St. Petersburg Race Recap: Oh, Canada!


2013 St. Petersburg StartIt had been 190 days since the IZOD IndyCar Series went dark for the long, cold winter when the engines fired once again for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to open the 2013 campaign for the series title.  Will Power started from the Pole Position after winning the inaugural Verizon Pole Award on Saturday.  Power set sail early leaving the field looking small in his mirrors.  Things changed on lap 19 when Dario Franchitti, exiting the pits, found his way to the wall on cold black primary tires.  Tires would become a central story as the race unfolded.

The ensuing restart saw Power’s Team Penske teammate grab the lead on a brilliant outside pass, a move that Power questioned Race Control about in a post-race interview.  Nonetheless, Castroneves’ pass was legal and Helio set sail in clean air looking much like his teammate did in the first stint leading the most laps through the middle portions of the race.  Then things got crazy.

Sebastien Saavedra brought out the caution flag when his No. 6 Dragon Racing entry found its way into the tire barrier at the exit of turn 10 bringing out the full course caution flag.  The leaders ducked into pit lane for fuel and tires for the final stint of the race.  The exchange of pit stops saw JR Hildebrand pass Simona de Silvestro under the caution flag putting the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car behind the Verizon machine of Will Power.  Coming to the restart, Hildebrand, apparently distracted, drove over the right rear tire of the car directly in front of him which, unfortunately, all but ended the day for the race’s polesitter.  Power’s car was repaired and he rejoined the fight, but he would find the tire barrier in the wining stages of the race saddling him with a disappointing 16th place result to begin his campaign.

Helio Castroneves made his only mistake of the day on the following restart when he was a fraction of a second late getting on the brakes getting into turn 1 locking the right front tire and opening the door for James Hinchcliffe to claim the lead.  While Castroneves attempted to chase Hinchcliffe down, the battle behind them was the thing to watch in the closing stages of the race.

Simona de Silvestro began her final stint on a used set of the red alternate tires which, according to teams, began losing their grip after as few as four laps at speed.  Chasing her first career podium, de Silvestro was holding on for dear life to keep third position but was unable to hold off a hard charging Marco Andretti who passed her coming to take the race’s white flag signalling the final lap.  Teammate Tony Kanaan followed Andretti through but it was far from over for the de Silvestro as she had to try to fend off Scott Dixon and EJ Viso in a crazy three wide finish back in the pack while James Hinchcliffe captured his first win in the IZOD IndyCar Series.  De Silvestro would bring it home in 6th which is a major turnaround from the 2012 she endured.

UP NEXT:

The IZOD IndyCar Series takes a week off for the Easter holiday after which they load into the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama.  Will Power looks for his third consecutive win at the facility where he came from 9th place on the starting grid to win the 2012 race.

IZOD INDYCAR SERIES POINTS STANDINGS (FOLLOWING ST. PETERSBURG):

1. James Hinchcliffe (Leader)

2. Helio Castroneves (-8)

3. Marco Andretti (-16)

4. Tony Kanaan (-19)

5. Scott Dixon (-21)

6. Simona de Silvestro (-23)

7. EJ Viso (-25)

8. Takuma Sato (-27)

9. Justin Wilson (-29)

10. Alex Tagliani (-31)

14. Will Power (-35)

18. Ryan Hunter-Reay (-39)

25. Dario Franchitti (-46)

CONGRATULATIONS TO JAMES HINCHCLIFFE AND ANDRETT AUTOSPORT

WINNERS OF THE HONDA GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG

James Hinchcliffe 2013 St. Pete Victory Lane

Roger Penske Throws A Life Preserver


 

Roger-PenskeRoger Penske, fresh off his first top level NASCAR championship, never ceases to throw curveballs into the world of Auto Racing.  Penske’s IZOD IndyCar Series operation, appearing hell bent on trimming from three cars to two, never ceases to provide out-of-the-blue and surprising news.  Team Penske came to realize that finding sponsorship to run three cars in 2013 was, quite possibly, and insurmountable task and subsequently released Ryan Briscoe to pursue other options after retaining three time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and perennial championship runner-up Will Power to contest the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series title.  Breaking news last week changed all that.

