Monday, April 30, 2012

Sao Paulo Post-Race Thoughts

With Sao Paulo in the books, my first thought is...May is finally here! Well, almost, but the next time the cars take to the track in anger is at the Brickyard in just four short weeks. I think this might be one of the craziest Mays in a long time.

Since the NBC Sports Network didn't have control of the feed and never could go "through the field", I'm going to do an abbreviated version and cover the top five, as well as a few news and notes.

Here we go:

Will Power. Clean sweep for the weekend: won the pole, led the most laps and won the race. Three wins in a row (and 4-for-4 for Team Penske) sends him into Indy on a major high. He is one of the best in the world right now on road courses, no doubt, but the next eight weeks will truly determine if he can step up to the title this year. Four of the next five are on ovals, so he needs to hold serve until we get back to the twisties (Belle Isle is between Indy and Texas) in July.

Ryan Hunter-Reay: Had a good look at Power on the final restart but settled into second place, and had it not been for the penalty suffered on the last lap at Long Beach two weeks ago he would have been looking at his third podium of the year. RHR is off to by far his best start to a season in his IndyCar career.

Takuma Sato: Taku was on the receiving end of Hunter-Reay's penalty two weeks ago that wiped out his first chance at a podium this year. This time, he sealed the deal and picked up a podium after finishing his first race of the year despite serving a penalty for speeding on pit road. He was the entertainment Sunday, starting 25th and making several daring moves into turn 1 to make passes.

 Helio Castroneves: Helio was the highest finishing Brazilian in fourth place after leading two laps during pit stops. Not one of his more impressive efforts this weekend after starting 18th and moving up the classification via pit stops and track position before getting around Dario Franchitti after the final restart. Has sort of come back to earth after winning at St. Pete and taking the pole at Barber, but again, that fourth win is waiting.

Dario Franchitti: Started second, finished fifth, both season-highs for the Scotsman. After spinning out and getting minor air after being hit from behind by Mike Conway and jumping the curb in turn 1 on an early restart, Franchitti easily moved up through the field. Has he righted the ship in time for Indy? Come on, we all know despite the disaster that has been the season so far that he will be a factor.

Points! Power maxed out with 53 points this weekend and moved out to a 45-point lead (180-135) over Castroneves while James Hinchliffe, who finished sixth on the day, improves two spots to third. Outside of Power, Hinch has been the most consistent driver in the series, making it to the final round of qualifying at each stop and finishing every race in the Top 6.

TV: I give the entire broadcast a B-minus. It could be lower but I give an A for effort because the broadcast team (with the exception of Kevin Lee, more on him later) was stuck in Indianapolis using Brazilian TV feed, which wasn't very good and they had little to work with. Lee was solid with his pit reporting and his boxing out of the Brazilian media to get a couple of questions with Will Power was classic live TV.
Overall thoughts: The race had a lot to live up to coming behind Barber and Long Beach, but equaling those two was a tall task. I thought the racing was decent behind Power, especially, as usual, from the mid-pack, where there were some great battles. Tony Kanaan and Rubens Barrichello were especially racy in front of the hometown fans. Still, I was disappointed by a number of incidents that just involved boneheaded driving. Running 20 of 75 laps under yellow just kills the excitement level of the race.

So it is on to Indy...FINALLY! Tomorrow starts the best month of the year, and I have a feeling that this month will prove my point that the other 11 months of the year are just killing time between 500s.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Stay Off The Ledge This Weekend

I read somewhere today (and since I saw it on the internet you know it is true) that up to 40 million Brazilians will watch tomorrow's Sao Paulo Indy 300.

If that is the case, that is freaking awesome. As I said the other day, the Brazilians are going to pour a sellout crowd to watch a race more than will more than likely be run in the rain, but they will still be partying like its 1999. And given there are an estimated 206 million people in Brazil, that means close to 20 percent of the nation will see the race. Like I said, they do it up right.

That probably won't be happening here. Because Brazil is an hour ahead of Eastern Daylight Time and four hours ahead of the west coast, it will be on at a crappy time here in the States. While some of us hard cores will be going to church at 8:30 in hopes of getting home in time for IndyCar 36 an hour later, about the only thing half of the country gets up early for is the NFL and the Indy 500.

Which means, yes, television ratings will more than likely take a step back this weekend. But let's not go on suicide watch here, OK? I've already heard some rumblings about less-than stellar ratings and how it will lead to the eventual death of IndyCar, because everything negative that comes out of the series is going to lead to the eventual death of IndyCar, don't cha know.

Because despite the fact that attendance, TV ratings, sponsorship and participation are improving (Indy being the lone exception, but I'll address that later next week) we are just one week of bad ratings from extinction. And despite the fact that 28 days from today 300,000 people will be at the Speedway (as always), the Indy 500 will someday be a NASCAR race. Yes, I have heard that one. Several times.

Here's the deal people, this race isn't for us. While ratings are important, this race isn't being run for that reason. It's being run for Brazil and the sponsors from that country who are awesome enough to spend millions of dollars in a country several thousand miles from home. It is a thank you of sorts and is a good business move because 40 million people are going to watch the race, and millions of those have been, and will continue to, watch the rest of the races in the series.

While many of us don't understand why there is a race in China, it's for that same reason. The sponsors use IndyCar to broaden the reach of their individual brands, and they believe that China is a place that will help them expand that even further.

I'm sure most of us already know all of this, but I wanted to throw out a reminder. Enjoy the race!

You Mess With The Bull, You Get The Horns

Panther Racing principal John Barnes found that out the hard way today when he was fined 25 grand for the following Twitter post the other night:

@Jbindy4: Today is the day to resolve TURBOGATE! I hope @indcar gets their act together. It has been embarrassing.

