Monday, September 24, 2012

Through The Field -- Part 2

Today's post is a continuation of Part 1 (as if the title wasn't a giveaway) as I cover positions 14-26 in the final IndyCar season standings.

14th: Takuma Sato (281 points). Given the number of times we see Taku at the front of the field during races, it's obvious that he is an immense talent. But when the race ends many times his team is taking a wrecked race car back home. He is an enigma to me, he can drive brilliantly, like he did at Long Beach, Brazil, Indy and Edmonton (RIP by the way), or he does something out of character of someone with his experience at racing's highest levels. Still, one crash I will not hold against him is his go-for-broke run on Dario Franchitti in the first turn of the final lap at Indy. Many criticized him for that, but I will never be critical of someone who is trying to win the Indy 500.

15th: Justin Wilson (278). Wilson has the well-earned reputation of being a road course specialist, but he took a big step forward in his oval prowess this year. He was great at Indy, won at Texas, qualified second at Milwaukee and was 10th at Iowa. On the flip side, he had such little luck for most of the season, dropping out of several races because of mechanical issues or being involved in incidents.

16th: Marco Andretti (278). To quote my girlfriend Darcy, "oh geez". This season was a disaster from start to finish for Marco. A second place finish at Iowa was his first top 10 of the season and he only recorded two more, eighth-place finishes at Mid-Ohio and Fontana. Not much else to say, but he did well on the big tracks, starting fourth and leading 59 laps before a late spin at Indy, then winning the pole at Fontana.

17th: Alex Tagliani (272). Like any driver who began the season with a (s)Lotus, Tags got off to a horrid start to the season. But once the switch was made to the Chevy, things began getting better. A pole at Texas was the highlight to a stretch where he finished in the top 10 eight times over the final 11 races. He was in the mix for the win at Fontana before blowing an engine with less than 50 miles to go.

18th: Ed Carpenter (261). I'm not even going to comment on Ed's performances on the twisties, because, well, let's just say maybe as the series moves to a 50/50 split between ovals and twisties he finds someone to partner with. Still, his first year as an owner/driver can be called a decent success. He won the finale at Fontana to win a race for the second year in a row, and started 28th at Indy but moved up as high as third late before a spin dropped him a lap down. He also finished 8th at Milwaukee and Iowa in back-to-back weekends. Ed loves ovals and knows that he can run with the best on them, no doubt buoyed by the fact he has twice gone head-to-head with one of the best (Franchitti) and put him away.

19th: Charlie Kimball (260). Kimball finished in the same position as he did in 2011, but I thought he drove much better this year. After recording just two top-10 finishes last year, he had six of them in 2012, including a second at Toronto for his first career podium. Had Kimball not missed the race at Mid-Ohio due to injury, a good finish there could have moved him up a couple of spots in the standings. As I stated is the case with a couple of other drivers, he will get better with experience.

20th: EJ Viso (244). Viso was another driver that appeared to get better this season, and his fifth-place finish at Milwaukee included leading 27 laps and was his best finish since placing third at Iowa in 2010. He was involved in fewer incidents than he had been a year ago, but there were times where he was just slow. Still, he matched his 2011 total with four top-10 finishes.

21st: Mike Conway (233). In his first (and probably last) season driving for AJ Foyt, Conway just never seemed to find a rhythm. A third place finish at Toronto, plus a seventh at Barber and ninth at Belle Isle were offset by nine finishes of 16th or worse, not including his DNS at Fontana when he gave up his seat because he was not comfortable on ovals any longer. My hat's off to him for that decision, but it may mark the end of his IndyCar career.

22nd: James Jakes (232). Jakes matched his 22nd place standing in the points from a year ago, but finished 10th at Texas and 8th at Toronto to pick up his first career top-10 finishes. If you go side-by-side in a comparisons to his races from 2011-12, he actually improved on his finish at nine different tracks.

23rd: Josef Newgarden (200). When he was setting the pace for most of May at Indy, I called Josef a rock star, and I still stand behind that statement. He is fast as hell in a race car, is great with the media and fans, and one day will be one heck of a racer. He just chose one of the most competitive seasons in IndyCar in two decades to make his debut in the series, and he suffered some painful moments and spent a lot of Wink Hartman and Sarah Fisher's money. Some of his early results indicated someone who might challenge for a podium by season's end, but by the time Fontana rolled around it became just about finishing races. He turns 22 in December and with a year under his belt should see better days ahead.

