Sunday, April 15, 2012

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.

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