyone following IndyCar that at one of the highest points for the series with 26 full-time and competitive entries 2022 marks one of the most difficult years to find 33 entries for the Indianapolis 500. Making it even stranger is we already have 32 entries lined up and are over a month away until qualifying weekend. How hard could it be to fill one more entry? 

The answer is very. 

While IndyCar entries have increased over the last two years despite the global pandemic and financial difficulties that have come along with it, the teams are operating at the limit. When it comes to crew members, extras are hard to come by and there are barely enough for the 26 full-time operations, making additional entries a Herculean task. 

With teams maxed out and the entry list not even at 33 entries yet, no one is interested in running an extra car. Andretti Autosport has said it is staying with five cars for Indianapolis. A.J. Foyt Racing said it will not run beyond its three full-time competitors. Dale Coyne Racing isn't doing it. Honda has even said it does not want to field 18 engine programs as it already has 17 committed for the month of May. 

With Chevrolet on 15 entries, it would make sense if it could field the extra car, but none of those teams are expressing willingness to be the 33rd entry. Juncos Hollinger Racing plans to focus on its one entry as it looks to make its Indianapolis 500 return, the team's first entry in the event since its famous Bump Day performance putting Kyle Kaiser in the field and bumping out Fernando Alonso's McLaren entry. Ed Carpenter Racing is already running three cars. Arrow McLaren SP is fielding an extra entry for Juan Pablo Montoya. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is even fielding two one-off entries for Santino Ferrucci and Sage Karam. 

Team Penske ran four cars last year and supported a fifth with Paretta Autosport, but the team is unwilling to field an extra this year despite only having three full-time entries as the Penske organization is preparing the Porsche LMDh program and has many crew members once available for IndyCar focused on Penske's sports car racing future. 

There is plenty of interest. Beth Paretta would like to return. Stefan Wilson has the funding to come back but cannot get a car. Top Gun Racing and R.C. Enerson are going through a messy divorce and custody battle over the DW12 chassis the pair used in its failed qualifying effort last year. 

Along with Wilson and Enerson, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Katherine Legge, Zach Veach, and Simona de Silvestro, with the Paretta entry, are all names linked with an Indianapolis 500 entry. The interest is there but the resources are not. A lack of resources has not been an uncommon problem for Indianapolis 500 entries in the last decade. However, the better part of the last five years have been a high-water point for this race in the 21st century. There has been bumping and plenty of drama with notable entries in peril on qualifying weekend. 

Hinchcliffe missed out in 2018. Alonso missed the following year as did the entry Carlin organization with Patricio O'Ward and Max Chilton. Last year saw Will Power in the Last Row Shootout, and Power survived qualifying, making the field despite brushing the wall. Bumping adds drama to the qualifying weekend and increases attention on the entry grid. IndyCar would survive not having bumping this year. It has survived most of the last two decades without bumping, but it would be a tough loss. 

But how would IndyCar do without a 33rd entry? 

There were many years during the Indy Racing League where it didn't look like 33 entries would happen and yet every Indianapolis 500 since 1948 has seen at least 33 entries line up on race day. It is naïve to think the 33rd entry will happen no matter what, but history is heavily on that side of thinking. But are we willing to accept that the 33rd entry could be a glorified start-and-park entry because of the dearth of resources in the IndyCar paddock? Would 32 full-fledged going for victory be any worse than 32 all-out entries plus one field-filler? 

Most people wouldn't notice if there were only 32 cars starting at Indianapolis. Hell, we technically had only 32 cars take the green flag in 2015 when Conor Daly broke down on the pace laps. We only had 30 cars see the green flag in 1997. Plus, the grid is already a jumbled mess coming to the green flag that none of the start photos look all that beautiful. No one would notice the missing car on the last row in the parade lap photos either. The world will keep turning. 

However, I do think it is better for IndyCar's psyche if a 33rd car was out there. It would not have that blemish in the record book, and while IndyCar does have its own problems to address in terms of manpower, engine leases and chassis availability, it would be one less mark the series would have against it. 

IndyCar is a punching bag at times. It doesn't need to give any outsiders more ammunition. It already has to face the possibility of Jimmie Johnson winning the Indianapolis 500 and having the NASCAR crowd laud it over them for the rest of eternity while falling behind Formula One in popularity in the United States. For IndyCar's emotional well-being, 33 entries, even if one is for show, is necessary. 

It might be tough for some of these drivers to accept the start-and-park entry. Maybe it could be the high downforce entry. You cannot trim it out, you are expected to let the leaders pass and not challenge for position and you have no shot at winning the race. I don't think Stefan Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe would want that seat. But there are plenty of drivers out there that would love to say they raced the Indianapolis 500 or make another start in the Indianapolis 500.  

I was not the only one thinking this way ahead of the Long Beach race weekend. J.R. Hildebrand threw out running Mario Andretti or Tony Stewart in a ceremonial entry. Andretti would do it, but I think IndyCar would come off worse if the likes of Andretti ran the 33rd entry for two or three ceremonial laps. It would come off like a farce having an 82-year-old in the race 28 years after his last Indianapolis 500 start. It would be too much of a gimmick and people would deride IndyCar for doing it. 

Stewart would also be a gimmick, but Stewart will only be 52 years old on race day. It will be 21 years since Stewart's last Indianapolis 500 start, but Stewart still runs regularly in sprint car racing. He is still an active competitor. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing courted Stewart for a legitimate Indianapolis 500 entry in 2019. Stewart in the race would feel more authentic. I don't think Stewart would do it, but Stewart would be able to do more than five laps and actually look like a competitive car. He wouldn't want to be out there with no chance to win, but I think he could run 190 to 195 laps and not be a hazard out there. 