24th: Simona de Silvestro (182). As part of the only team that couldn't get out of its Lotus contract this year, Simona suffered through a nightmare of a season that would have tested even the most experienced of drivers. No doubt she felt some frustration, but handled it all like a true professional and earned a lot of respect in the process. What is unfortunate is that she has basically lost two years to her career due to equipment problems last year (Pork Chop has a great personality but was heavy and slow) and an engine program that was a disaster from day one this season. If Simona gets a better motor next year, hopefully she will have the chance to show what she can actually do.

25th: Sebastien Bourdais (173). Is it a coincidence that the final three (almost) full-time drivers in the standings were saddled with the Lotus at one point in the season? While with the Lotus, Bourdais had one of the most inspired drives of the year when he wrung everything out of the car (and himself) after finishing ninth at Barber. After Dragon Racing secured a Chevy for Indy and beyond, Seb split his ride with Katherine Legge the rest of the year -- driving the twisties while Kat hit the ovals. He had some nice qualifying efforts but had little to show for it other than a fourth-place at Mid-Ohio.

26th: Katherine Legge (137). The final driver in my "field", Legge also struggled with the Lotus through the first four races, with a best finish of 19th at Long Beach. She then got a late start at Indy as an extra Chevy didn't show up until late in the week but finished a respectable 22nd in just her second oval race. Handling the ovals the rest of the way, Kat posted a season-best finish of ninth at the finale at Fontana.

So that's the list. I'm still trying to decide what to review next, but I'll think of something!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Through The Field -- Part 1

The season is over, now let's start rehashing!

While it's quite the bummer that the 2012 IndyCar season has ended, the good part is that the series gave us enough to talk about for quite some time. In what will probably become a massive number of posts looking back at the year that was -- and maybe one of the best years ever -- I'm going to go through the field of full-time drivers and throw out my thoughts of their season and even their prospects for 2013.

Today I will go through the first half of the championship standings, with the bottom half coming at a later date.

Champion: Ryan Hunter-Reay (468 points). What a dream season for a guy who came into the year with three wins and had never finished better than seventh in the points. Once he got his first win of the year at Milwaukee, he found a mid-summer stride, also winning at Iowa and Toronto. Though he had two brutal finishes at Mid-Ohio (24th) and Sonoma (18th -- though not his fault) to fall behind Will Power in the standings, he rebounded with two of the best drives of his career, winning at Baltimore and taking a balky car at Fontana and grinding his way through 500 miles to a fourth-place finish. He has a title, he has confidence and he has some serious job security for really the first time in his career. Is this the start of something big?

2nd: Will Power (465). As usual, Will did work on the twisties, winning three consecutive races (Barber, Long Beach, Sao Paulo) and piling up six podiums and 379 points (RHR was second with 300). But once again, the ovals bit him big time, as he crashed out of three of the five races, including the game-changer at Fontana. Power himself admits that he needs to figure out what to do on ovals, I say he gets a really expensive setup and drive laps on iRacing all winter. He will keep falling painfully short of a title until he can at least get decent finishes on ovals, especially if as expected more ovals will be added to the series.

3rd: Scott Dixon (435). Back around mid-June I called Dixon the best overall driver in the series, and the one guy (although we can add RHR to the list) who I think is a threat to win every race weekend. Try this stat on for size: in the last six years he has finished second, first, second, third, third and third in the point standings. Just amazing. He also won twice (Belle Isle and Mid-Ohio) while garnering four seconds and a total of seven podiums. But when he was bad, he was way bad, finishing 17th or worse four times, and had some bad luck with the bogus penalty in Milwaukee. Still, he is one Indy 500 win or one more title away from jumping into the discussion of the best drivers of his generation. He is, but one of the above just would add to his credibility.

4th: Helio Castroneves (431). Helio was silly consistent all year, posting two wins (St. Pete and Edmonton) while notching ten finishes of sixth or better and having the best average finish (7.2) of anyone in the series. Like Tony Kanaan at Indy, you wonder if Helio is going to put it together and win a championship. This year marks the eighth time since coming to IndyCar full-time in 2002 that he finished in the top-4 in the standings. While he is moving up the list of oldest drivers in the series at 37, he can take solace in the fact that Dario Franchitti has eight wins and two titles since he turned 37. What comes first, a fourth win at Indy or a title? If he had to choose one it would for sure be Indy -- that's legacy stuff and he knows it -- but like Dixon an IndyCar title bolds up that resume a bit.

