Sunday, April 30, 2023

First Impressions: Barber 2023

1. Scott McLaughlin vs. Romain Grosjean, Part II, lived up to their first meeting in the "St. Petersburg Slugfest." Neither driver came out the winner in that one. This time in the "Birmingham Brawl," Grosjean showed the upper-hand for most of the 90-lap fight. However, McLaughlin's pace proved too much and the one moment Grosjean left the door open, McLaughlin striked, and it was game over. 

McLaughlin caught a break with a caution as he was on pit lane for his second pit stop in a three-stop strategy. The caution allowed McLaughlin to catch a gap and avoid running an out lap, putting him in second position while fellow three-stoppers Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi were trapped outside the top five despite being in the same zip code with McLaughlin prior to the caution. 

The break aside, McLaughlin put up a stellar drive, and it very well could have been lost after Grosjean made the clubhouse leader for pass of the year on McLaughlin's out lap. Grosjean carried more speed on the outside of the penultimate corner to give himself the inside on McLaughlin into the final corner and down the main straightaway. It put Grosjean back in the lead and it looked like that would be enough for Grosjean to get his first career victory, but Grosjean's two stop strategy meant he had to save fuel and he was also watching the tires. 

Grosjean had run wide multiple times in turn five in this race. In the final stint, he went a smidge wider than usual and McLaughlin was close enough to pounce, taking the lead before getting into turn seven. 

Both these drivers could have had a victory already. Either one deserved to win St. Petersburg. Today, they both deserved to win again. McLaughlin caught the breaks today. That caution coming a lap later or a lap earlier and McLaughlin likely isn't even on the podium let alone the top step. With the circumstances aligning, McLaughlin took advantage and came out on top after a phenomenal battle.

2. This felt like it was Grosjean's day. The two-stop strategy looked questionable at the end of the first stint considering the pace of McLaughlin, Newgarden and Rossi. If Sting Ray Robb doesn't stop on course, it is likely one of those three win this race and Grosjean might not finish in the top five. It may have never meant to be, but the caution was in Grosjean's favor. The breathtaking pass on McLaughlin to get ahead after the final pit stops is something of legend. It was genius driving, looking a corner ahead and at the time it felt like the definitive move to pull out a first career victory. Instead, it is a consolation prize for another brilliant drive that fell short. 

The optimist will look at this race and see that it was the fourth time in four races Grosjean was in the top five in the closing stages. He is there. The day is coming. 

3. The early portion of this race didn't appear to be turning out favorably for Will Power. Power's two teammates, also on the three-stop strategy, looked to be in control. Power was looking at maybe cracking the top five. The lone caution bunched up the field and Power was able to pick off some two-stop drivers, vaulting into a podium position. Like McLaughlin, Power made the most of the circumstances. Podium finishes are a good thing. We saw them be the backbone of Power's championship run last year. 

4. The unheralded battle of this race was for fourth. Patricio O'Ward and Álex Palou, the two most recent Barber winners, were nose-to-tail for what felt like 90 laps. It wasn't quite that long. Both stretched the two-stop strategy, but neither were going to keep up with the three-stoppers and Grosjean. If the Robb caution never happens, neither of these drivers would have been in the top five. Instead, they went at it for fourth. O'Ward held on, but Palou never relented.

5. Considering how O'Ward and Palou have done in the championship the last two years, if this is a bad day for these two drivers, they will both be going to Laguna Seca with a sniff at the Astor Cup. They went at it in 2021 for the title. Palou came out on top. A second championship fight for these two would surprise no one and it could be the second of many.

6. Many stories are missed in a race like this, including Christian Lundgaard finishing sixth it what was Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's first good weekend of the season. Lundgaard was around the top five all race. He didn't blink while battling Scott Dixon. Lundgaard may have finished where he started, but considering no RLLR car had started in the top ten prior to this weekend, this is a victory for this group, but the team still has a long way to go. More on that shortly.

7. On the two-stop strategy, Scott Dixon wasn't going to do much better than seventh in this one. Dixon extends his perfect record of top ten finishes at Barber, but he wasn't quite in the mix. Palou was the best Ganassi driver this weekend. Dixon is still there. He will be fine. It just wasn't his weekend. 

8. Alexander Rossi was coming on strong at the end of his second stint. He closed in notably on McLaughlin and Newgarden. If this race had played out without the Robb caution, it likely would have been McLaughlin versus Rossi. Rossi had a rocket ship, but the timing of the caution in conjunction with Rossi's pit stop meant he emerged from the pit lane in eighth position, six spots behind McLaughlin despite stopping on the same lap. Sometimes that fraction of a second is a seven-postion difference. 

9. Comeback of the day must go to Felix Rosenqvist. Slight contact with Newgarden sent Rosenqvist spinning on the opening lap. The Swede went from eighth on the grid to 25th at the end of lap one. Somehow, no one hit Rosenqvist despite that spin happening in turn two. Even more impressive is Rosenqvist finished ninth on the two-stop strategy. He didn't call an audible and make an early stop to adopt a three-stop strategy. Ninth isn't what this team would have been hoping for at the start of this day, but at the end of lap one, Rosenqvist is likely pleased with this result.

10. Not a good day, but not a bad day for Marcus Ericsson to finish tenth. Ericsson wasn't quite in the picture this weekend. The pace wasn't there is qualifying. He didn't make a leap in the race. Tenth is better than most other results, but when you want to win a championship, today feels like points lost more than points gained.

11. If it wasn't for Rosenqvist's quest to ninth, Marcus Armstrong's drive from 26th to 11th on a two-stop strategy would be the talk of the day. It is still terrific. Chip Ganassi isn't going to listen to any of us, but Armstrong should be in this car for the Indianapolis 500 and the rest of the ovals. None of the other rookies were close in this race. Armstrong was already the top rookie in the championship entering Barber. He only extended his advantage today. Regardless of what Takuma Sato does at Indianapolis, Armstrong should get the final three oval races. If the money can be found in the next two weeks, Honda should rush an 18th engine, prepare a car and have Armstrong entered for the "500." He is ready.

12. Kyle Kirkwood was a two-stopper and lost out, dropping to 12th. This isn't on Kirkwood. The team picked its strategy and this was the race that evolved to favor the three-stoppers. Should Kirkwood, from 12th starting position, have gone to a three-stop strategy? Probably. All four Andretti cars were on the two-stop strategy. Three of those cars started 12th or worse. That seems like a bad decision for the team. At least one car, more specifically, one of Kirkwood or Colton Herta, who started 14th and was the third best Andretti car all race, should have been on a three-stopper and split the deck for the Andretti team. The team has been quick, but strategy choices remain befuddling.

13. For the first half of this race, maybe even the first two-thirds, Callum Ilott was nowhere. Somehow, Ilott finished 13th, only a two position gain from where he started, but Ilott was out of the top twenty at one point. It looked like a bad day for Juncos Hollinger Racing. Agustín Canapino didn't quite have it today. Ilott looked off, but Ilott found the speed in the later stages and rallied to finish 13th. 

14. The contact with Rosenqvist on the opening lap of the race damaged something on Josef Newgarden's car, and it became more difficult to drive as the race wore on. In the first-third of the race, it looked like Newgarden was a contender for victory, but he faded. If it had remained green without the Robb finish, Newgarden probably doesn't win. He likely holds on for the top ten, but the car was wounded, and his free fall to 15th tells the story. With McLaughlin winning, this should feel like one that got away from Newgarden.

15. Let's round out the field. Rinus VeeKay went backward and finished 16th. Graham Rahal was bouncing off others at the back of the field and 17th was the best he was ever going to hope for in this one. Lundgaard had it figured out this weekend, but Rahal was 17th and that result was generous, and Jack Harvey was 24th and if you didn't know Harvey was out there you weren't alone. It is a step forward for RLLR, but the team has many more to make. 

Simon Pagenaud was 18th. Whoopie! Meyer Shank Racing has more work to do than RLLR, and that is saying something. David Malukas looked good on the three-stop strategy, but he was the biggest loser of the Robb caution. It took Malukas out of the fight for a top ten. Santino Ferrucci rounded out the top twenty. That is the best A.J. Foyt Racing can hope for at the moment.

Hélio Castroneves is padding the record book in the starts department. Finishing 21st still counts as a start. Benjamin Pedersen made some mistakes, but still finished 22nd, ahead of four other cars on speed. Andretti Autosport couldn't at least had Devlin DeFrancesco try the three-stop strategy? DeFrancesco was 23rd. A three-stop strategy would at least have put him ahead of Pedersen. 

RLLR isn't great in general, but if Jack Harvey is going to keep finishing outside the top twenty, the team will switch the driver as well. All options are on the table. Conor Daly must be making plans to leave Ed Carpenter Racing, and Ed Carpenter Racing must be making plans to replace Daly. This combination isn't working. Like RLLR, ECR isn't great in general, but finishing 25th and never stiffing the top fifteen cannot be acceptable for driver and team. 

Agustín Canapino had a rookie day. He didn't cause an accident. He wasn't a hazard, but Canapino had an eye-opener. It was a new track, and it is tough on tires. He still finished on the lead lap, albeit over a minute and six seconds off McLaughlin. 

Sting Ray Robb broke down in a race that otherwise would be unmemorable for him. At least Robb got some air time.

16. Brilliant race and it is wonderful news that Barber Motorsports Park has an extension through the 2027 season. Barber is under-appreciated. It gets lost between the glamour of Long Beach the prestige of the month of May, but this is a phenomenal event. The races always impresses us. This one was one of the best we have seen at Barber and the track has had some doozies. I cannot wait until next year. 

17. May begins tomorrow. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis is 13 days away. 

Morning Warm- Up: Barber 2023

Romain Grosjean won his second pole position of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season with a 65.8396-second lap around Barber Motorsports Park for the Children's of Alabama Indy Grand Prix. This is Andretti Autosports' third pole position of the season, but only the team's second ever at Barber. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the pole-sitter for the 2013 race and Hunter-Reay went on to win that race. Grosjean has finished in the top ten in both his Barber starts. It is one of six circuits where Grosjean has multiple top ten finishes at. It is one of four tracks where Grosjean has a 100% top ten finish percentage. The others are Road America, Laguna Seca and Iowa. This is Grosjean's 34th career start. Only three drivers have had their first career victory come in their 34th career start: Cliff Woodbury, A.J. Foyt and Mark Dismore.