AJ AllmendingerPenske Racing announced last week that the team’s former NASCAR driver, AJ Allmendinger, would don a Penske Racing firesuit on February 19th to test one of Team Penske’s DW12 IndyCars at Sebring International Raceway.  Allmendinger’s test will be overseen by Penske Racing crew members as well as full-time drivers Power and Castroneves, with the end goal to grid Allmendinger in April at Barber Motorsports Park and Long Beach.  The Indianapolis 500 is also on the radar.

Champ Car World Series Powered by FordRecent history will regard AJ Allmendinger as a NASCAR driver, however, the native of Thornton, Colorado etched his name into the minds of team owners in the Champ Car World Series from 2004-2006.  He was forded the opportunity to drive as teammate to Paul Tracy at Forsythe Racing and really made his mark on the series wining four races and capturing fourth in the final points standings and becoming a regular thorn in the side of four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais.

Allmendinger RedBullAllmendinger was given the opportunity to join the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2007 as a member of the new Team RedBull operation as teammate to Brian Vickers but his full-time participation only lasted the 2007 season as he was relegated to part-time status in 2008 before moving to Richard Petty Motorsports from 2009-2011.  Allmendinger struck gold with the opportunity of a lifetime when Penske Racing signed him to drive for the team with sponsorship from Shell Pennzoil.  The season started difficultly as team and driver worked to find the same page on setups and just when it seemed they were making some headway, Allmendinger took the proverbial .44 Magnum and shot his career in the foot.  Suffering from the strain of the season, Allmendinger accepted a pill of Adderall from an acquaintance.  The following race weekend at Kentucky Speedway, Allmendinger was summoned for a random drug screening as per the NASCAR rule book.  Allmendinger tested positive for Amphetamines leading directly to his release from his Penske Racing contract as he completed the ‘Road to Recovery’ program and was reinstated.

Team Penske IZOD 2012AJ Allmendinger’s career looks to be headed full circle as he hopes to join the IZOD IndyCar Series in a part-time basis in 2013 eying a full-time drive for The Captain in 2014.  Roger Penske runs an organization built on loyalty and family with ‘once part of the organization, always part of the organization’ as its mantra.  Allmendinger handled his return from his drug suspension with the upmost professionalism which is just the kind of character Roger Penske desires and demands from all members of the Penske brand.  While at the unfortunate expense of Ryan Briscoe, Allmendinger’s opportunity to join auto racing’s most successful team is a fortunate happenstance for INDYCAR as it could put an American driver at the forefront of the IZOD IndyCar Series grid which is never a bad thing when trying to build momentum and exposure.

2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Awards: Best Oval Track Race


This is the first in a series of IZOD IndyCar Paddock Pass awards posts.  Stay tuned for more awards!

BRONZE MEDAL: AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY’S MAVTV 500

In an effort to replace Las Vegas Motor Speedway as host for the INDYCAR World Championships, the IZOD IndyCar Series turned to Auto Club Speedway to close their 2012 campaign.  Bringing a combination of the Speedway wing package used at Indianapolis and low downforce used at Texas, the show was sure to be interesting.  Throw into the mix that the championship was coming down to the wire as Will Power entered the event with a 17-point lead on Ryan Hunter-Reay, but, as IndyCar Series campaigns have shown consistently, it isn’t over until the checkered flag falls and the MAVTV 500 became a prime example.  Both championship contenders suffered ill handling race cars and combined with grid penalties for engine changes, both started back in the pack.  The race took a dramatic turn on lap 55:

Battling with rival Hunter-Reay, Will Power attempted to make a low side pass, got loose, and spun into the turn 2 wall changing the entire scope of this race.  Hunter-Reay immediately had the best opportunity to win the championship but still needed to complete 195 laps and finish 5th, after Verizon Team Penske was able to repair Power’s car enough to run enough laps to make up one position, to score enough points to win the championship.  The race was drama filled to the end capped of by a gutsy ‘red flag’ call by Beaux Barfield to give the race the opportunity to end under green flag conditions.  Ed Carpenter managed to snatch the race from Dario Franchitti while Hunter-Reay grabbed the title from the clutches of Will Power.

