Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Day For Firsts

No matter how many times you go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 500, something happens that you probably haven't seen before.

Yesterday, I saw not one, but two new things, and if you watched the race you probably know what I'm talking about. But one thing I had seen before was a great race, and the guys (and lady) of the IndyCar series put on another great show, with Ryan Hunter-Reay putting on two passes for the ages when he got around Helio Castroneves and went on to his first-ever win.

But I don't think it will be his last.

So here are a couple of talking points and a rundown of the Top 10 finishers.

Long green: Last year saw a green run of close to 135 laps which saw the race finish with a record average speed of 187.433 mph. Sunday was green for the first 149 laps of the race (obliterating the previous record of 65 set in 2000) and through that point the event was being run at a furious pace. The five caution periods over the race's 50 laps "slowed" the average to 186.5, but it was pretty amazing to see how quickly the laps fell by the wayside. I don't have the official number, but the first 250 miles were covered in about 70 minutes. That's just crazy.

I like long green runs, and there have been a lot of them the last two years. It's like a two-hour baseball game, it seems like the race is a lot more intense and the drivers are sharper and get stronger as the green goes on.

The red: I was a little surprised when race control decided to stop the race after Townsend Bell's Lap 192 incident, and a day later I'm still on the fence as to whether it was the right thing to do. From a fan standpoint, it was certainly the right decision. It gave the safety crew time to clean up Bell's debris field (and make any repairs to the fence/SAFER barrier) while giving the fans the opportunity to see a green finish.

On the other hand, from a purist perspective, it is a slippery slope. But given the three options of 1) red flagging the race, 2) finishing the race under caution, which was a possibility and 3) going to a green-white-checker finish, I would choose option one all the time. That's not to say I'd agree with it had the accident happened on Lap 198 or something, but there were enough laps left that I felt given every option available it was the right one. Because in the end there was an Indy 500 title on the line and huge points implications, and beyond what was great to the fans, race control owed it to the drivers to try and settle it themselves while keeping the integrity of the 500-mile race distance.

The crash: You know the one, the Ed Carpenter/James Hinchcliffe shunt on the Lap 176 restart that saw both of them taken out of the race and Ed looking to punch Hinch in the face. Hinch was smart to keep his helmet on, but what was up with putting them both in the same safety vehicle for the ride to the infield care center?

Oh well. Having watched the replay, I couldn't believe all three of them thought they could fit into a one-groove corner. Bell was a little too optimistic going wide and with 60 miles of racing left Hinch shouldn't have tried to stuff it into the corner. But as we saw with Ryan Hunter-Reay's race-winning pass with a couple of laps left, there was a "no attack, no chance" (thanks, Takuma Sato) attitude to a lot of the racing. They did a lot of crazy stuff that had me worried.

For Carpenter, he lost a chance to win the race he cares most about winning, and for Hinch it just piled on to the horrible month, and season, he's been having.

Jim Nabors: No post would be complete without a mention of the farewell performance of Nabors. As always, he nailed it, and as the song went on I just couldn't stop thinking of how it will never be the same to me. Maybe they will find someone else to sing it, but he IS Mr. Back Home Again, and I don't know how you replace that. I never knew how big of a deal it was until I saw my first race in 1988 (like many aspects of Indy, TV does it no justice), but when I think of the 500 ultimately I end up thinking of Jim Nabors and his beautiful singing, not to mention his kindness to people and his humility about his amazing talent. Thanks so much for everything you have done, Jim. You are one of the many reasons why we love the 500.

I could go on with storylines all day, but let's talk about the drivers, shall we?

Winner: Ryan Hunter-Reay. When RHR qualified 19th last weekend I wondered how long it would take him to push his way to the front. The answer was not very. He drove a brilliant race and was hands-down the combination of the best car and driver Sunday. Plus, his passes for the (eventual) win is the stuff of legend, the epitome of Al Unser Jr's comment about there being a point in a race that life or death doesn't matter, just winning. That pass is one that people will be talking about years from now.

He's also the first American-born champion since 2006 (Sam Hornish) and is a good bet to add another win or two in his future. He also became the first driver since Bill Vukovich (1954) to win from the 19th starting position.

Runner-up: Helio Castroneves. Helio put up a good face for TV, which he's good at, but you know that he is gutted about this race, and it will be one that eats at him for a long, long time. No doubt he didn't do anything to lose this race -- he just flat got beat -- but when a man comes .06 seconds from winning his fourth 500, he won't get over it very easily. If there is any solace at all, it's that Helio drove an incredible race, by far the best one he's run since last winning in 2009.

Sunday also proved how much of a game-changer the DW12 has become. In years past, Helio would've made that pass for the lead and laid down qualifying-style laps from there to put it away. He's one of the best closers the 500 has ever seen, but that just can't be done any more.

