Random Thoughts On Fontana

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With the running of Saturday night’s MAV TV 500, the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season has come to a close. Tony Kanaan finally got his well-deserved first win for Chip Ganassi without waiting throughout the long offseason to wonder when that elusive victory would come. It finally did, but under the backdrop of Will Power winning the series championship. Neither driver clinched their respective victories in dramatic edge of your seat excitement. Kanaan led the final fifty-three laps while Power pretty well had the suspense ended for him when Helio Castroneves was assessed a drive-through penalty on Lap 218 for a pit-entry violation. The penalty put Castroneves a lap down, and it was pretty much over with after that.

This was yet another IndyCar oval this season that went past the halfway point before the first caution period. In fact, this race had only one caution period. Ryan Hunter-Reay spun on the front-stretch on Lap 176. That was the only break the drivers had to catch their breath. It was also the only time that the field was bunched up for a re-start.

After Milwaukee, I expressed my concern that the DW12 was too easy to drive, since there have been so few yellows on ovals this season. I was corrected by a current driver who prefers to remain nameless, who e-mailed me and pointed out that the current Dallara is much harder to drive than the older version, which ran from 2003 through the 2011 season. The driver went on to explain that cars are forced to stay farther apart from each other due to the turbulence that comes off of these cars. That’s what happens when a blogger that has never been behind the wheel of any race car, starts speculating about what real drivers are dealing with inside the cockpit.

Still, it’s odd that of the six ovals on this year’s schedule, five of them went into the second half of the race before the first caution came out. Several of those races went much further than halfway and had very few cautions overall. Not that I’m advocating crashes or phantom-yellows, but a few well-spaced cautions during a race certainly makes things more intriguing.

But there was some good racing at the front and behind the leaders. There were seventeen lead changes among nine drivers. Juan Montoya led eighty-five laps, the most of any driver. Tony Kanaan led the next most, by leading a total of sixty-four – including the final fifty-three. Although Helio Castroneves started on the pole, while Will Power started in the last row; Power did what he needed to do by finishing ninth, while Helio failed to complete his part of the bargain and finished a forgettable fourteenth.

Although I was pulling for Helio, the deserving driver won the championship. When Will Power has his head on straight – there is no one that can touch him. After his meltdown at Pocono, when Tim Cindric told him over the radio to do just that – “get your head on straight” – he fell in line, did what he needed to do and took control of the championship. Even after his brain-fade at Sonoma, Power was still able to add to his lead.

Now that he has figured out the ovals, future championship contenders will have to know that the road to the championship goes through Will Power. For the second year in a row, I’ve chosen the correct champion before the start of the season. It wasn’t a hard prediction this year. The way Power closed out last season, I saw a focus with him we had not seen before. He lost that focus in the mid-point of the season, but after his embarrassment at Pocono – he got his head on straight, regained the focus and let his talent go to work.

So congratulations to Will Power and Team Penske. He is a very deserving champion. This one was not handed to him, but there were a couple in year’s past that were either taken away from him or he handed them to someone else. Tim Cindric has already announced via Twitter that Power will proudly carry the No. 1 next season, meaning that Team Penske cars will carry number 1,2 and 3. I like that. All defending champions should carry the No.1, in my book. Like Paul Tracy, I think that now that Power has won one championship – many more are on the way.

TV Coverage: Is it possible to want less coverage? While I’m glad that NBCSN had a five-hour window to cover this race, a pre-race show that lasted an hour and twenty minutes and a one-hour post-race show may have been a little much. I’m sure that those in front of the cameras would agree.

Still, NBCSN ran with it and flourished. They had many good segments explaining what the three championship contenders had to do to win, while going deeper into the background of each of the three drivers.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Paul Tracy needs to be on the broadcast full-time for next season. He does a phenomenal job. This week, they expanded his role with a well-done interview with his old boss, Roger Penske.

The in-race coverage was good. Leigh Diffey kept the viewers engaged in the late-night hours when there was not a ton of excitement on the track.

NBCSN continues to shine, year after year.

Aleshin’s Crash: There are times when I hate Twitter, but on Friday night I was glad that I was on it. After watching qualifying Friday night, I got involved in other things around the house and flat-out forgot to watch the final practice online. But I sat down around 10:00 Nashville time and checked my Twitter feed. Working backwards on my timeline, it didn’t take much on my part to figure out what had happened – and that it didn’t sound good.

