A Closer Look At This Past Weekend

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Now that we are a few days removed from crowning Dario Franchitti as the 2009 IndyCar Series Champion, I must say that I am a bit perplexed over the endless supply of negative comments regarding the race at Homestead and the way in which Dario won the race and consequently the championship. It seems that anyone who thought that Saturday’s race was exciting is in dire need of psychiatric help. Well…get me an appointment, because I thought it was very exciting.

I’ve read where people think that the other twenty cars on the track were supposed to slow down and get out of the way of the three contenders. Talk about an insane idea! I’ve been fairly critical of Brian Barnhart this season, but this is something he would never do. First of all, there were too many other battles to wage. Some drivers needed to improve their final standings for 2009, while others wanted to defend their positions. Others were driving to maintain their jobs, while others were auditioning for potential jobs next year.

I fully believe that the reason that the top three cars were the only ones on the lead lap was because these three cars were set up by the two best teams in the business. The engineers utilized their data and were able to hit the setup, while the other teams missed it. This is pretty much the way the season has gone with Penske and Ganassi. Why would this last race be any different? Plus, the top three drivers were driving as if there was no tomorrow – because there wasn’t. This was literally a trophy dash and all three drivers had a winner take all attitude. There was no need for point racing. This was not the time to play conservative and collect a lot of points and hope for a better race next week. It was now or never.

It just so happened that one of the three drivers realized early on that they didn’t have the car to keep up with the other two. Rather than putting his car into the fence while driving it beyond its capabilities, he and his team re-evaluated the circumstances and changed their strategy midway through the race. They played their cards right and benefited by a good bit of luck when the race was run caution-free. This is called knowing your limitations and maximizing your strengths.

I’ve made it clear that I was pulling for Ryan Briscoe on Saturday. I’ve come to appreciate his driving ability, especially with the driving clinic he put on Saturday; but I’ve really gained a great deal of respect for the man and how he has handled so much adversity over the years. He again displayed those qualities over the last few weeks.

It would have been very easy to dodge questions regarding his mistake at Motegi. But he remained upbeat and stood there and faced the music – and the questions. I go back to May of 2008 when Danicamania wanted his head on a platter and practically the entire racing community was placing bets on how much longer he would remain at Team Penske. He never wavered and won his first race at Milwaukee the following week. All the while, he handled himself with class and dignity.

But even though I was pulling for Briscoe, I don’t feel as if he was robbed on Saturday. Like it or not, he was still accountable for his shunt in Japan. Had he not allowed his car to veer out of control while leaving the pits, he more than likely would have arrived at Homestead with at least a thirty-five point lead. All he would have needed to do was post a decent finish. Instead, he entered the weekend not entirely in control of his fate and even though he drove the race of his life, the Motegi slip-up ultimately cost him the championship – and he will have to live with that throughout the winter. And he should, but that’s not such a bad thing so long as he learns from it.

But getting back to Dario’s victory; the other two cars had the option to conserve fuel as well, but expecting one to do it voluntarily while the other had a car to keep up the pace would be asking a little too much. Remember – this was not Dario’s plan at the start. He had to do this out of necessity. Fortunately for him, it paid off in droves…whatever a drove is. That reminds me…late in the race, Bob Jenkins kept saying that Dario Franchitti could end up being in the catbird’s seat. What exactly is a catbird’s seat and why is it so advantageous to be in it? Just wondering.

But the complaints I’ve read defy explanation. The race was suspenseful, nerve-wracking, full of drama and provided an unexpected twist at the end. Above all else, I thought it was entertaining. And isn’t entertaining the fan base pretty much the goal of any sporting entity? I guess it goes back to an article I wrote a couple of months ago entitled The Legions Of The Miserable. Some people just aren’t happy unless they’re complaining. I was married to someone like that, once. That’s why she’s now my ex.

The race at Homestead didn’t offer the side-by-side racing we saw at Chicago. But it never has. This track doesn’t lend itself to that type of racing. But the storylines were endless. Unless you were a devoted fan of Jaques Lazier and had no reason to watch after he departed after twenty-three laps; or if you were watching to see the crashes – I personally see no way that anyone could call this race boring.

It’s sort of like when I hear my female friend (we’re too old to call her a girlfriend) say that baseball is boring. It’s only boring when you don’t understand it. A teenager requires non-stop action in order to maintain their attention. As an alleged adult, I appreciated Saturday’s race for what it was – the playing out of two distinct and separate strategies to see which one would prevail.