Álex Palou fell 0.0734 seconds short of taking pole position, but Palou will start second, his best career start at Barber. The Spaniard had started third in his first two starts at the track. This is his first front row start since last year's Indianapolis 500, but it is the eighth time in the last nine races he has started in the top seven. Palou has been on the podium in both his visits to Barber Motorsports Park. The only other tracks where Palou has multiple podium finishes are Road America, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca. 

Patricio O’Ward was 0.0986 seconds off Grosjean and O'Ward will start third. This is the 11th consecutive race O'Ward has stated in the top seven and he has started in the top seven in 17 of the last 18 races. The Mexican had started first and second in his previous two Barber starts. He has led at least 25 laps in each of the last two Barber races as well. O'Ward has won the race preceding a race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on three consecutive occasions. The next race is the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Scott McLaughlin is the top Team Penske qualifier in fourth, 0.1119 seconds off Grosjean's pole position time. This is the second consecutive year McLaughlin has started fourth at Barber. He went backward last year, finishing sixth. McLaughlin has finished in the top ten in the fourth race of the season the last two years. He has not finished in the top five of his last four starts after have a five-race top five finish streak prior to this stretch.

Scott Dixon ended up fifth on the grid, 0.2327 seconds behind Grosjean. This was the 12th time in 13 Barber races Dixon has made the Fast Six. Dixon was 27th at Long Beach, the worst road/street course finish in his IndyCar career. It was only the third time he has finished outside the top 25, and only the 19th time he has finished outside the top twenty over 371 starts. Dixon has won four times from fifth starting position, most recently at Road America in 2017. 

Christian Lundgaard made the Fast Six of the first time this season and Dane was 0.3205 seconds off pole position. This is the first top ten starting position for a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver this season.  Lundgaard was 15th at Barber last year. In seven natural-terrain road course starts, the only time Lundgaard has finished worse than 15th at 21st at Portland last year after stalling on his final pit stop and then he blew the chicane and had to make an additional stop to remove a sponsorship board stuck to his front wing. 

Josef Newgarden missed out on making the Fast Six by 0.0617 seconds after his teammate McLaughlin jumped above the cutline on his final lap of the round. The good news for Newgarden is seventh has been Heaven for him. Newgarden has won five times from seventh starting position in his career, including at Barber in 2017. The only starting position he has won from more is second, where he has been victorious from ten times. 

Felix Rosenqvist qualified eighth, falling 0.1944 seconds shot of advancing to the final round. This is the six consecutive race Rosenqvist has started inside the top ten, but he has only finished better than his starting psition in two of the previous five races. The Swede has finished outside the top fifteen in his last two Barber starts.

Rinus VeeKay will start ninth, his best start of the season and his first top ten start since Nashville last year. has not had a top ten finish in his last seven starts, one shy of matching his longest drought, which occurred over his final eight starts in the 2021 season. Every time VeeKay has gone five or more races without a top ten finish, the race that ends that drought has been a sixth place finish. This will be VeeKay's 50th career start.

Alexander Rossi rounds out the top ten on the grid, Rossi's fifth consecutive top ten start at Barber. He has finished worse than his starting position in three of the previous four years. He has finished 22nd in the last two races. Last season, Rossi never finished in the same position twice, having finished in 17 different positions over the 17 races. His best finish at Barber is fifth on two occasions. 

Will Power will start 11th, his second consecutive time starting outside the top ten at Barber after starting in the top ten for the first 11 Barber race. Power has 212 laps led at Barber, the most all-time, but he has only led four laps over the last four Barber races, all coming in the 2021 race. He has finished in the top five in six of the seven Barber races he has led. The exception is the 2017 race, where Power made a late pit stop for a tire puncture. 

Kyle Kirkwood had a spin in the second round of qualifying ruin his chances of advancing to the Fast Six and Kirkwood will accept 12th on the grid as a consolation prize for his effort on Saturday. Kirkwood could become the first driver to have his first two career victories happen in consecutive races since A.J. Allmendinger in 2006, who had his first three career victories happen in consecutive races.

Championship leader Marcus Ericsson missed out on advancing from group one in the first round of qualifying by 0.1399 seconds, and the Swede takes 13th on the grid. Ericsson has opened the 2023 season with three consecutive top ten finishes, his longest top ten streak to open a season in his IndyCar career. Dating back to last year, he has four consecutive top ten results. In each of the last two seasons he has had a top ten streak last at least eight consecutive races. 

Colton Herta was 0.2082 seconds off making it out of group two, and Herta will start 14th. This is the first time Herta has failed to start in the top ten at Barber. He was tenth at the finish in last year's Barber race after finishing outside the top twenty in his first two visits to the track, retiring on both occasions. Herta was fourth at Long Beach. He has not had consecutive top five finishes since he ended 2021 with a pair of victories and started 2022 with a fourth in St. Petersburg. 

Callum Ilott takes 15th on the grid. Ilott has won three times in the month of April in his career. On April 2, 2016, Ilott won the second Formula Three race from Circuit Paul Ricard ahead of Nick Cassidy and Guanyu Zhou. On April 16, 2017, he won the third Formula Three race from Silverstone ahead of Joel Eriksson and Lando Norris. Six years ago today, Ilott was victorious at Monza with Norris in second and Maximilian Günther in third.

Simon Pagenaud finds himself 16th on the grid, the 11th time in the last 12 races Pagenaud has started outside the top ten. He enters Barber on a six-race top ten finish drought. He also has finished outside the top ten in the last two Barber races after having six consecutive top ten results at the facility. Pagenaud has finished better than or equal to his starting position in the last six Barber races and in ten of his 11 Barber starts.

David Malukas improves on his 2022 Barber qualifying performance by a position, as Malukas will start 17th for this year's race. However, this is the third time in the first four races Malukas has qualified outside the top fifteen. He had started inside the top fifteen in 12 consecutive races prior to this stretch. Malukas won the second race of the Indy Lights doubleheader at Barber in 2021. 

Devlin DeFrancesco joins Malukas on row eight. DeFrancesco was 16th in the most recent race at Long Beach, the best street course finish of his IndyCar career. DeFrancesco's only top fifteen finish on a road course was 15th at Laguna Seca last year.

Graham Rahal will start 19th, the 29th time in the 37 races since the start of the 2021 season Rahal has started outside the top ten. He has started outside the top fifteen in 19 of those 29 races. However, in the previous 36 races, Rahal has 22 top ten finishes, including seven when starting outside the top fifteen. Rahal has five top ten finishes in the last seven Barber events. 

Conor Daly gets his best starting position of the season in 20th, making it an all-American row ten. Daly has yet to finish in the top fifteen in his first four Barber starts. He was 16th in 2021. At 18.25, this is Daly's fourth worst track on average finish with a minimum of three starts. He has made at least three starts at 14 tracks. 

Hélio Castroneves qualified 21st, matching his worst starting position of the season. Castroneves has four top five finishes in nine Barber starts. Castroneves not had a top five finish in his last 25 starts. He has not finished in the top five after starting outside the top twenty since Milwaukee 2015 when he started 24th and finished second to Sébastien Bourdais. This is only the tenth time since that Milwaukee race Castroneves will be starting outside the top twenty.

Agustín Canapino shares row 11 with his fellow South American competitor. Canapino is coming off the worst finish of his IndyCar career. Damage after brushing the barrier left him to finish 25th at Long Beach. The Argentine was the slowest car over the combined practice session times. 

Sting Ray Robb will start 23rd for the third time in the first four races of the 2023 season. The 23rd starting position has produced two winners in IndyCar history, Scott Dixon at Nazareth in 2001 and Simon Pagenaud in the first race of the 2020 Iowa doubleheader. In five Road to Indy starts at Barber, Robb had one podium finish, a third last year in Indy Lights, and his average finish over those five races was 7.6 but with an average field size of 14 cars.

Jack Harvey takes the outside of row 12. Twenty-fourth is Harvey's worst starting position at Barber. It is his ninth consecutive time starting outside the top ten. Harvey has never finished in the top ten at Barber in two starts. His best result was 13th in the 2019 race. This will be his 69th career start. The only driver to have a first career victory come in a 69th career start was Scott Pruett at Michigan in 1995.

Benjamin Pedersen will start 25th. Pedersen has started outside the top twenty in each of the three road/street course races this season. He did not finish on the lead lap in either of the first two road/street course races this season. Pedersen was runner-up in two of his three Indy Lights starts at Barber. 

An interference penalty nullified Marcus Armstrong's fastest two laps in the first round of qualifying and Armstrong will start 26th. This race falls on the final day of April. The only time Armstrong has won in April in his career was the Formula Two sprint race at Imola last year, one year and seven days ago. 

A transmission problem prevented Santino Ferrucci from completing a competitive lap in qualifying and Ferrucci will start 27th. This matches his worst starting position, which came last year at Texas when he was a last-minute substitution for an injured Jack Harvey. Ferrucci drove to ninth in that race. He was 15th in his lone Barber start back in 2019. He started tenth that day.

NBC’s coverage of the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix begins at 3:00 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 90 laps.  

Friday, April 28, 2023

Best of the Month: April 2023

April isn't quite over yet, we have two days left, and it is a race weekend. The month is basically over, and we are into it for most motorsports seasons. The only notable series yet to start its season is Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters. 

The FIA World Endurance Championship is on the verge of Le Mans. IndyCar is on the verge of Indianapolis. Formula One is coming back after a month off and it will run ten of the next 14 weekends, starting with another new sprint weekend format. There is plenty going on and we will be busy for the next couple of months. It will only get more intriguing from here.

Kyle Kirkwood's Last Laugh
Kirkwood started April being labeled as a zero, but he will entering the final weekend as a hero.