SILVER MEDAL: 96TH INDIANAPOLIS 500 MILE RACE

It might be considered a travesty to not have the Indianapolis 500 as the winner of this award every season.  The 2012 rendition of the 500 mile marathon just outside downtown Indianapolis could be enshrined as the best race in the event’s 100+ year history.  The Chevy vs. Honda ‘Turbogate’ saga had been accepted and Honda’s new turbo cover had been approved my IndyCar’s technical department, but when Pole Day came around it looked as though it didn’t even matter as Josef Newgarden was the only Honda to crack the top-9 in qualifying.  The race turned out to be a different story as the brand new Honda engines installed for the 500 miles seemed to have new life.  The race began as a battle between Ryan Briscoe and James Hinchcliffe with Marco Andretti holding the lead through the middle stages of the race.  Then Honda and Chip Ganassi Racing began to show their muscle.

On the final lap, Takuma Sato attempted to pass Dario Franchitti in turn 1 when he spun hitting the wall giving the race win to the Scot followed closely by teammate Scott Dixon and KV Racing’s Tony Kanaan.  A race filled with close competition that set an event record for lead changes ended like the greatest stories ever told.  The unenviable backdrop to the 2012 Indianapolis 500 was paying tribute to Dan Wheldon and the race ended with all three of Wheldon’s former teammates and best friends crossing the bricks three wide under caution for the most fitting tribute of all to Dan’s legacy.

 

GOLD MEDAL: FIRESTONE 550 AT TEXAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

As drama-filled and exciting as the Indianapolis 500 was, how could any event unseat it as the best oval race of 2012?

The award for best oval track race goes to the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway for a very simple reason.  In the wake of the tragedy of Las Vegas, there was much apprehension and questions about the viability of IndyCars racing on the high banked 1.5 mile oval tracks that helped make IndyCar Racing famous, at least in the recent history of the sport.  In order to remain relevant and draw fans, the schedule’s balance between ovals and road courses must be retained.

The tension was mounting in the Paddock as the first practice inched closer and closer.  Drivers said they would no longer participate in pack racing on the ovals but elected to grid at Texas because they are professionals.  The beauty of the new DW12 chassis is that it has a wealth of aerodynamic options to add or remove downforce.  In conjunction with the drivers, IndyCar’s technical department came to Texas with a low-downforce package that would require drivers to lift in the turns instead of holding the throttle flat.  This became an instantaneous solution for the pack racing and brought some serious excitement as cars were coming and going all the time.  This was also a race for the ‘little guys’ as the Pole was won by Alex Tagliani while Justin Wilson took the race win for Dale Coyne Racing after Graham Rahal grazed the turn 4 wall with two laps to go.

This race gets top honors for 2012 oval track races because of what it means for the future of the sport.  Leading up to the race, drivers said they would run the race but they would also be very happy to leave when it was over, but fast forward to after the race was complete and the attitude changed to ‘we want to do this again’.  Justin Wilson may have crossed the finish line first, but the big winners in this race was the sport itself and its fans.  Oval tracks are here to stay and make no mistake that the results of Texas had direct correlation to the addition of Pocono Raceway in 2013.  A big ‘Thank You’ goes to Eddie Gossage for sticking with IndyCar through all the talk of configuration, pack racing, and fence talk to host IndyCar Paddock Pass’s ‘Best Oval’ of 2012.

 

 

 

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Season At-A-Glance


The 2011 season closed with tragedy and questions instead of excitement and anticipation.  The death of Dan Wheldon cast a dark cloud over INDYCAR as they moved toward a new car and engine formula and safety going forward was going to be of paramount importance.  The show, as always, must go on and the drivers, once again, prepared for their season-long campaigns for the Astor Cup signifying him or her the champion.

The 2012 season was always going to be of great importance to the future of open wheel racing in North America due to the debut of the new car and engine formula instituted to create closer competition, faster laps, and more excitement.  We will delve into the particulars of the DW12 IndyCar’s performance in a different article very soon, but it is time to look at the IZOD IndyCar Series 2012 season in generalities.

SEGMENT 1: ST. PETERSBURG – SAO PAULO

The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season began in St. Petersburg in an emotional weekend battle on the grounds that Dan Wheldon called his home in the United States.  This was the important debut of the DW12 in competition as well as Chevrolet and Lotus engine package.  With exception to a few electrical gremlins the race came off as an incredible show capped by Helio Castroneves returning to victory lane, but not until after celebrating with a fence climb on Dan Wheldon Way to cap the weekend’s festivities.

