Sunday, April 30, 2023

Morning Warm-Up at Barber

 It's race day in Alabama! The weather is beautiful here and we are set for a great day of racing.

A couple of housekeeping items:

First, congrats to IndyCar, ZOOM Motorsports and Barber Motorsports Park on announcing an extention through 2027. As Mark Miles said, if it's spring, we are going to be racing in Alabama.

I'm happy. I first came to this track with John Cummiskey Racing in the fall of 2016 and absolutely love the place. It's great to be here this weekend for the first time since 2019.

Also, I'm covering the race this weekend for Frontstretch. I've already written a couple of articles for them, check them out!

My first story was about Rinus Veekay posting his best qualifying effort of the season.

The other is about Agustin Canapino. He was so great to talk to and it was a fun story to write. He's definitely a guy who is easy to root for. 

Alright, alright, alright. On with the rest.

Here are three things I'm looking forward to seeing today.

Romain Grosjean is on pole, will he get his first win today? Last year was absolutely awful for the former F1 pilot, but he has rebounded in a big way in 2023. He captured his second pole of the season in Saturday's qualifying and is coming off a runner-up finish to teammate Kyle Kirkwood at Long Beach two weeks ago. He was only 23rd-fastest in this morning's warmup, but it's hard to gauge anything from that. After qualifying yesterday he and Alex Palou -- who will start next to Grosjean on the front row -- remarked how much they like this track as it reminds them of tracks they grew up racing on in Europe. If a driver likes a racetrack, chances are they will race well there.

Track position matters. In the 12 previous races here, the winner has come from one of the first three starting positions nine times. That means the teams a little further back in the field may try to go with a three-stop strategy in hopes of catching some breaks with yellow flags, not to mention to get off of the red alternate tires as quickly as possible. 

Moving up. As far as who can come from the back, I have two drivers in mind. Alexander Rossi had the fourth-quickest time in Round 1 of qualifying but then lost a second in the Round 2 and will start 10th on the grid. He posted the best lap in warmups this morning, so we'll see what he has in the race.

Another driver is former teammate at Andretti Autosport, Colton Herta. Surprisingly, Herta only has one top 10 finish here in IndyCar (10th in 2022) and starts 14th today. That said, he has been among the top 5 in the two practice sessions and warmup, so the car is good, but he will need a lot of help to move forward.


Winner -- Romain Grosjean

Runner-up -- Alexander Rossi

Third -- Alex Palou

Enjoy the race, and remember, when we wake up tomorrow, it's gonna be May!

Photo: Romain Grosjean

Photo Credit: Me!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

And Heeere We Go Again


If you were at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday, or watched the PPG 375 on television, no doubt you watched a crazy thrilling race that checked off all of the boxes.

The race had it all: hundreds of on-track passes, close, intense racing, and three of the best drivers on the planet (Josef Newgarden, Pato O'Ward and Alex Palou) getting it on at the front of the field for the win, with lots of other drivers right behind them racing just as hard to try and join the party. Some are calling it the race of the year, and I can't say I disagree.

Yep, the race had everything.

With one exception -- a green flag finish.

Despite everything else that happened Sunday as IndyCar put on it's best race at Texas in years, lots of fixation is involved with the yellow brought out by Romain Grosjean's crash with about 2 1/2 miles left in the race.

And, as usually happens when a race ends under yellow -- which doesn't happen often, mind you -- the conversation comes up about taking the NASCAR approach and going with green/white/checker finishes.

As I spent the almost 14 hours driving back from Texas yesterday, I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to write about this, because it's a tired conversation. How tired? I discussed this topic in January, as in, January of 2011.

Plus, it's never gonna happen, for a couple of reasons:

* IndyCar doesn't have to do everything NASCAR does.

* It's never gonna happen.

I'll admit it, I'm a purist. If a race is 500 miles, it's 500 miles. If it is 375 miles -- as was the race distance on Sunday -- it's 375 miles. That said, whatever happens inside that race distance is fair game, such as dropping a red flag after a late caution, within reason.

I've been a race fan since I was nine years old, but I also grew up playing and passionately following stick-and-ball sports, so I am kind of a purist. Sports are supposed to be entertaining, but at their core they are competitions. Sometimes that leads to great games, sometimes it doesn't.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the NCAA men's basketball championship in Houston Monday night between UConn and San Diego State. I've been watching college basketball for longer than I've been watching racing, and I definitely checked off a bucket list item by going to the game.

In the end, UConn won the game by 17 points (76-59) and even when SDSU pulled close in the second half, they were in control for the final 36 minutes of the game. I don't see anyone complaining.