5th: Simon Pagenaud (387). Speaking of resumes, when you look at the credentials Pagenaud brought to IndyCar this season, you had the idea this guy was going to go fast in a hurry. Four podiums and the Sunoco Rookie of the Year nod later, we have confirmation that he is going to be a factor for a long time. Even more impressive is the fact that Pagenaud is the only driver from a one-car team in the Top 10 in points. Sam Schmidt Motorsports seemed to get better and better each week, and if they add a second car to their operation, they could go to the next level in 2013.

6th: Ryan Briscoe (370). More than likely a pole at Indy, a win at Sonoma and five top-5 finishes will earn Briscoe a nice contract next year, but it probably won't be with Team Penske. Maybe that is a good thing as he has been overshadowed by teammates Power and Castroneves, because 2012 marked the fifth straight year he finished sixth or better in the championship standings. But with Team Penske, that isn't always good enough, and for a guy who has been around for as long as he has he tears up way too much equipment. He can't continue to bring cars back on a flatbed if he wants to contend for a title. The talent is there, it just needs to be there on a more week-to-week basis.

7th: Dario Franchitti (363). It goes to show the bar that Franchitti has set when most people think his season was completely in the tank. But when you win the Indy 500 three times and the championship four times since 2007, you are judged by pretty high standards. Surprisingly enough, Dario had the best average starting position (5.8) in the field this season, but had some dreadful finishes, placing 17th or worse four times, including a DFL at Iowa where his motor blew up before the field even took the green flag. Still, winning Indy for sure salvaged his season, as he put together the most impressive drive of his three wins in battling back from 29th place early in the race. Back in 2009 when Castroneves won his third 500, did we ever think that a couple of years later Dario might be the odds-on favorite to win his fourth before Helio would?

8th: James Hinchcliffe (358). Through the season's first eight races, Hinch looked to be a title contender, notching two podiums (Long Beach and Milwaukee) and a front-row start at Indy as part of seven top-six finishes. A crash at Iowa, though, seemed to derail his season as he only finished higher than 12th once (a fifth at Mid-Ohio) the rest of the way. While teammate Hunter-Reay gained momentum as the year went on, Hinch went the other direction. Compared to many of the drivers on this list, Hinch is still relatively inexperienced, and no doubt learned a lot over the course of the season.

9th: Tony Kanaan (351). After finishing sixth or better in points for nine straight years, TK ran into adversity at almost every turn in 2012 as he and his KV Racing team inexplicably struggled through the season. He did have five finishes of fourth or better, including a second to RHR at Milwaukee and a third at Indy, but finished 20th or worse five times as well. Even more frustrating is that his winless streak has stretched to two-plus years and 41 races. Still, he upheld his reputation as one of the most exciting and entertaining drivers in the series, including his sixth-to-first restart in the closing laps at Indy which qualifies as the most epic restart of the millenium, as well as his stellar effort at Fontana, where he led 47 laps before crashing with 10 laps to go. Qualifying better in 2013 must be a point of emphasis for TK and KV, as even he couldn't recover from some awful efforts. His hard-luck efforts at the Speedway have been the mark of his career, but can he finally take it home next year? If he can it may be one of the most popular wins in series history. Want proof?

10th: Graham Rahal (333). Given his talent and his ride with Ganassi racing, lots more was expected from "Son of 'Stache" (paying homage to the old My Name is IRL blog) than what he produced. In two years with the farm club, Rahal has just four podiums in two seasons, and the one he had this year at Texas was bittersweet, a runner-up finish to Justin Wilson where he was leading the race with two laps to go and made contact with the wall and allowing Wilson to steal the win. Though it hasn't been confirmed yet, it appears he is joining dad Bobby at Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing, and that might provide the environment and partnership where he could thrive.

11th: JR Hildebrand (294). One thing we don't always recognize about the IndyCar series is the amount of experience many of the drivers bring each race weekend. Guys like Dixon, Castroneves and Kanaan have close to 200 open wheel starts between CART, Champ Car and IndyCar, while Rubens Barrichello made more than 300 starts in F1, and Takuma Sato has more than 150 between F1 and IndyCar as well. That leaves young guys like Hinch and Hildebrand in a spot where there is little or no room for error, and it just takes time and laps for them to get better. JR spent most of 2012 driving around in the midfield, with fifth-place finishes at Long Beach and Texas his highlights. He also showed a flash of brilliance at Fontana, where he led 56 laps early on before brushing the wall and coming home 11th.