When IndyCar returned to competition after a month break at Texas Motor Speedway, Kirkwood was coming off a disappointing St. Petersburg round, and he was not showcasing great speed at Texas. During the first round of pit stops, Kirkwood had yet to reach his pit stall as the leaders were exiting. Alexander Rossi was one of those exiting as Kirkwood was turning into his pit stall. The cars collided. Both cars were damaged, but Kirkwood was already at the rear of the field. Rossi had been contending for a top five and had a hope for competing for the victory over the final 75% of the race. 

In that moment, Kirkwood was labeled as at fault and received significant backlash after the incident. His rookie season and poor opening round did not help his case. His reputation was already drawing criticism. He had no defenders. 

However, as the replay was broadcasted multiple times, people started easing on Kirkwood. The worst had already been done, but Kirkwood at least got some relief. 

Then came Long Beach, and Kirkwood silenced all the critics with his first career victory from pole position and defeating Josef Newgarden, Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson in the process. 

It is only one race. Kirkwood could fall into his old traps, but he showed what he is capable of and that last season was not the definitive answer for his ability. 

The strange thing about Kirkwood's rebound is it somewhat mirrors what Takuma Sato did in 2019, and involved the same players.

Sato was pinned for causing the accident in turn two on the opening lap of the Pocono race after contact with Alexander Rossi. Many were harsh on Sato though Sato maintained his innocence. In the next race, Sato pulled out an unexpected victory at Gateway. Sato may have been more at fault for the Pocono incident than Kirkwood at Texas, but he didn't let the incident ruin his confidence.

One thing to take away from this is if any driver wants to win in IndyCar he or she should get in an incident with Alexander Rossi that Rossi will be infuriated about. 

IndyCar's Podcasting Prowess
IndyCar has a strong selection of intelligent podcasts/radio shows at the moment.

There is the stalwart that is Trackside with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee, our weekly two-hour gathering to talk about everything surrounding IndyCar, from the past races, what will happen in the next race, rumors and plenty of interviews with drivers from the big series to the development rungs of the Road to Indy and even strategists, team owners and others involved in the series. 

Trackside has been around for over 15 years. It is integral to IndyCar. It is a comfort to listen to each week. Cavin and Lee are both honest, but fair. They treat the listeners as adults, and they don't act juvenile with their thoughts. If they believe something they are going to say it and when they are playing Devil's Advocate they are at least sensible.

I think the best IndyCar show is The-Race's IndyCar Podcast with Jack Benyon and J.R. Hildebrand. Benyon is knowledgable and Hildebrand is what you expect from a driver who could have gone to M.I.T. The post-race analysis from Hildebrand is as insight as they come. It is definitely the best in IndyCar and maybe the best across multiple forms of motorsports. I don't know of a NASCAR analyst who is as good as Hildebrand. Formula One is good with Karun Chandhok and Anthony Davidson. Hildebrand is exceptional dissecting strategy choices and how a driver is handling those moments in a car when it comes to pit stops, cautions, restarts and the closing laps. 

Race aside, Benyon and Hildebrand's interview with Kyle Kirkwood was informative and causal. Hildebrand clicked Kirkwood and got a lot out of that interview. Their familiarity with one another from last year at A.J. Foyt Racing likely helped elevate that interview, but every interview they have it engaging. 

Speaking of analyzing races, Off Track with Hinch and Rossi takes it a little more in-depth. Alexander Rossi is pretty open about his race and what he saw on track. James Hinchcliffe is a close second to Hildebrand breaking down a race, but what makes Off Track outstanding is neither Hinchcliffe nor Rossi are afraid of saying something unpopular. If either is upset with something that happened they do not sugarcoat it, but they never take it too far. They aren't taking shots for the sake of taking shots. 

Besides IndyCar, Hinchcliffe and Rossi are pretty good breaking down other races as well, whether it be Formula One, IMSA, NASCAR or anything else. They are drivers. They know what is going on out there. 

Rossi isn't the only active IndyCar driver with a podcast. Conor Daly's Speed Street with Joey Mulinaro provides great insight. It is done only how Daly can do it. He is self-deprecating at times, but he doesn't hide anything from a race weekend. For the last few seasons, Daly has struggled. I don't think any of us thought he would struggle as much as he has with Ed Carpenter Racing, but he doesn't hide from that. 

Daly is also open to ideas. If he thinks something could be done better, he says it. He is good guy and down-to-earth. He isn't a showboat. He is an ambassador for IndyCar and engages with people while trying to expand the reach of the series in a more grassroots way. 

Beyond those four shows, you have Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin doing Bus Bros. Marcus Armstrong and Callum Ilott have a podcast that has nothing to do with racing but they are reaching people in a different way. Those in and around IndyCar are making plenty of noise, much of it is enjoyable. There is plenty to choose from for anyone currently interested or anyone new to IndyCar who is hoping to become immersed in it. Everyone should keep up the good work.

May Preview
It isn't often an exhibition race is worthy of great attention, but the NASCAR All-Star Race will be at North Wilkesboro Speedway in a few weeks, the track's first NASCAR event since 1996.

The facility has been revived after almost three decades of sitting dormant, collapsing and being overgrown. It has been incredible watching this track be brought back to life and not just maintained, but properly refurbished. 

Even better is NASCAR nailed the format for this race. North Wilkesboro didn't need four segments with average finish determining the order for a ten-lap sprint. It needed to be a proper race. I was thinking 300 laps, but 200 laps is fine. With the race surface remaining unpaved from what was last raced on, tires are going to fall off and drivers will really need to manhandle the cars late in a run. In this case, teams will have to be careful with their strategy on when to take tires, especially if there ends up being a long-run to end the race. 

Twenty-two drivers are already locked into the main event. A minimum of three more drivers will be added through the Open and the fan vote. After probably a decade or so of the All-Star Race feeling stale, this is the rejuvenation it needed. Thinking long-term, I don't know where we go from here. 

With all the work being put into North Wilkesboro, I don't think this is a one-time thing or a two-time thing. This almost has to be it for the All-Star Race. It is going to be at North Wilkesboro every year. Will people in 30 years time become bored with the yearly event at North Wilkesboro? Perhaps. It depends on what is North Wilkesboro's future beyond this race. 

Will a points race return to North Wilkesboro? Will there be enough interest for North Wilkesboro to host the All-Star Race in May and then another race later in the season? 

I cannot imagine NASCAR is not going to have a points race at North Wilkesboro in the next five years. The track is only going to have about 25,000 spectators for the All-Star Race. While the work has been done to make the track operational, there is no sense the place could expand to hold 40,000 or 50,000 people. I don't know if that is a dealbreaker over whether it gets a points race, but if the race is good and the demand remains high, I think NASCAR will take it, especially if it is a playoff race. 

If you polled NASCAR fans now, what would they rather have as the second cut-off race, North Wilkesboro or the Charlotte roval? 

Putting short track package concerns and the fact we still have seen these Cup cars race at the track aside, I think North Wilkesboro would win out. 

Whatever happens this May, I hope we find out a whether or not North Wilkesboro has long-term stability soon after this event, because this should be more than just a two- or three-year experiment. It should have a yearly place on the schedule. 

Other May events of note:
The Indianapolis 500 and more for IndyCar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Formula One starts in Miami and ends in Monaco with Imola in-between.
Before North Wilkesboro, NASCAR heads to Kansas and Darlington before ending the month with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. 
MotoGP has one race: The French Grand Prix from Le Mans.
Supercross will crown its champion.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Track Walk: Barber 2023

The fourth round of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season brings the series back to Birmingham, Alabama for the 13th Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Barber has always been one of the first four races in an IndyCar season since it was first introduced to the schedule in 2010. This will be the fifth time it has been exactly the fourth race on the calendar. Chevrolet has won each of the previous four times Barber has been the fourth race of a season. Chevrolet has won seven of ten Barber race since the American manufacturer rejoined IndyCar in 2012. Through the first three races of 2023, Honda holds a two to one advantage in race victories. In three of the last four seasons, Honda has won at least three of the first four races. Last season, Chevrolet opened with four consecutive victories, two years after Honda opened with fourth consecutive victories.

Time: Coverage begins at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday April 30 with green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. ET.
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and James Hinchcliffe will be in the booth. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee and Dave Burns will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 3:40 p.m. ET (75 minutes)
Second Practice: 12:00 p.m. ET (60 minutes)
Qualifying: 3:00 p.m. ET 
Warm-up: 12:00 p.m. ET (30 minutes)
Race: 3:15 p.m. ET (90 laps)

* - All sessions will be available live on Peacock

Scott Dixon's Stupid Great Yet Unfulfilled Record at Barber
Every year we return to Barber Motorsports Park, Dixon's staggering record is mentioned.

In 12 starts, Dixon has nine podium finishes, ten top five finishes and his worst finish is tenth. Yet Dixon has never won on the 2.38-mile road course. He is one of only two drivers with more than five top five finishes at the track. Will Power has nine top five finishes. Dixon is the only driver to reach double figures in top ten finishes at the track, three more than the next two closest driver, Power and Simon Pagenaud, and the only other drivers with at least seven top ten finishes at Barber are Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe. 

Among all drivers with at least three Barber starts, Dixon has the best average finish at 3.5. No other qualified driver averages a top five finish. Power is the next closest at 6.3333. Pagenaud and Patricio O'Ward are each averaging a seventh place finish with Newgarden averaging an 8.1.

Qualifying form is another strength for Dixon at Barber. Last year, he started 13th, it was the first time he failed the make the Firestone Fast Six at the track let alone fail to make it out of the first round of qualifying. While his average starting position is 4.916, like victory, pole position has eluded the Kiwi. In fact, he has never started on the front row here. 

For greater context of how good Dixon has been at Barber Motorsports Park, the only track where Dixon has more podium finishes is Texas, where he has ten, but he has 25 starts at Texas, more than double his Barber total. He has more podium finishes at Barber than Mid-Ohio, a track he has won at six times. 

Barber is one of six circuits where Dixon has at least ten top five finishes. The only other circuit in that batch where he hasn't won is Iowa. At those other four circuits (Texas, Mid-Ohio, Belle Isle, Toronto), he has won at each of them at least three times, combining for 18 of his 53 career victories.