Who would be a legitimate Indianapolis 500 start-and-park/field-filler entry? 

It has to be someone who A.) Doesn't care about that he or she will not win and would be happy to be there. B.) Would be willing to move out of the way when told and not risk wrecking a race car. 

I have a few options. Not all of these are legitimate. 

1. Buddy Lazier: Not the sexiest entry, but Lazier is a past Indianapolis 500 winner, he has experience with the DW12 chassis albeit without the universal aero kit and aeroscreen, and he was practically the Indianapolis 500 field-filler in his last four Indianapolis 500 starts in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017. He has done the role before, and one more start would give him 21 Indianapolis 500 starts. I don't think any of us would mind. We didn't mind it in those four other years.

2. Jacques Villeneuve: Another past Indianapolis 500 winner, and also a World Drivers' Champion, Villeneuve was practically a field-filler in this year's Daytona 500, though he had to qualify for that race this February, but Villeneuve would seem game for it. It was wonderful when he returned to Indianapolis in a surprising entry in 2014 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. I think Villeneuve would see how cool it would be to run the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in the same year. Not many drivers get to do that. He stayed out of harm's way at Daytona. He could definitely do the same at Indianapolis. 

3. Bruno Junqueira: This isn't a splashy entry, but Junqueira twice had his ride bought out from underneath him in a three-year period. He hasn't made an Indianapolis appearance since he lost his ride in 2011 to Ryan Hunter-Reay. I think he deserves one more Indianapolis 500 start. I think Junqueira is one of the most underrated talents American open-wheel racing talent saw in the 2000s, joining the landscape at a fractured time. Need I remind everyone he qualified for the 2010 Indianapolis 500 with about eight practice laps and his qualifying time was seventh-fastest that year and he also won the pole position in 2002 at 231.342 mph? That pole position time still ranks as the 21st fastest all-time qualifying speed for an Indianapolis 500 entry. This entry would make amends for the past.

4. Paul Tracy: This isn't the greatest idea in the world, but Tracy would do it. He would get the attention he craves, and he would at least generate waves ahead of the race. One of the reasons he did step away from the broadcast booth was because he wanted to do more racing. He did the Superstar Racing Experience last year, will run SRX again this summer, and said he wanted to run an LMP3 entry in IMSA this year. He is 53 years old, but Tracy, for all his questionable past behavior, would be smart and not harm himself or any of the other competitors. The NBC broadcast would love it and Tracy would be a willing in-race analyst. 

5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: This one will not happen, but think about it for a second. Jimmie Johnson is already in the race. Imagine grabbing Earnhardt, Jr., arguably NASCAR's most popular driver ever, and having him run the Indianapolis 500. The ratings would shoot through the roof. 

Earnhardt, Jr. isn't going to do it. He knows better, but he could run a car at race pace for a few stints. He has that capability in him. He could get out of the way when the leaders were approaching, they could set up the car so he would always be in control. He wouldn't have to run the entire race, but if he gave it a good 120 laps, 300 miles and then pulled off when the race entered its critical phase and then was a commentator for the final 200 miles on the NBC broadcast after being in the race, it would be a great television and he would bring a hands-on insight that even James Hinchcliffe and Townsend Bell could not despite their past Indianapolis 500 experience. Earnhardt, Jr. would know what it was like on the circuit and how each driver raced. 

There would be zero expectations if Earnhardt, Jr. ran the Indianapolis 500, he would fully embrace the honor and privilege to run the Indianapolis 500 and it would be a great chance for this entry to be the behind-the-scenes car and allow access during the practice week, qualifying and race that the viewer never gets to see. I think Earnhardt, Jr. would be as open as possible during the entire process, and it would be a massive opportunity for IndyCar to receive increased exposure. 

I think three of the five above are legitimate possibilities, but if the 33rd entry for the Indianapolis 500 is going to be a filler, it mind as well be the best damn filler IndyCar can get.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Josef Newgarden, but did you know...

Charles Leclerc won the Australian Grand Prix, his second victory of the season. 

Enea Bastianini won MotoGP's Grand Prix of the Americas, his second victory of the season. Tony Arbolino won the Moto2 race, his first career Moto2 victory in 22 starts. Jaume Masià won the Moto3 race.

The #01 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac of Sébastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #23 Heart of Racing Team Aston Martin of Ross Gunn and Alex Riberas won in GTD Pro. The #1 Paul Miller Racing BMW of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow won in GTD.

Chaz Mostert won the bookend Supercars races from Melbourne's Albert Park while Shane van Gisbergen won the middle two races.

William Byron won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville, his second victory of the season, and Byron also won the Truck race on Thursday night. Brandon Jones won the Grand National Series race. 

Mitch Evans swept the Formula E races from Rome.

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross Triple Crown race from St. Louis with finishes of second, first and second. Chase Sexton won the first race and Eli Tomac won the third race.

Jonathan Rea won the first World Superbike race from Aragón but Àlvaro Bautista won the following two races. Lorenzo Baldassari and Dominique Aegerter split the World Supersport races.

Ryō Hirakawa and Tomoki Nojiri split the Super Formula races from Fuji. 

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR is running its Bristol dirt race on the night of Easter Sunday.
Supercross has a matinee Saturday show at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Super GT opens its season at Fuji. 
European Le Mans Series opens its season at Circuit Paul Ricard. 
GT World Challenge America opens its season at Sonoma Raceway.