A street course is one thing with its own quirks and drama, but the first real test for the IZOD IndyCar Series came at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.  Originally built for motorcycle racing, Barber is notorious for follow-the-leader parades with periodic ill-advised attempts at advancement often resulting in torn up equipment and hot tempers, but 2012 was a completely different story.  The DW12’s competitive ability coupled with new blocking rules resulted in the best race at the track in IndyCar history with Will Power coming from 9th starting position to win the race.

In the weeks following the race at Barber, Chevrolet found an issue with their engine that required all Chevrolet powered teams to change engines and suffer 10-position grid penalties making Pole Winner Ryan Briscoe start 11th in the race.  Teammate Will Power started 12th and raced his way through the field to record his second straight win of 2012.  Power would revisit Victory Lane in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

SEGMENT 2: THE OVALS (INDANAPOLIS 500 – IOWA CORN INDY)

When the IZOD IndyCar Series returned from Brazil, it was off to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Series’ Crown Jewel, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.  IndyCar fans had been treated to some of the best road and street course racing ever seen in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but concerns mounted in testing about the car’s performance on ovals.  We’ll get to the particulars of the car’s oval gremlins in a later post, but, in short, the technical department of INDYCAR developed a new wing package for the Speedway and Auto Club Speedway to correct imbalance in the car.  They hit this package right on the spot resulting in, possibly, the best Indianapolis 500 in history.

After a street race in Detroit, IndyCar teams loaded into the most feared race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway.  When the 2012 IndyCar calendar was released, nearly everyone was pointing at this race as the event with the most apprehension from drivers.  In the wake of the death of Dan Wheldon, IndyCar drivers expressed their distaste for the ludicrous pack racing on high banked oval tracks that was a prime contributing factor to the crash that claimed Wheldon.  Testing at the track revealed that the DW12 was capable of producing this type of racing that the drivers would no longer tolerate or participate.  IndyCar’s technical department developed a package with minimal downforce in order to put the driver back into the equation and it worked.

Short tracks at the resurrected Milwaukee Mile and Iowa Speedway rounded out the early summer oval schedule highlighted by the Iowa Corn Indy 250 all the exciting IndyCar racing that we have all come to know and love.

The streets of Toronto marked return to road and street courses and would be followed by Edmonton, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, and Baltimore.  Toronto began this stretch with Hunter-Reay capturing his third consecutive win of the season soldifying his place as a top contender for the championship.  Edmonton saw Helio Castroneves capture is elusive victory at the track while Dixon continued his dominance at Mid-Ohio.

The scope of the championship began to change in Sonoma which became a game changer on the first lap when third in points Helio Castroneves’ attempted pass on Scott Dixon on the first lap resulted in Dixon’s car turned around against traffic and a drive-through penalty for Team Penske’s Brazilian driver.  The race commenced as normal with Will Power maintaining a healthy lead over teammate Ryan Briscoe until a late-race pit stop by Power followed by an untimely caution flag allowing Briscoe to take the lead.  On the ensuing restart Ryan Hunter-Reay was spun by Alex Tagilani seemingly dashing the American’s title hopes.  Roger Penske’s standard of ‘no team orders’ allowed Briscoe to capture the victory instead of surrendering the podium’s top step to championship contender Will Power.

The streets of Baltimore became the real game changer as the season raced toward its conclusion.  IndyCar elected to remove a chicane on the main straightaway that hindered the entertainment factor of restarts during the 2011 race.  It became very apparent that the chicane needed re-installation when the cars were dangerously leaving the track surface.  Race day was the biggest wild card as mother nature presented herself as the wild card.  In a huge gamble, Ryan Hunter-Reay, needing a win, remained out on the track on slick tires as ran began to fall on the course while Will Power, who dominated the race’s early stages, and other contenders ducked to pit road for rain tires.  The track dried quickly and a coupled with a miscommunication from the Verizon Team Penske crew, Ryan Hunter-Reay found himself with a huge trackposition advantage over his championship rivals.  The final restart was controversial as Hunter-Reay, running second to Power’s teammate Ryan Briscoe, jumped the Team Penske driver on the restart and set sail for the checkered flag capturing the race win setting up a two driver showdown in the season finale.

It all came down, as always, to the season finale for the championship.  The 2012 IZOD IndyCar World Championships was contested at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California and was the first 500 mile race outside of Indianapolis in over a decade.  This race was going to be a marathon that the two championship contenders, Hunter-Reay and Power, would have to navigate.  Power entered the race with a 17 point lead on Hunter-Reay and by starting eliminated Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves from title contention.  INDYCAR selected a downforce level comparable to the one used in Texas making the cars very difficult to dial in comfortably.  The scope of the championship changed drastically on lap 55.

