Random Thoughts On Pocono

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After much anticipation, the IndyCar Pocono 400 is now in the books. There was a lot of hype going into this race and I was afraid it may fall short of expectations. While it wasn’t nail-biting excitement like some races at Texas have been – it was an extremely entertaining race that made me wish I had been there to see it live.

Apparently, the first break in the schedule since late April proved beneficial to Chip Ganassi Racing, as they finally scored their first win in almost a year with Scott Dixon coming away with the victory. This was a typical Dixon win. He was quiet throughout the weekend, but near the end of the race you looked up and found him in P1. That’s exactly what happened this weekend.

Dixon started seventeenth. He was not among the front-runners early on. That distinction went to Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan, to the extent that Eddie Cheever proclaimed it essentially a two-person race about a third of the way through. Marco finished tenth and Kanaan thirteenth.

From the open test on the Fourth of July, it appeared this race would belong to Marco Andretti, or at least his team. The third generation driver from nearby Nazareth, PA dominated every test and practice session at Pocono and won the Pole. Two of his three Andretti Autosport teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, finished out the starting front row. The Andretti cars were on a roll, having won the last two races and seemed poised to take this race as well.

But something happened between the command to start engines and the unfurling of the checkered flag. James Hinchcliffe‘s day ended almost before it got started, when his car got terribly loose entering Turn One on the first lap. The back end quickly snapped around and he was into the wall before he knew it. Fortunately, he eventually crawled out of the car with only a slight limp that he said was nothing. That was only the beginning of a nightmarish day for Michael Andretti’s team.

On Lap Sixty-One, the boneheaded move of the day occurred. While running third, Ryan Hunter-Reay entered the pits for his second pit stop of the day. Having slowed down to the mandatory 60 mph pit road speed limit, Hunter-Reay was biding his time as his car made its way to his pit. Out of nowhere, Takuma Sato came flying into the pits at what looked like well over 120 mph – more than twice the speed limit. Sato’s car climbed over the back of Hunter-Reay’s car sending him into the pit wall and effectively ending Hunter-Reay’s day and his hopes of overtaking Helio Castroneves as the points leader by the end of the afternoon. Sato’s explanation was that he simply misjudged his speed. Give Sato credit for owning up to his mistake, but his error in judgement could make the difference in Hunter-Reay defending his championship.

Marco Andretti was the class of the field. Through Lap 121, he led eighty-five laps of the scheduled 160 laps. But his fuel consumption was much heavier than anyone else. He pitted with thirty-four laps to go, but had to go into fuel consumption mode and quickly faded from contention. At the end of the race, he crossed the line in tenth position and promptly ran out of fuel. To say that Marco was not pleased would be an understatement.

If Sato’s error in judgment was the boneheaded move of the day, Tony Kanaan had the costliest move of the day when he clipped Scott Dixon’s car with his front wing on a routine pass. Not only was it costly in the championship, as he dropped from fifth to sixth – but it was especially costly in his bank account. Any hopes he had of sweeping the three triple crown races – Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana – vanished when he was forced to pit to change his front wing. Kanaan had been running second at the time and, aside from Marco, appeared to have the strongest car in the field. He also seemed to be getting much better fuel mileage than Marco. Had it not been for that mistake, I think Kanaan would have been in position to pull off his second win of the season.

Helio Castroneves ran in or near the Top-Five for most of the day but finished eighth. Still, his mediocre day was good enough to extend his points lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti – his closest pursuers.

But the day belonged to not only Scott Dixon, but to all of Chip Ganassi Racing. For the first time in their long history, all three Ganassi cars swept the podium. Charlie Kimball continued his breakout season with a strong second-place finish. Dario Franchitti earned a much-needed third place finish. I say “much-needed”, because even though his championship hopes are long gone – he needed this finish to show himself he could still do it. Although he is a four-time series champion and a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – when a driver goes through a bad streak like he has been on, they need to know they can still get the job done. Franchitti didn’t get the win, but he drove a heck of a race.

TV Coverage: This was ABC’s last race of the season. I have to say, I thought they went out on a high note. They made some gaffes – some rather significant. The most comical was when during pit-stop shuffles, Marty Reid proclaimed that Pippa Mann was being shown as the leader. This was as they followed her teammate driving around in the Boy Scouts car. They could have gotten away with that as just a misidentification, but while showing Wilson driving around identified as Pippa – they immediately cut to a shot of Pippa sitting still in the pits. Susan and I both looked at each other and said “What?”

ABC helped themselves by getting James Hinchcliffe in the booth after his early exit. Although he was extremely disappointed to not make it past one turn, he brought his enthusiasm and charisma to the booth on short notice. His wit, charm and keen insight was a valuable bonus for viewers.

