Sunday, May 2, 2021

Winners and Losers: Texas

 


It was certainly a weekend of ups and downs at Texas Motor Speedway. Between the weather, lack of qualifying and the PJ1 compound, among other things, drivers' fortunes, just like in Texas Hold Em', changed by the hand.

Who were the winners and losers at Texas? Read on to find out.

Winners

Scott Dixon. Dixon entered the weekend with four wins at TMS, and in dominating fashion he picked up his fifth (and the 51st of his career) on Saturday night. He dominated the first 2/3 on Saturday, leading 163 laps, but eventually settled in the P4 position at the finish. The season has quickly reached the quarter-pole, and he is again at the top of the championship standings. 

Pato O'Ward. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the 22-year-old Mexican would pick up his first win, and it came this afternoon in his 27th career race. O'Ward ran a brilliant race, being aggressive when he needed to be, and patient when he was told to be. This looks to be the first of a long line of success for O'Ward. It's been 69 years since Troy Ruttman became the youngest winner in Indy 500 history at 22 years, 80 days, and O'Ward, as well as Colton Herta, have a chance to eclipse that record four weeks from now.

Josef Newgarden. Newgarden didn't even make it to Turn 5 at Barber in the season opener, but has rebounded with two P2 finishes and a P6 on Saturday night. He's now fourth in points and back in the title hunt.

Scott McLaughlin. The second-fastest Kiwi on the planet had an impressive weekend in his first two oval races. While getting through the weekend with everything on his car intact would've been a great result, he went a step further, finishing just behind his idol on Saturday to pick up his first IndyCar podium, then finished P8 in Race 2. A tall task still awaits on May 30, but he's got to be heading to IMS with a ton of confidence.

Losers

Alexander Rossi. Rossi ran a solid race on Saturday night, moving up from his P16 starting spot to finish P8, but disaster struck quickly as he was taken out in the multi-car wreck at the start on Sunday. Rossi said afterwards while it seems like a repeat of last year, it's not because last year he didn't feel like he had a fast car last year but does this year. That may be the case and all, but as the great Rasheed Wallace used to say: "Ball don't lie!" Your results are your results, and Rossi is now 88 points down in the championship. Lots of points are out there this month, he has to go out and get as many as he can.

Sebastien Bourdais. Seb falls into the "Loser" category, although none of what happened to him was any of his doing. In Saturday's race he was punted into the fence by Newgarden, and Sunday he was hit from behind by Pietro Fittipaldi, which set off the huge wreck at the start of the race. He entered the weekend P7 in points while leading a huge AJ Foyt Racing resurgence, but headed home P14.

The Field. After the wreck at the drop of the green flag knocked out several cars, Rossi was confused as to why they didn't have qualifying Sunday when the track was dry and ready to go four hours before the race started. I was just as confused, and while the rule book spells out how qualifying on doubleheader weekends is supposed to go, as Indy Star writer Nathan Brown explains here, meaning if there is no qualifying it's set on entrant points, the fact is that there should be wiggle room, because if the opportunity (and time) are available to actually qualify the field, that should be what's done. Call it for the "integrity of the field" or whatever you want to call it, but every race should have a field that qualifies on speed whenever possible. I mean, if the two days of qualifying for the Indy 500 are rained out, do you really think they are going to start the race by owner points? No, they will use the available time to set the field on speed. Same case here.

Texas Motor Speedway. I'm still on my soapbox as I move to a new topic, because for the second year in a row, the PJ1 compound put into the corners to make the show better for NASCAR again affected the IndyCar race. I've heard lots of different takes on this, such as we should not go back to TMS or even that we should force a repave, but here's the deal: IndyCar is a guest there. NASCAR pays the bills and so the track will always be set up to their specifications. I think Eddie Gossage has been a partner with IndyCar, but what leverage does IndyCar have if they threaten to leave? I doubt IndyCar makes TMS a lot of money, so there is none. And as far as a repave (or change to the racing surface) goes, think of how grippy the cars would be, which means for the first couple of years there wouldn't be any passing anyway. One thing's for sure, if you want Texas to go back to being the way it was back in the day, you're living in the past. Those days are not coming back. But we also can't afford to keep racing like this at TMS, so someone has got to come up with a solution.

