Tuesday, May 28, 2013

More Indy 500 Stuff

I finally got a chance to view the ABC broadcast of the race, and there were definitely a few things I missed from being at the track.

Not only that, it gave me a chance to see what happened and give a few things some more thought. I have to say, still two days later, I keep thinking about the race and how amazing it was. Tony Kanaan winning, and the crowd’s reaction, was something I will remember the rest of my life.

Crazy as it sounds, about a month ago I was giving thought to passing up the 500 this year and maybe going to Iowa or someplace else instead. Don’t get me wrong, it was a completely economic discussion but I thought with the things I have coming up this summer that maybe I should sit this one out.

But my biggest argument was this: what if something memorable happened and I missed it? What if Helio or Dario won their fourth? What if Hinch won?

Or even, what if Tony Kanaan won the race and I wasn’t there to see it?

Yes, that was an exact thought that I had over a month ago. What if TK won the race and I missed it? The opportunity to see him win the Indy 500 was the biggest reason I decided to go. And now? No regrets.

So here are a few more things that crossed my mind:

TK could do anything he wanted with his car. No doubt his gaining five spots just after the drop of the green flag was not surprising, but what was so noticeable was the fact that he could put the car anywhere on the track and it would stick. He was hooked up all day long and amazingly enough took no adjustments to the car during pit stops. 

I’m still surprised by Carlos Munoz. But then again, this is what Colombians do when they get to the Speedway. In fact, his runner-up finish is the second-best rookie run by a Colombian as Juan Pablo Montoya won in his first (and only) start in 2000. Also having a tremendous debut was Roberto Guerrero – a big favorite of mine back in the day – who was second to Rick Mears in 1984. That was the start of a four-year run where he went P2, P3, P4 and P2. I’d like to see him on a little more of a variety of tracks at the big league level before I declare Munoz the goods…but he’s off to a good start.

Outside of TK, my epic-run-of-the-day still goes to Charlie Kimball. I tweeted Kimball yesterday and asked him what the problem was with his car but never got a reply. I’ve heard it was electrical, but when he came by it sounded like he was about to lose a cylinder, or had one of the infamous header problems a few others had experienced during practice and qualifying. When the race went back to green after JR Hildebrand’s crash he was lagging so far behind the pack that there were people in my section sort of laughing about it. One person had him in a driver pool and was rooting for him to drop out so he finished last and she got her money back (she wasn’t paying attention to the fact Hildebrand was already out).

Most impressive about his run was the fact there were very few cautions where they could use some sort of strategy to move him up the field. No, he did it the hard way, by passing cars. I think there are some people who are down on Kimball for some reason, but he is becoming a solid Top 10 performer. Lots of guys make a long career of doing that. Plus, when you look at how teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon performed, it’s even more impressive.

About Dario. It was crazy to hear how Sunday was the first time he had ever hit the wall at the Speedway. He had turned 1,940 race laps without an incident, and probably two to three times more than that in practice and testing. 

I was amazed at how quick people were to jump on the conspiracy theory that once he realized TK was in the lead he walled his car to give his friend the win. Watching the tape it was obvious that he turned the car and it just didn’t go anywhere. Remember they hadn’t changed his tires after his last stop so he was on old kicks, not to mention he had been struggling with handling all day.

Not to mention, it would have taken help from his spotter (as Turn 1 is pretty blind and Dario would never seen TK in the lead) and an incredible presence of mind to 1) find out your best friend is in the lead and 2) decide within a fraction of a second "you know, I'm going to help him out and wall the car". Please. You'd have to have a pretty big screw loose to crash a car at speed on purpose.

Readers of this space know I’m not a huge fan of his, but I find it ludicrous that anyone would think he would do something like that. Dario is a sportsman and a man of great integrity who knows how much of a privilege it is to win the 500. He wasn’t going to hand a win to anyone. 

Speaking of Dixon. His performance Sunday was very non-Dixie-ish. For a guy where top-5 finishes are almost a way of life around there, he was never a factor, although he did complete every lap of the race for the seventh year in a row. That’s some amazing consistency from both Dixon and his team, because prior to Dario’s crash he had completed every race lap since 2007 (save 2008 when he did not compete).

Where was Hinch? His up and down season continued. Two wins and now three finishes of 20th or worse. It’s crazy how Andretti Autosport absolutely nailed the setups on Munoz, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and EJ Viso’s cars but missed so badly with Hinch. He was saying that getting too close to a car in front of him was making the car unstable. And given the way he was in sprint car mode and power sliding through some of the corners, there just wasn’t much he could do.

