Monday, March 25, 2013

St. Pete Wrap Up

Well, if I had written a preview or pre-game post Sunday morning, I can be pretty confident in that I would've gotten few -- if any -- of my predictions right.

Number one, Will Power would've been my pick to win, and he ended up 16th after a bizarre incident where he was run over by JR Hildebrand, who got caught texting while driving (or something) during a caution and took himself out of the race as well. When you look at everything JR was involved in yesterday, you have to wonder where the guy's head was at. Moments prior to copping a squat on Power's car, he had passed Simona de Silvestro under yellow. I get he was a lap down and maybe thought he'd get a wave around or whatever, but his day was chock full of stupidity.

Speaking of boneheaded moves, I never would've called Dario Franchitti's DFL finish as well. Four-time (or three-time if you are counting his Indy 500 wins) came out of the pits a bit too hot and plowed into the turn 3 wall just 19 laps into the race. You just don't expect a driver of his success and experience level to make a mistake like that.

Neither would I have pictured defending champ Ryan Hunter-Reay struggling, especially considering how well his Andretti Autosport teammates did. Along with race winner James Hinchcliffe and third-place Marco Andretti landing on the podium, EJ Viso drove well to a 7th-place finish.

But you know what? Predictable is boring, which is why I was highly entertained watching the race. Let's go through the top five and a few other notes.

Winner: Hinchcliffe. It was the consensus of everyone that Hinch would at some point pick up the first win of his career in 2013, and he got it out of the way in the first race of the year. Starting fourth and never really falling outside the top-5, Hinchcliffe passed Helio Castroneves with 25 laps to go and held on to give owner Michael Andretti his 44th win as an owner. Between owning and driving, Michael has been a part of 86 IndyCar wins. It was also the first win in the series by a Canadian since Paul Tracy won at Cleveland in Champ Car in 2007. I'm guessing this won't be Hinch's only win of the season, he's still a massive goofball (which is awesome), but he also looks really focused and is carrying himself a little differently.

Runner-up: Helio Castroneves. After taking the lead from Power on an early race restart, Helio dominated the midpoint of the race and looked like the car to beat until he locked his brakes and went a little wide in turn one, giving Hinch the opening to get by. Castroneves was looking to win the race for the second year in a row, and extend his record of wins at St. Pete to four, but given the carnage that befell some other championship contenders he probably feels fortunate to be heading out of town with his second place finish.

Third place: Marco Andretti. Much has been made about Marco's re-commitment to his craft over the winter, and for at least this week it looks like it paid dividends. Marco drove hard but was patient, as evidenced by his late-race battle with Simona de Silvestro. Old Marco might have pressed the issue and done something stupid, but he kept his head and waited for de Silvestro, who was on older tires, to make a mistake of her own. Good start.

Fourth place: Tony Kanaan. It's hard to think you can use the words "quiet" and "TK" in the same sentence, but that was TK's weekend. With everyone lauding attention on de Silvestro, his new teammate at KV Racing (and rightfully so), TK started 11th and worked a little under the radar. But as usual, he was in the mix at the end.

Fifth place: Scott Dixon. Dixon's car was dreadful in qualifying, evidenced by his 20th-place starting position. But like TK, he found a way to the front by the end of the day, edging past de Silvestro just before the finish line. He made the most of what could've been a lost weekend, and that is critical for anyone who wants to be in the championship hunt over the next seven months.

Sixth place: Simona de Silvestro. Going past the top 5 as Simona deserves a mention. She was outstanding from beginning to the end of the weekend, and lots of her fellow competitors noticed. That and most of them spent the race looking at the back of her car as she was quick in every sense of the word. With a podium just over two miles away, Simona's tires finally lost their grip as she went wide in Turn 13 and Andretti scooted past, then TK and Dixon later followed suit. Still, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about her effort.

A couple of other shout outs: Tristan Vautier was impressive all weekend, running in the top 5 for much of the day before retiring with a mechanical issue. One race is too small of a sample size, of course, but for his maiden effort in IndyCar, he did a good job...Oriol Servia took advantage of a different pit strategy to get in front of the field for 16 laps. He later dropped out with mechanical issues too...Dixon and Viso were the big movers on the day, with each climbing 15 places from their original starting spots.

Points: With IndyCar incrementally decreasing points from 19th place and further back this year, as opposed to in the past where everyone got the same points, a few drivers are looking way, way up after one race in the book. With Hinchcliffe picking up 51 points, RHR head to Barber 39 points back, and it gets worse for Simon Pagenaud and Franchitti, who only received six and five points, respectively. Granted they have 18 races to make a comeback, but I really believe the new assignment of points at the back of the field will make a big difference as the title hunt continues.

TV: NBCSN did a nice job again on Saturday. I quickly have become a fan of Leigh Diffey, as he really brought a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge to the broadcast. He sounded like he was having a great time. Plus, I don't know what it is, but there is something about someone with a cool accent calling races. I'm still not sure what Wally Dallenbach is doing in the booth (other than the fact he is under contract to NBC and they want to give him something to do when NASCAR isn't on the network), but I like the move of Townsend Bell to color analyst. From the play-by-play person to the pit reporters, this is a good group of announcers.

From what I have heard, initial ratings are up from last year, and while I won't spend much time focusing on that sort of thing, it is good news.

With one in the book, let's head to Barber in two weeks. Last year Barber was one of the pleasant surprises of the season, as the new DW12 put on a much better show than was expected after the previous races had been single-file snoozefests. The spring training test there two weeks ago was insanely competitive, which lines up for a great event.

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