Random Thoughts On Fontana

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You can’t help but wonder what was really going through Will Power’s mind on Lap 55 of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday night. In TV interviews, a subdued Power said something to the effect of he couldn’t believe he let another championship get away from him. Based on what we’ve seen from Will Power in more candid moments, I have an idea what was said to himself beneath his visor was a little more colorful than that. It should have been.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post saying that if Power somehow loses this championship – many will unfairly label him with the dreaded C-word: choker. After what I saw on Saturday night, I’m not sure how unfair that would be. I’m not a driver and do not pretend to know how I would handle driving a car over 200 mph and crossing a rubber seam in the pavement. I do know that twenty-six cars started that race and twenty-five of them managed to keep their cars off the wall for five-hundred miles of dealing with the seams. I say that not knowing exactly what bit Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato, but they were both mounting charges late in the race. Power had his mishap on what was mostly a clear track, except for Ryan Hunter-Reay, his only true rival for the night.

Nothing else mattered for Will Power. He only had to make sure he kept the car off the wall and make sure Hunter-Reay didn’t win. Even a mid-pack, mediocre finish would have wrapped up Power’s championship after coming agonizingly close for the past two years. Instead, Power inexplicably let the car get away from him as he helplessly smacked the Turn Two wall. Credit his crew and others from Team Penske for thrashing the car back together enough to allow him to run twelve more laps to pass the retired EJ Viso and force Hunter-Reay to place fifth instead of sixth in order to win the championship. As we all now know, Hunter-Reay did what he had to do – just as he did in Baltimore – and wrapped up his first championship and Michael Andretti’s fourth as an owner. Hunter-Reay and Andretti celebrated well into the night, while Will Power and Roger Penske were left to ponder what might have been – again.

It’s hard to decide who is hurting more this week – Will Power, for letting another championship slip through his fingers; or Roger Penske, who has only one IndyCar championship to show for eleven full seasons of competition after he moved his two-time defending championship team from CART following the 2001 season. While Roger Penske has won only one championship, Sam Hornish in 2006 – Michael Andretti has amassed four championships with four different drivers; Tony Kanaan (2004), Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012). Those that predicted in 2002 that Roger Penske would turn the IRL into his playground were way off-base. I take no pleasure in stating this, since Team Penske is the team I have traditionally pulled for since they first showed up at Indianapolis in 1969 – but facts are facts. Since Roger Penske made the move from CART in 2002, Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti and even John Barnes have beaten The Captain at his own game. I will bet it is not real pleasant at the team’s facility outside of Charlotte, NC this week.

But congratulations to Ryan Hunter-Reay, Michael Andretti and everyone on the DHL/SunDrop team. It was a hard fought and well-earned championship. They deserved it.

TV Coverage: I can’t speak to the pre-race show because I missed it. I made the ill-advised choice to watch the Florida-Tennessee game, while recording the race on the DVR. When the game mercifully ended (we won’t discuss the outcome), I switched to the recording in progress but fast-forwarded to the beginning of the race. Zapping through the commercials, I finally caught up to the live broadcast by the post-race ceremonies.

One negative thing I noticed was the poor camera angles. For me, it was hard to tell which car was which. I initially blamed it on the sun, but even after the sun went down – it was still an issue. The cameras seemed to sit too far back. Maybe someone needed to use the zoom. Maybe it was just that my eyes had been blurred by the sight of Florida players rushing past Tennessee defenders. I don’t know, but the angles were not good.

It’s not often that you witness a booth of three go silent after a crash, but that’s what happened on the now infamous Lap 55. All three announcers were speechless as they watched Will Power and his championship hopes slide to a skidding stop. There was an audible awkwardness as the three collected their thoughts as they attempted to be as diplomatic and sympathetic as possible.

Of course, the end of the telecast belonged to Bob Jenkins, who is now retired with the end of the season. As usual, Bob handled the situation with class and dignity. He would not allow himself to steal the attention away from the dramatic developments of the evening. Instead, in his typical understated fashion – he simply wished God’s blessings on all of us. Well done.