12th: Rubens Barrichello (289). I think a lot of us expected more from Rubens this year, until you saw him drive a few races and realized that driving in the IndyCar series is tough, even for someone who has seen it all behind the wheel of a car. Barrichello was solid all year and seemed to get better every weekend. He was very impressive at Indy, finishing 11th and winning Rookie of the Year honors in his first oval race. He also held his own at Iowa by finishing 7th and closed the season with a fourth at Sonoma and fifth at Baltimore, then was in the mix among the leaders at Fontana before losing an engine and placing 22nd. I think Rubens seriously enjoyed his season despite its challenges and is planning to come back next year on a team as yet to be determined. He's good for the series in a lot of ways, and the paddock can always use nice guys like Rubens.

13th: Oriol Servia (287). Like Alex Tagliani, who I will profile in the next post, Servia's season was a tale of two motors. Starting out the season with the Lotus, he drove hard but through four races the Voice of God was only able to manage an 11th-place finish in Brazil. Moving to the Chevy power at Indy, he dashed from 27th starting position to finish fourth, then was fifth at Belle Isle, fourth at Milwaukee and fifth at Toronto. That was the high point of the season, though, as various misfortunes left a seventh at Baltimore his best finish the rest of the year. For the first time in a while, Servia is in a stable ride and the second year with Panther/DRR should be better than the first.

That's it for Part 1, and look for Part 2 in the coming days.

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fontana MAVTV 500 Preview

To steal a line from The Beatles (with Paul McCartney on vocals), the long and winding road that has been the IndyCar season ends Saturday night with 500 miles (250 laps) around the grueling 2-mile Fontana oval.

There are storylines aplenty, but of course it all starts at the top of the points standings as Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay take their battle down to what might be the final lap of the season. Power leads by 17 points and has the easier task as he just needs to keep RHR in his mirror or in his sights to complete his first title after two near-misses.

Both will have some work to do. With the track temperature pushing 140 degrees, Hunter-Reay went out second to qualify but could only muster the 17th-best time in the field at 212.772 mph. With the 10-grid penalty for an engine change -- something that 13 other drivers in the field will do as well -- Hunter-Reay goes off in the 22nd starting spot.

Power fared much better, qualifying third-best at 215.040, though he will drop back to 13th with his grid penalty. With 500 miles of multiple-groove racing ahead of them, neither is hurt by moving back into the field.

The engine swaps does give the front of the field a different look, starting on pole as Marco Andretti won just his second career pole, and first since Milwaukee in 2008, with a two-lap average of 216.069. Starting alongside will be Ryan Briscoe, who continues his late-season surge by coming home at 216.058. The time difference between the front row starters was just 32 ten thousandths of a second, leaving Briscoe on the other side after squeaking past James Hinchcliffe to win the pole at Indianapolis by the slimmest of margins.

Andretti has had probably the worst season of his career, but a pole on a big oval coming on the heels of a fast month at Indy brought a smile to his embittered lips.

Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon rounded out the top-five qualifiers, but all will move back to detention hall with the rest of the motor swappers. Which means that Tony Kanaan and JR Hildebrand will make up the second row, Ed Carpenter and Rubens Barrichello make up row three and Katherine Legge and Oriol Servia comprise row four. No doubt Servia is disappointed with his starting spot as he won't have to pass as many cars as he has been accustomed to this season to get to the front.

Carpenter paced the field in the final practice Friday night, and loves racing on big tracks, so he will be a factor for sure, while Kanaan was fourth-quick and has always driven well at this track. The rest of the top five: Dixon, Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, all go to midfield because of grid penalties, which should provide plenty of entertainment in the opening stint.

So let's go to some predictions:

*Champion: Hunter-Reay. RHR heads into this week having driven the two best races of his life to stay alive in the title chase. Things would be even closer had Alex Tagliani not punted him at Sonoma, and while he hasn't run well yet this weekend, I still think he is going to get it done. Starting in the back isn't that big of a penalty at Fontana, but he needs to get off to a huge start.

*Winner: Kanaan. I mentioned the other day that a driver who has raced at Fontana before will win, and thankfully Kanaan is one of them so I can make a totally biased, heart over head pick for the season finale. To quote the great Emerson Fittipaldi, Kanaan has been "beautiful" in his career here, with two seconds, a third and fourth-place finishes.

*Podium challengers. Staying with my theme, look for the heavy hitters here. Because I picked him as our champion, Hunter-Reay will be in the mix, as will Dixon, Castroneves and Carpenter. Along with Indy, this is a race I'm sure Ed has been looking towards all season, and we know how he made that work at Kentucky last year.