Already as expected the comparisons between IndyCar and the police state that is NASCAR have begun. But before we do that, let's get one thing straight: in the bylaws of almost every professional sport is a section that states if you publicly criticize the powers-that-be, you get fined.

Period. End of story.

I'm with Barnes in his frustration about the Honda turbo controversy. Giving Honda the right to make alterations to its engine (turbo) package in-season is BS and IndyCar should have told them to go back and try harder next season.

I also support his right to speak his mind. That said, IndyCar was right to do what it did. In the NBA, NFL or MLB if you criticize officials, the league or its higher-ups, your check will be a little lighter the next time it hits your bank account. So how is this different?

The other thing about these "fines" is that they are more symbolic in nature anyway. With the ridiculous amount of money floating around these days, the fines are as much of a public acknowledgement of who is in charge than anything. John Barnes is a rich man $25K doesn't hurt, just like the same amount Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose was nailed for a few weeks ago for criticizing officials came out of his pop machine money in a desk drawer somewhere. That, and it goes to charity so they get the tax deduction anyway.

Oh yeah, we have to compare everything that goes on in IndyCar with NASCAR. I forgot. Holy crap we need to knock that stuff off. NASCAR is often wrong with how it handles criticism, and we all know that. It's childish and petty. But this is apples to oranges stuff and was done the right way. My guess is Barnes had a check ready for what he knew was coming.

He was directly critical of IndyCar, and there isn't a sports organization in the league that lets you get away with that. So let's put this to bed and leave it at that.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Frenetic Friday -- Sao Paulo Indy 300 Edition

Is it just me, or have the last two weeks just dragged by? For some reason it seems like Long Beach was about a month ago, but at least we are back to it this weekend in Sao Paulo. After that we bring the cars back, put them in long-awaited oval trim and celebrate the greatest month of the year.

Speaking of May, just for planning purposes my birthday is May 25. I intend to stretch the celebration through the entire weekend, and you all are more than welcome to join me, if not in person at least in spirit.

Anyway, back to the lecture at hand. (If you know where that came from major props to you) I covered a few topics this week but left out the protest about the Honda turbocharger. I did that on purpose because I hadn't read a lot about it and as an apprentice gearhead (like Cole Trickle, I just drive the car, I don't fix it) I wasn't sure it all meant.

But now that Honda has gotten its way -- and was there any doubt they wouldn't -- I will say this. I don't like the decision. One, because Honda designed the motor to be better on long ovals so they shouldn't be crying about being slow on twisties and two, that's just how competition goes. This was a very NASCAR-ish process and I didn't like it. You want to go faster? Figure out over the winter how to do it, don't go crying because you missed on your design.

That said, since Honda got its way I could see it being more of a player this weekend than they have been so far in 2012. With the 2.6-mile course having a long, one-mile back straight, the extra push from that turbo will help.

Assuming the weather cooperates, which it hasn't the past two years and doesn't look like it will again this weekend. Right now there is a 50 percent chance of rain Saturday, and that goes up to 90 percent on Sunday for the race. The rain could be quite the equalizer and could give us a wild-looking grid just like we had a Long Beach.

When all is said and done, here is how I think it might shake out:

Pole winner -- I'm going to throw a flyer out there and give it to James Hinchcliffe. Hinch is the only driver to make every Fast Six session this season and he has been quick everywhere.

Race winner -- Tony Kanaan. TK is one of those guys who races hard and seems to pour a lot of emotion into his driving, and I think he will be extremely vitalized by his hometown crowd. Yes, I picked that with my heart, and if I have to make a pick with my head I am going with Simon Pagenaud (if the Hondas are indeed improved). Will Power aside, Pagenaud has done some of the most brilliant driving of the season and has been fun to watch. He goes into every race as the underdog because he is a one-car team, but he doesn't back down and that will pay off for him somewhere this year.

Podium -- TK, Pagenaud, Power. Come on, you don't think I would totally shut out Will, do you?

Other fearless thoughts and predictions -- Rubens Barrichello will be a big mover as well and should improve on his season-best finish of eighth place...Dario Franchitti will be one to watch (again) this weekend. Can he figure out what is going on in advance of Indy? I think he should, a top 5 would not surprise me...It will be interesting to watch how Graham Rahal drives in his first race of his probation. He should do fine, but I wonder how much room he and Marco Andretti will give each other on the course.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Graham Rahal Wants You To Get On the Bus...

...and come watch him and his contemporaries race the Milwaukee Mile on June 16.

The idea man floated this one just hours after the race was announced a couple of months ago, and it is now a go (release at the bottom of this post). It's a great idea, and a great deal, so I hope those of you in the Indy area take him up on this. Road trips are always fun and the best part of it is you are on a bus with a bunch of fellow fans. That camaraderie can be one of the best parts of a trip! It's a long way up there and back (about 270 miles each way) so the cost of the trip is extremely reasonable.

Give Graham credit, whether it is driving around the country looking for sponsors, raising money for the Wheldon family or his own personal foundation or coming up with ways to engage the fans, the guy gets it done. Here's hoping this idea is a rousing success.

Graham Rahal Offers Bus Trips to Milwaukee IndyFest
Graham Rahal, a second-generation star of the IZOD IndyCar Series and driver of the Service Central No. 38 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, is offering race fans two exclusive tour bus packages from Indianapolis to the Milwaukee IndyFest, June 15 and 16 at the Milwaukee Mile.

Each package includes transportation from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the Milwaukee IndyFest, a reserved seat for Saturday's 225-lap IndyCar race, a paddock pass to access the garage area and more. The packages can be purchased from the Milwaukee IndyFest website at or the Wisconsin State Fair Park box office at 414-266-7100.