Dario Franchitti earned this championship and it irritates me when race fans want to cheapen it by saying he backed into it. I say he played it smart and did whatever he needed to do to take home the trophy. He should be congratulated for earning a championship and winning an exciting race.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “A Closer Look At This Past Weekend”

  1. The American Mutt Says:

    When I think of Briscoe getting robbed, I generally go back to Kansas, though it wouldn’t have secured the championship for Briscoe even with a win. What is a driver supposed to do once they’ve pulled off, and why should he be punished for Darios screw up? It’s not as though he could have pulled back on the track. The race was essentially gifted to Dixon. Couple that with the position gifted to Dario at Toronto, and perhaps you have an entirely different championship. Helio may finish the race on the podium, and take some momentum into the summer. This is a rambling off point comment, so perhaps I should sum it up. I’m not being a “Miserable” for the record. I merely don’t like the way the handle the pit lane blend lines. Had the lap at Toronto been green Tracy would easily have had Dario, so why is he punished, and Dario gifted a position on an already difficult to pass track? What is Briscoe to do once he’s already slowed, speed up and jerk his car back out on the track? If you’re off the track you should be allowed to pit. Period. I unfortunately did not get to see the last two races, although personally I’d lost all interest in the season by the end up (what came before Motegi?.

    • oilpressure Says:

      You make excellent points about the two “gifts” earlier in the season. It’s amazing how those things loom so large at the end of the season. BTW…Chicago was the last race before Motegi. I’m fortunate in that I have Comcast and not DirecTV. – GP

      • The American Mutt Says:

        I had neither, I missed the races due to family and work commitments. I thought of a better way to sum up my point, despite the fact that it came across. I want as much of the race decided on the track as possible. I reaize pit strategy will always come into play, and can accept that, but think it should be amended for situations where a driver was in good faith making his stop. He shouldn’t be penalized for someone elses screw up, especially when that screw up directly contributed to his teammates victory, as is the case at Kansas. You move those ten points over to Briscoe and he at least finishes second in the championship. I’m also of the opinion that if you rip out the fuelknob Dixon never wins a championship again, but that’s a debate for another day.

  2. Rick Hunt Says:

    “…baseball is boring. It’s only boring when you don’t understand it.” Exactly. To me the race was great. The three championship contenders all rise to the top and, at one point, put two laps on the field. One team recognizes their weakness and alters their strategy to give themselves a chance, but only if the race is caution free, which is nearly inconceivable. Every lap the tension builds a little bit more until Dario actually gets the checkerd flag. For me, race strategy is a big part of event. It’s not just who won, by how much; it’s how did they get in position to win.

  3. The American Mutt Says:

    For the record, Baseball on tv is boring, but in person is fun.

  4. I like: “knowing your limitations and maximizing your strengths”
    Incidentally, a friend reminds me every few months that spectators watch races to see crashes. At first, two years ago, I disbelieved that. Eventually, after reading alot of race reports and blogs and forums and talking with disinterested spectators who may tune-in for the Daytona 500 or Indy 500, fans of 3 NAPCAR series and IndyCar fans, I came around to the idea that millions of TV viewers may tune-in to see commotion or mayhem or accidents which may include minor or major crashes. Supposedly the ‘average American’ spectator sees oval-track racing as modern gladiatorial battle. The words “battle” and “fight” are used endlessly by the on-air commentators, and many spins, slides and crashes occur.
    So if the Homestead race didn’t feature one’s favorite driver “battling” for a podium finish or a big, Hollywood-movie-style crash, a la NAPCAR, it was boring.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      from the Silent Pagoda, early 2008:
      “There was E.J. Viso taking out Tomas Sheckter, causing both to spin wildly through six acres of lush grassland. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: seeing a pair of 700-horsepower cars tear through a finely manicured lawn somehow taps into the juvenile delinquent in all of us. It was the world’s greatest synchronized lawn job. And it was glorious.”

  5. I’m with you, George. Personally, I thought that Saturday’s race was pretty “old school”, a la the way a lot of CART races used to play out in the early-’90s. You’d have a tricky track (or, at least, cars that were somewhat difficult to dial in and control on that week’s track), 2-3 guys who nailed the setup, and a couple of disparate strategies allowed to play out (or not, sometimes you get screwed by a yellow). THAT’s what got me interested in the sport, not wheel-to-wheel racing, which has really only become more common in ANY type of racing, NASCAR included, in the last 10-12 years. Mind you, I’m a weirdo in that mindset (check that username again), but that’s how I felt.

    Richmond sucked because NOBODY could pass, leaders included, even when they approached backmarkers. It was almost, quite literally, a parade. On the other hand, there was plenty of passing to be had at Homestead, though I do wish that Versus had shown a bit more of the rest of the field. Versus had a fantastic first season, but between almost completely ignoring 20 of the 23 cars on the track and 12 (give or take one, I lost count) commercial breaks during an 88 minute race, this was not their strongest showing. It’s certainly something to build on for next year, though.

