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?

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