Still, he is fifth in points and I think he could be someone who could make a big move over the weekend. I have a feeling after the two races at Belle Isle are done the standings will look a lot different a week from now.

G/W/C. Thankfully lots of people are starting to come to their senses about this. Look, G/W/C doesn’t work in IndyCar (especially at IMS) for one singular reason: it’s dangerous. Stuff that works in NASCAR doesn’t always work anywhere else, and this is one of them.

It was a hot topic on ESPN's Turn 4 today, and thankfully they pretty much all have the same consensus most of us do. It's just not necessary, and in most instances, just isn't feasible.

What works for NASCAR is that the G/W/C, and in the same vein, plate racing, has a sort of demo derby feel to it. The wrecks that happen during many G/W/C finishes are spectacular because they involve lots of cars bouncing off of each other and for the most part no one gets hurt.

Restarts at a place like Indy are hairy enough, can you imagine a one-lap sprint (and I call it one lap because once you get to the white flag the next flag is the checker for all the marbles at Indy? Can you imagine the carnage, injury or damage involved if that dash to the finish produced a multi-car crash? It wouldn’t look as funny as Cup, where mayhem ensues and everyone pretty much hops from their cars, then two guys might fight and everyone cheers. A 5-or-6 car crash at an oval in IndyCar sends someone to the hospital, guaranteed.

Plus, NASCAR and IndyCar are apples to oranges economically. Most of the Cup teams can absorb the cost of some dented sheet metal, most IndyCar teams can’t afford to be constantly fixing wrecked cars. So why would a series where cost containment is a priority put their cars/drivers/teams in the position of having to pay for unnecessarily wrecked race cars?

For a couple of TV ratings points? Look, fans aren’t going to flock to IndyCar just because they adopt the G/W/C. it’s deeper than that, and we all know it.

Which brings me to my last point.

TV. If I win the lottery someday, I will personally help buy IndyCar out of its current TV package, which hamstrings the series more than any other factor. From a production/camera aspect, ABC’s coverage was great…but it ends there. The series needs to demand a better partner that will be with them for every race, as well as online and social media content. 

OK. One more thing. The #Indy500orBust campaign was a huge success, and is further proof that the inroads to growing the fanbase lies in social media. But I came across a story today that is a must read. It is the #Indy500orBust story about Felipe Guerra, a young man from Chile who dreamed of going to the Indy 500.

You can read it here

Felipe, along with his father, got to come to the US to see the race for the first time this weekend. Give his story a read, it’s very, very cool.

It’s fascinating to think that people come from all over the world to go to the 500. What’s even more fascinating is the fact that there are many people who are fans of the race (and the series) who have never seen an IndyCar race in person, yet they are still fans.

Maybe I take it for granted. The fact is, I’ve never lived more than three hours from IMS since I became a fan in 1979. I always knew that my next trip there was only a year away, and when I lived in Indy for five years in the early 90s, I drove by the track several times a week. Even if it meant taking a special trip.

I was a fan from the first day I walked in there, not the other way around. Others have to wait years (or even decades) to make it to Indy. I can’t imagine what it would be like to see Indy for the first time when the only time you have seen it is on TV or in pictures or in your mind’s eye. I bet it’s pretty awesome.

You want to know what Indy means? That’s it. The dream of making it to Indy isn’t just for the drivers, it’s for the fans too.

Felipe hopes to make it back in 2016. So I say, #Felipe2016orBust!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Indy 500 Just Did A Mic Drop

As I posted on Twitter right after the race ended:

Today is why I love racing. Today is why I never gave up on IndyCar.

It was almost like the field of 33 drivers walked up to the mic, said "we just put on the best race in the universe today", and walked away. Yeah, it was that good.

Where to begin? With the 68 lead changes? The fastest Indy 500 in history? The incredible racing throughout the field? The coronation of Tony Kanaan as the official Indy 500 People's Champion?

I was going to list some of the numerous records set today, but there are so many I'm just going to refer to the IndyCar website. Check it out.

So that I don't write an epic post, I'm just going to go through the Top 10 and a few other story lines, and my views from the Southwest Vista. For the third straight year, Matt accompanied me to the race. So he's seen Dan Wheldon win on the last lap, watched Dario Franchitti win his third while Takuma Sato crashed almost right in front of us, and TK win on one of the most historic days the Speedway has ever seen. The kid's spoiled, I'm telling ya.