Third place: Marco Andretti. Once again, Andretti ran a race in the same style of his dad (Michael) and grandpa (Mario) -- pushing hard and always trying to move to the front. I thought he was another driver who drove an exceptional race, but his car just wasn't fast enough at the end. He's drove with even more maturity than he had in the past, and finished with the fourth podium of his Indy 500 career. He's going to win one day...right. Right?

Fourth: Carlos Munoz. When a golfer has a knack for playing a certain course -- or even a certain hole -- particularly well, people say that the course (or hole) "fits his eye". With a P2 and P4 in his first two years, I think you can say that IMS fits Carlos' eye very, very well. Sitting in the SW Vista, I paid particular attention to his driving line, and I wouldn't be surprised if the left side of his car was full of grass stains at the end. He loves that low line, and he is young enough (and crazy enough) to make it work. This guy has to be considered a serious threat from here on out.

Fifth: Juan Pablo Montoya. JPM showed that he didn't forget much in the 14 years since he won the 500 in his only start in 2000. But, just like the Brickyard 400 in 2009, he made a mistake that probably cost him the race when he had to serve a drive through penalty on Lap 134 for speeding on pit road. As both JPM and Will Power -- who served a drive through of his own four laps earlier -- learned, you can't make a single mistake and expect to win.

Sixth: Kurt Busch. During the long green run when he was driving by himself and mired in about 16th place, I made the crack on Twitter that Kurt was looking for a NASCAR-style debris caution. I kid, I kid. At the time it was obvious that Busch was struggling with the car (which was Marco Andretti's backup since he had crashed his primary car last Monday), but once he got back into the lead pack he came to life. This year's Rookie of the Year, Busch was as advertised.

Of course, his performance left some saying "it just shows that NASCAR drivers are better than IndyCar drivers". No, it shows that he's a pretty talented guy, talented enough to do something not a lot of other drivers could do. I'm not going to nit-pick that his move to sixth was aided by attrition, because it's harder than that, so I'm going to give the guy the respect he deserves. He put himself out there, with the knowledge that a bad result, especially a crash, would've been a blow to his reputation. He talked it and backed it up, I hope to see him at Indy again.

Seventh: Sebastien Bourdais. After finishing P12, P20 and P29 in his first three attempts at Indy, Seabass put together the best month of his career. Very nice effort.

Eighth: Will Power. See Montoya, Juan Pablo. Power showed that his win at Fontana was no fluke with his performance, but a drive through penalty dropped him out of the Top 10 and left him struggling the rest of the day. This was his best chance to win, no doubt, but Power's kryptonite is his penchant for making mistakes. When he runs clean, he's tough to beat, but for an elite level driver, he makes too many mistakes.

Ninth: Sage Karam. Whenever I mentioned to my 18-year-old son Matt how well I thought Karam was doing, he would shake his head and say "I can't believe he is only a year older than me!". I know, me either. He was certainly solid and spent a stint in the middle of the race at or around the Top 5. In all he improved 22 spots from his P31 starting position (to match his car number), an impressive feat for any driver, especially one making his first 500 start.

Tenth: JR Hildebrand. Remember the "redemption" slant that I touched on after qualifying? He didn't have it then, but he has it now. I don't know what, if anything, this leads to for him, but as I stated after qualifying: he's a good guy and it's good to see nice things happening for him. It may not lead to much this season, but I can guarantee he's locked himself into something for May, 2015, and that's not really a bad thing. Besides, if he wants some inspiration, he can look no further than Hunter-Reay, who had to prove himself a couple of times and never really got his career on track until his late twenties. Age and experience...age and experience.

Once again, Matt and I had a wonderful time at the race, the fourth time we have gone together. I keep telling him he's a bit spoiled because he's always seen incredible races, but at the same time, that probably won't change. Spending a weekend with Matt was a blast, and that is a tradition that I also hope never changes, and next year my soon-to-be-14-year-old, Kevin, will probably join us. He loves supercars and can't wait to come with us to the Speedway.

I also think we have a new fan in my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, Adam. He texted me several times during the race and at the end of the race said "You got me back into the 500". Hopefully he can make the trip down next year, too.

After all, there's always room for more, although I'm not sure how many more. Over the last few years the increase in attendance has been really encouraging, and outside of qualifying the attendance at the GP, Carb Day and the race way exceeded my expectations. The biggest race in the world keeps getting bigger.

Sunday was also a reminder of why I do this blog, which is to share the my passion 500 and the IndyCar series with others. Like many, Race Day is like Christmas, so I want to take this opportunity to tell everyone who reads my little corner of the Internet how thankful I am for you and how much you all help in my enjoyment of the sport.

Is it May, 2015 yet?

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