"I'm thrilled that we were able to make this bus trip happen with the Andretti promotions folks," said Rahal, who currently sits eighth in the IZOD IndyCar Series standings. "I hope the fans embrace this great opportunity for a unique experience both on the buses and at the track. I absolutely love racing at Milwaukee, it is one of Americas greatest racetracks, and the fans will not be disappointed one bit."

Race Day, Saturday, June 16: $89 per person
The Rahal IndyFest Express departs from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 6 a.m. on Saturday, June 16, and returns after the IndyCar race and post-race concert by Smash Mouth. The package includes a reserved grandstand ticket (level 200), a paddock pass, access to all of the infield festival activities including post-race concert, and more.

Weekend Package, Friday and Saturday, June 15 -16: $149 per person
The two-day Rahal IndyFest Express will travel to Milwaukee Friday morning, June 15 at 8 a.m. from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, arriving at the Milwaukee IndyFest for practice and qualifying sessions for the IZOD IndyCar Series as well as the Firestone Indy Lights race. The tour will return to Indianapolis Saturday, June 16, following the IndyCar race and concert by Smash Mouth.

A hotel room is not provided in the weekend package price, but rooms are available at the Milwaukee Hilton at a rate of $145 per night for participants (one king or two double beds. Hotel booking code provided with confirmation.).

The weekend package includes transportation to and from Indianapolis, transport to and from the Milwaukee Hilton, a reserved seat (level 300) for Saturday's 225-lap IndyCar race, two-day paddock pass, Friday general admission ticket with access to all infield festivities, and more.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hump Day Musings

Oh get your minds out of the gutter! It's Wednesday for crying out loud! Here are a few items from the IndyCar world that caught my attention this week.

*BHA and DDR move on from Lotus. The IndyCar community is small, and one thing I am learning is that if a rumor is going around, it is more than likely true. There had been rumblings that a couple of teams were looking to get out of their Lotus engine contract, and Bryan Herta Autosport and Dryer & Reinbold Racing did just that this week. BHA and Alex Tagliani had been dreadful with the Lotus, so much so that they aren't even making the trip to Brazil this week. Frustrations are high and you have to figure that if there are more than 33 cars at Indy next month, it would be a Lotus that would be heading home. Given they are the defending Indy 500 champions, that is a prospect BHA didn't want to face. Lots of other things went into their decision I'm sure, but that had to be in the back of their minds too. As far as DRR is concerned, Oriol Servia's talents are being wasted, so it was a good choice. If either two get into a Chevy for May, watch out.

Lotus carries on now with three cars: Simona de Silvestro at HVM and the Dragon Racing machines of Sebastien Bourdais and Kat Legge.

*What's old is new at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. The last time we saw SFHR and Dollar General together (officially) was in Victory Lane at Kentucky last October. The two are pairing up again for the 500 as Dollar General will be on the side of Josef Newgarden's car. It looks to be a one-off deal, but keeping sponsors on the IndyCar radar is a good thing. Dollar General is a really good fit for that team, and of course has a connection with Newgarden, who is a native Tennessean and grew up just a ways down the road from their headquarters.

*Jourdain and Howard find rides. As expected, Michel Jourdain will be driving for Rahal Letterman and it was announced recently that Jay Howard has hooked up with Michael Shank Racing for the month of May. Jourdian made over 150 starts in the IRL and Champ Car from 1996-2004, and finished 13th in his only 500 start in 1996. Howard failed to make the field in 2010 but returned last year and completed 60 laps before losing a tire after a pit stop and making contact with the inside short chute wall.

*Once controversy will be avoided (or postponed) at Indy. IndyCar made a VERY smart decision to delay any engine grid penalties until the team's next event after the 500. So that means anyone that has an engine issue at the Speedway will not serve a grid penalty at the 500, but instead at Belle Isle the next weekend. All teams will get a fresh motor for the race. I think that is a good thing on two levels -- 1) it gets teams all the time they want and need on the track to further develop the car and 2) and most important, it is what is best for the FANS. Indy has the longest practice and qualifying schedules of the year, and for most of us Indy is the pinnacle of the season. People who come to the track want to see the cars, and if the teams were forced to go conservative because of the fear of an engine penalty it would, well, it would suck. If you asked anybody, the guess here is anyone would trade a pole or a win for a grid penalty at Belle Isle.

*It's a race week! The cars and drivers are embarking on a 4,000-plus mile journey to South America for this weeken's race in Sao Paulo, Brazil on an 11-turn, 2.6-mile temporary course. Word is that the buzz for the race is insane, tickets are nearing a sellout and it should be a wild atmosphere as the Brazilians do it up right. Hopefully the weather is better than last year when the cars started the race in a deluge of rain before the event was postponed and completed the next day while dancing around a few more raindrops. Will Power won last year's event and no doubt is the favorite again. However, the guys (and ladies) from Brazil: Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Rubens Barrichello and Ana Beatriz (in her first ride of the year for Andretti Autosport) would want nothing more than to win their lone shot at a home game.

I'll have more on Sao Paulo as the week goes along.Then we know what comes next!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Frenetic Friday Kevin Cogan Edition

Yeah, I know it isn't Friday, and in fact might already be Sunday for some of my readers, but Frenetic Friday isn't about a day, it's a state of mind.

With the month of May almost upon us, I wanted to go back into the vault to May, 1982, which featured a month that was spectacular, tragic and controversial. It was a month of highs and lows, capped by a memorable win by Gordon Johncock, who held off Rick Mears in thrilling battle to post his second win in what was at the time the closest finish in the race's history (.16seconds).