This is one of nine circuits where he has at least ten top ten finishes, however with a 100% batting average, Barber is the best in the lineup. Only four of those other eight tracks does Dixon have a top ten percentage above 80% (Toronto 87.5%, Milwaukee 83.333%, Iowa 82.35%).

While Dixon has regularly been at the front at Barber, he hasn't been a regular leader. Of the 37 tracks where Dixon has led a lap, Barber ranks 25th with the New Zealander having only led 46 of 1,051 laps run around the track. Of those 46 laps, 38 came in the 2012 race when he finished runner-up to Power. He has only led in four other Barber races and has led no more than three laps in any of those four. Dixon ranks 11th in laps led at Barber behind the likes of Takuma Sato, Álex Palou, Marco Andretti and Rinus VeeKay. 

Dixon has won at 26 different circuits, tied with Mario Andretti for the most all-time. A Barber victory would move Dixon ahead of Andretti in another category after surpassing the American in victories last year and in top five finishes earlier this season at Texas.

Repeating is Common
Patricio O'Ward has had a few close calls at victory in 2023, but has come up short. 

In the St. Petersburg season opener, O'Ward was leading when his engine suffered an plenum fire exiting the final corner, causing him to lose power a brief moment and allowing Marcus Ericsson to overtake the Mexican driver with four laps to go. O'Ward would hold on to finish second. 

O'Ward was the class of the field at Texas Motor Speedway, lapping up to third place and having a seven-second lead over Josef Newgarden in second at one point. The flurry of late cautions brought Newgarden and the rest of the field to O'Ward for the closing stages. O'Ward held off most challenges, but he and Newgarden went back-and-forth over the final ten laps, trading the lead four times, but it was Newgarden ahead on the penultimate lap when the caution came out for Romain Grosjean's accident. O'Ward settled for second again. 

Aggressive driving stood out from O'Ward at Long Beach. He and Dixon came together in turn eight, ending Dixon's race. In the laps after the ensuing restart, O'Ward spun into the turn eight barriers, dropping him from contention for a top five finish and leading him to finish 17th, one lap down. The Long Beach result snapped a five-race top ten streak and dropped O'Ward from the championship lead. 

If there was ever a time and a place for O'Ward to visit Barber, it is now.

Looking to get back on his high horse, O'Ward heads to Alabama as the most recent winner of this event. On three separate occasions has a driver won consecutive Barber races. Will Power was the first to do it in 2011 and 2012. Ryan Hunter-Reay immediately followed winning in 2013 and 2014. Josef Newgarden became the third repeat winner in 2017 and 2018. 

O'Ward has yet to win at the same track twice in his IndyCar career, but Barber is the fourth race of the 2023 season. In each of the previous two seasons O'Ward's first victory of the year came in the fourth race of the season. He has finished on the podium in the fourth race of the season the last three years.

Along with his victory last year, where O'Ward led 27 of 90 laps from second on the grid, he started on pole position in the 2021 Barber race, leading 25 of 90 laps, but fading to fourth in the closing stages. This is the road/street course O'Ward has led the most at. The Mexican driver's top three tracks in laps led are ovals (Gateway, Texas and Iowa). His only other Barber start was driving for Carlin in 2019 and he finished 16th after starting 18th. He did win four times in eight Road to Indy starts at the circuit. 

A victory this weekend would likely put O'Ward back on top of the championship, barring Marcus Ericsson does not finish second nor finishes third with at least two bonus points. O'Ward has been ranked in the championship top ten for 18 consecutive races, and he has been in the championship top five after ten of those.

Four-For-Four... Going for Five
While Barber Motorsports Park is known for repeat winners, it has had four different winners from four different teams in the last four races.

Newgarden won the second of his consecutive victories, and his third time overall at Barber, in 2018 while driving for Team Penske. In 2019, Takuma Sato won from pole position in a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. After missing 2020 due to the pandemic, Álex Palou won on his Chip Ganassi Racing debut in what was the 2021 season opener. Last year, O'Ward won for Arrow McLaren. 

Prior to 2019, only three teams had won in the first nine Barber events. Three different teams have won in the last three Barber races, and none of those teams had won any of the first nine Grand Prix of Alabama. 

Andretti Autosport did win twice in the first nine Barber races, but it could extend this streak to five consecutive Barber races with a different team winning. Kyle Kirkwood heads to Barber coming off his first career IndyCar victory at Long Beach two weeks ago. It was Kirkwood's second career top ten finish, one year after his first came at Long Beach. He only made two starts at Barber in Road to Indy competition. He was ninth and fifth in the 2021 Indy Lights races at the track. 

Along with Kirkwood, Andretti has Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta and Devlin DeFrancesco as other potential streak extenders. Grosjean made it an Andretti 1-2 at Long Beach while Herta was fourth. It was Andretti's first 1-2 finish since it swept the podium in the second race of the 2020 Mid-Ohio doubleheader, and it was also the first time Andretti had multiple podium finishes since that Mid-Ohio race. It was only the second time in the last 39 races Andretti had three top five finishers.

Andretti Autosport has not had a top five finisher in the last two Barber races. The team had at least one top five finisher in eight of the first ten Barber races.

Rinus Veekay was third at Barber last year after leading 57 laps from pole position. It was VeeKay's second consecutive top ten finish at Barber, he was sixth in 2021, and it was the team's best finish since Josef Newgarden was third in 2016. It is Ed Carpenter Racing's most recent podium finish and the team is still looking for its first top ten result of 2023. The last time ECR did not have a top ten finish through the first three races was 2019 when the team opened with four consecutive races without a top ten result.

Meyer Shank Racing has not had a top five finish since Simon Pagenaud was second in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis last year. Pagenaud has finished outside the top ten the last two years at Barber after having nine consecutive top ten results. Hélio Castroneves won the inaugural Grand Prix of Barber in 2010. He had six top ten finishes in his first eight Barber starts. Last year, Castroneves was 21st.

Dale Coyne Racing has top ten finishes in four of the last five Barber races, including a third in 2019 with Sébastien Bourdais. Juncos Hollinger Racing has competed in two Barber races. René Binder was 16th in 2018 and Callum Ilott was 25th last year, two laps down. A.J. Foyt Racing has only two top ten finishes at Barber: seventh with Mike Conway in 2012 and fifth with Bourdais in 2021.

Three-For-Three... Going for Four
While we are looking for a fifth different team to be victorious in as many Barber races, the 2023 season is looking for its fourth different team winning in the first four races.

Ganassi was the first on the board with Ericsson at St. Petersburg. Newgarden got Penske's first victory at Texas. Kirkwood won for Andretti Autosport at Long Beach. 

When was the last time an IndyCar season began with four different winners from four different teams? 

It was 2015, the first year of the manufacturer specific aero kits, when Juan Pablo Montoya won at St. Petersburg for Penske, James Hinchcliffe won a dismal race at NOLA Motorsports Park with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Scott Dixon won at Barber with Ganassi, and Josef Newgarden scored his first career victory driving for the CFH Racing after Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing merged. 

That was actually the second consecutive season that saw four different teams win in the first four races after Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing Andretti and SPM split the first four events in 2014. The only other season since reunification to have four different teams win the first four races was 2008, but that included the split Motegi/Long Beach weekend when Indy Racing League teams ran at Motegi and Champ Car teams ran the final race for the Panoz DP01 chassis at Long Beach. 

If any of the seven teams that have yet to win were to come out on top this weekend, we could be heading into the Grand Prix of Indianapolis with the possibility of having five different teams win the first five races in a season since 2000 when it happened in both the Indy Racing League and CART. 

In CART, the first six races had six different teams win a race. Max Papis won at Homestead with Team Rahal. Paul Tracy won at Long Beach with Team Green. Adrián Fernández was victorious in Rio de Janeiro with Patrick Racing. Newman/Haas Racing was first in Motegi with Michael Andretti. Team Penske picked up its 100th IndyCar victory at Nazareth thanks to Gil de Ferran, which was a week before Juan Pablo Montoya won at Milwaukee with Ganassi. 

The first team to repeat was, naturally, Team Penske. Hélio Castroneves scored his first career IndyCar victory at Belle Isle.

The 2000 IRL season started with seven different teams winning in the first seven races! Dreyer & Reinbold Racing won on debut in the first race of the 21st century at Walt Disney World Speedway with Robbie Buhl. Buddy Laizer won at Phoenix with Hemelgarn Racing. At Las Vegas, Al Unser, Jr. scored his first victory in nearly five years driving for Galles Racing, and it was Galles Racing's first victory since Belle Isle 1993. Montoya then won the Indianapolis 500 with Ganassi. Scott Sharp and Kelley Racing won the next race at Texas. Eddie Cheever won with his own team at Pikes Peak. Greg Ray won the seventh race with Team Menard in Atlanta. 

Lazier and Hemelgarn Racing was the first, and only, repeat winner that season as he took the championship off the back of victory in the inaugural Kentucky race. 

Indy Lights
After nearly two months without any Road to Indy competition, Indy Lights returns for its second of 14 races this season. 

At St. Petersburg, Danial Frost scored his second career Indy Lights victory in his 35th start, driving for HMD Motorsports. Frost took the lead with two laps to go from Nolan Siegel. Siegel ended up second. 

Jacob Abel led 27 laps before Siegel overtook him on lap 35 of the 40-lap race. Christian Rasmussen was fourth with Hunter McElrea the top Andretti Autosport finisher in fifth. Ernie Francis, Jr. scored his best career Indy Lights finish in sixth with Josh Green and Reece Gold following him. Rasmus Lindh and Kyffin Simpson rounded out the top ten.

Louis Foster started on pole position at St. Petersburg and led the first seven laps. Foster was on Abel's heels for most of the race before Foster brushed the barrier and lost two laps for repairs, dropping him down to 14th.

HMD Motorsports has won the last three Barber races in Indy Lights. Prior to this streak, Andretti Autosport had won four consecutive Barber races and the team has won six times at the track in Indy Lights. 

One notable change to the entry list this weekend is Toby Sowery will drive the #14 HMD Motorsports Dallara. Sowery steps in for Josh Pierson, as Pierson will compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship's 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps this weekend. Sowery made 32 starts over two Indy Lights seasons. He won at Portland in 2019 and he had ten podium finishes over the two seasons. Sowery was third in the 2019 championship behind Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay. Sowery was fourth in both Barber races in 2021. 

