Random Thoughts On Sonoma
There is actually a benefit to negative thinking. If you are expecting something to be about as fun as a trip to the proctologist, and it turns out much better than expected, you come away very happy. That’s sort of the way it was with yesterday’s GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. I’ve always considered this one of my least favorite tracks and I was not looking forward to the race very much. Therefore, I had very low expectations going in. Instead, I found the race more entertaining than most of the other parades we’ve witnessed from Sonoma.
Things looked very predictable. Will Power had won the pole and looked set up to take his third win in a row at Sonoma before bad luck in the pits allowed Ryan Briscoe to wind up in front of Power and get his first win in over twenty-six months.
There was controversy from the start as Helio Castroneves barely clipped Scott Dixon on the opening lap. Race Control viewed it as unavoidable contact and enforced a drive-through penalty on Helio, dropping him from fourth to twenty-first. As a matter of full-disclosure, I’ll confess to being an Helio fan and I’m pulling for him to win the championship. So you can understand why I thought that this was a questionable call. I realize some will see it as a blatant penalty, but I did not. I was even more confused when I saw Oriol Servia turn James Hinchcliffe around in an almost identical move, yet Servia wasn’t punished. Maybe if the infraction involves two drivers that have no realistic shot, Race Control looks the other way. I normally don’t whine about officiating in any sport. I just want consistency and I didn’t see it when comparing those two incidents.
It looked as if the streak of no caution period was going to continue for the third straight race until Sebastién Bourdais and Josef Newgarden tangled in a frightening crash on Lap 64. Although the crash was started when Bourdais couldn’t get his car to turn, it was Newgarden who got the worst of it. Newgarden hit the tire barrier head-on and then was hit again by Bourdais. Both cars were badly damaged and Newgarden suffered an injury to his left index finger, which was to be evaluated after the team returned to Indianapolis.
Then there was another yellow on Lap 75 when Alex Tagliani was trying to pass Rubens Barrichello, but instead got into the back of Ryan Hunter-Reay. Hunter-Reay spun around and eventually lost a lap in the process. Hunter-Reay stormed down to Tagliani’s pit after the race to let him know exactly what he thought about his driving techniques.
Dario Franchitti seemingly came out of nowhere as the top three of Briscoe, Power and Franchitti all drove away from the rest of the field in the final laps. Somehow, Helio Castroneves was able to claw his way back up to sixth by the end of the race.
TV Coverage: As usual, I thought NBC Sports Network did an excellent job, with both the race broadcast as well as the qualifying show. The shame of it is wondering if anyone actually saw it. Sure there were a few gaffes along the way. You’ll get that with anyone. But the guys in the booth and the pit reporters have all seemed to gel into a cohesive unit. You sense good chemistry among them. Kudos to Jon Beekhuis for being on top of the happenings and pointing out that Ryan Briscoe would be in the lead as he exited the pits.
Nice win for Briscoe: From what I gather and read, this was a popular win throughout the paddock, if not with fans. It seems fans have always complained about Briscoe being boring or simply lacking in talent. I think neither is correct. If you follow Ryan Briscoe on Twitter or hear what other drivers have to say, he has a very good sense of humor and is extremely well-liked throughout the garages. He is obviously talented, but sometimes suffers from inexplicable brain-fades. He had not had a good season up until yesterday and the naysayers were already trying to pencil other drivers into his seat for next season.
It’s no secret that this win helped Briscoe, but I think he was going to be back with Team Penske for next season regardless – but this sure helped.
Was anyone happy? I know all drivers want to win, but other than race winner Ryan Briscoe, it was probably the most miserable group of drivers I’ve ever seen interviewed after a race. Second-place Will Power was in the doldrums, even though he was the beneficiary of a huge swing in the points. Franchitti looked fairly content with third, but Marco Andretti, Bourdais and Hinchcliffe came across as absolutely distraught over their weekends. But they were all smiles and giggles compared to Ryan Hunter-Reay after his run-in with Tagliani. Hunter-Reay is a good representative for this sport when things are going his way, but if he’s having a bad weekend, his whining can take on legendary status. It really makes it tough to be a fan of his at times.
Tough day for contenders: Of the four title contenders going into Sonoma, three had terrible days. Will Power had the best day finishing second. Helio Castroneves looked like his day was done after serving a drive-through penalty early in the race. He remained stuck in the back of the field for most of the day, but somehow managed to salvage sixth place. Ryan Hunter-Reay looked to be in line to collect decent points before Tagliani got into the back of him. Then there was Scott Dixon, whose day went from bad to worse, before settling for a thirteenth place finish. Going into the weekend, only twenty-eight points separated first place and fourth. After the race, Will Power had a thirty-six point lead over Hunter-Reay in second place.
Nice paint job: I’m not a huge fan of the San Francisco Forty-Niners (although Joe Montana was one of my favorites); but you had to love the paint job on JR Hildebrand’s car this weekend. It was painted in Forty-Niners livery to honor Niners coach John Harbaugh, who also happens to be a co-owner in Panther Racing for which Hildebrand drives. The red and gold really seemed to jump out even on television. That gold reminded me of Danny Sullivan’s Miller liveried cars in the late eighties.
Remembering Neil Armstrong: Those that have followed this site for a while know that I am almost as passionate about the early days of the US Space Program as I am about IndyCar racing. I talk a lot about drivers such as AJ Foyt, Lloyd Ruby and Jim Hurtubise being some of my childhood heroes. Hero status should actually be reserved for those that risk their own lives for the good of mankind. I grew up idolizing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. I was almost eleven when man first landed on the moon. Like almost everyone back then, I was enthralled with the whole aspect of space travel and I still consider the moon landing as man’s greatest achievement and the greatest event of my lifetime.
We lost the first of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, when Neil Armstrong passed away over the weekend. In all, there were only twelve men to ever walk on the surface of the moon but Armstrong was the first. Armstrong did not have a dynamic personality full of charisma. He was pretty much all business. But most kids my age back then idolized him and so did I. America and the world lost a true hero this weekend.
All in all: It was a much better and more entertaining race than I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting a lot. Although there wasn’t a lot of movement at the front, there was a lot of passing mid-pack – but then, it seems like we always say that about non-ovals.
The points battle cleared itself up with two races to go. There are now only eight drivers with a mathematical shot to win the championship, while in reality – I think only three have a real shot. Power has a comfortable lead, but he can’t coast. He’s seen comfortable leads evaporate the last two seasons. If he wins at Baltimore next week, he should be in good shape heading into Fontana. Should he stumble at the Inner Harbor, then it’s game on!