Cogan, flanked by Mears and Foyt just moments before his accident

Mears had won the pole that year with a record speed of over 207 mph, but Pole Day was overshadowed by the death of Gordon Smiley. The 33-year-old Smiley was killed instantly when his car crashed head-on into the Turn 3 wall in what is one of the nastiest-looking accidents in the Speedway's history.

But ask most race fans who were around back then what sticks out in their mind about that particular May and many will talk about the crazy string of events that went down as the field came to the green flag. As Mears brought the field to the green flag, teammate Kevin Cogan, starting in the middle of the front row, suddenly veered sideways into AJ Foyt's car and setting off a wild melee that eventually ended the day for Cogan, Foyt, Mario Andretti, Roger Mears and Dale Whittington.

(As I mentioned in this post from a year ago that was the extent of Whittington's Indy career as he never returned to the Speedway.)

Cogan was blamed for the entire incident and was brutalized in the media by Foyt and Andretti,  and lost his job with Penske at the end of the year.

It was just an example of his star-crossed career at Indy. His 30th place finish in 1982 was sandwiched by years where he finished fourth and fifth, in 1981 and 1983, respectively, and after strugging to find a ride over the next few years he surfaced with Patrick Racing in 1986.

Qualifying sixth and running up front all day, Cogan looked like he might erase his checkered past when he took the lead from Bobby Rahal on Lap 188. But a late caution brought out by an incident involving Arie Luyendyk bunched up the field and on the Lap 198 restart Rahal made it past Cogan and went on to victory.

Three years later Cogan walked away from a nasty incident that saw his car split in half by the outside pit wall, and while he returned to finish ninth the next year only raced in the 500 two more times before his retirement. Overall he raced in the 500 12 times, completing 1,554 laps and finished in the top 5 on three occasions.

Cogan finished his open wheel career with one win (Phoenix, 1986) and two years (1982 and 1986) where he finished sixth in the CART standings. He also had finishes of 13th (1988), 14th (1985, '89) and 15th (1983) in what was a very competitive era of the sport.

In the end, the native Californian had a solid, journeyman-type career, but like many is more remembered for one incident as compared to his entire body of work. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Little Midweek IndyCar Notebook

Despite no race this weekend (darn it) there have been a coupls of IndyCar items in the news. Here is a rundown on some of them, and a few of my opinions sprinkled in for good measure.

*Graham Rahal gets 6-race probation. By now we have all seen the incident at Long Beach between Rahal and Marco Andretti, and given the severity of it there was definitely a need for some sort of discipline to go down, which it did Tuesday when Beaux Barfield put Rahal on probation through the Iowa race. Not sure where I stand on this, as six races is a bit harsh compared to some of the other penalties passed out Sunday, but at the same time given the severity of the incident with Rahal's block and the fact Andretti got a little up in the air, not to mention two race cars being torn up pretty badly, I think the idea behind it was to nip this right now.

The edge that the drivers have shown the last couple of races has been fun to watch, but that line between hard driving and dangerous driving is a thin one, and a point of reference had to be made. What disappoints me about the penalty is that at least publicly Andretti gets off seemingly scot-free. He was somewhat responsible for that accident as well, and given he is pushing that line of aggressive driving more than anyone he probably should have received some sort of reprimand.

*Graham has taken a pretty bad beating the last couple of days. Some of his wounds were self-inflicted, given his shout-out of the Andretti name on Sunday, but for the most part he hasn't ducked anyone the last couple of days. It's a bit long at 18 minutes, but IMS Radio guy Jake Query (a friend of 15DIM by the way) got him on the air on his Indy radio show today and it was a fascinating conversation. Check it out here. I go back and forth as to how I feel about Graham because sometimes I think he comes across as a bit of a complainer, but at the same time he is honest and articulate, which is refreshing.

*TV Ratings. Can't believe I forgot this on my first edit of this post! Some encouraging news came from the folks who track this sort of thing as the Long Beach race drew a rating of .32, which represents 468,000 veiwers. That is a marked improvement over the .25 the series pulled at Barber, and is an increase of 45 percent over the Long Beach race a year ago. Hopefully the good show gets people to come back. Remember, it's a process people!
*Wade Cunningham gets an Indy 500 ride. New Zealand will have a second representative on Memorial Day weekend as Cunningham was announced as the driver of the No. 41 machine for AJ Foyt Racing and will team up with Mike Conway. Though it will be his maiden voyage in an IndyCar at the Speedway, Cunningham knows his way around as he has won the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race a record three times and has five podiums in his six races. The 27-year-old Auckland native finished 7th in his only other IndyCar series start at Kentucky last October.

*Other ride rumors. Michel Jourdain appears to be a lock for the 500 in a Rahal Letterman entry, as Bobby Rahal remarked at Long Beach that if the stars align he will be in a car. There are still a few TBAs out there as far as seats go, but it might be a case of musical chairs with too many drivers for too few cars. Sam Schmidt Motorsports also announced another entry for Indy in the No. 99 machine, and I'm going to take a guess that if all works out that might be Townsend Bell's to lose. Other drivers still on the outside looking in are the likes of Pippa Mann, Alex Lloyd and even Tomas Scheckter, who for sure would love to be involved in the 500.

*One person that won't be there will be Paul Tracy, who in an interview with Speed TV's Marshall Pruett over the weekend conceded that his open wheel career may be over. Tracy, whose drive for Dale Coyne at Long Beach in 1991 caught the attention of Roger Penske, made 281 career starts in CART, Champ Car and IndyCar, winning 31 times and posting an amazing 102 top-5 finishes. He still plans to continue racing, though, and may be at the Grand-Am event on the road course at Indy when the series partners with NASCAR during the Brickyard 400 weekend this July.