Siegel and Gold split the Indy Pro 2000 races at Barber last year while Foster was fourth and third in those races. 

In six of 11 seasons Barber has been on the Indy Lights schedule has one of the Barber winners gone on to win the Indy Lights championship, including Linus Lundqvist last season.

Indy Lights will compete at 12:55 p.m. ET on Sunday April 30. The race is scheduled for 35 laps. 

Fast Facts
This will be the seventh IndyCar race to take place on April 30 and the first since Dan Wheldon won at Motegi in 2005. 

Only once has the Barber winner went on to win the IndyCar championship. That was Josef Newgarden in 2017. 

In seven of 12 Barber races has that year's champion finished on the podium. In ten of those 12 races that year's championship finished on the podium. In 11 of those 12 races that year's champion finished in the top six. The only time the champions finished outside the top six at Barber that season was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, who finished 12th. 

Every Barber podium finisher has started in the top ten, and 28 of 36 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 four races which have seen all three podium finishers start in the top five. 

Only seven out of 60 top five finishers at Barber have started outside the top ten. Six of those drivers started outside the top fifteen. Last year, Will Power went from 19th to fourth and Scott Dixon went from 13th to fifth.

In three of the last six Barber races every car has finished, including last year. The other two races were in 2016 and 2017.

The average starting position for a Barber winner is 3.0833 with a median of 2.5.

The worst starting position for a Barber winner is ninth (Will Power 2012).

Ten of 12 Barber races have been won from inside the top five (Josef Newgarden won from seventh in 2017).

The pole-sitter has won five of 12 Barber races.

Last year, Patricio O'Ward became the first Barber winner to start in second position. O'Ward also became the first driver to win at Barber from an even-numbered starting position. 

Fourth starting position is the only one in the top five not to produce a Barber winner. The fourth place start has finished second in four Barber races, most recently in 2021 with Will Power. The fourth place starter has finished in the top ten of every Barber race and has an average finish of fifth.

The average number of lead changes in a Barber race is 6.75 with a median of seven. 

Eight of 12 Barber races have had six lead changes or more. 

Eight of 12 Barber winners have led at least half the laps in the race. 

The average number of cautions in a Barber race is 2.25 with a median of two. The average number of caution laps is 8.667 with a median of 7.5. 

There has never been a caution-free Barber race, but ten of 12 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.

At one of his least favorite racetracks, Alexander Rossi gets his first victory for Arrow McLaren while McLaren put all three cars in the top ten. Andretti Autosport will have at least one top five finisher and have the best finishing Honda driver. Scott Dixon will be the second best Honda driver. Ed Carpenter Racing has at least one car start in the top 16 and one car finish in the top 12. Graham Rahal improves at least six spots from his starting position. A caution will not happen in the first 24 laps of the race. The last finishing car will be Benjamin Pedersen. No more than 21 cars finish on the lead lap. There will be a new championship leader after this race. Sleeper: Marcus Armstrong. 

Monday, April 24, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: Beyond May

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

Supercross overcame a thunderstorm for Justin Barcia to get his first victory of the season in the Meadowlands. The Berlin ePrix will be remembered for more than New Zealander dominance. Talladega was a mess. Monza had a few big accidents. The European Le Mans Series opened the season with a surprise, and it didn't take long for some IMSA regulars to come out on top. The leaders came together in Suzuka and allowed for a first-time winner to have his day in the sun. There was some testing in Indianapolis, and Indianapolis, more the build up to the event, is on my mind.

Beyond May
This week will see the anticipated premiere of the docuseries "100 Days to Indy," which follows the NTT IndyCar Series in the build up to the Indianapolis 500.

After years of waiting for a behind-the-scenes show of its own, IndyCar will get it and it will be broadcasted on network television on the CW with Vice producing the series and re-airing episodes across its platforms. 

It is great to have something showcasing IndyCar beyond the normal broadcast windows. IndyCar's growth is dependent on reaching people outside of the normal race window. The series doesn't have a presence on Thursday nights in any shape or form at the moment. A television program that will show IndyCar, its drivers and take people beyond a race in a one-hour window on a Thursday night is something the series has not had on this level in a long time if not ever. This will be good building into the Indianapolis 500, and should introduce the drivers to many, perhaps even telling current IndyCar fans something they don't know about the series they have followed for years or decades.

But this show shines a lot on the biggest problem the NTT IndyCar Series has and that is it will fail to show anything beyond Memorial Day weekend. 

There are 11 races after the Indianapolis 500. A champion will be determined over those races. I understand wanting people to watch the Indianapolis 500, but IndyCar needs people watching every race, especially the 2/3rds of the schedule that happens after the month of May. 

There must be something that will carry the audience through the entire season, and IndyCar shouldn't be hoping they will watch this show, watch the "500" and stick around for the rest of the races. This show is only going to tell part of the story. The auxiliary programming can prop up the races. You might not get people interested directly through races, but you can get people interested through this show and have them work their way into watching races. That is what "Drive to Survive" did while covering an entire Formula One season.

This show will basically be wiping its hands clean at the Indianapolis 500 and that will be the last some of these new people hear about the 2023 IndyCar season. Some people will not watch IndyCar again unless there is a second season of "100 Days to Indy." 

That's an exaggeration, but it is a possibility, and if you are only going to tell them the first third of the story, you are shortchanging the audience. This show should go through the rest of the season, through the championship, and tell the entire story. 

Most of the best parts of 2022 happened AFTER the Indianapolis 500. 

Álex Palou stunned us when he refuted Chip Ganassi Racing's announcement that it would exercise its option to retain the Spaniard on July 12th. 

Iowa's return occurred with two good races, a heartbreaking defeat that flipped the championship, and two strong crowds.

The Nashville race was bonkers with weather, accidents and a historic victory. 

Gateway saw Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin go toe-to-toe with a rainstorm in-between and David Malukas becoming an unsuspected challenger in the closing laps. 

The final portion of the season had the Colton Herta-to-Formula One backstory about whether or not he would receive dispensation to compete despite not having enough Super License points. 

We also had a championship battle that went to the final race, which had five drivers alive for the title in the finale and that final race featured Newgarden driving for 25th to second in the drive of a lifetime while Will Power held on for this second title, and Palou had the last laugh winning the final race and seemingly making amends with Chip Ganassi about the contract situation.

If "100 Days to Indy" had been done last year, all of the above would have been missed, and that was some pretty intriguing stuff. Things that could grab an audience's attention and keep them watching. 

This summer might not be as dramatic as last year for IndyCar, but stuff is going to happen and it could captivate people who currently are not watching IndyCar. There are plenty of interesting people competing in IndyCar at the moment. The series is set for the next 15 to 20 years in terms of driving talent. 

Josef Newgarden is high up in the record book and is only 32 years old. Álex Palou needed two seasons to win a championship. Alexander Rossi wants to win a championship. Scott McLaughlin has taken to IndyCar like a fish to water. Marcus Ericsson has found a home in IndyCar, and perhaps Romain Grosjean has as well. Meanwhile, there are also Colton Herta, Patricio O'Ward, Rinus VeeKay, David Malukas and Callum Ilott who all have their entire careers ahead of them and are already competitive drivers, and perhaps Kyle Kirkwood is throwing his name into that mix as well.

While being set for the future, IndyCar also has Scott Dixon and Will Power, two of the best ever to race in IndyCar and each is breaking records on a regular basis. We might not see another driver crack 50 victories for decades. Dixon is going for a seventh championship, matching A.J. Foyt for the most all-time. This is a special time for IndyCar that it should want to promote. 

I hate to say it but this feels like another situation where IndyCar put on the blinders for the Indianapolis 500 and thinks that is going to be enough for the series. The Indianapolis 500 is great, but if you want to sell the series to people, and the series must be sold. IndyCar must take the entire schedule seriously, not prop up one event and think it is good enough. We know the Indianapolis 500 is the crown jewel, but constantly undermining the rest of the schedule and the championship handcuffs the series. 

Formula One didn't grow because it focused only on the Monaco Grand Prix. "Drive to Survive" looked at the entire season and all the drivers and teams participating in it. "100 Days to Indy" will cover the five races before the Indianapolis 500. We will see more of the drivers, but a larger portion of the story will be left unsaid. 

The hope is this first season goes well enough to get a second one and perhaps leads to expansion in the future. Who knows? Maybe "100 Days to Indy" goes well enough that this production crew decides to a series on the end of the season, skim over June and July and then focus on the final four or five race weekends to capture the story of the championship. Stranger things have happened in this world. 

This program is a good thing for IndyCar, and opening reviews have been promising, but people not currently watching IndyCar must like this show to turn them into more causal race viewers for it to succeed in its mission. The best way to make that happen is for "100 Days to Indy" to look beyond May, beyond Indianapolis, and make sure everything is covered from the opening test sessions in February to the presentation of the Astor Cup in September.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Justin Barcia, but did you know...

Kyle Busch won the NASCAR Cup race from Talladega, his second victory of the season. Jeb Burton won the Grand National Series race, his first victory in 66 starts, and his only other victory was the spring Talladega race. 

Mitch Evans and Nick Cassidy split the Berlin ePrix.

The #34 Racing Team Turkey Oreca-Gibson of Louis Delétraz, Salih Yoluç and Charlie Eastwood won the 4 Hours of Barecelona. The #17 Cool Racing Ligier-Nissan of Adrien Chila, Alex García and Marcos Siebert won in LMP3 after the #31 Racing Spirit of Léman was handed a penalty for pitting under a Full Course Yellow. The #16 Proton Competition Porsche of Zacharie Robichon, Ryan Hardwick and Alessio Picariello won in GTE.

The #98 ROWE Racing BMW of Philipp Eng, Marco Wittmann and Nick Yelloly won the 3 Hours of Monza.

Álvaro Bautista swept the World Superbike races from Assen. Nicolò Bulega swept the World Supersport races.

Ritomo Miyata won the Super Formula race from Suzuka, his first career victory. 