Will Power with a 17-point championship lead only needed to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay in his sights all night to win the championship, but, inexplicably, attempted to get past the DHL/SunDrop car, lost control and hit the wall in between turns 1 and 2 mangling the Verizon sponsored machine and, seemingly, dashing Power’s hopes for the title for the third straight season.  Team Penske would thrash together to repair the car and Power returned to the track allowing him to make up one position in the final running order.  The battle was far from over as Hunter-Reay still had to finish sixth or better to win the title.  Eventually Hunter-Reay would prevail to win the championship while Ed Carpenter won one of the most exciting and drama filled races in the sport’s history.

OVERALL GRADE: As a Series, IndyCar gets a solid B grade.  In terms of the racing product, there was no other series worldwide that produced better racing week in and week out.  The championship was, again, extremely close without any “Chase” or “Countdown” system which speaks volumes for the talent depth of the IndyCar Paddock.  The new race officiating system, and Beaux Barfield in particular, created some intense competition and each race was officiated consistently and fairly.  There was productive and respectful dialogue between drivers and the technical department that allowed for an acceptable downforce package for high speed ovals.  Track product aside, IndyCar faltered in a few areas.  The degradation of the track in Detroit was difficult to foresee but, with the race being on ABC, it goes down as a black eye for the sport.  The entry of Chevrolet had great benefit to the competition level, but the Lotus engine never got up to speed and was parked swiftly at all oval races due to lack of acceptable pace.  Randy Bernard posting on Twitter that people wanted him fired was also ill advised publicity for a sport that just ran one of its best Indianapolis 500 races in history.

LOOKING AHEAD: Looking to 2013, IndyCar is in a great position to move foreward.  The first season with the DW12 was a resounding success and 2013 should have high expectations as the teams get more and more into developing the car and further unlocking its performance abilities.  It can be expected that the 2013 season will be second to none in terms of excitement and competition, however, the biggest hurdle to jump is getting viewers on television to see the amazing motorsport product that IndyCar has to offer.  Formula 1 will join IndyCar on NBC Sports Network starting in 2013 which could give a boost to the television ratings.  2013 will also have the storyline of Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti both going for their fourth Indianapolis 500 victory putting them right next to the names AJ Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears.  Everybody tune in starting in late March 2013 to see how the next chapter in IndyCar history is written!

CHAMPIONSHIP Preview: Auto Club Speedway


NASCAR opens their ten race Chase at Chicagoland, but this is Open-Wheel’s weekend!  Fourteen races in the books for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series and it all comes down to this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for the MAVTV 500 on Saturday night!  This will be the ultimate test for the two teams vying for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series championship as the IndyCar season concludes on the 2-Mile oval track located an hours drive outside Los Angeles.  The last time IndyCar graced the facility with its presence was 2005 in the season finale won by Dario Franchitti and crowning the late Dan Wheldon the series champion, although Wheldon sealed the championship the week before.  The 2012 IndyCar World Championships mark seventh consecutive season that the championship will be decided in the final round with no Chase, Countdown, or Overtime required.

WILL POWER VS. RYAN HUNTER-REAY

There were 26 driver/car combinations entered for the first race at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Peterburg, but it all comes down to two drivers at Auto Club Speedway.  Will Power enters the weekend with a 17-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay, the only other driver who could walk away from the MAVTV 500.  While Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon remain, currently, eligible for the championship they will be mathematically eliminated once Will Power completes his qualifying run as Power will be guaranteed a starting position and enough points to eliminate those two drivers once the green flag falls.  No matter which driver walks away with the championship, it will be a great story to cap an incredible IndyCar season.

Will Power began his open-wheel career in Champ Car capturing four wins with Team Australia, but was left without a car to drive when sponsorship contracts were not renewed.  Then, in 2009, The Captain, Roger Penske, came calling to hire him as a replacement for Helio Castroneves until he was able to return.  Power has been a top contender for the IndyCar championship since joining Team Penske full-time in 2010.  In that time, Power has amassed fourteen victories and finished runner-up in the final points standing the past two seasons.  Power has had the field covered for much of the last three years, however, he has fallen just short of the series title.  Truth be told, Power has wiped the pavement with the rest of the field on road and street courses, but his downfall has been performance on oval tracks where he has just one victory.  Place on top of the pile that Power has never competed at the Fontana track and his first time on the track was a test the week prior.  Through his own mistakes or bad luck, Power is notorious for choking in season finale races but this could be the year that Power’s season long work is finally rewarded with a series championship but he must be bolstered for a fight to the end.

