Friday, June 8, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Texas Preview

A little late to the table this weekend, but oh well, I will be more than making up for it next week at Milwaukee. On the grounds with an official media credential in hand, I'm going to be live blogging all of Friday's events. If you are in a 1,000-mile radius of the Mile, get there! OK, that's a stretch, but make it to the race, the only way we fans can show IndyCar that ovals are wanted and viable is to show up.

Indy was big as usual, Texas will draw well and they will pack it in at Iowa, so it's up to us to get it done at the Mile as well.

This week is fun, Texas -- or more officially the Firestone 550 -- is always a great show, and it's a Saturday night race to boot. It's what racing is all about in America: you work hard during the week, then race on Saturday night. Oh yeah. Why do I have the song "Pink Houses" playing in my head right now?

Qualifying is in the books, so let's start there and look ahead to the rest of the weekend.

*Tags does it again! Bryan Herta Autosport continues to show that dropping the Lotus and sitting out Sao Paulo was a great decision. Alex Tagliani was quick in race trim at Indy, qualfied third and moved up after an early electrical issue at Belle Isle and Friday picked up his second straight pole at Texas (and eighth career overall) with a two-lap average of 215.591 mph.

It was also the first time this season a non-Penske or Ganassi car had taken P1.

It was a very competitive qualifying session, and the key became who could put in a solid second lap without dropping off too much. Will Power was among several drivers who turned a first lap at over 216 mph but couldn't hang on, so the points leader (but you wonder for how much longer) will start fifth.

Tags barely squeaked past front-row mate Dario Franchitti, as the two driver's runs were separated by just .0102 seconds. The gap between Franchitti and Graham Rahal is even smaller, just .0006 over the three-mile run. Rahal was another driver who hit 216 on his first lap but fell off the second time around and will start third, while Scott Dixon starts fourth.

Power is the fastest Chevrolet qualifier in the five-hole, while James Hinchcliffe, who sat on the pole for quite some time Friday, will start sixth.

*The racing. Tons and tons of testing and discussion between the drivers and the series leading up to this weekend still hasn't been resolved as of my press time. It seems to be an evolving thing as more discussion is following any action on the track and I'm sure the aero package will not be completely resolved until race time.

It's a fine line between pack racing and putting on a good show, and apparently everyone is trying to tip-toe that line as much as they can. I understand the driver's concerns, but racing is about everyone making things as safe as reasonably possible and then going out and running as hard as you can. I'll echo the sentiments of many other people: I'm all for safety and want to see all of these drivers home and in their beds Saturday night, but at the same time, racing involves risk, and I believe the IndyCar series has learned a lot of lessons in the last eight months and have applied them here.

Let's get this in writing: Texas is safe. If you recall we ran 550K there last year with one incident, and just off the top of my head I don't recall any serious crashes at TMS in several years. Racing is a test of driver, machine and yes, bravery. Texas is just a bit steeper and a bit more dangerous than anywhere else on the circuit, but that doesn't mean we take it off the schedule and no longer race there because we are worried about what MIGHT happen. If that is the case we might as well not race anywhere, or go sci fi and have the drivers race the cars from a pod in their garage (that might make a badass movie, come to think of it), sort of like drone aircraft.

From what I have deciphered, it seems there is a lot of disagreements between how much downforce to put in the cars. Some are not comfortable and want more, others are happy and want to run as is. Judging by the lap times in practice and qualifying, the drivers are still flat...what else do you expect IndyCar to do? This is supposed to be one of the top racing series in the world, and there are people that can't drive loose race cars? It's supposed to be a little uncomfortable, that's how you separate talent.

I'm not one of these let's-take-the-downforce-off-and-jack-it-up-to-1000 HP people, but I wouldn't mind some lifting and some talent needed to drive these cars. I hate to make the comparison, but part of the challenge in Cup is to drive loose race cars while lifting and braking, it should be the same here. There should be plenty of lifting and moving around in the race, and that is the way it should be.

*Honda vs. Chevy. The duel continues. Honda has somehow edged in front since the 500, and did again here Friday as it owned the top five spots in practice and the top four in qualifying. Still, I don't think the gap is as big as many think, because the guys leading the way for Honda (Dixon and Franchitti) are 1) with one of the series' power teams and 2) are two of the best in the business.

The top 10 qualifiers were split 6-4 in favor of Honda, and the ninth-place starter, Marco Andretti, was .29 seconds slower than Tags. I know that is an eternity in racing, but Honda isn't pulling away.

*Grid penalties. Mike Conway loses 10 spots from his eighth place on the grid for an engine change, while HVM swapped out Simona de Silvestro's Lotus. Josef Newgarden will start from the back as they had engine problems after the first practice and didn't present a qualifying attempt.

*Predictions! At 550 kilometers (342 miles), this will be the third-longest race of the year behind Indy and Fontana (400 miles). With the aero package the way it is I think the cream will definitely rise from the top.

That said, I'm going to give the win to Scott Dixon. I know Power had his stretch between Alabama and Sao Paulo where he was untouchable, but presented as a whole body of work, I think Dixon is having the best season in the series so far with a win and three seconds.

The rest of the podium isn't going to be much of a reach as I'm going to go with any one of four drivers: Franchitti, Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Yes I know HCN didn't qualify well but this sets up to be a race that will favor experience, and he has tons of it at TMS.

You know what? Just for grins I am going to add Oriol Servia, who will further prove that qualifying is highly overrated.

Another's going to be just like Indy. Although the two are completely different animals, I just think the same charactaristics that made Indy great will apply here. Expect a lot of lead changes and a couple of pushes from the back -- which is why I picked Helio. One thing many drivers mentioned after qualifying is that they had gearing issues, hitting the rev limiters too soon and affecting their laps. If someone gets that fixed, (Ed Carpenter, ahem), they could move.

*Lotus over/under. With de Silvestro sitting more than 10 mph behind the rest of the field, on a 1.5-mile track she will get little leeway, so let's set it at 10 laps. She deserves better.

*Let's hope this isn't the finale. There is some talk that for a lot of reasons this might be the the last race at Texas for the IICS. I think that would be a waste, and really, really sad. It's a good race and Texas has been a great partner for IndyCar since the dark days of the series.

Yeah, Eddie Gossage can be a pain in the butt, but the man regularly puts 70,000 people in the stands for our races. I think the future of the race will become clear after tomorrow night and we get through a race and decide if the track fits the DW12. Business is business, it makes sense for the two parties to stay together, and while the marriage is pretty dysfunctional, so long as the race goes well I see it continuing.

Plus, it is tied with Iowa as my favorite race in the series behind Indy, I want it to stay!

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