Winner -- Tony Kanaan. Am I really, truly able to type his name in this space? Yes. Wow, what a run by TK. When he quickly moved from his P12 starting position to near the front of the field at the start of the race, you had the feeling right then it was his day. I've been going to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 34 years now, and I have never heard cheers like I did today. Last year I said if the fans could will a driver to a win, TK would have a couple of Borg-Warners by now. What we love about Tony is that he goes out and races hard, and he pours his heart and soul into the car every time he drives it. He did that today and it finally, FINALLY paid off for him. I don't think there is anyone in the racing world that isn't happy for him today.

Runner-up -- Carlos Munoz. The 21-year-old Colombian started second and finished second. I have to admit when Andretti Autosport announced he would be driving a car this year, I pretty much figured this year would be for experience and that maybe he would be a factor someday down the road. Instead, he has driven well beyond his years all month long, and was impressive in this one, driving clean but at the same time giving no quarter. An obvious choice for Rookie of the Year.

3rd -- Ryan Hunter-Reay. As expected, Andretti Autosport was the dominant team on Sunday, putting two drivers on the podium and three in the top four. The only AA car who didn't perform well was James Hinchcliffe, who looked lost all day and finally fell to 21st in the final classification. Hunter-Reay had the misfortune of being as sitting duck in the lead on the final restart, and had the race gone to the end would've probably teamed up with TK, Munoz and Marco Andretti for a four-wide finish similar to Friday's Indy Lights race. Still, he's further proving that last year was no fluke. I think he is driving even better.

4th -- Marco Andretti. Marco was happy for TK but visibly disappointed after leading 31 laps and at times having the car that could do almost anything. On the flip side, he is the new points leader and his maturation process continues. In this era where the reliability of the cars is close to impeccable, he will get more opportunities to win and don't forget, he's still only 26. He's going to get a lot more chances.

5th -- Justin Wilson. The highest-finishing Honda in the field, Wilson now has three top-7 finishes in his last four runs at the 500. Like Oriol Servia placing fourth last year, Wilson snuck up on the field Sunday with a solid, workmanlike effort. Wilson also had the fastest lap of the race at 226.9 mph.

6th -- Helio Castroneves. The last time two three-time winners drove in the 500 (1987), Al Unser Sr. took a Penske car and rolled to his fourth win. Helio didn't have that same luck Sunday, but always seemed to be in the hunt and led a lap in a fantastic move where he went from fourth to first in on fell swoop. Since Helio captured his third win in 2009, he has inexplicably not been a huge factor on race day. But like Marco, he can find the silver lining that he brought the car back in one piece and heads to Detroit's twinbill next weekend third in the standings.

7th -- AJ Allmendinger. With each good finish, I hope more and more that this guy finds a way to stay in IndyCar. Taking on a big oval for the first time in his career, he fell back at the start of the race but gained confidence with each lap and by the midway point of the race was sticking his nose in there and taking people on. He had to pit off-sequence when a part of his seat belt came loose, which put him out of cycle with the leaders, but with the long green he was able to battle back and was in the mix late. Still, leading 23 laps in your debut for the Captain is a good day and usually gets you an invite back.

8th -- Simon Pagenaud. See Wilson, Justin. Pagenaud started 21st but was pretty good in traffic and just methodically worked his way up into the fight. While he was never a factor from the front of the field, Sam Schmidt should be happy to see him recover from some struggles earlier in the season.

9th -- Charlie Kimball. Kimball missed the Saturday pre-race activities with the flu, and just a few laps into the race his car sounded just as sick. I don't know what they did to fix his problems, but after spending a lot of time by himself just logging laps, the field came back to him and he started moving up. Impressive run. Raise your hand if you had Kimball as the highest finishing Ganassi car in the field.

10th -- Ed Carpenter. Ed was hooked up to start the race, leading 34 laps (a race high) early. Then he started dropping like a stone, and while his team tried to say he was settling in for the long haul, his in-car camera showed his right hand getting pretty high when he was turning, which is the sign of a car that refuses to turn. This was Carpenter's best chance to win the 500, and you think he will have some more. He will still win an oval race (or two) this year.