Ryan Hunter-Reay enters the finale trailing Will Power by 17 points.  Hunter-Reay’s history in racing has been turbulent at best.  Hunter-Reay joined Champ Car in 2003 and became a journeyman until 2005 when he was released from the Rockesports team with two rounds to go.  He, then, joined A1GP for 2006 into 2007 until being hired to replace Jeff Simmons in the Rahal Letterman Racing IndyCar which he drove in 2008 to the Chase Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500 but sponsorship dried up and Hunter-Reay was left without a ride for 2009.  Hunter-Reay joined Vision Racing as teammate for Ed Carpenter and had to scratch and claw his way into the Indianapolis 500 after which he moved to AJ Foyt Racing replacing the injured Vitor Meira.  Hunter-Reay got his break in 2010 signing to drive for Andretti Autosport with funding from IZOD.  With IZOD only a partial season deal, Andretti stuck his neck out for American driver scrapping enough money together to run the full season.  DHL/SunDrop came onboard for the full campaign in 2011 where Hunter-Reay failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, coming under scrutiny for “stealing” Bruno Junqueira’s qualified car.  If Hunter-Reay wins the championship, all of his perseverance will be rewarded, maybe not on the timetable Ryan envisioned, but a reward nonetheless.  Hunter-Reay would also be the first American driver to win the IndyCar crown since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

TEAM PENSKE VS. ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT

If the finale were on a road course, 17 points would be deemed difficult if not insurmountable, but this is an oval track with higher speeds, high banks, and points can come and go quickly.  Hunter-Reay currently leads the Oval Championship, bolstered by short-track wins at Milwaukee and Iowa, but Auto Club Speedway is a different animal.  The IZOD IndyCar technical department along with the drivers developed an aerodynamic baseline using the wing package, shown below, utilized at Indianapolis combined with the low underwing downforce used at Texas Motor Speedway to inhibit pack racing and putting the car in the driver’s hands.

The Firestone tire compound is expected to be similar to Texas so cars will be coming and going in much the same fashion.  Teammates could be the lynchpin to this Championship.  Power has allies in Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe while Hunter-Reay can rely on Hinchcliffe, Andretti, and Saavedra.  On paper, the teammate advantage goes heavily in favor of Team Penske as Castroneves is the only driver to compete at Auto Club Speedway of those listed and Briscoe is close behind in oval experience and success.

500 MILE SPECTACLE UNDER THE SATURDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

What separates this race from other championship finales is that it is a marathon.  The race is 250 laps and 500 miles in length, by far the longest final race in series history.  The race will begin in the failing light, move into twilight, and end under the lights so adjusting the car as the track temperature changes will be of paramount importance to the contenders for the championship or the race win.  The race will require seven or eight pit stops so the pressure is on the crew to execute these changes quickly to put their driver in a position toward the front.

This is going to be an EPIC finale to the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season and anything can happen once the green flag falls.  There will be 26 cars vying for positions in this race and only seven of them give a rip about the championship which leaves opportunity for drivers outside the championship hunt to cause problems for the contenders.  Everyone knows this offseason is going to be long and they will all be looking for a positive result as they park their cars for 2012.  Tune in to NBC Sports Network at 7:30 eastern time Saturday night for all the action!

OTHER NOTES: AJ Foyt Racing driver, Mike Conway, revealed his extensive discomfort for oval racing surrendering the No. 14 ABC Supply car to Wade Cunningham this weekend.  Conway’s IndyCar future is unknown at this time.

Legendary motorsports announcer Bob Jenkins will be calling his final race for the forseeable future on Saturday.  Jenkins has brought a professional, endearing, and exciting flavor to IndyCar broadcasts since taking on the anchor role in 2010.  May his journey after Saturday be swift and fruitful and we’ll see him at Indianapolis next May.