One final thought...Monday marked the sixth-month anniversary of the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas. While it is still a source of pain and sadness for many people, I find it touching that Dan's legacy still lives on in so many ways, and that the series is moving on and thriving, especially with the DW12 that he originally tested. One thing we need to always remember is that there is nothing wrong with moving on, because in the end we have no choice. But if you do so in a way that honors someone's spirit and legacy, I feel like you are continuing to celebrate that person in a very deep way. I feel like the IndyCar family is doing that in 2012 and am looking forward to especially seeing Dan's spirit come alive at Indy in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Long Beach, Where To Begin?

When we talk about the IndyCar catching a "break", today's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was just that. The drivers (and the series) put on a great show that people will hopefully talk about for a while, and those that don't know should probably ask somebody. Many of us thought it was going to be hard to top what happened at Barber two weeks ago, but they pulled it off today.

Honestly, I don't know where to start, so here are some thoughts in no certain order.

*Parnelli Jones. I have to start this post out recognizing Jones and his command to start the engines. Jones is a legend, the oldest living Indy 500 winner and a man who will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Indy win next month. He was awesome.

Thanks to
*Will Power. If we hadn't figured out that Will is now the alpha dog on twisties, now we know. Going off in the 12th starting position today, many believed that he would have a hard time duplicating the feat he pulled off at Barber in winning from the P9 starting spot. WP didn't duplicate it, he topped it with a patient drive that found him at the front when it counted most. Power also moved to the top of the points standings, and all of the sudden owns a 24-point lead (127-103) over Helio Castroneves, who limped home in 13th place.

*The rest of the podium. Will may have been the man, but Simon Pagenaud was the show today. Just another impressive drive from the Frenchman, who led the most laps (26) and was comfortably in front before giving up the lead when he pitted for fuel with 15 laps and gave way to Power. Still, he rallied back and was closing fast on Power in the final laps. While Power was trying to save fuel and nurse his car to the end, Pagenaud was turning qualifying-level laps in a desperate bid to catch him before the finish. He is gonna win a race this year.

Meanwhile, it was a bit of redemption for James Hinchcliffe, who started the week blowing an engine that started a big ruckus (not his fault) and finished it by sneaking onto the podium after Ryan Hunter-Reay was hit with a penalty for punting Takuma Sato into the tire barrier just a few turns from the finish. I'll get to the penalties in a bit. Even though his third-place finish was awarded to him after the race had ended, Hinch had driven well to that point and was worthy of that spot. Pagenaud jumped over him in the overall standings, so now he stands fifth in that race, but he has been a consistent presence near the front of the field, and that should continue all season.

*Other great drives. Tony Kanaan finally had a drama-free day and climbed from P19 to finish fourth, JR Hildebrand finished a season-best fifth, Rubens Barrichello ran as high as third until a late stop for fuel and finished ninth after a last-lap skirmish, while Justin Wilson dominated the first stint of the race but came home 10th.

*Shuffling the deck. The 10-grid penalties suffered by the Chevy teams because of the mass engine change put a lot of fast cars deep in the field, and led to several interesting pit strategies. That also led to seven different drivers leading the race, and a lot of different scenarios were tried to see who could roll the dice the best. With the final 56 laps going caution-free, many teams had to stop for fuel, which threw a wrench into a lot of plans, but the frenzy that went along with it was a lot of fun.

*Penalties. This was by far the most physical race of the year, and Beaux Barfield brought the penalty flags with him. The two most notable penalties went to Hunter-Reay, who was kicked off the podium after being handed a 30-second penalty for his incident with Sato, and Castroneves, who didn't get a penalty for drilling teammate (and pole winner) Ryan Briscoe early in the race but got a visit from the karma police when he started a skirmish in Turn 11 in sight of the the checkered flag. He was also hit with a 30-second penalty and dropped to 13th in the classification and out of the top spot in points.

*The penalty that wasn't. Many people were angry about the incident between Dario Franchitti and Josef Newgarden in the race's first turn, and even more peeved when it didn't result in a penalty on Dario.  Newgarden tried to take Dario on the outside heading into turn one, but Franchitti would have nothing of it and their subsequent contact would send the rookie into the tire barrier and quickly out of the race. I rarely defend Franchitti, but I will here as I thought it was a racing accident. Was it dirty? Franchitti could have, and should have, given him lots more room. Still, it didn't look like he deliberately hit him and Newgarden's move was extremely high risk and I think that factored into the decision not to penalize Franchitti. But that's not to say I didn't think it was a classless move, because it was. It was the first effing lap of the race, he should have given Newgarden the position cleanly.

That said, Newgarden showed huge stones to even try and make that move and I loved it! Maybe it didn't work out for him that time, but he showed that he won't back down from anybody and drives like he feels as if he belongs. Someday down the road front-row starts and pulling off moves like that will become the norm.

*But it only shone the spotlight brighter on Franchitti. He is in a funk, how or why is anyone's guess. While he qualified well on Saturday, making the Fast Six for the first time this year and posting the fourth-best time, he went backwards in a hurry and finished three laps down in 15th place. Is it the Honda power? Maybe, but Pagenaud seems to be doing OK with it and Scott Dixon has been competitive until having a mechanical issue today. You have to wonder what is going on, because other than his skirmish with Newgarden today Dario hasn't put up much of a fight all year.

*Speaking of fights! One is brewing between Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti. It all started when the two of them got together on lap 22, when Andretti drove over the top of Rahal's right rear tire, turned 180 degrees and went into a low-altitude orbit before hitting the tire barrier really hard in turn 9. Both pointed the finger at each other, and Rahal threw the last zinger when he said, and I quote: "What's Marco's last name? I've said enough." Honestly, I'm not even going to try to figure out who did what here, because Rahal was (ahem) defending his position pretty well and Andretti was continuing his angry driving from the week before. I'm sure it will calm down before Sao Paulo, but if it doesn't...