So here we go, kids, it's May! Four weeks from right now someone's life will have changed forever. Who's it going to be? It's going to be fun finding out.

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media


Saturday, May 1, 2021

Three Things: Saturday at Texas


Just under three hours to go until the NTT IndyCar Series gets it on under the lights at Texas Motor Speedway. Here are three things I'm thinking about between now and then.

The Weather. It looks to be a pretty dreary day in the Metroplex, and rain has already affected the day's activities as qualifying was cancelled and the field set by owner points. That will lead to an interesting field heading to the green flag (more on that in a sec), and people who know what they are talking about when it comes to the weather are taking a cautious approach to whether or not we can get a full race in tonight. Will that change some strategies? Whatever happens, I think they are going to try and get the race in tonight because with the Month of May on the horizon, teams will want to be on their way home tomorrow night rather than stick around until Monday. And, those of us who remember the Iowa race in 2019 (and those like me who were there), the precedent has been set to run the race as late as possible.

Setting the Field. Thanks to Nathan Brown from the Indy Star for this list, but here's how they will be lining up tonight, and I think tomorrow as well.

1. Palou 2. Power 3. Dixon 4. Herta 5. Simon 6. Harvey 7. Bourdais 8. Veekay 9. Marcus 10. Josef 11. O'Ward 12. Sato 13. Rahal 14. Fittipaldi 15. McLaughlin 16. Rossi 17. Carpenter 18. Rosenqvist 19. Jones 20. Hinchcliffe 21. Hunter-Reay 22. Kellett 23. Kanaan 24. Daly

There is a lot of aggressive drivers in the middle to the back of the field, so that's where a lot of the action will be early. Kanaan led the way in practice, with Sato and O'Ward second and third, so keep an eye out for them. Daly always runs well at Texas, and Carlin has been giving him fast cars the last two years, so I expect a Top 10 from him tonight.

(Edit: Another wrinkle is that tomorrow's race will be set by entrant points after tonight's race. So a good finish tonight leads to a better start Sunday.)

Predictions. Between the weather and the starting field, tonight's race could be a crapshoot. But I'm going to pick Simon Pagenaud for the win. He has five Top 5 finishes at TMS and finished second here a year ago. I'm going with Dixon as the runner-up, because that's pretty much all he does, with O'Ward battling his way to the last step on the podium.

Have a great race!

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media


Monday, April 26, 2021

St. Pete Wrap-Up

 


Talk about flipping a script!

For the most part, what happened Sunday at St. Pete was the exact opposite of what happened at Barber the previous weekend. If the IndyCar series is anything, it's certainly unpredictable.

Here are a few takeaways.

Go Grab a Rebound. After not even making it to Turn 5 of the first lap last week in Alabama, before having their races ruined, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden both needed a big weekend at St. Pete to turn it around, and they delivered. Newgarden, who had one the two previous events in the FLA, led both practice sessions and finished second, while Herta won the pole and dominated the race, leading 97 laps and only giving up the point on pit stops. At 21 years old, Herta now has as many wins as his dad, Bryan, who was on the box giving him the calls on Sunday. Herta has now moved up to fourth in the points, while Newgarden has improved to 10th.

On the flip side, first-time winner Alex Palou came home in 17th place and Pato O'Ward, who won the pole at Barber and finished fourth, had an awful day and finished 

Paging Mr. Rossi. Two weeks ago, I was calling Rossi our 2021 champion, and today he sits 16th in points behind rookies Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin. He started 11th, which had potential, but lost his head during the race and got caught up in a bit of a spitting match with Graham Rahal mid-race. Since the start of last season, he has as many finishes of 20th or worse (five) as he does podiums. A checkered-flag-or-crash trend that isn't going to win championships anytime soon.

