I’ll begin this on a personal note. My son, Trey Phillips, turns the magical twenty-one tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Trey!
This weekend, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the scene of what I think was the most exciting race of the 2009 season – Kentucky Speedway. This is a track that was considered a “sister track” to Nashville Superspeedway. They both opened about the same time and shared a few similarities. However, their fortunes have gone in opposite directions. While Kentucky provided some of the best racing on the IndyCar schedule, the narrow concrete oval about an hour from downtown Nashville produced some racing that was, um, less stimulating. Now Kentucky will host a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race next season along with its IZOD IndyCar date. Nashville? It’s currently down to two Nationwide Series-Camping World Truck double headers. Hmmm….
Anyway, back to Kentucky…the IZOD IndyCar Series has run at Kentucky Speedway every year since it opened in 2000. Buddy Lazier won the first two races for Ron Hemelgarn. For the 2002 race at Kentucky, Sarah Fisher became the first female pole winner in open-wheel racing. Notable past winners of this race include Sam Hornish, Scott Sharp, Adrian Fernandez, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and last year’s winner, Ryan Briscoe.
Last year’s race was probably the most memorable race at Kentucky Speedway. Not only was it the first oval race of the season that featured the loosening of some of the aero rules by Brian Barnhart; but it featured a tight battle where it looked as if Ed Carpenter might earn his first-ever IndyCar Series victory – only to be barely edged out at the line by Ryan Briscoe. But the close finish was only part of the story. Last year’s oval racing was incredibly bad. Tracks that had given us exciting races, like Texas and Richmond; were suddenly giving us snoozers. Credit Barnhart, for actually listening to the fans (for once), and doing something to put some excitement back into the ovals.
This year’s race is about five weeks later than last year’s; which means the weather should be a little cooler and the championship race should be hotter. Through no fault of his own, Will Power left about twenty-five points on the track last week, when he had to pit in the waning laps at Chicago. He had a fifty-nine point bulge over Dario Franchitti going into Chicago, and left the Windy City clinging to a twenty-three point lead. It’ll be interesting to see how Power can respond. Will Power has never won on an oval. He’ll pretty much have to win one of the last three races, if he hopes to win this championship.
A year ago, fellow Team Penske driver, Ryan Briscoe threw away his big lead in the championship at Motegi. The difference was; Briscoe squandered his lead all on his own. His team had done everything correctly to put him in a position to win. He simply had one of those infamous Briscoe brain-fades. In Power’s case, his team made the mistake – not him. Still, it would be ironic if Team Penske, who I consider the best team in the business, would cough up a championship late in the season two years in a row. Team Penske is completing its ninth full-time season in IZOD IndyCar Series competition, with only one championship (2006-Hornish) so far. Who would have thought that would be the case nine years ago?
In all reality, this is a two man battle. Scott Dixon is still alive mathematically, but he sits eighty-five points behind Power. Predictably, the championship boils down again to two teams – Penske and Ganassi. At least we’re not watching an intrasquad battle between the two Ganassi cars or the three Penske entries. That would really be boring.
But the exciting thing about Kentucky is that it won’t necessarily come down to one of these two teams winning the race. It may end up happening that way, but it is certainly no lock – as Ed Carpenter (almost) showed us last year. There are many others who could end up in victory lane on Saturday night.
Ed Carpenter showed us last week that he hasn’t forgotten how to drive a race car. Although he eventually had mechanical problems, he was running up front before then, even though Chicago was only his second start of the season. His Panther Racing teammate, Dan Wheldon, drove a great race in finishing second at Chicago. Both Panther cars should be a factor at Kentucky.
Dario Franchitti has never won at Kentucky. His most famous moment came after the race was complete in 2007. He was unaware the race was over and ran up on a slowing Kosuke Matsuura and did a dramatic back flip heading into turn one. After receiving new life in the championship, Franchitti definitely has momentum on his side. Twenty-three points in three races is not difficult, assuming Power doesn’t win any of the remaining three races – and I don’t think he will. Even though he is the defending champion, Dario appears hungry for his third championship trophy. I expect him to have a good night.
Surprisingly, Danica Patrick hasn’t fared too well at this track. The 1.5 mile ovals seem to be her forte, but not this one. Her best finish at Kentucky is a pair of eighth place finishes – in 2006 and 2009. She also has a pair of sixteenth place efforts along with finishing eleventh in 2008. Based on the season she’s having, I don’t expect much at all from Ms. Patrick on Saturday night – although I suspect her three Andretti Autosport teammates will have excellent nights, much like they did at Chicago.
Justin Wilson had a very quiet seventh place finish at Chicago. I expect him to be quiet, but solid again, at Kentucky – but solid doesn’t mean winning. I don’t expect the same of his new/former teammate Paul Tracy, who will be sitting in the cockpit of the No. 24 car for the next two races. I expect Tracy to be sitting mid-pack, at best, for most of the night. Vitor Meira was very solid at Chicago. He drove his AJ Foyt entry with three different noses at Chicago and still finished ninth. I expect another steady run by Meira in the ABC Supply car.
So who is going to win the race tomorrow night? I’ve been much better with my predictions this year compared to last, but I may be letting my emotions and sentiments get to me on this one. My pick to win the Kentucky Indy 300 is Ed Carpenter, who will finally win the one that got away last year. We’ll see.