So, who won the race? Oh, by the way – the race itself was won by Ed Carpenter. Although Carpenter ended up an abysmal eighteenth in points, this was not a shocker. After all, Robin Miller predicted he would win before the race. Ed Carpenter has been very fast on ovals the past few seasons. He finally had a break-through win at Kentucky last season that was overshadowed by the ill-fated season-ending race at Las Vegas. Saturday night, Carpenter’s victory was an after-thought to the championship battle that wasn’t decided until Takuma Sato crashed on the last lap – again.

Most drivers would probably be bothered by this, but Ed Carpenter does not seem to be one that seeks the spotlight. Although he knows his sponsor, Fuzzy’s Vodka, wants and needs all the publicity it can get – flying under the radar is probably just fine with Ed Carpenter, so long as he can win.

With all the focus on Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the championship, I don’t think enough attention has been given to how extraordinary it is for a brand-new team to go out and win a five-hundred mile race in their very first year of existence. What is somewhat disconcerting though, is the disparity of his performance on ovals versus non-ovals. While Ed carpenter may be a threat to win every weekend the IZOD IndyCar Series visits an oval – he is practically invisible on road/street courses. So long as there are half as many ovals to non-ovals, Carpenter will have an uphill battle. Although his eyes are set on winning the Indianapolis 500, he needs to focus on beefing up this team’s road/street course program in order to attain full credibility.

Seeing red: Most that know me will not be surprised that I was not a fan of the red flag that came out after Tony Kanaan’s crash on Lap 240. It was brought out in order to give fans the opportunity to see the race and championship decided under green-flag conditions. While it stops short of the shameful green-white-checker utilized in NASCAR, I feel the red flag used in that situation can artificially manipulate the race results.

Although Beaux Barfield reportedly told the teams that the red flag may be used in such a situation – I felt that it was ill-timed. I’ve been following this sport for a long time. I’m not sure that I can remember a time in open-wheel racing when the red flag was used for any reason other than driver safety.

I’m a staunch believer in series officials listening to the fans, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a lot of clamoring to end races under the green flag. In this particular situation, I felt they had ample time to clean up the track. There was not an unusual amount of debris strewn all over the track. With it being a 2.0-mile oval, laps under yellow take a while to complete. I think they could have kept the cars running and still have gotten three to four green-flag laps in. As it turned out, it was a non-factor. Ryan Hunter-Reay was neither hurt nor helped with the red-flag. Ironically, the race ended under yellow anyway – but purposely and artificially manipulating the situation is going down a slippery slope. Races sometimes end under yellow. That’s just the nature of the sport. Football games are sometimes played in rainy and muddy conditions that can have an effect on the outcome or stats. That, too, is the nature of the sport. Fans deal witb that and they can also deal with yellow flags. They are a part of racing.

Briscoe’s future: After Power’s crash, about the only hope for Team Penske and Will Power to still win the championship was to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay mired back in the pack and prevent him from finishing fifth or higher. He finished fourth. Helio Castroneves had an ill-handling car most of the night and could not be counted on running beyond tenth. Ryan Briscoe had a better car and stayed in front of Hunter-Reay for some of the night, but that hope ended when he grazed the wall late in the race.

Now that Hunter-Reay has inked a two-year extension with Andretti Autosport, it appears almost certain that Team Penske will scale back to a two-car team for 2013 and that Ryan Brsicoe will be moving on. For his part, Briscoe began contacting teams earlier this summer. He had grown tired of not knowing his plans at Penske until February of each season. I can’t blame him there, but waiting for a deal at Penske to come through is better than firming up a deal at a lesser team in September.

Most reports have Briscoe landing back at Chip Ganassi Racing in the car to be vacated by Graham Rahal. Most would not call this a lesser ride, but I don’t think the “G2” teams of Ganassi are on the same footing with the two Target cars. I think Rahal thought that also, which explains his desire to move on. It’ll be interesting to see what a change of scenery does for Briscoe’s career.

Fearing the ovals: Although not a lot was discussed on the telecast (at least, what I saw) about Mike Conway’s decision to step out of the No. 14 car due to his fear of ovals – there was no shortage of opinions in cyberspace. I have my own opinions which I’ll discuss on Wednesday – although it’ll probably be old news by then.