But other than giving over-simplified explanations about a few racing matters, I thought the ABC crew did a much better job than what they’ve given us most of this season. They did a good job explaining the rich history of open-wheel racing at Pocono and they tried to convey some sense of excitement. While I’ve been harsh on the crew for most of this summer, I’d say they wrapped up the season with a solid B-Grade.

Reversal of fortune: I’ll credit Susan with this observation. She pointed out how unique it is for one entire team to sweep a three-car front row in qualifying and then have a completely different team sweep the podium at the end of the race.

While Andretti Autosport stole all the headlines leading up to the race, it was the Ganassi team that everyone had completely overlooked that grabbed the most important headlines after the race.

The Andretti cars earned the top three spots on the starting grid, but failed to place any of those drivers finish any higher than tenth – that was pole sitter Marco Andretti. In the meantime, the unheralded Ganassi drivers started seventeenth, twelfth and twentieth. Those cars finished first, second and third respectively.

Credit Chip Ganassi Racing for not throwing in the towel, as I had suspected they had. They obviously didn’t spend the off-weekend at the beach. Instead, they put their heads together to figure out how to turn around what had been a very miserable season to this point.

Also give credit to Honda for keeping their wits. After an embarrassing run on the ovals, they won this race and had six of the top-seven spots in the final standings. Only Will Power was able to spoil the Honda party at the top when he drove his Chevy-powered Dallara to a fourth-place finish.

Nashville Pride: To be honest, after Dario Franchitti announced that he and wife Ashley Judd were splitting up last winter – I’m not sure if he still lives here. I assume it was because of his wife that he lived here in the first place, unless the Scotsman has a secret love of country music that I’m not aware of. But for arguments sake, we’ll claim him until I hear that he has left us for good.

That being said, it was good to see two Nashvillians make up the Top-Five at Pocono yesterday. Not only did Dario Franchitti have a well-earned third-place finish; Nashville native Josef Newgarden quietly carved his way through the field to finish fifth. Why he and his team remain virtually unsponsored is beyond me. He is a marketer’s dream. He’s a personable young driver that is a natural in front of the camera and behind a microphone. Plus, it’s obvious the guy can drive. He has taken a once part-time team that was pretty much one-dimensional on the ovals, to a team that is now considered a contender at every race.

I would like to see Josef Newgarden stay at Sarah Fisher Hartemn Racing, but if they don’t get full-time sponsorship soon, I’m not sure how they will afford to keep him. While those that are all about nostalgia (like myself) yearn for the day that Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal come of age and revive their family names, there is a full-blooded American growing up before their very eyes. If I were Roger Penske or Tim Cindric, I would be doing everything I could to steer Newgarden toward Team Penske for the day that Helio Castroneves decides to hang up his helmet.

The Eagles in Concert: Forgive the personal update on my weekend activities, but I actually had several people ask me on Twitter how The Eagles concert in Louisville was, so I’ll give a quick debrief here.

In short – they were outstanding! Although they are all in their mid-sixties, they all still sing like they did forty years ago – unlike many old aging rockers who now sound terrible.

They played most of the old favorites for over three hours. Don Henley and Glenn Frey still have their pipes and can really belt it out. As an added bonus, original Eagle Bernie Leadon joined them on stage for the entire first set. If I had a complaint, it was that they left out some of their classic songs in favor of performing the entire Joe Walsh library of hits. While he is a great guitar player, Joe Walsh’s solo career could go completely ignored and it wouldn’t bother me. But other than that, it was a great night. We got up early Sunday morning, drove back to Nashville and caught the race on the DVR about an hour behind real time.

Following Pippa: It was good to see Pippa Mann finish the race and move up some. She spent most of the race on the lead lap until near the end but still came away with a decent fifteenth-place finish after qualifying twenty-first. Although she got few on-air mentions, I was able to follow her along when she did happen to get in a few camera shots. Aside from what Simon Pagenaud says, she appeared to drive a clean race and most importantly – got some very valuable seat time. I knew if she got a chance, she would prove she belongs.

All in all: To me, it was a very good race. Even though the drivers said it was tough to pass – there was passing. There weren’t the constant lead changes at the front like this year’s Indianapolis 500; but the passing was frequesnt enough to keep it entertaining – especially behind the leaders.

Except for the mistakes by Hinchcliffe, Sato and Kanaan, it was another very clean race. There were only two caution periods for the entire race and none past the one at Lap Sixty-One for the Sato Hunter-Reay incident.

This was an old-school type race. Not only did it involve a tremendous amount of talent on the track, but the teams had to be on their game on how to set up the car before the race and what strategy to utilize during the race. This race had all of those facets and is what appeals to me most.

