Monday, June 18, 2012

Milwaukee Post-Game

First of all, Happy Belated Father's Day. Being a dad is one of the toughest challenges of my life, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, and a lot of fun. Hope everyone had a good one. I miss my dad a lot, but am thankful for the things he taught me and the time he spent with me. I hope I can live up to him someday and have the impact on my two sons' lives as he did on mine.

It's hard to put my impressions of the Milwaukee IndyFest into one post, so I will probably stretch this out into the week a little bit. This one will focus on the events in and around the race itself, and I will discuss the incredible job Michael Andretti and his staff did to pull this off in the next day or two.

For now, all I'm going to say is that while Michael didn't win Celebrity Apprentice, he brought a race back from the dead, which I think is slightly more impressive. More on that later.

As far as the race goes, it was solid but not always spectacular. That or maybe we were a little spoiled with the first two ovals of the year. Still, while there weren't many lead changes up front, there were some good battles always going on within the rest of the field. Milwaukee ended up being a real thinking man's race, the drivers really had to work and plot all of their moves and passes, which on a mile oval means it sometimes took several laps to set up another car and pass it.

Plus, Milwaukee is a track where tire wear is important, so you don't want to eat your tires up constantly working traffic and moving around. I recall one sequence were Alex Tagliani had a faster car than Helio Castroneves, but he seemed content to ride behind Helio because he knew that Helio was going to be pitting soon and he was going to get the spot anyway. With no challenge from behind it was better to save the tires and pick up the position the easy way.

It doesn't make for a lot of "excitement" unless you like the strategy aspect of racing, but I liked it.

So let's run through the top 5 and a few other notes from the day. Yes, I will discuss Scott Dixon's royal screwing (err, penalty) later.

Overall Winner: Race fans! In the end, it was the fans that came out on top this weekend. Andretti and his group put together a great event in a short period of time, and one of the biggest cheers of the day came when it was announced the race is coming back in 2013. The Mile is part of the history of racing, just like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Milwaukee has always been a supporter of open wheel racing when it is given a reason to get behind the event. With a whole year to plan the race, it will be interesting to see what they do to try and improve on the product.

Race winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. RHR was good all weekend, and sat in either first or second place for well over half of the race. His win is the second straight by a non-Penske or Ganassi car, is the first for an American driver this year and is his second at the Mile to back up his Champ Car victory in 2004. Hunter-Reay has won a race in three straight seasons and has also moved up to fourth in points. Once he got the lead Saturday he was just hooked up, and easily drove away from a challenge from Tony Kanaan with  25 laps to go. His efforts at Indy and Texas were absolute debacles (neither his fault) and he would be challenging Will Power at the top of the standings if he'd had better results there. This was also the 40th win for Andretti Autosport, meaning Michael Andretti has nearly as many wins as an owner as he amassed as a driver (42). Pretty amazing.

Runner-up: Tony Kanaan. Midway through, I was beginning to once again question my race winning prediction as TK muddled somewhere between 8th and 11th place. But then the Brazilian got a fast pit stop and came to life. He had a nice battle with Oriol Servia for a while then worked his way into second place in time for the final restart. He didn't have enough for RHR but has to be encouraged with his performance on ovals so far. Third at Indy, second here and he was looking hella fast at Texas before Power's block party. His last win came at Iowa two years ago, is he primed for another?

James Hinchcliffe. Hinch had a day similar to Kanaan's in that a late-race surge got him onto the podium. He's just so consistent, having now finished in the top five four times and in the top 10 seven times in eight events. Like TK, he also battled with Servia and climbed onto the podium with a late-race pass. Raise your hand if you thought Hinch would be second in points midway through the season.

Oriol Servia. Ho hum, another race week, another bad qualifying effort, another race through the field to a good finish. It's just how Servia rolls. The Spaniard was running 154 mph laps in practice on Friday and qualified 22nd before starting 20th after the 10-grid penalties were sorted out. Saturday it came together, as always, and he improved 16 spots to his fourth finishing position. Since moving to the Chevy engine prior to Indy, Servia has gone P4 at Indy, P5 at Belle Isle and P4 here. He's now 10th in points as well, having accumulated 64 points in four races with the Lotus engine and 109 in four events with Chevy.

I ended up listening to Servia's channel on the scanner over the race's second half, and it was pretty interesting. Oriol didn't say much, but his spotter was constantly feeding him information about where he was in relation to the cars in front and behind him. I'm guessing because of his engineering background Servia likes having as much data fed to him as possible. His spotter also was giving him words of encouragement and feeding him positive thoughts. Good stuff.

EJ Viso. I have to admit I haven't been a fan of Viso's but there are times this year (Belle Isle excluded) where it appears he might be sorting a few things out. He led 27 laps on the day, more than as many as he had led in his 74 previous starts combined, and was in the fight the entire time. He isn't setting the world on fire, but he quietly has finished seven of the eight races this year (Texas was a mechanical DNF).

Certainly Andretti Autosport and KV Racing Technology had things figured out, each putting two cars in the top five, and it is worth mentioning that the third KV entry, Rubens Barrichello, ran in the top 5 all day before being shuffled back late and finishing 10th. On the other side of the spectrum, other than Castroneves' sixth-place effort (he also led 50 laps), Penske and Ganassi both had issues.

Points leader Power finished 12th for Penske, while teammate Ryan Briscoe suffered through all sorts of handling problems -- even replacing the entire rear wing assembly -- and wound up 14th..

Meanwhile, Franchitti, who won the pole and led 63 laps, couldn't capture the magic after his first stop, fell back into the field and finally saw his day end when he crashed in turn three on Lap 193. He finished 19th.

And then there was Dixon. After a tough day in practice and qualifying Friday, his 11th-best time and 10-grid penalty put him in the 21st starting position, Dixon had worked his way up to third when he was hit with a drive-through penalty for jumping the restart on Lap 103 and dropped back to 17th. At the time, he looked like he was the fastest car on the track and was just killing people in turns 3 and 4.

There is no doubt Dixon jumped the first restart, but that one was waved off and they tried again one lap later. The next restart he held his position and the race went on. Still, race control and Beaux Barfield felt they saw enough to penalize him, which he served about 20 laps later.

Here is where it gets dicey. Barfield said a glitch in the timing/scoring/video feeds meant they looked at video of the first restart but thought it was the second because the systems weren't synched. Barfield later admitted his mistake, which I do give him props for, but the damage was done and Dixon on could move up to 11th by the finish, which he also attributed to a mechanical issue.

It's unfortunate. I'm not going to harp on what Barfield did because he has been solid all year and made a mistake that sadly cannot be fixed. Officials miss calls in every sport, it's part of human beings doing a job, and all you can say is he flat-out screwed up. To his credit Dixon accepted his explanation and they are moving on to next week. I think Dixon knowing his issue with his throttle probably would have kept him from moving up much more probably softens the blow a little bit.

It was a tough weekend for the top two in points. Power still holds onto his lead but Hinchcliffe has moved to within 31 points (274-243) , while Dixon fell to third, just four points behind Hinch. Overall, the top five drivers in the standings are separated by just 43 total points.

Power has one more oval to get through before more than likely rediscovering his mojo, but don't forget he crashed at Iowa a year ago and finished 21st. He comes into this week not happy about the heat qualifying format, so he is going to need to get into a better frame of mind to do well.

Hard to believe the season has hit its halfway point. It's been a great season so far, hopefully the second half will be even better.

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