All in all: One would think that Power crashing out early would have ended all of the drama of the evening – far from it. Ryan Hunter-Reay had an ill-handling car that had not been good all weekend. He also felt a shock going bad and had to battle rising oil temperatures as he nursed the car around all night en route to a fourth place finish – one spot better than he needed – and the season championship. It was high drama all night as we watched Power and then Hunter-Reay both face adversity.

The race itself was great also. There were twenty-nine lead changes among twelve different drivers. In the end, Ed Carpenter got by Dario Franchitti for the race lead, just before the yellow came out for Takuma Sato’s last-lap crash. It was a fitting end to a wild race and a great season.

I’ll discuss the entire 2012 season at some other point in the near future, but Saturday night was very exciting and entertaining.

Not only was the season-ending race exciting and exhilarating at times, there were smiles across the board. Sure there was disappointment in the Penske camp, but Will Power and all the other drivers went home safely. When you can have an exciting race that everyone was talking about the next day and have everyone walk away safely – that’s a successful race.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Fontana”

  1. It was indeed an exciting and interesting race and a fitting cap on an interesting season. More than anything I am happy and relieved that no one was injured or worse.

    A pairing that might give all the teams a run for their money in 2013 would be Mike Conway on the twistys and Ed Carpenter on ovals.

    I agree with your concern George about the red flag. I was shocked and disappointed to see that as were many of the drivers. Heading down a slippery slope with that call by BB2.

    Thanks for all the time and effort you have devoted to this forum again this year George.

  2. I’m not worried about “artificially manipulating the results” all that much. I want good, competitive racing that puts on an exciting show for the fans. I think that’s what the red flag did. Gave the fans a great ending without extending the length of the race. Barfield made a quick, timely decision and I think it helped the racing. I’d be all for an automatic red for all races if there’s a wreck within a certain lap limit. But I’d say one try at it is enough, after that just throw the yellow.

    Interesting point about the cars being hard to distinguish. Maybe they need to think about paint schemes for Indycar and how they can make them stand out better (from each other.) I never liked how Penske and Ganassi made their cars look the same anyway–maybe they want to copy F1. Give each car it’s own colors for the season or something.

  3. I was glad to see Ed pull this out and RHR kept me on the edge of my seat throughout this 500 miler. The only downside was that Ed wasn’t able to get the attention I felt he deserved from winning a 500 mile race. Understandable, however, in this situation.

  4. I’m in favor of using the red flag to try to finish under green. But all the times this situation happens. IndyCar had chances to use it before, but they didn’t. Now they change their mind, and the game, and put in danger the chance of someone winning a championship becaise they decided it was the time to use the red flag. Ridiculous. Use it all the time, not only when you want!

  5. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    Perhaps I would be more against the red flag if Michael Andretti hadn’t voiced his opinion of it so childishly; I always enjoy seeing how “tragic” every little setback is for him. In my opinion, we have the tools to make these races end under green (and there were comments to that effect by some fans when Dario won under yellow again or RHR won a couple of yellow races) without changing the length of the race. Certainly, you can’t do this if the yellow comes out with, say, three laps or less left, but I think it was used wisely here.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    George, if you haven’t erased the pre-race show from your DVR yet, go back and watch it, or at least just watch the tribute to Bob Jenkins. It was VERY well done. One of the highlights of any broadcast this season, I thought.

    Kudos to my father… when I asked him before the race if he thought Hunter-Reay could win the championship, he said “yes, I think he’ll win it because Power will crash”. Not totally uncanny, but I was impressed.

    I probably would not have thrown the red flag on Saturday, but I didn’t really have a problem with it. I’d be 100% behind it if there were double-file restarts and they needed the time to sweep the track. In any event, if some casual fans in attendance left happy because the series made the attempt to ensure a green flag finish, then I think the red flag was totally worth throwing.

    A great race, I hope to see it again for years to come.

  7. Brian from NY Says:

    Not that long ago, there was a waging debate about races finishing under yellow. The majority of fans were in agreement that something needed to change, and most were in favor of a red flag being used. At that time I believe Beau told teams and drivers that a red flag might be used depending on the circumstances. In my opinion, the timing was spot on for a red flag.