Biggest Movers. The drivers that finished in 6th, 7th and 8th place were all the biggest movers on the day. Will Power, who has been dominant on the Streets of St. Pete over the years, spun in the first round of qualifying and started in 20th place. He was able to methodically pick his way through traffic and improved 12 spots to finish 8th. Meanwhile, Takuma Sato had one of those days where people question their friendship with him, being involved in a couple of incidents and near-incidents, but his hyper-aggressive style moved him up nine spots from 15th to 6th. (Editor's note: I kid, everyone loves Taku, some probably just don't like him right now.), and Marcus Ericsson improved from 16th to 7th.

Edit: Thanks to IndyCar PR wiz Arni Sribhen for this one, but Rahal has passed a total of 28 cars over the course of the first two races -- 14 in each one -- which leads the league and is very deserving of mention. 

I also want to give some props to Grosjean, who moved up from his 18th-place starting spot to 13th by the end of the race. That came after knocking down a couple of walls on the same lap early in the race and being gently suggested by his team that he stay out and keep driving. As an avid watcher of Drive to Survive, I can guess that had he done that in F1, his team more than likely would have brought him in and retired the car. Given the heat and driving a car without power steering on a very tough road course, I'll give him props for deciding to stay in the fight and compete. He was absolutely exhausted at the end of the race, but he had a smile on his face, so he's still loving IndyCar!

Home game. It's rare for racers to get to play a home game, but most of the field will get to do just that when they head to Indy in a couple of weeks. For Sebastien Bourdais, he got his home game on Sunday. He loves living there and the streets have been good to him, as he's had some great results there in the past, including two wins and a 4th-place finish last October. While Sunday was a bit disappointing for him, as he qualified fifth and finished the day P10, he's still P6 in points and looks to be revitalizing AJ Foyt Racing.

Sad news, everyone. After this weekend's doubleheader in Texas the season will have already reached it's quarter point. Don't be sad, be happy that it's happening. And besides, in just a few days it's gonna be May!

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media



Sunday, April 18, 2021

HIGPA Wrap-Up

 


The long off-season is officially over and the first race of the 2021 IndyCar season is history. We were definitely treated to a great race and if the rest of the year goes anything like this, the future is now.

Here are a few highlights.

Palou With the Win: Entering this season, there were a handful of drivers who could very well get their first win in 2021, and after signing with Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of last year, Alex Palou shot his way up that list. He got the first one out of the way quickly, with a dominant effort that saw him lead 56 of the 90 laps on the day. Make no mistake, there are more wins out there for the 24-year-old Spaniard.

O'Ward's Day Will Come: Pato O'Ward was another driver on the list of first-win potentials, and he showed what he had this weekend as he captured his second career pole and led 25 laps. Eventually he finished 4th on the day but I'm going to predict O'Ward as our second first-time winner next week at St. Pete. 

Biggest Movers: If you listened to my podcast this week (and if you haven't, why?) I predicted Sebastien Bourdais would be this week's winner. That didn't happen, but he finished a solid P5, moving up 10 spots from his original starting position. I think his partnership with AJ Foyt Racing may be a good one, and he gets a "home game" at St. Pete next weekend, a place where he has won twice and was P4 in a Foyt machine last fall. 

Also making a big move was Graham Rahal, who improved 11 spots on the grid to finish P7. After qualifying P2 the last time the race was held at Barber two years ago, it was a disaster of a Saturday for both Rahal and teammate Takuma Sato, who went from the pole in 2019 to P19 this weekend. Rahal bounced back and topped the speed charts in the morning warmup and showed good speed in the race.

Rinus Veekay started 14th and improved eight spots to finish P6, but had an interesting day. He was involved in the Lap 1 incident with Newgarden and others, and was moved to the back of the line after the subsequent yellow for pitting for repairs when the pits were closed. So to bounce back from that was a good effort for the young driver.

Championship implications: I saw a few people commenting that speculating about the championship after Newgarden's first-lap incident is a dumb move, but his last-place finish and six championship points is definitely an ouchie. Scott Dixon has said before that if he's within 100 points he still feels he has a chance, but Newgarden is down 47 points right out of the gate. He has two things going for him, though: one, he's great at St. Pete and two, he has 16 races to dig himself out. No, this wasn't a killer for him, but he has to flip the script next weekend for sure.