*Sao Paulo. Brazil awaits the drivers in two weeks, and the trio of Castroneves, Kanaan and Barrichello get their home game. That's gonna be a huge event. But of course, as we all know, the rest of the races on the Izod IndyCar schedule just kill time between Mays, and should we mention that the Indy 500 is just six weeks away?

Race Morning, Long Beach

I think maybe I should subtitle this post "Making Lemonade Out of Lemons" because that's what many of the drivers and teams will have to do today in order to have success at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The 38th edition of the race, the longest-running road race in this hemisphere and a favorite of IndyCar drivers and fans, will have a weird look to it when the cars take the grid this afternoon.

How weird? Heck, with all of the 10-grid penalties being thrown around, IndyCar isn't even sure. They don't plan on posting their official lineup until after the morning warm-up. But since there are plenty of verifiable "unofficial" lists floating around, it's safe to say we can go with what we have and should be pretty close.

What we do know is that a total of 14 drivers -- just over half of the field -- have changed engines since the race at Barber two weeks ago and dropped 10 spots from their qualifying position. Of course, the controversial swap-out of all 11 Chevy engines in the field heads that list, while Lotuses (or is it Loti?) driven by Sebastien Bourdais (dammit), Oriol Servia and Katherine Legge also replaced their powerplants and absorbed the same penalty.

The fact that Bourdais did was disappointing. The Frenchman has not had the greatest of qualifying efforts but has really turned it on once the green flag drops, so seeing him somewhere in the top-10 on the grid would have given me serious thought to predicting him as a possible podium finisher. Bummer.

But before I get to some of my storylines and predictions, I want to give some ups to the drivers for doing what many in the Nation cannot do -- forget about the engine controversy and move on. No doubt they are pissed and some are probably pretty frustrated, but it is what it is and I haven't heard any complaining this weekend.

And, while I'm at it, hats off to IndyCar for not caving to the pressure and doing a quick re-write of the rule to statisfy the people that aren't happy. The rule sucks and I hate it, at least for 2012, because it would have made sense to enforce the rule in the future when the engine situation is more stable and the motors more reliable. Still, it is a rule and it has been uniformly enforced. I have long been an advocate of enforcing rules ahead of "the show" and keeping the integrity of the race, which is a sports competition, intact.

Because here's the deal: I think this is going to be one heckuva show today. On to the predictions and storylines.

*Show-me Sunday. So far this season, Honda has been shown as the more reliable powerplant but has been outpaced by Chevy on the track. Today's race goes off with Honda taking the first nine spots on the grid, with Alex Tagliani in a Lotus in P10. Honda has the schematic advantage, what are they going to do with it?

*When was the last time a pole winner started P11? I don't know the answer to that, but that is where pole winner Ryan Briscoe will start today. Kevin (shout out to Bob Jenkins!) led a spirited Fast Six session and earned pole honors with a lap in 1:08.6089 to just squeak past Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Briscoe was great here last year before being swallowed up by the Mike Conway train and finished second. Still, he gets the all-important point and $10,000, which should ease his pain. By the way, his wife Nicole tweeted last night that those funds will come in handy to pay for a new door at their palatial North Carolina estate. I don't know, I think it is kind of cool when we discover that famous people are really just like us.

*Show-me Sunday, part 2. The grid shake-up also means we are looking at a front row of Dario Franchitti and rookie Josef Newgarden. This will be a big day for both of them. Dario has looked half-lost all season but made the Fast Six for the first time Saturday and was fourth quickest overall. With Indy just four weeks away, he could use this as a springboard for some momentum, both for Indy and in the points battle.

Newgarden has driven far beyond his 21 years at times, and has gradually improved week-by-week with a Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team that had never been so solid on twisties. Driving without a sponsor -- still -- Josef gets to run up front for the first time and really showcase his talents. Talented and well-spoken, he is a guy that would just kill it for anybody who would put their name on his sidepod.

Justin Wilson goes off third and gets a chance to run in some cleaner air as well, so look for him to be solid. Simon Pagenaud continues to impress and could get a podium out of the weekend from P4, while Scott Dixon, who had an awesome afterburner/Batmobile thing going when his gearbox was on fire during qualifying, could leave with the points lead should he move up and leader Helio Castroneves struggle to get out of detention hall, otherwise known as his 18th-place starting spot.

*That brings us to the Chevys. My prediction? The first part of the race will look like a jailbreak as the cars in the back bid to move forward. Hopefully that still results in clean racing, but when you have five of the Fast Six participants (Briscoe, Power, Hunter-Reay, EJ Viso (!?!) and James Hinchcliffe) rolling in positions P11 through P16, they won't be very patient. Meanwhile, the already-mentioned Helio leads a contingent of himself, Tony Kanaan (P19), JR Hildebrand (P20), Marco Andretti (P21) and Rubens Barrichello (P22) as guys who posted top-10 qualifying times but need a telescope to see the front of the field. Marco and Rubens drove HARD last weekend, Marco maybe a bit too hard, but they won't wait long either.

*On to the predictions. This is going to go a couple of different ways -- we could have a total crash-fest (doubt it), some great racing in the back of the field (likely, thankfully NBC Sports Network will be there to make it our business) and some off-the-wall strategies (absolutely!). Strategy will be in play for sure because you might be able to race your way up some of the field, but it will take some great pitwork to go the rest of the way.

As this could be one of the craziest days in recent IndyCar memory, I'm going to go with a crazy prediction and call Pagenaud the race winner, with Dixon and Briscoe making up the rest of the podium.