Elfyn Evans won Rally Croatia.

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar ends April at Barber Motorsports Park.
Formula One returns after a month off in Azerbaijan.
MotoGP returns to Europe, specifically Jerez. 
NASCAR will be in Dover.
GT World Challenge America visits NOLA Motorsports Park.
Supercars head west to Wanneroo.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Mid-April Catch-Up: Wavearounds, Bumping, and Sprints

This might become a monthly exercise as each weekend there are thoughts floating around that don't always fit into the weekly structure of writing. Instead of jamming it in, it is good to give it some time, think it over, and see if there are any developments in the thought process. When there is an opening in the schedule, that is the time to share. 

For April, IndyCar and MotoGP are on my mind.

I have written this before, and I will write it again, IndyCar should tweak its wavearound procedure.

Case in point, Texas.

On lap 160, Patricio O'Ward had lapped up to third place. Josef Newgarden was the only other car on the lead lap, and Newgarden was over seven seconds back. O'Ward was the only car on the lead lap from lap 165 through lap 167 during the pit cycle and before he came in on lap 169. On lap 179, the caution came out. On lap 182, O'Ward and Newgarden made another pit stop and the subsequent wavearound put Álex Palou, Romain Grosjean, Scott Dixon, David Malukas, Colton Herta and Hélio Castroneves back on the lead lap. 

However, on lap 188, five of those six drivers made a pit stop (Malukas didn't). All of those drivers went from a lap down to on the lead lap but off sequence to on the lead lap and on sequence in the space of ten caution laps. 

If the wavearound is going to exist, IndyCar should at least adopt NASCAR's policy and not allow those cars to make pit stops under that caution. You either take the wavearound or you make a pit stop, not both.

O'Ward was the class of the field and had gapped Newgarden. Newgarden was the only other driver in the same zip code, and he was on the edge of the city limits. Everyone else was out to lunch, and effectively got moved to the front of the line. 

With the number of cautions that followed, those cars would have been at the front eventually, but they shouldn't be put there immediately and have a shot to take the lead on the restart. There should be some traffic between them and the leaders. It is a simple thing IndyCar should adopt. 

Not long ago, Long Beach was the pivotal point for Indianapolis 500 entries. It was the weekend we would hear at least one or two additional entries announced and a few more would come in the following weeks as May approached. 

In 2023, we had 33 cars set and ready before we even got to April. Long Beach was just Long Beach, but this year, we had a report of one more Indianapolis 500 entry. R.C. Enerson reportedly will make his second Indianapolis 500 attempt driving an entry for Abel Motorsports, an Indy Lights team, with a Chevrolet engine program. With this possible Abel/Enerson combination, 34 cars will attempt to qualify, meaning at least one team will not make the Indianapolis 500. 

It is likely we all prefer bumping. That edge in qualifying heightens the event. The bar is raised. No one is in race trim and just making a qualifying attempt that is symbolic in nature. I am fine with one car going home. Is 34 that much of an improvement over 33? It is almost a wash. I was comfortable after Ryan Hunter-Reay was confirmed as the 33rd entry with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing if that was it. Not that I only wanted 33, but it looked unlikely we would see a 34th or 35th and the 33 cars we had were strong. 

The IndyCar grid is maxed out with 34 entries. The existing teams cannot really accommodate more entries, and there aren't three or four Indianapolis-only teams out there. The manufacturers also are stretched at 17 entries apiece. We saw back in 2019 that Honda and Chevrolet could run 18 entries, but that requires all the other pieces to fall perfectly in place. IndyCar is a few pieces short at the moment, and 34 is the natural limit.

If IndyCar wanted more than one car going home, it could systematically put its thumb on the scale to get 18 entries from each manufacturer. Say IndyCar introduced a 1,000-point bonus to the manufacturers' championship for each manufacturer that had 18 cars make an Indianapolis 500 qualifying attempt. A thousand points would guarantee a manufacturer the championship. If one did it the other would be forced to do it. If the manufacturers' championship truly matters to Honda and Chevrolet, they would do this no matter what so they wouldn't gift the other the championship.

As much as I would love IndyCar to do such a thing, it is not going to happen any time soon. We will have bumping, though it could be anti-climatic or leave us yearning for more.

I hate to say it but I like the MotoGP sprint races. Maybe it is just because MotoGP puts on a quality race no matter what, but they are enjoyable to watch. 

I am not a fan of the sprint boom we are seeing in global motorsports. It does feel like it isn't solving a problem. The series officials say it adds more racing, but it runs the risk of diluting what already exist. There is also a limit to how much racing there can be. If interest starts to drop, series cannot keep adding races to solve the problem. At some point the number of races isn't the issue. We cannot have sprint races on Friday and Saturday and then a full race on Sunday. Theoretically having 60 races in a season would be overkill.

Formula One has been testing the waters and slowly expanding sprint races. Whether it ever goes 100% remains to be seen. MotoGP went all-in without warning last year. It felt reactionary. No one was asking for it, but MotoGP felt it was necessary to add value to the race weekends. 

My issue with sprint races is they reward the teams that are already the best. They are essentially what stage points are to NASCAR. The cars running at the front are getting a greater reward and widening the gap to the rest of the field. That doesn't make the competition better. The rich get richer. 

In MotoGP, sprint races are currently insurance for Francesco Bagnaia. Two falls in the last two races took him out of finishes of second and first. It cost him 45 points, but his sprint points have him still second in the championship, only 11 points off Marco Bezzecchi. Bagnaia has more than double the points he should have based on race finishes alone. 

Could sprint points allow for some funky championship outcomes? It is obviously possible. Bagnaia could finish outside the points again in Jerez but become the championship leader thanks to the sprint race. That  is a sporting dilemma we can face at another time. 

Though I am not for it, I prefer MotoGP went all in and adopted it for every race. All the race weekends are worth the same. This isn't Formula One where a half-dozen randomly selected rounds are worth more points. It is uniform. The one thing in MotoGP's favor is the depth of the field. It is more likely the MotoGP sprint race will look completely different from the grand prix, while in Formula One the sprint is foreshadowing the grand prix for the most part. 

Brad Binder went from 15th to first in the Argentina sprint. Binder gained six positions in Austin to finish fifth in the sprint while Jorge Martín went from 12th to third and Miguel Oliveira went from 15th to eighth. 

It is still early in the season, and riders are concerned about the physical toll of running 21 sprint races, which are legitimate in my eyes as well. The jury is still out on the sprint race's long-term future. 

Monday, April 17, 2023

Musings From the Weekend: Pumping the Oval Brakes

Here is a rundown of what got me thinking...

Kyle Kirkwood stunned the field with his victory at Long Beach. People have low standards when it comes to issuing death threats. Porsche produces good opossums. Race cars are dangerous. IMSA took its time to call a few cautions. Francesco Bagnaia's greatest threat to his title defense is Francesco Bagnaia. Austin had a good crowd as well for MotoGP. NASCAR ran in the damp in Martinsville, and rain still ended a race. Frustration was notable out of Virginia. Super GT opened with a wet race. The Supercross championship tightened up at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and it is ovals that are on my mind, but not necessarily with a dirt track built on top of it... 

Pumping the Oval Brakes
A few weeks have past since IndyCar's thrilling Texas round, and the buzz from the event carried through to Long Beach. For two weeks, IndyCar has been enamored with the race seen on the 1.5-mile oval. It is partially because it was unexpected after the five-year nosedive in quality we had seen with Texas races, but it was also an incredible race. It provided plenty of memorable moments that will stand out for years to come. For Josef Newgarden and Patricio O'Ward, it was two of their finest performances, and perhaps the first real toe-to-toe battle of many to come over the next decade. 

With a race like that and the lack of oval events on the IndyCar schedule, many are asking why isn't IndyCar putting on more of those races? 

Texas has been the only 1.5-mile oval on the IndyCar schedule since 2012. Of the handful of ovals that have joined the schedule in the DW12-era, none have been intermediate racetracks. Phoenix and Gateway returned, as did Fontana and Pocono, but the 1.5-mile ovals have been absent. At one point, 1.5-mile ovals were common. The 2010 schedule had six 1.5-mile ovals, including the final four races all taking place on circuits of that size. Yet for more than a decade IndyCar hasn't added another. 

In the wake of Texas, there was a vocal cry for IndyCar to add more oval events. Just add them and hope for the best. There are a few gaps in the schedules that could be filled with an oval, and putting on another race the likes of Texas wouldn't be a bad thing for the series. 

But let's pump the brakes when it comes to adding more ovals for a moment. 

We have been on this road for almost 15 years. IndyCar hasn't been able to maintain a half-dozen stable oval events during that time. It is currently down to four oval weekends. Indianapolis is the only one safe. Gateway started off well when it returned in 2017, but crowds have dipped in the last few years, and with the 2023 race being the first scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, we are going to find out how healthy that race is this summer. Iowa had a great revival in 2022, but it is different in that it is relying on the concerts over the two days to bring out a crowd. Last year was great, this year seems promising, but it isn't firmly rooted in the ground. 

Then there is Texas, an event that frankly probably should have been sent out to pasture a few years ago. There haven't been over 5,000 people there the last three years. The crowd has been shrinking for over a decade. If any other oval had 5,000 people show up it would give up on IndyCar the second after the checkered flag waved. For some reason, Texas keeps bringing IndyCar back when it could move on and not lose a thing. 

People see the racing that takes place and think the answer is as simple as just doing it again. If those races keep taking place elsewhere around the country then more people are going to tune in and stay with IndyCar. However, we have no evidence to suggest that is true. That is the hope. We believe people love that kind of racing, but the attendance and television ratings do not fully support such a claim. 

IndyCar isn't in a position to add three oval races in a snap. It would be unwise if it did such a thing. If IndyCar wants to add races, it must research where it is wanted and work with the tracks to draw the best possible crowd. The best possible crowd isn't drawing the people that are already watching, it is bringing people to the track who otherwise do not attend. 

A race should be a community event, and frankly I think IndyCar, and even NASCAR to some extent, has lost sight of that over the 21st century. IndyCar visits most of these tracks only once. It comes to town for one weekend a year. Most of these tracks only hold two or three big weekends a year. A race weekend should be a big gathering of the local people to see the drivers and the cars. 