By now, I’m sure most have seen the replay of the crash that sent Mikhail Aleshin out of Auto Club Speedway on a stretcher. It was a horrifying impact that resembled the crashes of Davey Hamilton and Kenny Bräck at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001 and 2003 respectively. An accident like that brings back bad memories of when Dan Wheldon was fatally injured in the season-finale at Las Vegas in 2011.

It is here that I want to tip my hat to those that I follow on Twitter (@Oilpressureblog). Compared to most, I don’t follow a lot of people on Twitter – less than seventy-five. But those that I do follow, deserve praise for not speculating on any nature of Aleshin’s health status. They expressed their concern and patiently waited to get the official news from IndyCar regarding his condition.

Fortunately, this story had a happier ending than in 2011. Although Aleshin is very banged up, he should recover physically and be able to race again. When you see the crash, you wonder how Aleshin came away with only a broken shoulder, broken ribs, an undisclosed chest injury and a concussion. I am no engineer, but you’ve got to think that the work that Dan Wheldon put into this cars development has helped a ton. The DW12 is certainly not the best looking car you’ll ever see, but it is quickly earning a reputation as a tough car that can withstand a lot of damage, while protecting its most valuable cargo – the driver. Get well soon, Mikhail!

An Extra Passenger: When Tony Kanaan climbed out of the car to kiss his wife, Lauren – many took note that he also kissed her belly, leading many – my wife included – to speculate that the Kanaan’s may be expecting. As it turns out, Susan was right. Curt Cavin later confirmed on Twitter Saturday night, that the Kanaan’s are expecting their first child in January. Congratulations Tony and Lauren.

A Bridesmaid Again: When Helio Castroneves came up short in the championship battle on Saturday night, it marked the fourth time that the popular Brazilian had finished second in the championship. Most drivers would love to have that kind of problem.

Castroneves just completed his fifteenth full season with Team Penske. Although Rick Mears drove for The Captain for fifteen seasons, his first season was part-time. Assuming Helio returns to Team Penske next season, he will have entered exclusive territory. No driver in the history of Team Penske’s IndyCar program, which dates back to 1968, has driven any part of sixteen seasons for Roger Penske.

Helio Castroneves will turn forty before next year’s running of the Indianapolis 500. One wonders how many more opportunities Helio will get to reach that elusive championship, before Father Time raises his ugly head. He will get more opportunities for a championship and a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, but at some point his skills will erode. It happens to everyone. But if Helio decided to hang up his helmet after Saturday night, his resume is plenty complete in my book.

All in All: Like many of the races we’ve seen this season, this race did not have me on the edge of my seat – but I did not doze off either, even with the late hour. I really like the tradition of a three-wide start for all the 500-milers. Seeing those cars coming toward the line in rows of three with the lights glistening off of them, is a beautiful sight. I think the fact that all three races with a three-wide start came off without incident speaks well to the ability of these drivers.

There was not a ton of side-by-side action, but this was not a parade either. There was some decent racing throughout the night. Surprisingly, although everyone, myself included, was predicting heavy attrition there was not a single mechanical failure for the entire five-hundred miles. That’s impressive, even though it eliminated the “unexpected” wild-card factor in the results.

In all honesty, I think Saturday night’s race was fairly reflective of this entire IndyCar season. There were flashes of brilliance and a few bone-headed moments combined with very solid and reliable racing that may not have been enthralling to some, but was satisfying nonetheless.

So now we settle into the long offseason. Never before, have I awakened on Labor Day without looking forward to an upcoming IndyCar race – but that is what happened this morning. Admittedly, it’s an odd feeling. But we’ll get through it. We always do. There are a lot of unexpected storylines that unfold every offseason. It’s just that few offseasons start with three weeks remaining in summer.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Fontana”

  1. I give the race 6.5 on the 10-point scale. The IndyCar 500-mile race at Fontana was pretty much the same as the NACAR 500-mile race at Atlanta, except Atlanta had more cautions, which set up a dramatic finish and didn’t have the Will Will Power Brain Lock Again factor. Is the merging of the IndyCar and NASCAR oval experience good or bad? I love your loyalty, George. If IndyCar is on TV in any fashion, by God you’re watching it. If the pre-race and post-race shows are to long, maybe tune in later and tune out earlier? Just a thought. I rarely watch any pre-race show (IndyCar or NASCAR). “Don’t like it? Don’t watch” is my motto these days. The late hour of the race has been discussed, but lately I’m of the evolving opinion that the late start didn’t materially impact TV audience (the 300-ish k hard-cores are watching no matter when you air it). The biggest concern is if Fontana promoters are OK with the date. We shall see. As always, appreciate all the time and effort you put into maintaining this blog, George.