*Stuff to watch. 1) Team orders. Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport are the only teams left standing, and it will be interesting to see how the domestiques (to borrow a cycling term) like Briscoe, Castroneves, Andretti and Hinchliffe will work with their teammates to escort them to a title.

2) Teamwork. Power has been derailed the past two weeks by shoddy pit work, while Hunter-Reay pulled off his win at Baltimore using a gutsy pit strategy that gave him the necessary track position. This will be Indianapolis-type pressure on everyone, and the work on stops and the corresponding tactical decisions will be huge.

3) Midfield mad dash. These guys are racers, and despite the fact that it's a 500-mile race and, as Rick Mears used to say, that 90 percent of the time the race comes back to you, lots of drivers are going to push to the front. Hunter-Reay especially.

4) Setups. As mentioned the other day, this is really two races. The first half of the race will be run in 100 degree heat under a bright sun, then when the darkness comes and the lights come on it will be a whole different track. Usually a track gets hotter as the race goes on, this goes the other direction. Beyond this week's testing, no one has a point of reference for the DW12 because the two other night races -- Texas and Iowa -- were run well after dark, and Iowa went off on a fairly green track due to pre-race rain. Who gets it right?

In a season of great races, I'm predicting an Indy-type shootout, with multiple leaders and lead changes and a lot of drama at the end. And the series crowns a new champion, and a first-time champion to boot. This will be some really good stuff.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Conway Out, Cunningham In

Shocker of a report out of Fontana that Mike Conway has stepped away from his No. 14 ride this weekend and Wade Cunningham will drive in his place.

As reported many places, including this piece from, Conway came to the decision that he no longer wanted to race on ovals and while he does want to continue his racing career, it will be on twisties only.

I tip my had to the man. It takes a ton of courage to do what he did, because there are going to be a lot of circles where he will absorb some criticism. His admission is one that race car drivers aren't supposed to make. They are supposed to cast everything aside and race. It's what they do.

Ovals are hard to drive, and they can get scary sometimes. It's OK to be scared, all of them are at one time or another. Every driver who has ever driven a lap at speed on an oval has, at one time or another, had to make a deal with themselves to keep their right foot to the floor as they dove into a corner.

What makes someone a good oval driver is that the fear they feel doesn't creep into their driving. Because once they do that they will be a hazard to themselves, and even worse, a hazard to their fellow competitors.

Conway is fortunate to have survived two wicked crashes at Indy, in 2010 and again this year, and while the latter crash doesn't appear to be as violent, it happened right in front of me, and it was still frightening. My son Matt looked at me immediately afterwards and said "I will never forget the sound that wreck made".

And though he wasn't involved in the 15-car crash that took Dan Wheldon, he was in the field at Las Vegas and no doubt he, like everyone else who raced there that day, carries an emotional scar from that experience.

He has proven that with the right equipment he is a capable driver, as his win at Long Beach last year shows. But when you look at his oval record it is pretty easy to tell it was never something he seemed comfortable with. And that is OK, oval racing isn't for everyone.

So best of luck to Mike, who is a guy that while people gently tease for being so stoic and laid back, also seems to be pretty well-liked around the paddock. I'm guessing he will find something to drive soon.

AJ Foyt Enterprises will see a familiar face in the 28-year-old Cunningham, who jumped on a plane this afternoon and will be ready to drive this weekend. He drove for Foyt this past May at Indianapolis, where he finished in 31st place after dropping out just past the 100-mile mark with electrical issues.

Saturday he will make his sixth IndyCar start. He finished 29th and 20th in the Texas doubleheader races, placed seventh at Kentucky and started at Las Vegas and was involved in the Lap 11 accident.

100 Degrees and Rising

Before I start this post, a little sidebar: when I saw that the forecast high for Fontana on Saturday was going to be 103 degrees, I got a little excited as I had hoped it would mean it would be 45 degrees celsius and I could bust out a reference to the Midnight Oil song "Beds Are Burning". But alas, 45C is equal to 113F. Darn.

Anyway, what is it with 500 milers and oppressive heat? If you remember back to Memorial Day weekend, we had to sit through a race day that pushed 100 degrees as well. Not that I'm complaining, if they put on a show like they did 3 1/2 months ago I will happily sit through that kind of heat every day and twice on Sunday.

What makes Saturday's race different is that unlike Indy, which was run in the heat of the day, the race starts at 5 p.m. local time, meaning the track will change drastically the start of the race and when it ends 2 1/2 to three hours later.