Rookies. Although there were only four in the field, they all represented themselves well. I've already documented Munoz' and Dinger's days, but a little further back in the field Tristan Vautier finished on the lead lap in P16 and Conor Daly was two laps down in P22. What Munoz and Dinger did were a bonus, if a rookie logs a ton of laps, stays out of trouble and picks up some valuable experience, that's all you can ask.

133 laps. Since they began keeping records of separate green/caution laps in 1976, the 133 lap stretch between laps 60-194 is the longest green flag run they have ever had here. Think about it, 133 laps is 332.5 miles, or roughly the distance between Indy and Madison, Wisc. And at the pace the cars were going, the cranked those laps out in about 90-95 minutes, representing probably the most intense 90-95 minutes they have ever experienced in a race car. It wasn't like this was a single-file parade, guys (and ladies) were having to defend their positions lap after lap without having the chance to take a mental break of sorts during a caution. That stretch was a real testament of the skill of the drivers in the IndyCar series.

That long green stretch helped TK break Arie Luyendyk's 22-year-old race record (185 mph) as he covered the distance in two hours, 40 minutes, 3 seconds to average 187.433 mph. The race average actually reached as high as 192 before the two late cautions. 

Honda. As the day went on I heard faint sounds of a guitar strumming and the strains of Kumbaya wafting over the Speedway. Unlike last year when the Hondas came alive on race day, it just didn't happen this time. Chevy took seven of the top 10 spots and Honda led just eight laps, with James Jakes leading the brigade with five. Honda puts a lot into winning the 500, so there are probably a lot of people that won't be sleeping well tonight.

Finishing under caution. For the third straight year, the race finished under yellow, and the green/white/checker (or wrecker) debate was resurrected anew. A couple of things here: if you were left with a "bad taste in your mouth" (as a caller to Kevin Lee's show said he was afterwards) after 68 lead changes and some of the best racing the Speedway has ever seen, you need to either lower your expectations of happiness or find another sport to follow.

Was I a bit disappointed that the race didn't go down to a final, last lap knife fight? Hell yeah, but at the same time, I believe in the integrity of the race distance. The rules say the person who covers 500 miles first, wins. It doesn't say "let's keep trying until we get a finish we are happy with", it's pretty simple. I'd rather see a red flag than a G/W/W finish, and while many may think that is splitting hairs, I don't ever want to see an IndyCar race go beyond its scheduled distance. Either way, 500 miles is 500 miles, and it should be kept that way.

And besides, let's get something straight and clear. While the previous two years also finished under yellow, the G/W/W would not have applied either time as the leader of the race had taken the white flag. So let's put this discussion to bed, shall we? I don't know about you, but the last three years haven't left me disappointed. At. All.

So another 500 is in the books. When the day started, I was hoping to see a repeat of last year's race, but this year's just blew it away. Is the bar getting set too high? Who knows, but ever time I watch the DW12 race on an oval, it gets prettier by the day. The other two Triple Crown races should be awesome, but first, it's on to Belle Isle!

Friday, May 24, 2013

The 500...Let's Do This

Holy cow, I am blown away by how quickly this month has gone. Here it is three days from the race, and I am just getting caught up that it is May as it is. Which is unfortunate, because for a lot of reasons May is my favorite month of the year. Oh well, I'm going to be in the house at the Speedway on Sunday, and in the end that is all that matters.

But this year, the 500 isn't the biggest race I'm going to watch this year. Nope, that comes tomorrow when my son Matt runs the 4x800 for Aurora Central Catholic High School at the Illinois State Class 2A track meet to be held at Eastern Illinois University.

Can I brag for a moment? Thanks. It's such an amazing thing when someone you love works hard and succeeds at something. I am super proud of him. He and his teammates had worked so hard over the past year, and now he has a state track qualifier to his name to go with qualifying for the state cross country meet last fall.

What is even cooler is the fact that because of a "multiplier" attached to private schools, Central runs a class up against schools that are twice its size. With 590 students, Central regularly competes against schools that have over 1,000 kids, and they hold their own.

They are the little school that could...sound familiar?

So there are two segues I can use from this story: first is that just like tomorrow, a year's worth of work will go into one race (or hopefully two if they qualify for Saturday's final). Matt decided after track season last year that he really wanted to dedicate himself to his running, and 2,000 miles of training later, he is where he wants to be. He ran a career-best 2:04 for his 800 leg in winning the sectional on Friday night, so he is ready to go.

