Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Day at The Mile

(Editor's note: My race notes are based on what I saw from the stands since I don't know when I'll watch the DVR. So if you heard anything said that is contrary to what I observed, that's why! :--)  )

Today's race at the Milwaukee Mile was certainly a big one, wasn't it? With three races in the next 14 days, culminating with the crowning of the Verizon IndyCar Series champ in Fontana in two weeks, today was put up or shut up time.

One driver put up, but two others in the championship hunt...well, they were shut up. With contenders Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay finishing 11th and 21st, respectively, Will Power's convincing win put him one step closer to the title that has eluded his grasp for the last three seasons.

So let's review, shall we?

Winner: Will Power. Dominant, just dominant. Power led 229 of the 250 laps and made it look, really, really easy. He's put himself in a position where the title is his to lose. While he's been in this position before, this might be the year that he closes it out. This is what Power can do when he is locked in and not making stupid mistakes. Then again, as good as he's been this year, if it weren't for his boneheaded moves he might have clinched the title by now.

2nd place: Juan Pablo Montoya. Take away Iowa, where he has issues early on but by the end of the night was one of the fastest cars on the track until Ed Carpenter put him in the wall, and JPM's average finish on ovals this year is 2.75. He had the hookup today, not enough of one to track down his teammate at the end, but it was good enough to break a string of four straight disappointing finishes since his win at Pocono.

3rd place: Tony Kanaan. TK is certainly coming on as of late, as he notched his fourth podium in the last five races. It's been quite the resurgence for all of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, as Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe have looked great lately too. It would be fun to see TK close it the season out with a win in two weeks.

4th place: Scott Dixon. Sitting 130 points behind Power, Dixon is probably out of title contention, but has rolled to a win (Mid-Ohio) and five Top 5 finishes in his last six races. He is back to doing what he does (run and finish near the front), he's just going to run out of time.

5th place: Josef Newgarden. Though he doesn't have the results to show for it, more and more Newgarden is starting to show up at the front of the field. He was looking at a podium finish before having to pit for fuel and tires with about a dozen laps to go, but with his new kicks carved his way back up the field in a pretty impressive display of driving. The announced merger between Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing made this weekend a big one for his team. I did catch on the TV feed on the scanner that Josef has a contract for next season in hand, so the question becomes...does he sign it?

6th place: Ryan Briscoe. It was a bit of a ho-hum day for Briscoe, as he hung around fourth, fifth or sixth place all day. Sunday marked his eighth Top 10 of the season.

7th place: Simon Pagenaud. Another solid finish, which is the norm for Simon. While while he lost ground to Power he did jump RHR and into third place in the standings. I bet he wishes he could have his 22nd place finishes at Detroit (1) and Toronto (2) back, because those are really what's keeping him from sitting on Power's heels.

Overall I would give the race a solid C-plus. Not the greatest race I've ever watched but at times -- especially coming out of pit stops -- there was some three and sometimes (albeit briefly) four-wide racing. Wish there could've been more but that's the down side of 96.8 percent of the laps (242 of 250) being run under green. While I loathe yellow flags because 1) crashes costs teams money and 2) running laps behind the pace car is boring, sometimes you need a couple sprinkled in there to keep things interesting. Still, it was intriguing to keep up on the strategies each team was employing. Tires and fuel were both factors.

The biggest surprise on the day was the utter fail of Andretti Autosport. For a team that has five wins at the Mile, they were miserable, with Carlos Munoz brushing the wall and finishing DFL in 22nd and RHR having his troubles. Likewise, James Hinchcliffe was struggling with handling problems, then saw his team botch a pit stop where an air gun failed and they didn't change all four tires.

Hinch fell off the lead lap when he had to pit again, and that started a downward spiral that saw him become one of the slowest cars on the track by day's end. He finished 19th. Marco Andretti's 13th place finish was terrible too, but the best AA could manage. That might have been one of the worst days the team has ever experienced, but on a more positive note, Hunter-Reay announced that he has signed a new three-year deal with AA, and DHL will be back as his sponsor. That's always good news.

A really pleasant surprise was the drives by Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth, both of whom have shown improvement on ovals this year. Aleshin, who finished eighth, ran a clean race, while Hawksworth, who looked lost and was absolutely freight trained here in the Indy Lights race last year, rocked a 10th-place effort.

This was the third straight year I had been to the Mile, and my new wife Darcy (today was day No. 22 of our marriage!) made the trip up with me to mark her first ever IndyCar race. Compared to my first visit two years ago, the race has grown and it seemed like the crowd has improved every year. Speaking of put up or shut up, that was the edict sent to IndyCar fans in this area a couple of years ago, and they have responded.

Once again, my hat is off to Michael Andretti and Andretti Marketing for getting it done. I've loved the Mile since I pulled into the parking lot for the first time two years ago, and with it's history and tradition, it's a race that needs to be on the series schedule. Hopefully the event has reached the point it is on solid footing and will continue for years to come.