  6. Hey George,
    To be honest I actually enjoyed the race too – it was the constant tension and the ongoing battle between Dixon and Briscoe had me pacing up and down during the race, and there was always the lurking Dario.

    …and Dario was not that far ahead when Dixon and Briscoe pitted. Yes, it probably would’ve been more climactic had the other two come out closer to him following their stops or if Dario had a litre less fuel, but in fairness Franchitti played it exactly right. Like Briscoe and Dixon, Dario has had a fantastic season and thoroughly deserved the title.

  7. John Menard's driver Says:

    The Homestead race drew LESS then a .1 rating

    And that kind of race won’t help things.

    The top 3 cars/drivers made everybody else look like they were driving Atlantics cars.

    Good for them and their teams. But that won’t “play” in 2009 and its obvious most of what Indy Car is doing nowadays has turned OFF a bunch of people (and continues to turn off more and more people every year).

    I am glad that some people enjoyed that race on Saturday. I am glad some of you actually could still watch it on your TV cable package. But just understand (as good fan Pressdog pointed out earlier here) that many were bored with that race and bored with most of the season. Just very little interesting with those 3 particular drivers and the same 2 teams winning almost every race. Just way, way too predictable. Predictability isn’t all that interesting. Knowing before the green flag on the season starts, who the top 4 cars are going to be (which you could do this year), isn’t exciting stuff.

    Maybe 2010 will be better. It almost has to be.

    • Mr. Menard’s driver (Herm Johnson, I presume? And if so, how’s the weather in Eau Claire today?),
      Could you provide a link to the Homestead TV ratings? That sounds preposterously low. From my quick search, the Motegi race drew a 0.14, which everybody knew would be horrendous in advance (series had been off for 3 weeks, 10:30 PM start time, track that doesn’t lend itself to wheel to wheel). I’m not calling you a liar, that number just doesn’t make any sense to me. If Motegi got a 0.14 (translating to 165,000 homes), then you’re telling me that the Homestead race drew less than 118,000 homes? If that’s true, then we’ve got a real problem, but I just want some proof.

  8. I did enjoy the race up front–I thought Dixon had it sewn up and then Briscoe overtook him–I realized it wasn’t going to be one of those bores where Dixon (or whomever) gets in front and that’s the end of it.

    But I was apalled by the 3 lapping the entire field so early. That seemed to be the summary for the entire season. It’s hard to get excited about young guns like Rahal or RHR or Barrett–even Danica or Kanaan–when you realize they have no chance of winning unless a hideous wreck wipes out the four Penske/Ganassi cars.

    It’s not a great metaphor but I’ll use it anyway: it felt like watching a Super Bowl where the game is a blow-out, and you’re not watching to see who wins, you’re just watching to see who’ll be the MVP. To me, that doesn’t carry the same level of excitement or interest.

    So even though the race up front was great and I’m happy Dario won (and I don’t give a S— about fuel management; Dixon and Briscoe just managed their fuel differently); but as a race I thought it was forgettable, and as a season I thought it was lackluster.

    I tell my friends this: the reason I love the Indy 500 is that it’s unpredictable. Sometimes the guy on the pole wins, but usually he doesn’t. A lot of the favorites don’t even finish. So while Penske, Ganassi do well at the 500 too, it’s not a done deal. The IRL season felt like a done deal. They could have parked the rest of the field and gotten the same result.

  9. Why didn’t they have a random caution that screwed up Briscoe at Texas? He was leading by a 7 seconds–I find it hard to believe that there was no random debris at Homestead after 200 laps. I am a Briscoe fan and, yes, he screwed up at Motegi, but it seems like there are a lot of “forces” against him. I hope to see him win the championship next year.
    Yes, baseball is boring…zzzzzz

  10. THANK YOU, George! I am so glad to actually have someone write an intelligent article about IndyCar racing. It’s why I love your blog more than any other.

    I also found the race exciting. While there were no passes for the lead every lap-the way some think is exciting-the race ws exciting because it was both a physical battle between Briscoe, Dixon and Franchitti on the track and their teams in the pit lane. All of which is excitng to those of us who truly understand things beyond superficiality, which sadly is not many. I also agree with your analogy to baseball. If you truly understand the esoterics of the sport, you find everything exciting. Unfortunately, some don’t even know the meaing of “Esoteric” or anything beyond simplicity.

  11. I’ve heard a lot of commentators say that the Penske and Ganassi teams guessed the car setup right while the others didn’t. To me that highlights the biggest problem with the race weekend: there was no race trim practice session at the same time of day as the race. No wonder teams with lesser resources were lapped. I thought the race was good, but having a few non-championship drivers contending for the win would have spiced it up!

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