The peeps in IndyCar have done the same thing. Since Memorial Day last year, no doubt the drivers and their teams have been working hard to figure out how to do even better on Sunday. Make no mistake, from the front to the back of the field, everyone wants to win this race. Lots of them have that chance.

Second, just like the movie Hoosiers, there is always room for the little school (or race team) to get a chance. Ed Carpenter, a native Hoosier, won the pole for Sunday's race and has a great chance to win the 500. For Carpenter, it would be a lifetime dream, and would add to the craziness that has become IndyCar racing the last couple of years.

Because let's be real, did any of us see Dan Wheldon winning the race in 2011? How about Dario Franchitti last year? After a putrid start to the season, Dario was slogging along all month with the Honda engine, then was spun by EJ Viso just 15 laps into the race and dropped to 29th place. Somehow he found his way back to the front and held off Takuma Sato in one of the best races ever run here.

Best races until this year, because I think with a year of experience (and if you count Fontana two 500-mile races) under their belts, the racing come Sunday could be epic...again.

So far this month, practice has given us a pretty good show, and that will transfer to the race. At least once a day during practice, a dozen cars (or more) would get together and it looked like it was the real thing with the passing and dicing that was going on. In fact, Marco Andretti radioed to his team at one point that he thought he was in the middle of the race by how hard the drivers were going.

Crazy. With Marco's name fresh on my mind, let's go through some predictions and story lines.

First, I'm sticking with my previous thoughts of the last few weeks that Marco Andretti will win the Indianapolis 500. In years past I don't know if those thoughts would ever come from my keyboard, but he was hella fast last year, and this year combines it with some calmer, smoother driving. One thing about the DW12 on an oval is that if your car is fast, you just have to stick with it and the car will take you to the front. You don't have to try so hard, which is what I think both Marco and Carpenter did last year when they spun late. Marco has been fast each of the last two years, but last year (well, in lots of years) he let his emotions get the best of him. This year he has proven to be a different guy, but it remains to be seen if he can stay that way when the pressure is on.

The weather. Thankfully, it won't be the blast furnace that it was the last couple of years. I know that I am a distance runner and all, but walking about six miles during the course of the day last year was a killer! Looking at the current forecast, it looks like it will be cloudy and about 25 degrees cooler, which is much more to the cars' (and drivers) liking. Cooler temperatures means a cooler track, which means the cars should handle a lot better.

Carpenter will be a factor. If I were throwing down odds, I'd set Ed as second to win behind Marco. Ed's fast when it counts, and don't forget he has an oval win in this car. Like James Hinchcliffe, if you are talented, winning once opens the door to winning again. With oval wins each of the last two years Ed's confidence has to be at an all-time high.

Andretti Autosport. With five drivers in the field, and all of them the Fast Nine in qualifying last weekend, there is a good chance one of them will win the race. Given past history, however, I'm thinking that should Andretti falter, two others: Ryan Hunter-Reay or Hinchcliffe, would be the ones to step up.

If you want to talk about drivers whose confidence is at an all-time high, look no further than RHR. After winning the championship in 2012 he's driving with the confidence and passion of someone who thinks they are one of the world's best, and right now he just might be. With two wins this year, Hinch is right there with him.

On the other hand, I don't see Munoz winning based on his inexperience, and Viso based on past experience. While I think EJ is slowing improving, I don't see him taking this kind of a leap. This race is won by winners, and I don't put him in that category quite yet.

Penske. One of the biggest story lines is the run for a fourth 500 win for Helio Castroneves. Since last winning in 2009 he has had little luck, including last year when he hit a loose tire from the Will Power/Mike Conway crash and had suspension issues all day. Is this his year?

I don't know, but I do know it won't be Power's. I feel bad when I write things like that about Will, but let's face it, he struggles in traffic on ovals. The only oval win he has (Texas) came in a race that he led almost the whole way and lasted about 45 minutes. I don't see him winning a marathon like this.

However, I wouldn't be surprised to see AJ Allmendinger in the mix. He's been fast all month and is experienced enough that he can run at the front. Plus I've got to admit to liking the guy, he has said and done all of the right things, and he gets it.

Dark horses. Maybe this is a bit of a misnomer, but it's a catch-all for everyone who I think can win but I haven't listed yet. And this list starts (and should end) with Tony Kanaan. It's crazy to look at TK's career and for everything he has accomplished it isn't accompanied by a Borg-Warner trophy. How many chances does he have left? Should he win it would be one of the most popular victories in 500 history. 