Last year, the first two NBA games I went to (Suns-Heat, Bucks-Warriors), had halftime scores of 71-40 and 77-38. Again, no hand-wringing from basketball fans, because that happens sometimes. It's sports.

But we have this thing in racing where everything, especially the finish, has to be on-the-edge-of-your-seat, heart-in-your-throat shootouts to the checkered flag. For the life of me, I don't know how we got here. It seems like the idea of "that happens sometimes, it's sports", doesn't really apply to racing any longer.

What also makes the conversation tired is that it completely dismisses the last two restarts, which had some of the best racing I've seen in a while. What those guys did down the stretch was inhuman. In the post-race press conference, Jenna Fryer from the Associated Press asked this question:

What wires you guys to do something that stupid?

Here were the replies:

Pato: To win.

Palou: Yeah, but, I mean, you have no other option, so... You just put your right foot there and close a little bit one eye (smiling). You hold everything tight, that's it.

Josef: This was a real race today, which was fantastic. But I think in this sport you definitely can't think about the potential. It's just you got to go pretty flat out if you want to drive the cars at a high level. It's impossible to drive these things at the level you need to without blocking everything else out. I think that's what you get from a lot of drivers here.

That's the point here: instead of harping on missing out on what would have been about 35 seconds of racing, maybe we should focus on what did happen. These guys did some absolutely crazy things out there. Having another 35 seconds of racing wouldn't change that.

When it comes down to it, here's the biggest reason I'm against it.

It's personal to me.

Over the last few years I've met a lot of drivers. Of the 34 drivers shown on the IndyCar website, I've had one-on-one interviews with 18 of them. Seven of them I've had on my podcast, The Rumble Strip. I'm not close friends with any of them by any means, but I've gotten to know them as people and I care about them.

I understand it's dangerous, but where do we draw the line? We draw it at the G/W/C because in open wheel cars, it's unsafe. Drivers going after the win within the confines of the race distance is fine. But if you watched the movie Rush, Niki Lauda makes several references to the fact that he can deal with 20 percent of risk.

Racing within the confines of how IndyCar does it is in my own personal comfort zone of 20 percent, and I think the drivers feel that way too. But setting things up for an "exciting finish" goes beyond that to me. If you watch enough NASCAR, you know the crapshoot of G/W/C finishes. Lots of cars have been torn up during "overtime" as drivers make crazy moves to try and win the race or improve on their finish.

Guys lose their heads at the most critical part of the race. You'd love to say that IndyCar drivers wouldn't do that, but they are extremely competitive humans. Anyone who competes in anything at the professional level has a competitive fire that we can't comprehend. 

And with open wheels, what is a pretty spectacular crash in NASCAR turns into an unsafe and possibly serious accident in IndyCar. So we're going to go past the scheduled distance of the race and take that risk?

Screw. That.

Like I said, these guys are real, actual people to me, and I couldn't talk to them, interview them, or cover them with the thought in the back of my mind that, "I need to be entertained, and you must do everything you can to entertain met, whether you like it or not!".

Nope. That isn't how it works for me.

Thankfully, the powers-that-be in IndyCar feel the same way.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Three Things: PPG 375 Edition

 Good morning from Texas Motor Speedway!

It's cloudy and a bit windy, but the rain is expected to hold off until after the race finishes, so we seem good to go for the PPG 375. Here are a few things I'm thinking about from the media center.

1) The High Line. As I discussed in my Frontstretch article a few days ago, there was a time when TMS was a two-groove racetrack, which provided plenty of action. But because of the resin solution NASCAR has applied to the second lane to help stock cars get better grip, that second line has gone away and there has been a lot less passing than in previous races. IndyCar has tried to address the situation by adding a "high-line" practice to give drivers an opportunity to rubber-in the second lane. Most of the drivers said after practice Saturday that it seems to work better in Turns 1&2, but not so much in 3&4. I'm not sure if we will get a lot of side-by-side racing -- except down the stretch when someone my take a chance -- but it will help in traffic and passing slower cars.

2) Penske vs. Ganassi vs. McLaren. Yes, it will be a clash of the titans up front, as these three teams swept eight of the top 10 starting positions and then put 10 of the 11 cars between the three stables in the top 13 in final practice. 