The Dallas Metropolitan Area has about 7.7 million residents. If only 5,000 people showed up for the Texas race that means 0.0649% of the local population came out. That is 6/10 of a percent! That is poor. There are definitely high school football games in that area that draw more. There are probably high school baseball games that draw more. 

IndyCar and the tracks should aim to get at least 1% of the local population, but at minimum 50,000 people. Failing to reach either of those thresholds shows the failure to connect with the local people and give them a reason to come out and support what is a local business. It is on the series and the track. The track should at least have a reading on the pulse of the community. In Texas' case, it looks like the track isn't even trying. 

For over a decade, the common refrain from the IndyCar community when a race is not successful is it is on the fans. The fans didn't show up and that is why it failed. 

That's bullshit. 

IndyCar cannot keep relying on the same 30,000 people to show up to every race spread across the North American continent. Taylor Swift isn't relying on the same 60,000 people traveling all around the country to fill stadiums on her concert tour. She is drawing people from each local area and filling 20 different stadiums. It is on the series to bring people out. It shouldn't be on someone living in Columbus, Ohio to attend races in Madison, Illinois, Fort Worth, Texas and Newton, Iowa. That person has no responsibility to attend any races, but if he or she attends one race, it should be that person's home race, in this example, Mid-Ohio. 

There should be a healthy foundation of fans in every market IndyCar visits, especially in a major metropolitan area such as Dallas. There are about 330 million people in the United States. If 1% of the population considers themselves an IndyCar fan that would be 3.3 million people. If those 3.3 million people were spread out over the 17 IndyCar races that would be about 194,117 people per race. Split that in half and make it 0.5% of the population and it would still be over 97,000 people per race, and Roger Penske would still drop dead with crowds of that size. That is a theoretical, but doesn't sound like a lot. It just goes to show how difficult success can be. 

I want more oval races. I would be thrilled if Milwaukee returned or if we finally got the Richmond race after the pandemic scuttled all plans of its return. It would be fantastic to see Pocono, Loudon, Michigan, Kansas, Phoenix, Charlotte and/or Las Vegas back on the schedule. Hell, piggybacking off of NASCAR and going to North Wilkesboro isn't a bad idea either, but if IndyCar wants to find success at any oval event, it must get more involved and embrace the communities it visits to be embraced in return. 

If it isn't going to do that, it shouldn't even bother adding anymore races. We know they have three years drawing 10,000 people tops. 

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

Álex Rins won the Grand Prix of the Americas. Francesco Bagnaia won the sprint race, a consolation prize for the weekend. Pedro Acosta won the Moto2 race, his second victory of the season. Iván Ortolá won the Moto3 race, his first career grand prix victory.

The #6 Porsche Penske Motorsport Porsche 963 of Mathieu Jaminet and Nick Tandy won the IMSA race from Long Beach. The #14 VasserSullivan Lexus of Ben Barnicoat and Jack Hawksworth won in GTD Pro. The #1 Paul Miller Racing BMW of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow won in GTD, their third consecutive Long Beach victory.

The #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley and Ryō Hirakawa won the 6 Hours of Portimão. The #23 United Autosport Oreca-Gibson of Giedo van der Garde, Oliver Jarvis and Josh Pierson won in LMP2. The #33 Corvette of Ben Keating, Nicky Catsburg and Nicolás Varrone won in GTE Am, its second victory of the season.

Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup race from Martinsville, his second victory of the season. John Hunter Nemechek won the Grand National Series race his second victory of the season. Corey Heim won a rain-shortened Truck race.

The #23 NISMO Nissan of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronni Quintarelli won the Super GT race from Okayama. The #18 Team UpGarage Honda of Takashi Kobayashi and Syun Koide won in GT300.

Chase Sexton won the Supercross race from Atlanta, his third victory of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR is in Talladega.
Formula E has its most historic round in Berlin. 
The European Le Mans Series begins its season at Barcelona. 
The GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup begins its season at Monza.
World Superbike has its first European round at Assen.
Super Formula will be at Suzuka. 
Rally Croatia will be contested.
Supercross is in the swamps of Jersey.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

First Impressions: Long Beach 2023

1. Patience is difficult. Nobody wants to wait for success. It must be instant. That is the only acceptable answer. When things are not going in a positive direction, there is an urge to give up, move on and look for replacements. 

After the first 19 races of Kyle Kirkwood's career, many were ready to move on. One top ten finish, too many accidents, and the driver who once dominated the Road to Indy series had lost belief in many IndyCar bystanders. But 19 races is a short period of time. It is barely more than a season. Some drivers have run over 300 races in their careers. Nineteen races is nothing in that light, but results have to come eventually. 

For Kirkwood, he had one top ten finish entering this weekend at Long Beach. It came a year ago in this same race. In the 364 days in-between, Kirkwood had shown promise but not closed out on any results. Some mistakes were entirely his own fault. Even this season at St. Petersburg, Kirkwood bounced off of and over everything and that was after qualifying in the top five when it appeared this would be his breakout weekend. It was his first race driving for Andretti Autosport, but not quite the first impression any driver would hope to leave. With another bad set of results, more were counting Kirkwood out as a waste. 

This weekend was the best of Kirkwood coming out on track. He was quick in practice, matching his senior teammates Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta in pace. Entering qualifying, Grosjean was the favorite to be on top, but Kirkwood pulled out a stunner to claim his first career pole position. Though he started in the top five at St. Petersburg, this was Kirkwood's first race truly at the front and he fended off all challengers. 

This race could have been over when Kirkwood was balked behind the slower traffic of Agustín Canapino and Hélio Castroneves. Kirkwood fell behind Josef Newgarden and it looked like Newgarden was shot out of a cannon. It felt like race over, Newgarden would runaway with it and Kirkwood was set for another race slipping down the order.

Patience paid off. Kirkwood had the better tires over the course of that stint and he pressured Newgarden. Newgarden made his final pit stop first, a slightly questionable decision, and Kirkwood had better pace during that overlap in the pit cycle. Kirkwood emerged comfortably ahead of Newgarden and Grosjean, and from there, Kirkwood just didn't need to make any mistakes.

He didn't, and Kirkwood is now the 298th winner in IndyCar history, the first Florida-born winner to boot. 

It was a concerning rookie season for Kirkwood. Josef Newgarden didn't have any top ten finishes in his rookie season. Kirkwood already had Newgarden beat in that department, but not everyone gets the length of leash that Newgarden got. People didn't give up on Newgarden when it would have been easy to cut bait and move on. Kirkwood wasn't going to be cut immediately. Andretti Autosport sent him out on loan to A.J. Foyt Racing last year. His rookie year was a chance to make mistakes and learn. This was a grand plan for Kirkwood's career. It only required patience. 

It took over 60 races, over three seasons for Newgarden to get his first career victory. Kirkwood needed 20 races, a little over a season. Andretti Autosport wasn't going to give up on Kirkwood no matter how this season went, but he had to get results at some point and this couldn't have been a better time for the Floridian. Considering Kirkwood lost a season due to the pandemic when the 2020 Indy Lights season was cancelled, he has been practicing patience for a long time. It finally paid off today.

2. I am not sure anyone had Kyle Kirkwood getting his first career victory before Romain Grosjean this season, but here we are. Grosjean probably should have already pulled one out. Many things should have gone better for Grosjean this season, but the third race was the charm. After a pair of accidents, one not his fault while battling for a victory, and another that was when a top five finish was guaranteed, second today when he was the second best car is fitting. He deserved to see a race out today. 

Grosjean had the pace all weekend. Kirkwood nailed it over Saturday and Sunday. Grosjean should really be the championship leader. If he sees those first two races out, he is at worst second and fifth in those races. That first victory is coming for Grosjean. If he keeps up this pace, a championship isn't out of the question either.

3. Speaking of the championship, Marcus Ericsson exits Long Beach as the championship leader after a surge up to third in the final stint at Long Beach. Ericsson had some oomph today, and he overcame losing a few spots avoiding Patricio O'Ward's spinning car in the middle section of the race. This should have always been a top ten finish for Ericsson, but third is a big plus for him. 

After last season when Ericsson won the Indianapolis 500 and took the championship lead, but didn't look like a championship threat. Through three races, Ericsson has found more this season. There is a long way to go and there are still improvements we need to see, but Ericsson is moving in the right direction. I don't know if he would have had enough to beat Kirkwood if Ericsson didn't get bogged down because of the O'Wad spin, but he sure had the car to challenge and provide a significant threat. 

4. A little over a month ago, we were picking apart Andretti Autosport after it wasted having three starters in the top five. Today, the team went 1-2-4 with Colton Herta in fourth. Herta didn't quite have the same ability as Kirkwood and Grosjean today, but part of that could have come down to Herta starting seventh and really battling in the opening laps while his teammates had clean air. 

In the later stages, on the long run and when gaps opened up, Herta found more speed and passed people to make it up to fourth. The problem is we have no clue what Andretti Autosport we are going to get the rest of this season. The team looked like it was going to assert some dominance after qualifying at St. Petersburg and they all crumbled in the race. Texas was better but the oval program isn't quite there for Andretti. At Long Beach, the team really couldn't ask for much better. 

But are we going to see this again in 2023 from Andretti Autosport? If so, how often will we see it? Nobody is sure and that is not good. 

5. Álex Palou quietly finished fifth, his worst finish in a California race, so still a great day for him. Palou is Scott Dixon except nearly 20 years younger. Palou will take an average day and finish in the top five and he will do it ten times in a season. He didn't have it today to win the race, but he wasn't lost out there either. He can build a season off of six races like this and then strike and win three or four times. We are all keeping an eye on him.

6. And your top Chevrolet finisher is... Will Power. Power was just good today. Nothing special. He was quickly in the top ten after starting 13th, and he made up a few more positions, but Power wasn't threatening for a podium finish. Power did this last year. He took a nothing day, finished sixth and then did that about six more times while adding a half-dozen podium finishes and that is all he needed to win the championship. This day looks like nothing for Power now, but it could be meaningful later.