I’m hoping the IndyCar Series returns for many years to Pocono. It appeared to be an overall success, but venues have a habit of dropping off of the IndyCar schedule for the strangest of reasons. It’s for that reason that I want to get up there next season if at all possible. Time will tell.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Pocono”

  1. Enjoyed the drivers comments after the race. They admitted it was a tough but smooth course. More than a couple were stunned that Indycar had not raced on this course since 1989. They should have been stunned. I truly believe the course CART began to follow in the late eighties have led indy car to where it is today and was the cause of the split that exerbated it . Returning to Pocono is a big positive to begin to repair what was done. They need to return to Phoenix, Michigan and some of the other traditional tracks, as well as newer tracks like Chicagoland and Kentucky.

  2. The Lapper Says:

    Pocono looked awesome and it must be awesome to spend a race weekend there. I was impressed with Ganassi and I think we will see more of the TCGR team this year. I have always liked a Scott Dixon win, too. As for Dario, I believe he now makes his home in Indianapolis and he looks pretty happy.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I was surprised, but not disappointed, that Pocono did not race more like Indianapolis. I greatly enjoyed the race, even though none of my favorites finished especially well.
    As quick as the race was run, they could have fit an extra 100 miles into the broadcast window… Just to make that point.

    Chip Ganassi looked about as happy as I’ve ever seen him, even after an Indy win.

    The last time I saw the Eagles was in Houston in 1999. They weren’t very good, both of the Payton-Coyne cars finished ahead of them.

    • The Eagles ahead of the Payton-Coyne cars? That one took me a second, Billy, but I finally got it. Nice one. Now, THOSE were some Eagles I could get behind.

      • billytheskink Says:

        They were nice looking race cars, but unfortunately they couldn’t go the distance in the long run…

  4. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    I’m going to have to say that Marty Reid’s biggest gaffe was mis-identifying Pippa as the leader a second time when Charlie Kimball passed her as she was a lap down, saying “Kimball takes the lead!” followed by what I’m sure was a ridiculously awkward moment in the booth as Goodyear corrected him. Still, I have a hard time blaming him; his monitors in the booth aren’t terribly large and all the red and white cars look the same on wide TV shots.

    Good-looking event — I think I’ll make the drive out there to celebrate Independence Day 2014.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    I was at the race in person and thought it was a great event. My family has a connection with the Igdalsky family, so we were treated to full behind-the-scenes access, which was terrific. Unfortunately, I forgot to set my DVR, so I didn’t get to see the TV broadcast.

    I have a couple notes from the stands…

    I don’t know if they showed it on TV, but they had several old cars from the ’50s – ’80s there that did a few laps on the track prior to the race. It was awesome to see the cars (they had a Novi there!) and a nice nod to the history of the event.

    I thought the biggest disappointment was the race itself. Fortunately, it sounds like it was more entertaining on TV than it was at the track. After the start and couple of restarts, the field strung out after 2-3 laps and ran single-file for lap after lap. There really wasn’t that much passing through the field. ABC must have done a good job capturing the action that was available. By lap 100, we were all praying for a yellow because it had become obvious that this was going to be a fuel race. It is a shame because the top-10 was running very close all day and we were expecting a great shootout in the final stint. When everybody pitted by lap 130 we knew it wasn’t going to happen.

    Regarding the Sato incident, lots of cars were having trouble at pit-in. We were sitting right there for awhile and a good portion of the field was coming in too hot and having to lock them up at the speed line. Sato just happened to have someone in front of him.

    How can the exact same cars that had too easy a time drafting and passing at Indy not be able to do anything at Pocono? They even had a 2 tests in the last couple of weeks to work on the formula. It is perplexing.

    Pocono is a great venue once you get in, but traffic management into and out of the track is horrible. If you go to the race, plan to spend 2-3 hours getting back to the highway after the race (its less than 5 miles). There is only a single road with access to the track, and it has one lane in each direction.

  6. Enjoyed the race, and look forward to more at Pocono, but I have to admit, the ending was a bit anti-climactic. As racy as the cars were all day, it was sad to see it come down to a fuel mileage race. I would have loved to see a 20 lap dash to the finish, but that’s racing.

  7. First to admit I don’t understand squat about all the tech stuff, but it seems to me all the tinkering and specs and trying to adjust the downforce specifically for each oval race doesn’t improve the racing. Probably naive, but can’t they just have a certain set-up for ovals and leave it at that? Seems like Indycar overcomplicates everything–various types of qualifications, push to pass sometimes, two-wide, three-wide, fuel buttons, standing starts maybe–when they should just keep it simpler and understandable.

