Monday, September 17, 2012

MAV TV 500 Wrap-up

What can you say? After the season we have had in 2012 it would be anti-climatic for the season to have come down to some sort of boring race. Thankfully the season finale is on a fast 2-mile oval in California and not a crappy street course in Detroit.

Rarely do things live up to the hype, but I think we all kind of knew that Saturday night was going to be a fiasco. And I mean that in a totally good way! Still, with the expectations I brought into the race, the drama and plot twists were just at a completely different level. I actually stood up in my living room at points during the final few laps. Crazy.

But once again, the entire season came down to the final lap. Without contrived gimmicks, how does IndyCar manage to do it year after year? I have no clue, I'm just glad it happens.

Anyway, we have a lot to cover, so let's get started.

Champion: Ryan Hunter-Reay. He was my pick from the final lap at Baltimore, and even though he struggled in qualifying and needed a few things to go his way, at the end he was still the last man standing. But you know what? To be a champion you need luck and good fortune to fall your way, but at the same time,if you look at the bad moments RHR had over the course of the weekend it all seemed to even out. And to be able to take advantage of others misfortunes, you have to put yourself in the position to succeed, and he did that all year long. RHR also won the AJ Foyt Oval championship.

Runner-up: Will Power. I feel for Will, I really do. I mean, Superman has more power over kryptonite than WP has on ovals. The final score on ovals: RHR 168, WP 86. That's all you need to know. Yes, his crash at Indy wasn't his fault, and he was running great at Texas before receiving a penalty for chopping Tony Kanaan. Still, he crashed at Iowa which meant he brought the car back on a flatbed three times in five races. You just can't do that. Next year he needs to take the approach he did at Milwaukee, qualify well then drive around and finish on the lead lap. He will always dominated on road courses, always. If he can learn to hold serve on ovals he will win a title running away.

Still, major ups to Penske Racing for putting back together the car he destroyed on his Lap 55 crash. I believe it took just under an hour between the accident and when they refired the engine. And a big up to Power for the way he handled seeing the title fall from his grasp for the third straight year. He manned up and gave an honest explanation. And from what I understand he was signing autographs well after the race was over. He is a champion, he just doesn't yet have the title to go along with it. Power did win the Mario Andretti Trophy for most points on roads and twisties, but that is of small consolation I'm sure.

I know the media loves it when a driver acts like a petulant child when things don't go their way, but I'm glad Will was raised better than that.

Race winner: Ed Carpenter. You knew Ed and his Fuzzy's Vodka team had this raced circled on the calendar after a tough night at Iowa back in June, where a couple of tactical errors led to an eighth-place finish. Ovals are what Carpenter does, and it seems like the bigger the track, the better. He was a factor at Indianapolis before spinning late, but this time he sealed it, leading the most laps (62) and getting by Dario Franchitti in the first corner of the last lap, just seconds before Takuma Sato's crash brought out the final yellow. Both here and at Kentucky a year ago, Carpenter stared down Franchitti and flat-out beat him. Is it too early to start putting together favorites for the 500 next year?

Second: Franchitti. What is it about 500-mile races that make Dario come to life? If you created a line graph of Dario's finishes the season it would look like the Rocky Mountains -- jagged ups and downs virtually every race weekend. But he was awesome in the 500-milers with a first at Indy and a second here. If you are scoring it cross country style, that would be three points between the two 500s. Only one other guy in the field touches that, and it would be...

Third: Scott Dixon. Dixie finished second at Indy and third Saturday night, and his season was about as star-crossed as his teammate's. Two wins, three second places, six podiums. Man, the dude deserved way better than third in points.

Fourth: Hunter-Reay. RHR did what he had to do. With Power coming out after his crash to turn 12 more laps and finish ahead of EJ Viso, Hunter-Reay had to finish fifth or better to win the title. The dude just had to flat-out battle all night, from a starting position deep in the field (22nd), a handling problem mid-race, the red flag (more on that later) which kept the pressure mounting and the fact he was almost taken out by both Power and Sato when they crashed. Not that he needs the money, but I hope he bought a lottery ticket on his way out of town.

Fifth: Helio Castroneves. Helio was in the domestique role Saturday, and almost played the role of spoiler. On each of the final two cautions, he came in to change tires in an attempt to run from the back of the line and chase RHR down and drop him a spot in the standings. Think about it, had Sato not crashed and made it past RHR and Helio did the same on that last lap, we'd be talking about Power as our champion. As always, Helio was never boring.

Some numbers: How about 29 lead changes among 12 drivers? In perspective, excluding Simona de Silvestro, who parked it 16 laps into the race, almost half of the field led a lap. And the lead changed 15 times in the final 50 laps. No disrespect to any racing series, but find one that would put on a better show than that. Outside of pack racing, where lead changes are a dime a dozen, you can't. You just can't.

THE FLAG: Of course we couldn't have an IndyCar race without a controversy. When TK found the wall with less than 10 laps to go, race control, led by Beaux Barfield, made the decision to red flag the race in order to clean up the mess. At the time I was with most of the Nation in saying "hell no!" but a couple of days' worth of reflection changed that. Because here were our options: 1) red flag, 2) finish the race under caution, 3) hurriedly clean up the mess and hope, HOPE they get it done in time to have two laps of green or 4) green/white/checker.

Two of those four (2 and 4) I still say "hell no" about, (3) left too much to chance. So what were we left with? Finishing the race under yellow with the championship on the line would have sucked, let's face it. For all of Andretti Autosport's yelling at the time, I don't think anyone would have wanted to win the title that way. That's not how competitors think. Sure, they'd take the trophy and the big check, but the way the race finished left no doubt.

I liked the red flag as it kept the race at 500 miles. That's important to me. With all of that said, I don't want Barfield to pass the red flag out like candy next year, but there are certain times where he should use it, and this was the right call.

The decision was made for us, the fans. And it should be that way. Barfield stretched the final yellow at Indy a couple of laps so everyone had enough fuel to finish, and I was OK with that too. Using that discretion on an infrequent basis doesn't bother me, as long as it doesn't become a weekly occurrence.

I mean, look at it this way. If the race had ended under yellow, would we have all been as excited? Nope.

Man, I'm glad I don't have that guy's job.

So that's it. I have a lot more I could add but we have six months of time to fill, so I'll share more of my thoughts and ideas later this week.

But before I go for now, I want to thank everyone who in some way or another had a part in this blog. Whether it was as a reader, a fellow member of the Social Media Garage, or teams and people who assisted me along the way, I'm grateful for the time you spend here. This was by far the most enjoyable IndyCar season ever for me, and I know that sharing it with my fellow fans in a way I never had before contributed to that.

It's hard to believe that the season is over already. It doesn't seem like that long ago when I was sitting on the couch watching St. Pete with my laptop and Twitter at the ready. Hopefully the off-season goes just as fast.

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