Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Long Beach -- Comeback Sunday!

Sunday's Grand Prix of Long Beach really surprised me in how much I enjoyed watching the race. What I've always liked about Long Beach is its history and community involvement, and how that's a pretty cool thing. But I will admit I've never been a fan of the racing. It's a tight course that in the past hasn't always led to good racing, but I watched both qualifying and the race itself and thought both were really exciting.

It took a while for the race to heat up, as the ugliest start in history (more on that later) led to the field being pretty stagnant until the first yellow. Then it got progressively better from there, and Mike Conway's win will go down as one of the true highlights of the season and probably one of the more popular victories all through the paddock.

There are a number of storylines that came from Sunday's race, so here are a few of my personal highlights.

Mike Conway finally caught a break! I asked that question in my notes from Barber last week, and he finally had a weekend that went his way. After a bad pit stop had dropped Conway back to 22nd place he patiently worked his way back up front, and when he got by Ryan Briscoe for the lead he just took off and closed that race out like a real champion. That was some great driving, and maybe showed a glimpse of what Andretti Autosport saw in him when they hired him over the winter, despite some more experienced drivers still looking for rides at the time. He is all the way back from his horrific wreck at Indy last year and that is a good thing.

Ryan Briscoe did the same. There is no doubt that Briscoe might be on the hot seat at Penske, which is a testament to their high standards as opposed to his performance over the last few years. His first two races were disappointing, though neither incident that took him out were his fault, either. Briscoe drove with a lot of confidence Sunday, led a bunch of laps and his runner-up finish vaulted him 17 spots in the standings to eighth.

On the flip side is Justin Wilson. He is just struggling right now, and again, much of it is not his own doing. As one of the better road racers in the series, he should have at least one podium finish to his credit so far, but right now he is just scuffling.

...and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Long Beach is his "home" course and he looked to be heading to winning there for the second year in a row until gearbox issues ended his day and opened the door for Conway. He needs to have a big weekend at Brazil.

Helio still looks lost. Helio Castroneves is one of my favorite drivers, but I can't defend the guy right now. Stupid decisions, stupid driving and taking out teammate Will Power when both of them had a chance for a win or a high finish was inexcusable. I give him credit for being a standup guy in his interviews, but public opinion has been turning on him since last summer and he really needs to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans, but most importantly his fellow drivers.

E.J. Viso...another weekend, another wrecked car. I know that he brings a lot of money, which like Milka Duno did for Dale Coyne Racing helps fund a lot of the team, but at what point does KV Racing decide it isn't worth it?

Danica is surprising me. I really thought this would be a "mail it in" year where she cared at places like Indy and Texas but spent the rest of the time thinking about her NASCAR career. Quite the contrary as I think she has driven pretty well, not spectacular, but very solid. Twisties and street circuits aren't her strong suit, and even if she stays in the series they never will be. But at 11th in points right now a decent showing in Brazil gives her a chance to make a run at Indy and the rest of the ovals and perhaps move up a few spots.

Double-file...keep trying! Really, I think the enforcement of the double-file went out the window Sunday, which given the tight dive into the first turn was understandable. That and I think many of the drivers had talked amongst themselves and had some "agreements" in place. Given how terrible the start of the race and subsequent restarts went down, it would have been better to have shelved double-file restarts altogether for the weekend from the beginning. Keeping them, and then Brian Barnhart and company saying the rules were going to be enforced, only to then let the drivers do what they want, gives the series' powers that be a real credibility problem. As if they didn't have that already anyway. Still, I think if the drivers stop whining and drive like the professionals they claim to be, it can be done.

Points race. It's nice to see that the top six in points all come from different teams. If I had to pick a champion right now, it would be points-leader Dario Franchitti. He is getting better as he gets older and is probably the best all-around driver in the series. While the top two (Franchitti, Will Power) are the same-old, same-old, the next four places (Tony Kanaan, Oriol Servia, Conway and Alex Tagliani) are a refreshing change for the better. And who said this was going to be a lame-duck season?

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