While I don't see either of them winning, it wouldn't surprise me if Oriol Servia and/or Townsend Bell make a push to the front by the end. The same is true with Simona de Silvestro.

Hondas. I'll throw everyone in this group together too, because this is one of the great unknowns. If last year is any example, the Hondas will be better on race day, but the Honda peeps were hoping for the kind of weather they got last year, and that didn't happen. Still, Dario Franchitti topped the speed chart one day during practice and the Hondas did work well in traffic in practice. But outside of Alex Tagliani, who is starting P11, the fastest Hondas have nearly a dozen cars with Chevy power in front of them. This could be a taller task than last year.

With that in mind, you know Franchitti and Dixon will make themselves some sort of factor on Sunday. Dixon has completed every lap of the race since 2006 and has never finished worse than P6 over that span, while Franchitti is, well, Franchitti.

Bottom line. If we thought last year was the most wide-open in recent history, this year it is that times two. I could honestly see anyone from a pool of 20 drivers winning this race. Believe it or not, Sunday will be the 20th race run with the DW12, and in that span there have been 10 different winners.

But what will make this race memorable will be the passing throughout the field. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say we set a record for lead changes, and it wouldn't surprise me to see 40 of them by the time the day is through.

I also think the winning pass for the lead will also come within the final two laps, maybe even down to the last straightaway. Yeah, it's gonna be that good.

Last, and certainly not least, best wishes and Godspeed to the drivers and crews who will put it all on the line Sunday. And in honor of it being Memorial Day weekend, thanks to all veterans, past and present for their service, especially those that have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Day 5 -- Consider the Gauntlet Thrown

I was looking at my posts from May of last year (mostly so I don't incessantly repeat myself) and stumbled across my title from Thursday's practice: "Day 6 -- The Rise of Dixie". In it I spoke of how Scott Dixon had quietly worked on other things all week but on the sixth day he jumped to the top of the speed chart.

History certainly repeated itself this year, albeit for another (actually two) Target Chip Ganassi Racing drivers. After sitting way down in speed for the first few days while his team quietly worked on race-day setups, defending champ Dario Franchitti turned in the fastest speed of the day Wednesday when he clocked a lap of 224.236 mph.

Dario's time came during a Happy Hour free-for-all that saw at times nearly 15 cars working in a single draft in what could best be described as a full-out race sim. I don't think the teams and the owners like it much, but the drivers seem to be having a great time. I mean, three-wide in practice? Practice?
I think as long as nothing changes with the DW12, there will always be an intensity level to practices -- especially as the week goes on -- that we haven't seen very often before. Drivers are going at is so hard, and it looks like next Sunday's race will be as highly entertaining as last year's was.

So no doubt it was in a tow and more than likely Chevy will rule the day when qualifying starts on Sunday, but Franchitti is a master at working in traffic here so you can throw the speeds out on race day, because Honda proved last year it was a pretty stout motor.

Also stepping up for TCGR was Ryan Briscoe, who jumped to fifth-best at 222.803 in a quest for his second consecutive pole and fourth front-row start. Dixon made his first appearance in the top 10 this month with the day's ninth-best speed.

The surprise of the day surely came from Townsend Bell, who like Briscoe is here on his usual one-off effort. Bell, who started fourth two years ago and didn't hit the track until Tuesday afternoon, was second fastest on the day at 223.716. He was followed by Helio Castroneves (223.699) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (223.093).

As has been the case all week, Andretti Autosport put four cars in the top 10, with Marco Andretti ranking sixth, EJ Viso seventh and rookie Carlos Munoz 10th. Out of the Top 10 mix for the first time all week was James Hinchcliffe, who was 14th, but maybe Hinch was working on something else as his 113 laps run were second-most on the day to Conor Daly's 126. Marco was also over 100 laps on the day (101) but was in the turn it loose group late in the day which was where he popped his quick time.

Through five days pretty much every team on the grid has had its moment in the sun, with a driver from each garage putting in at least one fast time. Every team, that is, except for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who with Graham Rahal and Michel Jourdain Jr. wheeling the cars have looked painfully slow.

There is usually a team that struggles here every year, and it looks like RLL is the team of choice in 2013. Wednesday Rahal was 30th of the 32 cars that appeared on the track at just over 219 and Jourdain was DFL with a speed of 218.0. Believe it or not, those were the best times of the week for both of those guys. Not sure where they go from here, but the clock is ticking.