The Rookies: Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and Jimmie Johnson all had (mostly) incident-free days, so chalk it up as a positive for all three. Grosjean feel three spots from his starting position to finish P10, while McLaughlin fell two spots from his grid position to P14. Johnson did spin early in the race and brought out a quick yellow, but he didn't hit anything and got the car going again, and finished three laps down in 19th place. Johnson is still running a little off pace, but he's going to eventually figure it out.

The Podcast

Have you listened to my interview with this week's winner, Alex Palou? If not, check it out here

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Three Things: HIGPA Qualifying at Barber

 


You know one good thing about having guys like Scott McLaughlin, Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean in the field? People who haven't watched IndyCar until today because they got to see one kickass qualifying session.

Qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was as usual a battle, and set up some extremely interesting storylines for tomorrow. Let's chat about a few.

Pato on Pole: The talk all winter long is that Pato O'Ward would be one of the breakout stars of 2021, and he may have even raised those expectations with his pole-winning effort Saturday. On a newly repaved track with plenty of grip, the 21-year-old Mexican threw his car all over the place and made it stick to win the second P1 Pole Award of his career. Rounding out the front row is Angry Alexander Rossi, what is the run to Turn 1 at the green flag going to be like with these two?

Where is Penske?: While three of the four Chip Ganassi Racing cars made it into the Firestone Fast 6, it was the opposite for Team Penske as only Will Power made it to the third round. Power will start fourth next to CGR's Alex Palou, while Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson will make up the third row. Josef Newgarden barley missed the Fast 6 for Penske and will start P8, while Scott McLaughlin was impressive in getting through the first round and will start P12. Simon Pagenaud was eliminated in the first round and will start P15 as his qualifying woes continue.

The Rookies: Of course, the three rookies will be a story all year. As mentioned, McLaughlin will start 12th in tomorrow's race but fellow rookie Romain Grosjean flirted with the Fast 6 before being knocked out by Power at the last moment and will start an impressive P7 in his debut race. Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was a bit off the pace, as expected, and will start 21st on Sunday. Honestly, that is a good effort on JJ's part, people need to realize that this is going to take a while for him.

This all sets up for a great race tomorrow. I'll be back then!

The Rumble Strip

If you haven't had a chance to listen to my latest episode with Alex Palou, check it out here! 

Photo credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media



Wednesday, April 14, 2021

2021 Predictions!

 


After a long, cold, dreary winter, IndyCar is finally back!

OK, the winter was only cold and dreary for a stretch, but it has been 170 days (give or take depending on when you read this) since the series was last on track in St. Pete. 

This year gets started at Barber Motorsports Park, of course, and starts a busy stretch of four races over three weekends, then of course the Month of May (or 15 days of it) gets going before the green flag for the Indy 500 drops on May 30. 

The wait was hard, but it was worth it. Seventeen races lie in front of us over the next five months in what could be the most competitive season of IndyCar we've ever had. 

As usual, I have a lot to say about the potential that this season shows, so let's throw out a few predictions for the coming season.

IndyCar Champion: Alexander Rossi. After finishing P2, P3 and P9 in the season standings the last three years, I think it all comes together for him this year. Last year he was a victim of lots of bad luck, and some poor qualifying efforts put him in a position that got him swept up into a couple of incidents. Four finishes of P20 or worse -- especially crashing out of the 500 and finishing 27th -- were what did him in, but he did post four podiums in the final five races. If he cleans that kind of stuff up and the team puts a great car underneath him, he will be raising the Astor Cup in his home state of California in September.

First first-time winner: Pato O'Ward. O'Ward knocked on the door a few times last year, with four podium finishes. He lost his tires at Road America 2 and was passed by Felix Rosenqvist in the final stretches of the race, had another opportunity to win at Gateway and was second in the final race of the season at St. Pete. He's ready and capable of winning, just needs everything to fall the right way for it to happen.