A Brewing Dilemma for Roger Penske…


Roger Penske has an enviable dilemma on his hands as the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season races toward its conclusion.  The dilemma is what to do with his team for 2013.  In 2012, Team Penske has won six of the fourteen completed races and captured Pole in eight.  As of now, Will Power is the only driver confirmed in Team Penske stable for 2013 and Castroneves’ three Indianapolis 500 victories give him favorable odds he will, again, pilot the No. 3 entry for Team Penske next season.  That begs the question of what is planned for the No. 2 car that was piloted to Victory Lane in Sonoma by Ryan Briscoe.  As always, Penske has many options to cultivate.

BET ON BRISCOE

Of the impending free agent class, Briscoe is definitely in the top echelon of drivers available.  Briscoe has proven pace and ability in the IZOD IndyCar Series evidenced by his win at Sonoma and the Pole at Indianapolis, but he has yet to recapture the magic of his 2009 run for the IndyCar championship.  Since being a top contender in 2009, Briscoe has amassed only two wins and a handful of Poles so one has to wonder the reason why given that Briscoe competes for, arguably, IndyCar’s best team.  The 2009 title run was bolstered by Briscoe being, essentially, the lead driver for Team Penske with Helio Castroneves fighting his tax evasion charges and Will Power only a temporary replacement in the No. 3 car.  If Penske intends and has acquired sponsorship to remain at three full-season entries, he could find himself with few, if any, better options than the Australian he currently employs.

GO WITH GRAHAM

Chip Ganassi Racing announced in August that they would not be picking up the option on Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 38 Service Central Honda, thus allowing the Ohio native and his lucrative sponsorship partners to test the free agent market.  It is unknown whether Rahal would be so loyal to Honda to put the phone down if Roger Penske, who runs Chevrolet, came calling.  Rahal would fit the Penske fold nicely and he brings financial backing to boot.  Roger Penske currently fields three cars for drivers north of 30 years old and Helio Castroneves will turn 38 before the flag drops on the Indianapolis 500 next May and is in the twilight of his IndyCar career.  It seems as though Rahal has been in the IndyCar Paddock for forever, but he is only 23 years of age and gives any team a driver to build with for years to come.

SPEED WITH SEBASTIEN

It seems like ages ago that Sebastien Bourdais celebrated his fourth consecutive Champ Car World Series title.  Handcuffed by a Lotus for the first four races, Bourdais made the best of his situation and managed to make an underpowered engine look competitive using his brilliant driving skill.  Since being given the boost of a Chevrolet, Bourdais has looked to be getting closer and closer to the form that made him so dominant from 2004-2007.  Bourdais’ team, Dragon Racing, faces a turbulent offseason as they look to try and return to a two-car team among shortage of Chevrolet engines, Jay Penske’s legal issues, and, like everyone else, sponsorship concerns.  Katherine Legge currently has the multi-year TrueCar sponsorship that she and Bourdais are sharing, but a move from one Penske to another could be what Bourdais needs to contend once again.

RIDE WITH RUBENS


This one may seem out of deep left field, however, if Penske was to hire a driver based on credentials alone there are few resumes as decorated as that of Rubens Barrichello.  Barrichello would enter the Team Penske fold with 19 years of Formula 1 experience, but just one season in the IZOD IndyCar Series.  Barrichello would join a team that has unmatched winning history and amassed fifteen Indianapolis 500 victories.  It sounds like just the opportunity Barrichello would relish as his motorsports career winds down.  This option could be determined a long shot because Barrichello seems to be looking toward a team powered by Honda which is not a possibility for Penske.

TRIM TO TWO

The easiest economic option would be to run two cars instead of three.  Currently, the only car in the Team Penske stable with full-season major sponsorship is the entry piloted by Will Power while the other two cars have seen revolving liveries and side pod sponsors.  Since becoming a three car team in 2010, Team Penske has shown indications of being spread a little thin after losing sponsorship from Philip Morris USA.  Other than Power’s Verizon sponsorship, the No. 2 and No. 3 have carried revolving liveries including Shell V-Power, IZOD, AAA, Hitachi, and Penske’s own Truck Rental brand.  Surely these sponsorships could be consolidated into one car allowing the omission of Penske Truck Rental completely and putting more pennies in Penske’s pocket to spend on testing, spare parts, and other team competitive expenses allowing more focus dealing with two teams instead of three.  It would also, assuming he remains interested in being a race strategist, put Roger Penske on the pit stall for either Castroneves or Power which could help consistency for one or both.  Another angle on downsizing to two cars is that it may allow Roger Penske’s son, Jay, to acquire the second Chevrolet engine lease that he desires.