7. Felix Rosenqvist ended up being the top McLaren finisher after Alexander Rossi ended up in the tires on the penultimate lap. Rossi should have finished sixth or seventh in this one, instead it is Rosenqvist in seventh. Rosenqvist had an identical race to Power's. He made up some ground, but it only got him seventh. 

8. Two races in and Marcus Armstrong gets his first career top ten finish. Armstrong overtook Newgarden in the closing laps to finish eighth. Armstrong did the minimum a Ganassi driver can do. Don't wreck the car and have good pace. In two races, Armstrong has been solidly fighting for the top ten in each. Today, he got a top ten. He is still learning, but he is making it easy for Ganassi over whether or not Armstrong should run the three oval races after Indianapolis in place of Takuma Sato. He should.

9. This was an odd day for Josef Newgarden. He shot up from eighth to fourth on the initial start (which had its problems but we will cover those later). Newgarden was one of the quickest cars out there and effectively was second after the first pit cycle under caution. He took the lead cutting his way through traffic, but over that stint it was clear Newgarden didn't have the same pace as Kirkwood and the final stop was crucial. 

Newgarden came in first of the leaders, a lap earlier than expected, and he ultimately cycled back to third and didn't have the pace in the final stint, conserving fuel and dropping to ninth, 33.7842 seconds off Kirkwood. 

After that restart, I thought Newgarden was going to win. During that second stint, my mind changed to thinking at worst Newgarden finishes third because Kirkwood and Grosjean would get him in the pit stop or have better pace at the end of the final stint. In no way did I imagine Newgarden losing over 30 seconds in the final 33 laps. Was stopping a lap earlier worth it? 

Driving for Team Penske, Newgarden shouldn't be making the first move to pit lane from the lead. His pit crew is fine. It won him this race last year. Kirkwood had good speed, but Newgarden would have been fine responding. Put the pressure on the Andretti pit crews to nail their stops. In that circumstance, I am taking the Penske crew nine times out of ten. The team took a gamble on one lap and it backfired. Ninth isn't the end of the world, but when you are leading entering the final pit stop, it is a dismal result. 

10. Scott McLaughlin struggled on the alternate tire this race and just hung on to the back of the top ten. These days happen. Team Penske wasn't spectacular this weekend. None of the cars looked dangerous. That will change. 

11. Santino Ferrucci drove a smart race and finished 11th. That team didn't do anything noteworthy. It didn't take a gamble. It didn't catch a break with a caution. It ran its race and Ferrucci was smart. It got him 11th. That's a good day. He was the best non-Andretti/Penske/Ganassi/McLaren driver. Scratch that, this was a great day for the Foyt group. 

12. We are going to tackle the Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars here because they finished 12th, 13th and 14th. Graham Rahal made up 12 spots. Rahal does this at least twice a season. Every time it happens I write it is frustrating because it is clear the cars have race pace, if only they could qualified 15 spots better, or in Rahal's case 20 spots better, and make something of it. 

Jack Harvey was the best RLLR car for most of this race, and Rahal leaped ahead over the middle portion. Considering the last year or so for Harvey, this was a positive day. He will not be thrilled, but there is more to be positive about than negative. 

Christian Lundgaard made up some spots and finished 14th. The three RLLR cars were covered by 1.5 seconds. The good news is they are all in the same zip code. Any gains that can be found should benefit all three. If they find anything this team could be fighting for top five finishes.

13. Simon Pagenaud did nothing and finished 15th while Devlin DeFrancesco was 12 spots off the next best Andretti Autosport car. There is room for growth in the fourth Andretti seat. 

14. Patricio O'Ward had a jarring day. The first incident is O'Ward going up the inside of Scott Dixon going into turn eight and Dixon ending up in the tires. It was a racing incident. It stinks for Dixon, but O'Ward didn't do anything reckless. They were side-by-side going into the corner. Dixon lost out. If that is a penalty then no driver will ever attempt to make a pass. We would have a driver penalize in every race. That wasn't a penalty, and rightfully none was given.

O'Ward looked quick. I am not sure he could have been up there with Kirkwood, Grosjean and Ericsson, but O'Ward was with those guys after the first pit stops. However, when O'Ward oversteps the line, his day unravels rapidly. Today, he nearly took out Kirkwood when he spun into turn eight, but O'Ward missed bowling into Kirkwood, grazed the tire barrier, caught a piece of Ericsson, and somehow was able to continue without needing any immediate repairs. 

His race wasn't over at that point. He only dropped to 13th, but when O'Ward makes a mistake or adversity sneaks up on him, he doesn't handle it well. Two incidents come to mind: Portland 2021 when the team got the tire strategy wrong and O'Ward went from leading the race and controlling the championship to dropping through the field and finishing ninth. The next other is Mid-Ohio last year when the car starting having fuel pressure issues. The fuel pressure issues were always going to be too much to overcome, but O'Ward drove unhappy for a good portion of that race. 

We saw too much of the frustrated O'Ward today. He was able to keep the car going, and the damage could have been manageable but severe enough to make him uncompetitive, but if he does this twice a season his over-aggression will cost him in the championship. 

15. Let's run through the field. Sting Ray Robb was 18th. Not great, but not bad. Callum Ilott had a flat tire early and that really ruined any promising result for him. David Malukas had some front wing damage in the middle of this race, setting him back. Hélio Castroneves had a big accident on the opening lap and somehow continued to finish 21st only a lap down. However, opening lap accidents are not what you want to see from a driver that is about to turn 48 years old. 

Speaking of Castroneves, when he was a lap down, he kind of forced Agustín Canapino into the wall when Canapino was leading after not making a pit stop under the Dixon caution. I think Castroneves got away with one there. Any other lapped car racing the leader like that would not get away with it. Castroneves would never have raced Dixon, Power or Newgarden that way if any of those three were the leader. I know Canapino was off strategy, but it was poor from Castroneves. 

16. I have no idea what happened to Alexander Rossi, but this is another top ten finish lost. He was the best McLaren driver today but is the worst of the three drivers in the final results. He needs a pick-me-up and the next race is at one of his least favorite tracks in Barber Motorsports Park, so I am sure Rossi is elated about that. 

17. Ed Carpenter Racing is completely lost. Conor Daly was two laps down in 23rd. Daly has shown no pace this season. Rinus VeeKay didn't look good to begin with and some mechanical failure mercifully ended his race after 48 laps. ECR needs an intervention. It's not just the drivers, but it definitely isn't just the team either. A lot must be fixed in that organization. 

18. We must give IndyCar kudos for using local yellows today. Benjamin Pedersen locked the brakes up entering turn one and stalled the car just prior to the final pit window opening. In many past instances, and probably in many future ones as well, that is a full course caution and this result would look much different. For starters, I am not sure anyone would have been able to make it from there on fuel if they did stop, but if that caution comes out, I don't know who wins. I have a feeling Newgarden doesn't fall like a rock and Kirkwood doesn't control the final stint, but I don't know who wins. This race would have looked much different. 

Pedersen stalled his car close enough to the barrier that a few corner workers could push him back and re-fire his car while not being significantly in danger. If Pedersen stalls his car five feet further to the left in the run-off area, it is definitely a full course caution. It was close enough in the neighborhood to the opening in the barrier that the officials could move out and not be in great risk, especially if timing to when there is a gap on track and no oncoming traffic. That is tougher to do now that 27 cars are in every race. 

The corner worker got Pedersen restarted and the race wasn't flipped because of a full course caution. IndyCar also let the race finish with a local yellow for Rossi going off course. That decision may have given Marcus Armstrong eighth over Newgarden. That is two points in the championship that Newgarden lost. It didn't change who won the race, but the race could play out without a full course caution and allow for anything to happen. Bravo IndyCar for its officiating today.

19. We end on Scott Dixon. Tough day. This should have been a top ten result at worst, likely a top five. These days happen and they are rare for Dixon. He did nothing wrong, but O'Ward did nothing wrong either. Dixon has every right to be upset, but I don't think this was the greatest injustice in IndyCar history. It sucks. Dixon will bounce back. 

20. We need to do starts differently at Long Beach. Every year it is the first two rows, maybe three, are side-by-side and then it is 20 cars single-file, ten of which are still on the other side of the hairpin. My dream is for the Long Beach hairpin to be extended further down East Shoreline Drive like it was for the Formula One races in the 1970s and 1980s. Have the hairpin be an actual braking zone where the cars run into it, brake and then make the right down the straightaway. 

It would make the hairpin a passing zone and create more passes into turn one. It should at least be explored. It likely will not happen, but it should be explore, and IndyCar should push for it. If that isn't going to happen then IndyCar should consider moving the start/finish line further down the straightaway. The main straightaway at Long Beach is so damn long it should never be the case that the leaders are taking the green flag while there are cars still waiting to go through the hairpin. From a sporting perspective it is considerable unfair. Imagine in the 100-meter dash two runners getting a downhill head start while the other six have to start in the blocks. That is the equivalent. 

IndyCar does a good job making sure races are run fairly and run at the best possible standard. See the high line practice adopted for Texas and Gateway, the additional aero pieces to increase downforce at Texas and even the use of local yellows in today's race, but too often IndyCar will not change this minor thing at a big event because it doesn't feel like it has to. 

Long Beach is the second best race for IndyCar. It is comfortably the second best race day crowd, though Road America probably puts up a respectable challenge. We are coming off a Texas race where maybe 5,000 people showed up and there were over 5,000 people at Long Beach for the historic Formula One car practice on Friday morning. This is one of the few races IndyCar can feel proud about and not have to worry, but because it feels that way IndyCar doesn't do a simple thing to fix the only blemish during this entire weekend. The starts look like garbage and IndyCar allows them to look like garbage. The series has thrown up its hands and given up. That is a shame, especially when most solutions are viable. 

If IndyCar is willing to spend money to develop aero pieces to make a race better and willing to invest the resources in more practice time to make a race better, why will it not put in the same effort to erase the only bad thing about the entire Long Beach weekend and make the starts actually look like an organized start to a profession automobile race? 

21. And we have another fortnight off until Barber Motorsports Park. This season is starting to pick up the pace.