  2. It was a good season and I wish it was a bit longer but I think we all feel that way. All updates have been positive and I hope it continues to be a speedy recovery, get well soon Mikhail Aleshin. Fontana was an entertaining race for me. I have always enjoyed the 500 mile races, I like the speed, I enjoy the racing under the lights, and I marveled at the beautiful sky as the sun set in California. I was happy to see T.K. get his first win in the #10, I would be hard pressed to think of some one more deserving. The time of the race was a bit disturbing to me, not because of the lateness but because it was the final race. I cannot imagine any other top series finishing out the season in the middle of the night (to its largest fan base). I get not racing into a setting sun or the heat of rhe day so perhaps this race should be moved to an earlier date to avoid many different issues.
    Aero packs, new races, new schedules, perhaps some new drivers, I say bring on 2015!

  3. Ryan Johnson Says:

    I enjoyed the race and really enjoyed the outcome of the championship. Will drove like a champion and when he battled for the lead on the restart it was tough for me to watch. Like Tracy mentioned, clinching his first championship very well could be the flood gates getting kicked wide open. I had the chance to watch the race with a friend and he had an app (or something) on his phone that had the timing and scoring and it made it really enjoyable to watch the intervals change, especially as tires were falling off late into the stints or guys like Carpenter or Hinchcliffe would start moving back up through the field…. however, we kept noticing that NBCSN wouldn’t show some of the battles for the lead or changing positions up near the front. We have the timing and scoring going so we know when there is a driver about to overtake another or when a driver has already done so and it just seemed like they missed it constantly or were tardy getting to it. However, that’s about the extent of any complaints I have with NBCSN as they are usually spot on. I caught the last 125 laps of the NASCAR race and I didn’t have any issues with how the event was going UNTIL…. with two laps to go there was an incident and let’s hold everything…. It’s time for a G/W/C and let’s cue to the carnival music in the background. Fortunately, Kasey Kahne was able to pull it out as himself and Harvick were the strongest cars by far at the end, but to see Harvick crash and finish so far back after dominating the race was frustrating…. If a race is called “anything” 500 I expect that event to end after 500 miles, kilometers or laps… to go beyond it to guarantee some excitement for the fans is contrived (like their chase format) and cheapens the event. It’s no wonder why they’re alienating their older, more knowledgeable fan base. I long for the popularity of IndyCar to take off, but I’d so much rather be a fan of current IndyCar and it’s current battle for audiences than the much more popular NASCAR that wreaks of contrived gimmicks. I’m sorry for the rant but man, I’m so thankful for my passion of IndyCar and I look forward to another exciting season in 2015.

  4. Sorry to disagree with Ryan above, but I think almost the exact opposite. Nothing is more boring (to me anyway) than technical parades on twisties that are decided by pit strategy, fuel saving and “hitting your marks.” And nothing lately has been more boring than caution-free ovals where cars circle at well-spaced intervals.

    While Nascar’s phantom yellows are almost laughable, at least they understand that today’s fans want competition and excitement, contrived or not. If Indycar wants to be anything but a fringe sport, they need to continue to look at ways to make the racing more exciting, even at the risk of offending some racing purists.

    Verizon Indycar is doing a lot of good things and I look forward to next season but they need to continue to look “outside the box” in an effort to draw the interest of new fans.

    • It’s an interesting thing … for the oval purists, clearly IndyCar is a distinct choice from NASCAR. So, if you hate the Lucky Dog, etc. tune in to IndyCar. Only problem is if you’re an oval purists you only get six races a year.

    • I used to cover and follow NASCAR but after watching the awful race at Indy this year I have had enough. NASCAR is no longer a sport with real, open competition. It is a managed entertainment property. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, it just doesn’t interest me.
      I was bothered by the 12 lap caution for a harmless spin Saturday night. That should have been 2-4 laps, tops and then on with the racing.

      • Granted racing could have restarted sooner.

        However, why not provide (think about the driver’s perspective and accommodate) the drivers with a track with fewer marbles and better racing traction by putting the sweepers out for a few laps……. which happened.

  5. A great season with 11 winners, WOW! Looking forward to 2015 with some anxiety. These kits will change the racing, how much? Anyone’s guess but nothing was better than the INDY 500 this year. Going into retirement soon, so I am looking for a good motel to attend my 1st Iowa race. Any suggestions out there?