Because believe it or not, it's Thursday already. With the weekend in sight, look for teams to start trimming out their cars in anticipation of the increase in boost that happens tonight. While there is a bit of rain in the forecast for the next couple of days, the temperatures are supposed to drop about 10-15 degrees from the last two days. A combination of cooler temps and maybe even some cloud cover could turn these cars into rockets by the weekend.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Day 3 In the Books

It looks like the weather is starting to warm up, and with the mercury rising this week, speeds will probably begin to do the same. But even though the high temperature only reached 63 degrees Monday, things still began to get a little racy.

Monday is really the first day everybody starts to get serious, and 32 drivers hit the track today. At this point in the week, though, it's hard to say what everyone is doing. You've got three Andretti Autosport drivers and three Penskes in the Top 10, yet a team like Ganassi is lagging down the speed chart as Charlie Kimball in the 14th position is the fastest of that stable's four cars.

Then again, Ganassi didn't begin to flex its muscle last year until Wednesday when Scott Dixon made a sudden rise to the top of the chart, and according to a couple of Twitter posts from Mike Hull, they were working on full-tank runs and pit stops today. Everyone is working off of a different schedule, but as the week rolls on teams will begin getting into full-on qualifying mode.

Though it's still early, it seems like there are a few trends already developing.

*The two is strong with this one. The story last year was the way the DW12 ran in traffic...when you got a few cars together it punched a pretty big hole in the air that gave drivers extra speed. That contributed to the most competitive and memorable 500-mile races we have maybe ever had, and it looks like that same thing will be on tap again this year. Cars that are running in the 220-221 mph range all alone get way more than that when they line up.

In fact, Marco Andretti's top speed of the day (225.100) came when he was working with about a half-dozen cars, and Helio Castroneves' best time was 225.075 while running in the same group.

*Andretti rules. Not just Marco, who is picking up where he left off last May when he was a factor every day in practice and led a race-high 59 laps during the 500, but Ryan Hunter-Reay (224.386 Monday), James Hinchcliffe (223.075), EJ Viso (who went 222 on Sunday) and rookie Carlos Munoz (222.239) also look good.

Munoz has been a front-runner since the cars rolled out on Saturday, and his teammates all have Top 5 runs through the first three days.

*The rookies. Again, the 21-year-old Munoz has looked fast so far this week, and three of the four "rookies" have done well for themselves so far. I put that in parenthesis due to the experience level of a couple of them, but they are first-timers at the Speedway so it all counts.

Penske driver AJ Allmendinger has the top rookie speed through the first three days, going 223.264 in the tow Monday afternoon, while Munoz is 11th overall. Conor Daly, who raced overseas this past weekend, made it onto the track this morning and breezed through his Rookie Orientation Program and was at 219 by the end of the day.

Tristan Vautier is the only rookie who seems to be struggling, as he is just 35th fastest at 217.5, but that may also be a bit by design too. If you remember from last year Schmidt Motorsports brought Simon Pagenaud along slowly and he got better as the week went along and finished as the last car on the lead lap in 16th place.

Though thanks to his Indy Lights experience he has lots more oval time than Pagenaud did -- and finished P4 in the Freedom 100 last year -- there really isn't a rush.

*Knocking off the rust. Townsend Bell got back into an IndyCar today for the first time this year and needed just six laps to get over 220 mph, while Pippa Mann took her first tours around the Speedway in a DW12 (and her first laps since 2011) was 24th fastest at just over 220.

So what do you think the rest of the week will bring? It's going to be 15 degrees warmer Tuesday, so speeds should climb again. Still, if you put a side-by-side comparison to Monday last year, the top speeds are just over 2 mph faster.

I'm going to be optimistic and say when the boost is turned up on Friday we could see some near-230 mph laps this weekend. Either way, it's going to be interesting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Brazil Wrap-Up

By now plenty of the superlatives have been spoken about Sunday's Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300, but still I think there is room for more. Yes, that's how great of a race it was. I mean, when people have talked about the last 10 laps of the race, they are invoking the 1990s for crying out loud!

When you start dipping your toe into those sacred times (#sarcasm) you are onto something. I kid...through the field the racing was about as good as it can get. While the twisty circuit does lead to at times some fugly incidents (and there were seven cautions in the first 56 laps), the two long straightaways are perfect for this car.