    I’m tired of hearing about The Split. I think it’s time everyone let ancient history be ancient history and move on to the future.

    Speaking as a (former) all-oval guy, I hesitate to even say this, but: are the twisties more interesting to watch than the ovals this year?

    Newgarten’s lack of sponsorship and publicity is directly correlated to Indycar’s lack of sponsorship and publicity.

    Sato’s blunder was embarrassing.

    So was it Hinchcliffe’s fault or not? Driver error or crew chief error?

    I hate fuel saving races–in Indycar and Nascar. I guess in the future solar powered electric engines will eliminate them.

    Pocono is a good historic venue with good management. I hope it stays on the calendar.

    • I only mentioned the split as a symptom of what was wrong with Indy car under CART management during the 1980s and later. Its still a problem today with only 6 ovals and 13 road/street course races. I’m hoping the new management doesn’t go with old CART ideas.

      Its especially true if my theory is correct. That is that the cars are built and set up for road racing, with ovals as an afterthought, and not much is being done to make the oval racing better because of the road/street course car design/set up. I could be wrong, but Indy has been running on ovals for over 100 years. If suddenly they are not as exciting……

      • Didn’t mean anything personal, Bob. Just seems like every conversation about Indycar (and newspaper article) goes back to the Big Split and doesn’t move beyond it.

  8. ronski2007@hotmail.com Says:

    More Emma Cam = Better TV Ratings

    I also agree with Redcar’s comments above about IndyCar overcomplicating everything. I think that would be a good topic for Cort Kovin and Kavin Lee (my TK imitation) on Trackside and a good question to ask of Derrick Walker.

  9. This season IndyCar had done a pretty good job of setting the race distances to eliminate fuel-economy racing — until Pocono. Interesting that Ganassi took advantage, as they had in previous seasons.

    • Maybe if they didn’t have to shorten the race to suit the TV schedule, it wouldn’t have happened. This was supposed to be a 500 miles race.

  10. It’s kind of crazy how this race played out. Like at Indy, who could have guessed that they’d have gone some 200+ miles without a single lap of caution? If there’s even a single, brief caution for debris or something in the last 50 laps, this race would have played out a whole different way (Marco probably makes his fuel number and can hold his foot to the floor, possibly TK gets his lap back and can mix it with the front runners, maybe Power can open it up earlier than he did at the very end, Honda’s fuel mileage isn’t quite such a dominating factor, etc., etc.). Anyway, I thought it was still pretty interesting, overall.

    TV was solid, with Goodyear and Cheever continuing to escalate their good natured on-air rivalry (I enjoyed the jabs about who was and wasn’t using their on-board tools properly during their careers), but unfortunately (or fortunately, since we get the NBCSN guys back for the duration), now that increasing chemistry is put on ice until next season. Marty…he had a Marty Reid kind of day. The Pippa misidentifications were, well, sort of par for the course. He was solid otherwise, though, so it’s really too bad that those gaffes mar an otherwise good telecast.

    Good race, and I definitely wish I’d been there as well. Good on Pippa for keeping her nose clean all day and running in the vicinity of her well thought of team leader for the bulk of the first half of the race (and with a good “second pack” of cars for most of the second half). Good on Josef for driving a smart, error-free race. Wonder no more if he’s a star of the future (he’s now tied with EJ Viso for 14th in points, running a smaller budget than just about everybody in front of him minus Justin Wilson).

    Last note: it is probably a good thing, George, that you and I don’t hang out more. By halfway through beer #2, we’d most certainly be throwing fists over Joe Walsh. “Rocky Mountain Way”? “Walk Away”? “Life’s Been Good To Me So Far”? What’s not to love?

    • ronski2007@hotmail.com Says:

      You can bet a year’s supply of Honey Boo Boo tapes that if Sunday’s race had been a NASCAR event there WOULD have been a yellow near the end for “debris on the track”. Even if Brad Keselowski had to throw a water bottle out the window again to create a yellow. In his immortal words: “NASCAR ain’t got no rules against littering.”

  11. I enjoyed watching the race, as I always do, but I must say, I am glad that the ABC/ESPN thing is done for the year. It’s not only the stupid mistakes, it’s the endless commercials. And what really frosts me is that they seem to show every pit stop, for every driver. I like watching pit stops, but I’d rather watch the race than see the 19th place driver’s pit stop. Enough of the pits, already!

    I think NBC S[ports Network does a fantastic job. They have a top notch crew, and their broadcasts are flawless.

    By the way, is there some penalty issued to guys for truly boneheaded moves, like when Sato ran over Hunter-Reay, or when Hildebrand ran over the back of Will Power’s car during that yellow flag a few races back? I hate to see a guy’s day ruined by such a bone-headed move.

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