As always, the ball is 100% in Roger Penske’s court and nobody is sure what The Captain has planned.  It depends very much on sponsorship and what is available and who can bring what to the table.  Penske, undoubtedly, has his eye on rising young stars such as Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, and Simona de Silvestro but those drivers are contracted to their current teams for the foreseeable future.   All three current Team Penske drivers have visited Victory Lane in 2012 with Helio Castroneves and Will Power capturing multiple race wins.  With the results of the Baltimore Grand Prix bringing Ryan Hunter-Reay within 17 points of Will Power heading to the Season Finale, you have to wonder what will Roger do for 2013.  Behind the wins and championship contention, it has been a bit of a difficult season for the Penske organization with AJ Allmendinger failing a drug test and if Team Penske sees another championship slip from their clutches for the fourth consecutive season, it can be expected that major changes to the fabric of the Penske organization will be forthcoming.  Stay tuned because when Roger Penske makes a decision, the Earth usually rumbles.

The Fight Goes to Fontana…


The Grand Prix of Baltimore had all the make-up of a race that could bring drama, competition, and flat-out weirdness to the IZOD IndyCar Series and its championship.  Baltimore’s place on the schedule as the penultimate race in the championship proved to be an important date for everyone involved.

The weekend began precariously for the IndyCars as a set of light rail tracks caused teams’ DW12s to become airborne for as much as seventy feet down a straightaway causing Race Director Beaux Barfield to install a chicane neccessitating drivers navigate around the problem area.

For an event that almost didn’t happen and rescued by Andretti Sports Marketing it became very important to competitors.  Team Penske and Will Power looked like they were  going to all but sew up the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship.  All the signs were present with IndyCar competing on a street course, an avenue that Power has all but dominated since joining Team Penske full-time in 2010.  The weekend at Baltimore started just how Team Penske had hoped when Power took the Verizon Team Penske car to the top of the starting grid winning the Pole Position and capturing one more point toward the championship.  Everything was going to plan, until Race Day.

The race began in Power’s favor as he took the point and extended his lead in the very early stages and looked to be doing what Will Power does best.  Everyone in the Paddock knew weather was going to be a factor with rain showers in the area and it was just a matter of when.  The rain came about a third of the way to the race distance forcing drivers to pit lane to swap slick tires for rain tires.

The race turned difficult for Power when Team Penske elected to keep rain tires as the track dried costing Power valuable track position.  Power’s closest championship rival, Ryan Hunter-Reay, used a risky strategy by keeping the slick tires through the rain to grab the lead.  Hunter-Reay took advantage of a significant strategy miscue on the part of Team Penske and led much of the back-half of the race positioning themselves for a huge points day.  A late-race restart with the No. 2 PPG Automotive Finishes car, driven by Power’s Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe, leading changed the entire scope of this race, and the championship.  IndyCar utilizes double-file restarts on road and street courses where cars line up side-by-side.  The restart zone is signified by orange cones, or a “cone zone”, wedged in the catch fence.  The zone begins immediately after the chicane and when the green flag flew Hunter-Reay was lagging back behind Briscoe and jumped on the throttle passing Briscoe and taking the race lead while Power was, essentially, shoved out of the way relegating him to a sixth place result as Hunter-Reay captured the win shaving Power’s points lead to 17 going to the finale at Auto Club Speedway.

There has been immediate debate on whether Hunter-Reay’s treatment of the restart was within the rules or not.  As the rule book is written, the restart was legal, however, it was not in the spirit of the rule and competition.  They are called double-file restarts for a reason and by lagging back behind Briscoe coming to the restart allowed Hunter-Reay to accelerate a couple seconds before Briscoe and make the easy pass for the win.  Regardless, what is done is done and the fight moves to Auto Club Speedway and it all comes down to 500 miles under the lights on September 15th.  The real winners in this restart exchange are fans of IndyCar Racing.  Yet again, the IZOD IndyCar Series takes its championship to the final race without any kind of “Chase” or “Countdown” system.  When Auto Club Speedway opens for practice, two drivers will be fighting for the series title.  It will be an epic race so make sure to tune in for this one!

CONGRATULATIONS RYAN HUNTER-REAY AND ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT: WINNERS OF THE BALTIMORE GRAND PRIX