And while we are at it, can we put any criticisms of the DW-12 to bed? And if you have any left, get over it. This car is producing some of the best racing in the world right now.

Anyway, on to the good stuff:

Winner: James Hinchcliffe. Hinch's feast-or-famine season continues. He now has two wins this season (and in his career thanks) adding Brazil to his victory at St. Pete a few weeks ago, to go along with a crash at Long Beach and a DNF at Barber. This kind of bounce back race is certainly an indication of a more confident driver, if you compare it to last year where some adversity started to send Hinch's season south.

Sunday he was very Rick Mears-ian, saving his car and letting the race come back to him. While Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden were battling like hell in front of him, he worked himself into the fight and had the strongest car at the end.

When it came time to go, he went, taking advantage of a Sato bobble on the final corner of the final lap to squeeze his way by and take the victory, and in the process becoming the first race winner to lead just the last lap since Dan Wheldon at Indy in 2011.

Runner-up: Takuma Sato. Meet your new points leader. Yes it's true, Taku sits on top of the standings one-fifth of the way through the season. The way he has driven this season proves that he is indeed for real, and while I don't think Sato has the mettle to stay on top for the entire season, he isn't going away either.

Of course, his finish wasn't without controversy, as he was reviewed a couple of times by race control for blocking both Newgarden and Hinchcliffe. In my opinion, he threw a block on both guys at one time or another, that is indisputable. At the same time, what should have been done about it? I honestly don't know. Lots of people argue that if it is a block on Lap 1 it should be a block on the last lap, too, but do we really want Beaux Barfield settling races, or do we want to see guys fight it out on their own on the track? Barfield is in a tough spot on that one, and I think he did the right thing.

Third place: Marco Andretti. Meet your driver that is second in points. Again, just another example of what has made this season awesome. After so many years of what came across as bored indifference, Marco is driving with the passion we have come to expect from members of his family. No doubt he drove super-hard, and put himself in a couple of tight spots, but he just keeps going out there and putting up solid numbers. Heading into Indy, he couldn't ask for anything more -- well, I guess he would've liked a win by now, but he's probably more than happy to wait another 19 days for that one.

With three wins in the first four races, odds are an Andretti Autosport driver will win the 500, and Marco is sure ramping it up like he thinks it is his time.

Fourth place: Oriol Servia. Mega props to Oriol and the entire Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team. After announcing last week that DRR would be unable to continue this season after Indy, the go out and put together a solid day that in the closing laps looked like a possible podium. Pretty amazing. But Servia is a pro's pro, and as a long-time participant in they IndyCar series DRR has a lot of pride, and that really shone through on Sunday.

And let's not shut off the lights on these guys just yet. Servia finished 6th at Indy in 2011 and drove like a madman to battle back from a lap down and come home 4th last year. If I had to pick a darkhorse winner of the 500, Oriol would be my guy.

Fifth place: Josef Newgarden. What a charge through the field by Newgarden, who started 25th and was in the mix and fighting it out with Sato down the stretch. He eventually wore his tires down to the nubbies and was later passed by Hinch, Marco and Servia, but it was still a great drive for him. Josef has had a lot of pressure put on him by the fanbase since day one, but he is starting to get better every week. Don't forget, he has only made 19 IndyCar starts, he is still learning and confidence is a big part of racing (heck, any pro sport). He is starting to build that confidence base.

A few others: Dario Franchitti finished P7 and jumped over 10 drivers in the points and sits at P15. Still a long way to go...Simona De Silvestro finished P9 to add that to her P6 and P8 finishes at St. Pete and Long Beach...Helio Castroneves had an interesting day that included a dust up with three other cars midway through the race. Though he finished P13 he is still third in the standings...Tony Kanaan led twice for 12 laps and had his Brazilian countrymen whipped into a frenzy, but dropped off the pace and later ran out of fuel and finished 21st...And then we come to Will Power, who's season to forget continues. A fire onboard his car put him out of the race just 17 laps in and he finished second to DFL in 25th. He sits P18 in points and outside of Belle Isle next month is looking at a long next two months.

What's next? It's three weeks before the series races again at a little oval on the corner of 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis. No doubt the powers that be scheduled that race as a sort of home game since the track is right across from the IndyCar offices.

Who am I kidding? I love the entire series, but now it's on. Got milk?