Hey, you never know, because as we have discovered this week, anything can happen.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Passing Out 10-Grid Penalties Like Candy

According to this from the folks at IndyCar, it looks like James Hinchcliffle will have a lot of company in detention hall this weekend, otherwise known as the middle and back of the pack at Long Beach.

After discovering a problem with an engine that they didn't like (Hinch's perhaps?) Chevrolet has decided to replace the motors in ALL 11 of its participating cars as a precautionary measure. That means that Team Penske, Andretti Autosport and KV Racing Technology, among others, will be looking at a double-digit starting position on Sunday, not to mention a lot of work to do.

Also incurring the same penalty is Sebastien Bourdais, whose Dragon Racing team replaced his motor after Barber.

Part of me wants to go all conspiracy theory on this. Oh hell, I'm really makes you wonder if this is a sort of "protest" to the 10-grid rule after Hinchcliffe was penalized for blowing a motor in a test at Sonoma on Monday. It was stupid to include testing in that penalty, and everyone knows it. So why not flip the Will Power double-bird to show just how stupid you think it is?

That or Chevy saw a problem, was worried that this issue may repeat itself in spades during the race weekend, and decided that it would be better to do this now and avoid a big disaster should several of its motors gone ka-boom.

I hope it is the latter. In its release Chevy talked about keeping the "integrity" of the competition intact. Which if their decision to do this is sincere, I respect that. I'm all for attrition being part of the race, but if there is a known issue and the cars get sent out with that anyway in an attempt to avoid a penalty while crossing fingers that everything worked, that's not fair to any of the competitors.

But the timing of it all is quite suspect, don't you think?

Either way, it is going to shake up the entire weekend. With point-leader Helio Castroneves, third place Will Power and Hinch, who sits in fourth place in the standings, moving back, it gives guys like second place Scott Dixon the opportunity to make a little bit of hay in the points race, or Simon Pagenaud, who was a victim of a penalty at St. Pete, the chance to jump up on the podium and even perhaps win the race.

For those penalized drivers, what does it mean to them? What will they do to try and push their way to the front? Whatever happens, it should be very interesting.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Beaux Barfield Has His First Controversy

Beaux Barfield has gotten off to a great start as the man in charge of the rules and race control, as many have agreed with most, if not all, of the decisions he has made.

The new rules I have liked the most? Not going full-course yellow all of the time is great, sending backmarkers through the pits to get them to the end of the line prior to a restart works well, and his most recent ruling -- leaving the pits open during a non-emergency yellow flag -- will hopefully cut down on yellow flag time and get us back green as soon as possible. Anything that gives us more green time, and all of these changes do, is good by me.

However, with James Hinchcliffe blowing a motor in a test session at Sonoma yesterday, he has now found himself in the first quandary of his reign. League rules dictate that blowing an engine -- and having said powerplant replaced -- results in a 10-grid penalty. This means that, at best, Hinch will start no better than 11th in Sunday's race at Long Beach. And in a race where track position is premium, that's a killer.

I just don't understand how something that happens in testing -- at a different track no less -- can affect a driver's standing during a race weekend. That's just harsh, and doesn't make sense. Neither Hinch nor his team has any control over the Chevy in his car, so how can a testing incident be used against him?

If we still lived in the days of unlimited testing, I could understand this. There was a time in the days of unlimited budgets where teams conducted private tests that only benefited that one particular team. However, this is an "open" test for all teams, and in the end accumulates data that benefits the engine manufacturers as much as it does the teams that are there.

I guess you could argue that Hinch having a fresh motor while other cars are working with equipment with some mileage on it gives him an advantage, which it probably does. That's why the 10-grid penalty exists on a race weekend. But to regulate what happens in test sessions might be a bit of a stretch.

It is a serious gray area that will probably have to be addressed soon. If not, teams will be looking to take advantage of it, like by testing their car lowest in the standings with different drivers (as discussed during the Trackside radio show tonight), or discourage them from testing at all.

To his credit, Barfield has been open with the fans about this penalty. He politely replied to several people on Twitter, and two of them were very interesting:

"Rule developed and agreed to by engine manufacturers. Perfect? Absolutely not. Clear? Yes."


"The balance of rule writing always has an important fan component. This is a great forum for me to discover that...

So my interpretation of those comments is this: 1) Everyone knows the rules going in, and while it might suck in this instance, it was one that was made crystal to all involved. So, buyer beware. And 2) he understands the fan's frustration, and the impact of rules on the fanbase.

He's definitely in a situation where he won't make everyone, if anyone, happy. Still, his willingness to explain the rule, and stand behind it, says a lot about his leadership and the direction that will take the series. It seems like for once, to paraphrase the famous Who song, that the new boss isn't the same as the old one. While I don't like his decision, I do respect it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Barber Post-Game

I could probably have also called this post "Will Power Is Just Better Than Everyone Else", and if the race had gone down the way many thought it might -- little passing or action -- WP's dash from a road course career-worst P9 to start the race only to finish, as usual, in Victory Lane, it might have been appropriate.

But Power's effort Sunday was only one of several great storylines that came out of the Honda IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama, a highly entertaining show of great racing from the front of the field to the back.

Here are a couple of thoughts:

*Will Power. As a driver, Will dove a great race, and once he got to the front he did his usual, drove near-qualifying-type laps and pulled away from a late restart for a comfortable win over Scott Dixon. But his team had a huge hand in it too. Tim Cindric made some great calls and their pit work was excellent. Power didn't seem to have a lot of confidence in the car under race conditions until yesterday, but he learned a lot, which is dangerous to everyone else.

*Dixon. Driving a Honda, Dixon once again drove the wheels off of his car but seemed frustrated with his second runner-up finish of the year and his third straight at Barber. A late pit mistake may have cost him a little bit, but once the adrenaline wore off and he could be objective I'm sure he would conceed that Power had a better car.