    Like most fans, I’m opposed to the Green, White, Checkered nonsense that we see in NASCAR. The primary reason is because it artificially extends the length of a race by several miles. With most teams on the knifes edge in regards to fuel, a GWC punishes teams that had manged fuel correctly and can reward teams that otherwise would have no chance for a win. It’s unfair to tell a team that the race is 500 miles and then at the end say “well it’s actually 504 miles.”

    The red flag does a few things that I like. One, it maintains the race distance. A 500 mile race is a 500 mile race and teams can plan accordingly. Second, it prevents teams from wining that would normally have to pit, but are praying for a caution. It drives me nuts when a team that has been mid-pack all race finds itself up front and benefiting from a caution at the end of a race to stretch it to the end. A red flag would force those teams to pit, and reward the best drivers, not the luckiest. Third, I get to see more laps under green flag racing. The fact is that anything can happen under green flag and not to throw a red flag because it could change the outcome is the point. I don’t hear anyone saying poor Sato, he wouldn’t have crashes if they hadn’t thrown the red flag. It’s called racing and the drivers understand that it’s not over till the checkered flag waves. Hell, if the race was only 50 laps instead of 250 would the points have been different? Of course, that’s the point.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    I haven’t gone back and checked on the points standings so this may be inaccurate, but I think that the big under-eported story of Ed’s win was that it puts ECR into the TEAM money. I remember that he was hanging out right around 22nd position in the points, which is the last position that pays TEAM money. That would make sense due to his poor performances on twisties and crash at Indy. This win lifted him into 18th in the points, which qualifies him for the TEAM money. That win probably earned him over a $1 million paycheck for next year.

  9. I thought this was a very entertaining race and was an excellent finish to the season. I would hope that this race can gain traction in the marketplace and become a ‘tradition’ to ending the season. There is just something right about a 500-mile oval being the finishing race for Indycar.

    I’m not a great Penske fan, but agree with you that they must be scratching their heads a bit after yet another near miss. My guess is that next year they will be more determined than ever–and agree that they’ll likely keep to a two-car team–which has historically been favorable for them.

    I’m looking forward to next year already. I suspect that Honda will be working double-time to get back the engine manufacturer’s championship–which should make the racing even better. And I would look for more tinkering with the chassis not that it is a year old as teams look for any advantage they can get.

    Here’s hoping that Simona gets a ride she is truly deserving of and can get an engine/team that gives her at least a fighting chance!

  10. Christopher Says:

    Ed Carpenter effectively won the season finale the last two seasons. I am sure he is going to start pushing for the season to end at the end of May.

  11. I am a GWC guy.

    How about the selflessness of Marco and Helio at the end of the race. Ruining their own races just to help out a teammate.

    The Astor Cup is georgous.

    Solution to all of Will Power’s problems #1: Call Ferrari about their opening
    Solution to all of Will Power’s problems #2: He said it-be more conservative. Shoot for a top 15 finish on ovals. Forget winning them, just mitigate your damages, especially when the schedule is all out of balance.

  12. again whinning and belly aching about the red flag! i thought was a great idea and it was the wise thing to do. who wants to see thetitle decided under yellow. good call beau!

  13. james t suel Says:

    I hate the red flag deal for a one car crash! That is not racing,its pure gimmick BS ! Sorry but the fans that like that kind of crap ,wouldnt know a real race if it ran over them. On Power hes a great road & street racer, but when we get on the ovals we separate the boys from the men Will is lacking! His team get some of the cerdit for telling him he had to pass Hunter RAY before the 2nd pit stop! Great drive for Hunter Ray & Ed Carpenter AMERICAN WIN!!!

  14. Let me say it here, I am not a Penske Racing fan, however what that team did to get Power back out on the track to run 12 laps, was remarkable. 18 – 20 people working to piece that car back together. The foresight to have a rear end section already assembled just in case, points to the detail of how that team thinks. Well done TEAM Penske!!!!!

    • billytheskink Says:

      I especially liked Power’s flabergasted look when he exited the team trailer in his street clothes to see the Penske army reassembling his car, followed by him running back into the trailer to change back into his coveralls.

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