Can It Be Two In A Row?
For the second week in a row, it looks quite possible that the car in victory lane today may not be colored red, at least not Penske or Ganassi red. It won’t count if the Penske yellow car scores a victory because it still offers us the variety that we have been craving this season.
If practice and qualifying are any indication, there will be another shakeup today in Toronto. Will Power and Raphael Matos were the leaders in the Friday practice sessions. The Saturday morning session was met with a torrential downpour, just as the cars started to go out. Rain tires were no help in this deluge and Brian Barnhart made the right call, bringing the cars back in. With heavy lightning and rivers in the straightaways, the conditions were deplorable and downright unsafe.
Unfortunately when practice resumed, the track was still wet and several cars spun. The worst was Tony Kanaan who clouted the wall in his special blue & white liveried Dallara, pretty much destroying the left rear. His crew scurried and somehow repaired the car before qualifying.
The knockout qualifying format that the IRL has adopted is very intriguing. In a nutshell, they start out by splitting the field into two groups. The top six from each twenty minute session advance to a combined grouping that lasts 15 minutes. The fastest six (The Firestone Fast Six) from that segment battle in a final 10-minute session that determines pole position and the subsequent starting rows. Teams utilize different strategies involving the use of the alternate (red) tires. Each team is given three sets of the reds, but one set MUST be saved for the race, because rules on street/road courses dictate that each car must use a new set of “sticker” red tires for at least two green flag laps. The only exception to this rule is in the case of rain. If the race is declared a wet race and rain tires are used – the rule for the alternate tires is thrown out for that race.
Fortunately, by the time qualifying started the sun had come out and it was a beautiful day – unless you were one of the top teams. The only member of the top four in points that made the Firestone Fast Six was Dario Franchitti, who eventually won the pole. Points leader Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves all failed to transfer into the final round. However, Will Power ultimately qualified on the outside of row one, in the third Penske car — which looks amazingly like the car that Al Unser drove to an Indy 500 victory in 1987 for Roger Penske.
For the first time in the short history of this format, six different teams occupy the top six starting spots. Graham Rahal put his Newman/Haas/Lanigan McDonald’s car in the third position, while Justin Wilson followed up Dale Coyne’s feel-good win at Watkins Glen last week, by placing the Z-Line Design car solidly in fourth. The final two spots in the Fast Six were filled by the surprising run of Canadian Alex Tagliani for Conquest Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold’s Mike Conway, respectively.
One of the bigger surprises was which Canadian did well in front of their countrymen. Alex Tagliani has not been in the car since Texas over a month ago, nor has he been on a street course since Long Beach three months ago today. His fellow Canadian, Paul Tracy, is having another disappointing weekend. He was a very forgettable non-factor last week at Watkins Glen and qualified an underwhelming fifteenth in today’s race, for KV Racing Technologies. Since GEICO doesn’t do business in Canada, his car is in a red & white livery for Wounded Warriors (Canada) that looks way too similar to Hideki Mutoh’s car when it is coming straight toward the camera.
Speaking of Hideki Mutoh, his Andretti-Green Racing team is the most stunning disappointment of the weekend. Since the Firestone Fast Six format has been in place, this is the first time that no AGR car made it out of the first round. Marco Andretti is the highest AGR qualifier, starting seventeenth. His teammate Danica Patrick starts next to him in the eighteenth starting spot. Tony Kanaan goes off at twentieth and Hideki Mutoh starts next to last in the twenty-second starting spot. The silver lining in this is that they all qualified poorly at Texas, but all managed to finish well in the race; but why do they make life so hard for themselves?
The dramatic fall of this once-dominant team continues to be the bewilderment of the season. This is made even more embarrassing since AGR is also the race promoter for this event. Add to that, the fact that Michael Andretti has won this race seven times, and you just have to scratch your head wondering what in the world is going on there.
I reiterate the fact that I don’t care for street races, but the qualifying results tell us that we could have an exciting race today. The chances of a small team winning for the second week in a row are excellent. I’m glad to see that Justin Wilson and the Dale Coyne team didn’t rest on their laurels. Instead, they have chosen to ride the momentum they created last week and they are a strong threat to win again today.
Rookie Mike Conway seemed to be a comical choice for Dreyer & Reinbold at many races in the first half of the season. His strong result last week coupled with his great qualifying run at Toronto shows that he is poised to turn his season around in the second half. Ryan Hunter-Reay finally had reason to smile as he made it into the second round for AJ Foyt and can hopefully give the ABC Supply car a decent run. Although starting fourteenth, don’t ever count Tomas Scheckter out for making a strong run in the race.
Helio Castroneves needs to have a VERY good race today, while hoping that the three in front of him all have misfortune. Otherwise, he is close to seeing the championship slip out of reach. I don’t usually make win predictions, and when I have it has been disastrous. I almost hate to jinx the man, but…when the dust settles in Toronto this afternoon, I look for Justin Wilson to win today for the second week in a row.