*Helio Castroneves. Finishing P3 is a respectable day, and kept Helio at the top of the points, but I think he felt like he should have gotten more. After leading early he stayed near the front but just didn't seem to have a car he was happy with. He did have a spirited battle with Graham Rahal in the closing laps, which was fun to watch.

*Sebastien Bourdais. His drive makes me want to bring back my Speed Racer quote from the other day: "He might have a better car, but I'm a better driver". Two weeks in a row the Frenchman has gotten every ounce out of himself and his ride, and though his P9 finish doesn't look impressive on paper and wasn't even the biggest move of the race (Oriol Servia going from 26th to 13th was), it was an incredible drive. Bourdais is kind of a mysterious guy since he doesn't say a lot and isn't involved in social media, but his emotional interview after the race showed me that 1) he left it all out there Sunday and 2) he really, really cares. That's cool.

*The Racing. In the past, the biggest raves for Barber went to the facility's picturesque setting, but the drivers all came to play on Sunday, with some great battles all through the field. The mid-pack was especially active, with Marco Andretti putting on a good show and guys like Bourdais, Rubens Barrichello, Dario Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay mixing it up. Who knows, maybe this kind of stuff happened at St. Pete but we would have never known, which brings me to my next point.

*NBCSN 1, ABC 0. The two broadcasts were like night and day as the NBC Sports Network did its usual spot-on job of showing the race. They focused on the right battles and provided tons of information. I think Bob Jenkins does a passable job but sometimes seems like he is slipping a bit (meanwhile Paul Page does drag racing and snowmobile races the Winter XGames. WTF?), but Jon Beekhuis is like an Einstein of racing and Townsend Bell did a great job. I also heard Pippa Mann was great during the Indy Lights race. There are so many drivers like those two who are looking for rides that provide a unique perspective as "active" drivers -- just like Dan Wheldon did last year -- and it is great for the viewer that they are utilized. One thing I liked is how they focused on various parts of the field, and even covered battles to the line after Power took the checkered flag.

Plus the IndyCar 36 special featuring Tony Kanaan at St. Pete was very well done. It will be interesting to watch how that show evolves during the year.

One complaint, though: Where are the Twitter handles? Virtually anytime ANYONE'S name is flashed on the screen, their handles should be there as well.

No racing this week, but a big test at Indy to look forward to on Wednesday. Next up is Long Beach and some old school tradition, not to mention one of the more popular spots on the schedule. And did I mention the Indy 500 is only 55 days away?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Barber Pre-Game

Since it is after 1 a.m. in the land of Wayne and Garth (that is Aurora, IL to you younger readers) it is officially RACE DAY! Back-to-back race weekends are awesome, and while the future schedules have been debated ad nauseum among the Nation, I'm just going to add one thought.

If the season has 20 events, I would love to see it condensed into about a 30-week span. While that probably can't be done because of logistical issues, it would be great to have more back-to-backs as I feel that helps people stay involved with the series as one week rolls into another. It's kind of hard sometimes to get excited about a race when the last one occurred a few weeks before.

OK, that's all with that. Qualifying was a major surprise today, so I'll roll through the Fast Six and a few more notes on today's race.

*Helio Castroneves. Wow, A win last week and a pole this week shows Helio has come to play. Were this going to be a more conventional race (more on that in a minute) I might be tempted to say he would be ready to run this thing wire-to-wire. Still, he's my pick to click today.

*James Hinchcliffe. Hinch also followed up a strong showing at St. Pete and will go off on the outside of the front row. After finishing fourth last week I think he should move up at least one spot and onto the podium.

*Scott Dixon. When you look at the performances of the other Hondas, Dixie should be earning some respect for getting everything he has out of the car. He was driving HARD during the Fast Six, and the top three are separated by less than .1 of a second.

*Mike Conway. Mike tested well at Barber so honestly this isn't a huge surprise. I can't remember when a Foyt car started this close to the front on a road course. If I had to pick a sleeper for today's race, it would be Conway.

*JR Hildebrand. Now this was a surprise. Hildebrand qualified 18th last week and last year posted just three top-10s on twisties, with a best finish of seventh.

*Tony Kanaan. TK made his first appearance in the Fast Six this season, and looked confident enough in the result to pretty much use the final session as a chance to scuff some tires. A good finish is out there for him so long as the mechanical gremlins don't reappear.

*Surprise! It was a dreadful day for some, and no one had it worse than Dario Franchitti. The three-time defending series champion looked lost again for the second week in a row and will go off in 18th position today...Will Power, who was fastest in practice, couldn't find that speed in the second session and starts ninth...Ryan Hunter-Reay looked fast until he spun out and damaged a wing in the second session, so he starts 11th, while Ryan Briscoe couldn't even get his car to fire and as a result will start 12th.

*Which should lead to...lots of different strategies. Barber isn't a track where you can mow your way through the field, so look for several of the top drivers in the back looking to move up through various pit strategies. Roger Penske always likes to shuffle the deck somehow, so I think the first move today will be his to try and get Power and Briscoe better track position.

*Weather. It's going to be a hot one, with temperatures in the 80s by race time. After two days of off and on rain, the morning warmup will be a learning experience for everyone.

*Prediction. There won't be a lot of passing on the track, but there should be a few lead changes due to different pit strategies. Starts and restarts were an issue at times last year at Barber, will the gloves that were apparently on last week at St. Pete come off? Many drivers have said that may be one of the few opportunities to move up, so there may be some aggressive moves that could create havoc.
In the end, my podium will look like this: Castroneves, Hinchcliffe and Power.