3) Experience matters. One thing I also mentioned in my above-mentioned story is that since 2008, the race has been won all but twice by a driver with at least one of these criteria on their resume: an IndyCar championship, an Indy 500 win, or 100 career starts at the time of their TMS victory. The only two exceptions to that rule are the late Justin Wilson (2012) and Pato O'Ward (2021). Wilson, of course, fulfills the experience criteria given everything he ever drove, and O'Ward will more than likely will meet those criteria in the future. In Saturday's final practice, five-time TMS winner Scott Dixon was fastest and two-time winner Josef Newgarden was second. The guy in third? Just two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, who will definitely be a factor in a Chip Ganassi Racing machine.


Winner -- Felix Rosenqvist. When it comes to TMS, you can call the 31-year-old Swede "Fast Felix". Rosenqvist captured his second straight TMS pole Saturday, and nearly won the race in his first try in 2019. Oh yeah, he also finished fourth at Indianapolis last year. If he stays out of trouble career win No. 2 is in his sights. He's also motivated -- with his future still a bit up in the air, a win here would be a big help towards an extension with Arrow McLaren.

Runner-up -- Scott Dixon. Remember the criteria I mentioned above? Nobody touches Dixon. Six championships, five wins at TMS and an Indy 500 win. Since 2018, Dixon has three wins and last year finished fifth despite not having a stellar car. Another experience item? Dixon has led more laps at TMS than 16 drivers have completed in total. Dude's the king here.

Third place -- Alexander Rossi. The newly-minted Arrow McLaren driver finished fourth at St. Pete and qualified third for today's race. Rossi races well when he's happy (most drivers do) and he has a good car underneath him. Like Rosenqvist, he's motivated...or at least should be. Remember when we thought Rossi was the next big IndyCar driver? We don't talk about him all that much anymore, and I think he has a lot to prove this year.

Follow me on social and Frontstretch

I'm so excited to be covering IndyCar this year for the website Frontstretch. I'm also happy that they are gracious enough for me to continue blogging as well. Make sure you check me out!

I'm also on social! Follow me on both Twitter and Instagram @15daysinmay.

Enjoy the race!

Saturday, April 1, 2023

PPG 375 Preview

 After a four-week break, we're back racing!

No April Fool's here, as IndyCar is back at Texas Motor Speedway today for Sunday's PPG 375. The first practice just finished, and I'll have some more content as the weekend goes on, both here and on Frontstretch, who I am working with this weekend.

Click here to read my Frontstretch article, where I talk about IndyCar's history at TMS.

Here are a few drivers and teams I am keeping my eye on this weekend:

Scott Dixon. The 42-year-old Kiwi is the winningest IndyCar driver at Texas with five victories, and has won three of the last six races there. While Dixon is a perennial contender for the IndyCar championship, a win at Texas has usually been a harbinger of things to come, as he has won at TMS and gone on to win the championship on four occasions.

Josef Newgarden. Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden had 10 oval wins, and since 2019 he has notched two wins and four total podiums at Texas. In 2022, Newgarden only led three laps, but led the one that counted as he squeaked by teammate Scott McLauglin at the stripe to pick up the first of his season-leading five victories. After finishing a disappointing 17th at St. Pete earlier this month, he needs a bounce-back performance to get back into the title fight.

Andretti Autosport. Between its four entries, Andretti destroyed a lot of equipment at St. Pete in what was a disappointing weekend. But sometimes the result and the execution are two different things, as the team was fast off of the truck and swept the front row with Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta. Herta, who turns 23 on Thursday, is seeking his first oval win, as so far his seven IndyCar wins have come on road and street courses.

Arrow McLaren. Pato O’Ward won here in 2021, Felix Rosenqvist nearly won the race in 2020 and sat on pole last year, and Alexander Rossi has two podiums to his credit at TMS. In other words, don’t be too surprised to see the papaya triumvirate at or near the front on race day. O’Ward, who finished second at St. Pete, is on a bit of an oval hot streak. After a mid-race penalty at Texas put him a lap down and led to a 15th-place finish at TMS a year ago, he finished second at Indianapolis, had a win and a runner-up finish at Iowa, then was fourth at Gateway.

The Rookies. Between simulator work and time given for testing last week, first-year drivers have a feel for TMS, but for all three rookies this year, next Sunday will mark the first large-oval race of their careers, if not their first oval ever. While Sting Ray Robb had a start at Iowa in IndyNXT last season, for Benjamin Pedersen and Agustin Canapino, this will be the first times in their lives that they have only turned left in a race. While getting an oval race in is a good thing with the Indianapolis 500 looming on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how they fare against such a talented and experienced feel.

IndyCar is on a condensed schedule next weekend, with practice, qualifying and final warmup all happening on Saturday, with the race scheduled to start just after 11 a.m. CDT Sunday.