Indy 500 Winner: James Hinchcliffe/Alex Palou/Juan Montoya. This isn't as much as a prediction as it is trying to wish something into existence. If you have followed this space over the last several years, you'd know that I'm a big supporter of Hinch, especially at the Speedway. And, if you've followed Hinch over the last few years, you know that IMS owes him, big time. It's crazy to think that his best finish there is P6, but he has started on the front row three times and knows how to get around the Brickyard.

Palou is also a first first-win contender, but I think O'Ward will have his first win under his belt by the time we get to May 30. I'm biased because I've become a big Palou fan, but it's my blog so I can feel that way, right? He put himself in the Fast Nine a year ago in a Dale Coyne Racing car, so I think his move to Ganassi this year gives him an even better shot at the 500 this May.

Here's why I want Montoya to win: he's one of the best drivers of his generation, and a third 500 win will cement that. If he'd run CART/IndyCar his entire career, he'd be considered one of the all-time greats in this sport. But still, think about it: 2 Indy 500 wins, a CART championship, seven wins, 13 poles and two P3 season finishes in F1, and three overall Rolex 24 wins. 

Numbers-wise, lots of people have had better "careers" in each of those disciplines, but show me another driver with that diverse of a winning portfolio over the last 20 years. Sadly, he's remembered more for his NASCAR career and hitting a jet dryer, which is sad, uniformed and just plain stupid. He's magic in a race car, and a third win at Indy, especially at age 45, puts him in a rarified air that we just don't see anymore.

Rookie of the Year: Scott McLaughlin. If Jimmie Johnson and Roman Grosjean were running full-time schedules this year, it could be a tight battle for ROY, but of the three McLaughlin is the only one running all 17 events, so I think he is a lock. 

Speaking of, how will this triumvirate of superstars will do? I see people predicting potential wins and podiums, but I don't anticipate that happening until maybe later in the season. Maybe. All three of these guys come to IndyCar with impressive credentials -- with Johnson and McLaughlin being one of the best all-time in their respective disciplines -- but look at the field and tell me how anybody without IndyCar experience is going to compete with this field. No disrespect intended, especially because I'm a big Jimmie Johnson fan, but testing and racing are two different things, and it's going to take a little bit of time for any of these guys to get up to speed.

No doubt they'll do it, they are all three talented drivers, but expecting anything beyond midfield until well in the summer is a bit of a stretch.

Breakout star: Pato O'Ward. I'm not going to get into the discussion that is popular right now that IndyCar has a marketing problem. One, because I'd still love to work for IndyCar someday and two, I believe that any issues mostly start with a budget and goes from there. Beyond that I will stay respectfully silent. But if I were IndyCar, I'd put O'Ward front and center in its marketing efforts. He's young, quick and is part of the future of the series. Not to mention he is multicultural and bilingual, which could be used to create lots of new fans. Not only that, he races for McLaren, which while it doesn't have the same shine in IndyCar as F1, is a massively recognizable brand, and he can be the face of it in the US. Just sayin'.

Driver on the Hotseat: Simon Pagenaud. I hate typing this...I absolutely hate it. Simon has had a fantastic IndyCar career with 15 wins, a championship and an IndyCar title. But, despite a win and three total podiums last year, he finished eighth in the standings on a team that saw his teammates combine for six wins and 10 podiums. He's 37 and in a contract year, and while I don't know the contract statuses of the paddock, there are a lot of young drivers who would love to be in that seat. I mean, I could also throw Will Power on this list as he is in a contract year as well, but every time Will Power seems down on the mat he gets up and starts swinging again. I hope Simon can come back and repeat his 2019 season, because drivers as accomplished as he is should be able to dictate his own terms.

The Rumble Strip Podcast

I interviewed Alex Palou a few weeks ago and finally got around to putting it into a podcast! You can listen to it here on Soundcloud and can also check it out on iTunes


Photo credit: James Black/IndyCar Media

 

 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Starting Over

 For a lot of people, starting over is a scary idea.