I'm saying 2 1/2 because the last time they raced 500 miles at Fontana averaged either 195 or 197 mph (depending on track measurements) in winning the race in two hours, 33 minutes. And by the way, Tony Kanaan was the polesitter for that race and Oriol Servia turned the race's fastest lap, which was just a tick faster than TK's run.

In yesterday's test, the track temperature at 5 p.m. was 112 and the air temp was 89. Three hours later, the air temperature and dropped to 78 and the racing surface was down to 85.

So somehow the teams will have to adjust their cars on the fly to an almost 30-degree drop in track temperature. The car will drive completely different at the end of the race as compared to the beginning, and what makes it even more difficult is that the track is very, very bumpy. There will be no room for error.

Scott Dixon led the way in the test with a speed of 215.861 mph which he set just before the session expired. Marco Andretti was second quick at 215.779, which he set in the heat of the day. Dixon also lost a motor in the early minutes of the test.

Hmmmm...don't know what to make of that one, other than it would have been interesting to see Marco's lap times as he put more mileage on the tires.

As is my norm, I'm going to wait until after practice and/or qualifying to throw out some predictions, but I am going to narrow it down a bit. Of the 26 drivers in the field, just seven of them have raced here before: Dixon, Kanaan, Servia, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Alex Tagliani and Ed Carpenter. (Edit! Add Wade Cunningham to the list as he raced at Fontana in Indy Lights in 2005) Because I think experience is going to be what it takes to win Saturday's race, I'm going to say one of those seven will be the winner.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fontana -- It's ON!

So here we are, the final week of the IndyCar season. Excited for the race, and the championship battle that will ensue between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power, but also quite bummed about the fact that the season ends on Sept. 15, and that it will be six long months (or so) until we get it on again.

But wow, what a weekend this is setting up to be! In the words of Future Porter from the movie "8 Mile" (which believe it or not is a favorite of mine): "I don't even have to stress how important this is! It's the championship! It's what you came to see!" (Edited version of course)

After thousands of miles of racing, it comes down to 500 miles and two guys who are separated by a total of 17 points.

Power's objective is simple: under the most basic scenarios (and there are lots of them), if he finishes on the podium he wins the championship, or if RHR finishes sixth or lower and collects no bonus points for a pole or leading the most laps.

RHR, on the other hand, needs a little more help. Should he win the race, Power needs to finish fourth or lower, and if he picks up any bonus points Power needs to finish third or lower.

That is the easiest way to put it, if you want every single combination possible, go here and read the sweet spreadsheet from Shane Rogers that I posted in my Baltimore wrap-up that gives way more detail than I can explain here. One thing to note is that if they end up tied then Hunter-Reay wins the title based on having a 4-3 advantage in wins.

The odds of Hunter-Reay winning the title are pretty stacked, and while I'll go into lots more depth in my preview post, I still have the feeling that he is going to win the championship.

Power had a chance to put this one away last week at Baltimore and he didn't get it done, and on two other occasions he has entered the final race of the season (both on ovals) and couldn't close. Until he does otherwise, and as long as the season finales will be run on ovals, I can't give him a lot of love.

Interesting to note that Hunter-Reay crashed in testing at Fontana today, but nothing seemed to get hurt or damaged too bad so it's a matter of no harm, no foul.

One thing I am really happy about is that the race is 500 miles. Originally the race was scheduled for 400 miles but was changed soon after, and I'm thinking -- or would like to believe -- it was changed because the fans wanted it that way.

While I think you have to be careful about getting into "distance overkill" territory, two, or even three 500-milers in a season doesn't take us there. Especially if a third race, such as Pocono, could create some sort of Triple Crown situation.

It's a good thing because 500 miles is a test, and if a championship is to be won in this race, it should be a little harder. And the longer you make a race, the more attrition comes into play, and that is never a bad thing.

And while I also think it is cool that we are once again going into the final race of the season with the title up in the air, I wish there was a way to spice it up and add some excitement so that more drivers could be involved. Probably the easiest way to do that would be to double the points available, or maybe double the top 10 positions.

All of the sudden, you go from two guys having a shot at the title (Power and Hunter-Reay) to five, because if Simon Pagenaud, in fifth place and 83 points behind Power, could win the race and pick up over 100 points, he would still have an outside chance to win the championship. He'd need a lot of help too, but one thing the last day of the baseball season taught me last year, stranger things have happened.

