Random Thoughts On Homestead
Who would have thought that when Team Penske moved from CART to the IRL in 2002, they would only have one IndyCar championship in their trophy case nine years later? Target Chip Ganassi followed suit with his CART operation one year later, and they now have won four championships in just eight seasons. When Will Power brushed the wall two-thirds of the way through the race, he completed a four race meltdown. When Power left the final road course of the season at Sonoma, he boasted a fifty-nine point lead. After three races on ovals, that lead was down to twelve points. His season was effectively done, when he brushed the wall causing suspension damage that was significant enough to pull him out of the car.
The man that seemed untouchable for most of the season, could only watch and hope that bad luck would befall Dario Franchitti and cause him to finish outside the top ten, so he could still hoist that lovely trophy at the end of the night. Franchitti finished eighth.
This is the second year in a row that a Team Penske driver has held a comfortable points lead late in the season, only to have their championship derailed by enduring unforced errors. Last year, Ryan Briscoe was sitting comfortably when he spun on his own leaving the pits in Motegi. Briscoe finished third in the championship for 2009. It will be interesting to see what lingering effect this collapse will have on Power’s season in 2011. Briscoe seemed to carry a hangover from last season’s brain-fade into this season. Although Briscoe finished fifth in the standings and won a race, he was never a factor in this year’s championship.
It should be remembered that this is a new team. This was the first year since 1994 that Roger Penske had run three cars full-time. Sharing shop space with the established teams for Helio Castroneves and Briscoe – this team was certainly considered the third stringers at Team Penske. But Power served notice that he was going to be a major contender by winning the first two races of the season.
Aside from the championship battle, this was a much more engaging race than last year’s. There were enough yellows to keep things interesting, although the caution period for Power’s brush with the wall was way too long. Supposedly, the lights that indicate the pits were closed were malfunctioning – hence the extended yellow. If this were a NASCAR race, I would swear it was to give Power enough time to effect repairs under yellow and resume the championship battle – but this isn’t NASCAR.
Oh, and by the way – Franchitti’s teammate Scott Dixon won the race, giving Target Chip Ganassi two winners last evening and salvaging some respect for an otherwise disappointing season for Dixon. Andretti Autosport had an excellent night as Danica Patrick edged Tony Kanaan at the line for second place. Their teammate, Marco Andretti finished seventh. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the only AA driver to finish out of the top ten, coming home eleventh and one lap down. Besides Will Power’s untimely miscue, Team Penske drivers Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves had decent runs to finish fourth and fifth respectively. Vitor Meira completed his first full season driving for AJ Foyt on a high note. Meira drove the ABC Supply car to a sixth place finish.
I thought we would hear more out of Ed Carpenter, but he was quiet most of the night and finished thirteenth in Panther Racing’s second car. His teammate, Dan Wheldon, finished ninth in what may or may not be his last race for Panther Racing. Now word has it that he may actually re-sign with the team that he sued back in August.
Milka Duno ended what may be her last IZOD IndyCar Series race by nearly taking out Dario Franchitti as she spun and crashed in turn four. Rumors are that Brian Barnhart will respectfully ask her to find another line of work before next season. The series has been lucky that her driving habits have not impacted a championship, much less had more serious consequences. If that happens, hopefully Citgo will find another driver to their liking. It would be a shame if such an action ran off a sponsor, but it needs to be done. She is a very nice person and a good off-track ambassador for the sport, but she is a menace on the track.
TV Coverage: I missed the pre-race show. I was too busy watching the Tennessee-LSU game, which had the most bizarre ending for a Tennessee game that I’ve ever seen in my more than forty-five years of following the Vols. Still reeling from that game, I turned over to Versus just before that clumsy command to start engines by Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves, who were sitting in their respective cockpits.
Bob Jenkins seemed to have more gaffes than usual, calling drivers Scott Briscoe or Ryan Carpenter-Reay. Jack Arute had more props than ever, but I’ll give him credit for laughing at himself on the qualifying show for his geographical blunder at Japan. Using a globe as a prop, he acknowledged he goofed when he said that Japan was on the other side of the equator. He could have just let it lie, but he was a good sport about the ribbing he took.
But the guys in the booth got way too confusing trying to explain what fuel strategies different teams were using. They were only guessing as the threw all of their theories out there, but I was totally confused when Robbie Buhl and Jon Beekhuis were finished with their conjecture. It also got a little uncomfortable as Jon and Jack Arute were bickering like two kids on a playground over when Helio Castroneves might be pitting.
But the worst TV moment was the championship trophy presentation. At first, Jack Arute’s microphone didn’t work. When they finally got it working, there was a very distracting humming that would drive you nuts. It was accompanied by the sound of someone’s heavy breathing overpowering everything else. I don’t know if someone was too busy staring at IZOD girl or what, but it was certainly annoying. Mercifully, during the discussion of the new trophy – they never showed a close-up of the new hardware.
Saluting Dario: Dario Franchitti took a huge step this season, in cementing his legacy as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport. Skeptics will scoff at that statement, but in the last three seasons that Franchitti has driven in IndyCars, he has won three championships and two Indianapolis 500 victories. Had he not left IndyCar for NASCAR in 2008, there’s no telling what his record would look like.
As Curt Cavin pointed out on Friday, Franchitti now joins only four other men who have won the Indianapolis 500 twice and the championship three times; Louis Meyer, AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. That group of names is a virtual Mount Rushmore in IndyCar history. Unlike some drivers whose careers run dry at age thirty, Franchitti is only getting better with age. The thirty-seven year old Scot seems to be just now hitting his stride.
For the third year out of the last four, the IndyCar trophy will reside in Middle Tennessee. Dario and wife Ashley Judd live in the next county outside of Nashville, less than thirty miles from my house. I’ve never seen them out and about, but I understand they make the rounds occasionally in Nashville. Maybe he’ll take that beautiful trophy around with him, the next time they go out. That will certainly guarantee them a good table somewhere.
All in all: I thought the race was much better than last year’s. The racing was much closer than we are used to at Homestead. I was shocked to see three-wide racing in the corners, but the drivers made it work.
As for the championship, this was a true example of experience paying off. Even on the qualifying show, the pressure seemed to be getting to Will Power. Having never been in this situation before, he cracked under the strain of having to wrestle the momentum away from a savvy veteran like Franchitti. Although I’m not a fan of road courses being in the majority, this championship spoke volumes for the diversity of tracks the IZOD IndyCar Series visits each season. Had this been an all-road course series, Will Power would have wrapped this up a month ago. But you have to be great on various types of tracks. Will Power is a great street course driver and almost as great on road courses. He is only good on ovals, but not good enough to have ever won on an oval. Franchitti is great on all types of tracks. That’s why he is a three-time champion.
Will Power’s day will come, but he needs to raise his game on the ovals to the point where he can win on an oval and win consistently. I have no doubt that before Will Power hangs up his helmet for good; he’ll have a couple of ugly trophies, as well.