Starting over means giving up what is comfortable, or what is known -- which is comforting, I guess -- and jumping feet first into what isn't.

I've done it a couple of times, and yes, it's scary. I started over 12 1/2 years ago when I got divorced, and it was an experience I would never want to go through again. But at the same time, here I am, all of these years later, in a better situation, older, and lots more wiser. 

I'm actually in the middle of starting over in a different way. Back in August, 2016, I left my crappy IT job to make a go of it in the IndyCar world. While that didn't work out (or hasn't so far), it did lead me to go back to school. I'm in my fourth semester at Northern Illinois University and will be graduating in May. I hope to eventually work in sports somewhere, and next month I begin an internship with the Joliet Slammers, a baseball team that plays in the Frontier League. Having covered minor league baseball for so many years, the idea of spending another summer at a ballpark every day has me pretty excited.

I'm also starting over in another way, and for those of you who know me personally or who have followed me over the last decade, it might be a bit of a surprise.

I'm starting over as an IndyCar fan. Emphasis on fan.

You may be saying, what? But it's true. Here's the story:

Since I left my crappy IT career to work in IndyCar, I've been all about working in IndyCar. With the full support of my wife, I was ready to go all-in. I was willing to do whatever I was asked to do and move wherever they wanted me to move. All of my chips were moved to the middle of the table.

I was blogging, I was podcasting, I was part of another podcast...I was doing everything I could to get noticed. In 2019, I spent thousands of dollars and drove and flew thousands of miles to cover 12 IndyCar races, and left that experience feeling empty and unappreciated.

Very, very unappreciated.

Last year, with no races to travel to, I kept it up, blogging and podcasting. But all of it was getting less and less fun, because it seemed like the more I put into it the less I got out of it.

Editor's note: With that said, Eric Hall is the best podcasting partner ever. I really enjoyed our conversations every Tuesday or Wednesday night, and if you are looking for a very smart IndyCar fan, Eric is your guy. I'm glad it looks like we will be working again this year. More on that later.

I know some of you read those last few paragraphs and were rolling your eyes. Yeah, Mike, it had to absolutely suck to be able to go to all of those races. Must be nice!

I get it. It was a privilege to be able to do that, and it was a lot of fun...up until the end when I came to the realization that I was an employee and not a partner. That was no bueno. 

The think I learned about trying to break into IndyCar. It's hard, damn hard. So, I'm taking a different approach, getting my degree and putting in an internship. If that's not enough, cool, I'll just work somewhere else. No hard feelings, because it should be hard. It's still my dream to work in IndyCar, but it's not my life's focus anymore, either.

So anyway, by the end of last year, I'd grown sick of a lot of it, so I went full on nuclear: I blew away my Twitter account and unfollowed/unfriended pretty much everyone racing-related on my social platforms.

I was done with IndyCar.

Or so I thought, because last weekend's Rolex 24 brought me back to life. I watched most of the coverage and loved it. The 24 represents everything I love about auto racing, and I'm looking forward to going back next year. 

As I watched the coverage, I decided to reinvent myself as an IndyCar fan. And just a fan.

Over the last couple of years, everything I did when it came to IndyCar was about working in IndyCar. My blog posts, my podcasts, my social media posts, all of it was with that in mind. It was all in hope someone noticed, and all done with getting into IndyCar in mind.

So, in short, I had -- at least in my mind -- stopped being a fan and was a media member (and kind of a jerk at that) and wannabe IndyCar personality.

I just want to be a fan again (although media center access every so often wouldn't be off the table!), and look at IndyCar through that lens. Because man, I freaking love IndyCar. Along with being a runner, a writer, and a Cubs fan, that's what people associate me with. 

I know I don't have to make this announcement, but I also know that most of the people who read this will understand. I'll still put stuff on social, blog and podcast, but the difference is that I'll be doing all of this for me, as a fan trying to connect to other fans, which is a good thing. I'm not chasing anything, or anyone for that matter, so it's back to being what got me into this sport in the first place.

I'm an IndyCar fan. Is it May yet?