  6. Well, George and I agree that this race symbolized the 2014 season. Look I know some people dislike my critical comments, but to explain why I still watch, its simple. I like Ed and Hinchcliffe and Newgarden enough to watch them race just about anything or anywhere. Of course, the fact that those three drivers combined for a single win also explains my lack of satisfaction with the 2014 season. Drivers I liked struggled. The Americans combined for 4 wins with both RHR and Ed having lots of problems outside of those wins. Pit speeding penalties, crew failures, getting hit by random debris and knocked unconscious, that seemed to follow Newgarden, Hinchcliffe, Rahal, and the rest around. I like Helio and Power and Kanaan, but not as much as Newgarden or Hinchcliffe. There may have been a record tying 11 race winners, but…. I’m left unsatisfied.

    Like I’ve said before, if you like technical racing, if you like like strategy, then I guess 2014 is the greatest season ever. But the racing was just not that good. I watch Indycar to see something on ovals that is fast and close, and instead we saw something that was NASCAR without contact or cautions. Which… turns out is rather boring. Indy was a great race, Iowa was a great race, Houston was an interesting weekend, and Fontana was an okay race, and everything outside of that was just a blur of skilled driving and minimal action. The NASCAR Trucks at Mosport of all places had a closer finish than anything Indycar put together this year outside of Indy! I don’t want phantom yellows, I don’t want competition cautions, I don’t want the cars harder to drive (I want the opposite and I don’t want people to get hurt, BUT you can’t have so few cautions on the ovals or all you are going to get is spread out, strategy focused, races like we’ve seen at Texas and Pocono and Milwaukee and Fontana. It may be that the problem is simply car count; I know people who’ve said that with 26-30 cars these races would have had a lot more action. Car count does not appear to be great for next year, but perhaps if Cosworth joins in 16 things will be better?

    But yeah, this race was super anti-climatic. No drama in the title once Helio got his penalty, even though Power was in trouble with his team adjusting his wing the wrong way. No drama for the lead, as Kanaan won by a mile. Out of the 3 Fontana races this was the worst, in my opinion. There was good racing at times throughout the night, but overall the focus was on saving tires and fuel rather than action racing each other, and it showed. Some people like that, but to me you’ve got a season full of technical racing (RE: road/street courses), the rest of us should get a few races to enjoy for other reasons.

    The late start was dumb. Ending the season this early is dumb. It is almost like indycar’s given up on growing their fanbase with some of the decisions made recently. That’s not a good thing, because growth is the only way to get better tracks and more cars.

    We don’t know what next year will bring with the aero kits. It should make the cars better looking and faster, but will it torpedo the parity and make close racing an even more distant dream? That’s my fear. Because if the parity is destroyed, what do we have left?

    If you need something racing related to watch, the Pirelli World Challenge ends their season at Miller next week, and the Red Bull Global Rally Cross has open wheel drivers fighting against action sport drivers.

  7. After watching the IndyCar Awards celebration last night and the enthusiasm on display, it is a bit depressing to come here and read some of the same ol’ complaints about the racing being too boring or too technical, or whatever. Racing, with the possible exception of Nascar, is a live, unscripted event. Sometimes you get nail-biting, edge of the seat excitement, and sometimes you don’t. In fact, most often you don’t. Twas ever thus.

    Never-the-less, I appreciate everyone who cares enough to come here and offer your two cents. Have a safe off season. George will keep the light on for you. Keep your stick on the ice.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I am apparently easier to please than many Indycar fans. Admittedly, I enjoy about every race, and the especially exciting ones doubly so.

    While I have seen better Indycar races at Fontana, I thought Saturday’s contest was a well above-average Indycar race. We saw quite a bit of passing considering that only 1 yellow flag bunched up the field. The best way to improve the action at Fontana (and Pocono too)… more cars. At a track like Fontana, more cars = more passing = more cautions = more restarts = more passing = less grousing on the internet.

  9. I have to agree with billytheskink. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad IndyCar race. Sure, some are more exciting than others, but I enjoy them all.

    I thought this was a very good year . My favorite driver won the championship, and my wife’s favorite came in second. My third favorite won the final race of the season. And, to top it off, we went to three races, so for us, it was a great season. Now comes the hard part, waiting 7 months for the next season to start.

    I’m excited for next year, and just wish I didn’t have to wait so long for it to start. College football helps some, sigh.

    Hopefully we’ll have a few more cars next year.

    Have a great off-season, everyone!

  10. Will Power’s 2014 was not as strong as his 2010 and 2011 seasons yet this is the year he finished on top. Sports are kind of funny like that. Congrats to Mr. Power on finally getting the job done. It will be fun to see the Power v. Dixon battles in the future. Both are in their primes and still young enough to do even greater things in the IndyCar world. I just hope Power sticks with IndyCar.

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