Could you imagine how crazy it could be and all of the wild swings in momentum that would go on during the race? I guess you can argue that it takes away from the rest of the season, but my retort would be that you have to race hard for 14 races to even be in that position. Anybody in the top 5 would be a worthy champion in my book.

By the way, this is the first time IndyCar has raced at Fontana since 2005. That race featured the coronation of Dan Wheldon as the series champion and a spirited battle between Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan that Franchitti won by a nose when Kanaan had an "issue" with his car just yards from the finish.

Of course, we have a pretty good idea what REALLY happened, and to me that's all good. But here is a clip of the final handful of laps. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

GP of Baltimore...We Got Ourselves a Ballgame!

Ho hum, another typical, boring street race in the IndyCar series.

Yeah, right!

I'm not usually this blunt, but I'm gonna be right now. If you have a problem with today's race, find something else to do or find another sport to follow. This was (non-oval) open wheel racing at it's best. A tough, physical track, car pieces flying all over the place, drivers racing to stay alive in the championship, others racing to possibly save their jobs, lead changes, storyline changes and plenty of drama.

And hey, in a roundabout way, we had a green/white/checker! How about that? Now, there is discussion on Twitter about it, but my stance hasn't changed. I liked it in this instance because it didn't extend the scheduled race distance so all was good.

Can't ask for more. This post is going to be epic anyway, so I'll run through the front of the field and throw down a few other thoughts.

Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. What an absolute clutch drive. RHR and his team screwed up badly Saturday in qualifying and started the day in the 10th position. It didn't take him long to get to the front, though, and he sealed it with a couple of good restarts at the end. That gives him four wins and he heads to Fontana in two weeks just 17 points behind Will Power for the championship.

Runner-up: Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe was another guy that started a bit midfield (11th) and worked his way to the front as well. He's had a strong couple of weeks, and given how he earned the pole and notched a top-5 at Indy back in May, he could really finish with a flurry.

Third: Simon Pagenaud. The Friendly Frog called it yesterday, didn't he? After crashing in practice and qualifying ninth he said he felt like he had a great chance to win, and he almost pulled it off, leading 14 laps and staying in the mix all day long. Plus his fifth-to-first restart on Lap 36 might be the second-best restart of the year behind Tony Kanaans' sixth-to-first dash at Indy. Then again, that is the Restart of the Decade so it's no shame to be second. How is Simon going to drive next year when he knows the tracks and knows what he is doing?

Fourth: Scott Dixon. Making his 200th open wheel start, Dixon was solid but not spectacular. He gained a single point on Power but his title hopes are pretty much dashed.

Fifth: Rubens Barrichello. Rubens! Again! A fourth and a fifth in the last two weeks is pretty much what he was looking for when he came here. He sure was hella aggressive on that last restart, wasn't he? He confirmed in interviews he will be back next year, which is great news, but a bit coy as to where.

Sixth: Will Power. As has been his M.O. each of the last three weeks, WP jumped out to a huge lead early but fell victim to a bad call when he stayed with the rain tires while others either stuck with the slicks through the brief shower or stopped and switched. Then he couldn't make much happen in traffic and that was that. Instead of getting one step closer to wrapping up the title he is now under HUGE pressure to get it done, and on ovals he has a career average finish of 13th place. Should RHR win the 500-miler at Fontana, Power would have to finish fourth or better, and that is a tall order for him on ovals.

THE restart. Yeah, you know which one I'm talking about, the 2nd to last where Briscoe was the leader and looked half asleep as three cars breezed by him. I guess how that should have been handled is up to interpretation, but two things happened: 1) the green was shown and 2) the cars were beyond the cones. Briscoe and Penske Racing are in the minority on this one that a penalty should have been called on that, but I liked Power's honestly where he said that with a championship on the line he would have done the same thing. Either way, we raced on and given the circumstances that's probably the way it should be.

Here is Beaux Barfield's explanation

Lead Changes. Twelve lead changes by seven drivers, five of which led 10 laps or more. Is that some sort of street circuit record?

Points! Power and RHR will spend a lot of the next two weeks discussing the title in interviews and getting their picture taken with the championship trophy. It's a nice problem to have, isn't it? Right now Will leads 453-436, and if you want a crib sheet to use on the night of Sept. 15th (my son Kevin's 12th birthday by the way), cool Aussie IndyCar superfan Shane Rogers gives us this primer that lists all of the scenarios. While I wish Helio Castroneves and Dixon were still in the hunt, but this is what we want, a mano a mano duel to the last 225 mph lap of the season.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

GP of Baltimore AKA The Will Power Coronation

It was a crazy afternoon of qualifying at the GP of Baltimore, but in the end the result was the same: Will Power on the pole.

Power, who went into the weekend with a 36-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay and 41 over Helio Castroneves, added a ducat to that cushion when he as expected rolled to P1 for today's 75-lap race. Power was no doubt the class of the field, winning the top spot by six-tenths of  a second over Mike Conway, who qualified a season-best second but will incur a 10-spot grid penalty for an engine change.

For Power, it was his fifth pole of the year, and incredibly enough, his 21st in 34 appearances in the Firestone Fast Six. By comparison, Scott Dixon entered the day having made it to the final round 40 times and just five poles to show for it.

The rest of the Fast Six qualified in the following order: Dixon, third in points and 55 behind Power, Sebastien Bourdais, driving in a lot of pain after suffering left shoulder and rib problems after last week's accident at Sonoma, Dario Franchitti and James Hinchcliffe.

It was a bad day for Hunter-Reay and Castroneves, who both made tactical mistakes in qualifying that cost them a chance to move to the Fast Six. RHR qualified 13th as a result and Helio 16th, which will make their days that much more difficult.

What made the day exciting was a chicane that was added to the main straight after the cars were becoming airborne -- and very spectacularly by the way -- in practice on Friday. The drivers had said after last year's race they wanted the chicane gone and the series tried to abide by their wishes, but the light rail line that goes through the street made that impossible.

I give the series credit for giving it a try, but today's change added another problem as drivers ripped through the chicane in an effort to keep their speed up as they charged to turn 1. That led to seven cars jumping the curbs and hitting the wall hard with the left side. In the words of the great Tom Sneva, "they need to slow the cars down!", through that area so that it doesn't happen tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, the race is going to be long and very physical. A true survival of the fittest, not only for the driver who can keep his (or her) car in one piece, but the one that can stay patient and mentally tough. The tight, rough course will also take its toll on the cars, so look for some yellows and attrition.


Winner: Will Power. The Aussie was the class of the field last week, and I feel like he could have put Ryan Briscoe away and won the race if that had been necessary. Not saying he gave the race to Briscoe but with the issues his fellow title contenders were having it wasn't necessary to do anything overly aggressive. A sweet wine glass is nice but a big trophy and a big pile of cash is better. Power dominated this race last year and will do it again, because it's a twistie and that's what he does.

I also think he wants to get this as close to wrapped up as possible, and not leave it to a 500-mile crapshoot at Fontana in two weeks. I think back to Homestead two years ago when he arrived with a 12-point lead over Franchitti then coughed it up when he hit the wall and damaged his car mid-race to hand the title to Dario. I don't think he wants to leave it to chance again like that.

Podium contenders. I have been so bad at this over the course of the season, but I'm going to keep trying until I get it right. I'm going to list five here: Dixon, because he is a money driver who shows up when it is crunch time, Franchitti, because he can drive with nothing to lose, Hinchcliffe, who needs one badly, Tony Kanaan, who starts seventh and has fewer cars to pass than usual, and add Hunter-Reay in as a darkhorse, because desperate times call for desperate measures. He is going to drive it like he stole it tomorrow.

Big mover. Graham Rahal was fast in practice but crashed early in the first qualifying session, putting him 23rd on the grid prior to penalty adjustments. Look for him to get at least into the top-10, if not better. Target Chip Ganassi Racing seems to like Baltimore, as Dixon qualified third, Franchitti fifth and Charlie Kimball seventh.

Shout outs. One goes to Ed Carpenter, who is normally a backmarker at road/street races but found the right combination to qualify 11th. Bruno Junqueira, driving in place of injured Josef Newgarden for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, was impressive in qualifying 10th, but will have to take a penalty for an engine change.

Milestone. Dixon makes his 200th open wheel start today, and his 177th with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In his career, which started in Champ Car in 2001, Dixon has 29 wins, 18 poles and 96 top-five finishes. Let's repeat that: ninety-six top-five finishes. Dixon just turned 32 in July, he's still got a long way to go.

Grid penalties. Along with Conway and Junqueria, three other drivers pull detention Sunday: Kimball, Takuma Sato and Somona de Silvestro.

TV. Coverage beginson the NBC Sports Network at noon Eastern with IndyCar 36 starring Will Power, and the Indy Lights broadcast starts at 12:30. IndyCar pregame starts at 2 p.m. and the green is expected to fly at 2:47. Adjust your time zones accordingly.