Random Thoughts On Baltimore
If all of the non-ovals on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule were as entertaining and exciting as yesterday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore, I would have no problem with them. After a complete snoozer at Mid-Ohio followed by a slightly better-than-expected race at Sonoma – one had to wonder what exactly we fans would be in for. From the drop of the green flag, we were treated to drama, excitement and a few displays of excellent driving. We also saw masterful pit strategies and some botched ones as well. When the dust settled, it was Ryan Hunter-Reay that was at the top of the podium, while Will Power was left alone in his pit wondering what had just happened after being forced to settle for a sixth place finish.
The last-minute chicane that was installed after Friday’s first practice had a big effect on qualifying. Graham Rahal crashed early in the Group One session. Ed Carpenter was the only driver to go out and post a quick lap in the group. By the time they got Rahal’s car cleaned up, the session had expired leaving a lot of big names – Ryan Hunter-Reay in particular – on the outside looking in. The chicane also had an effect on owner’s wallets and Dallara’s bottom line. With seven cars making contact with the wall after going through the chicane on Saturday and more in yesterday’s race, it was an expensive weekend.
With so much talk about Ryan Hunter-Reay possibly jumping a re-start, it overshadowed what I thought was one of the best re-starts I’ve ever seen. Earlier in the race Simon Pagenaud was sitting in sixth when the green flag flew. By the time the field reached Turn One, Pagenaud was in the lead. There were several cases of cars being passed three and four at a time. Most non-ovals offer very few passing opportunities, but Baltimore is not one of them.
There was also talk of botched pit strategy. Somehow, Will Power stayed out under yellow when the other leaders who had gone to rain tires came in for slicks. Power was stuck on a drying track on rain tires and eventually had to come in under green-flag conditions to change his tires. He was never in contention for the win after that.
The points battle carries on to Fontana. Power leads Hunter-Reay by only seventeen points. Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon have been all but eliminated, as they trail by fifty-two and fifty-three points respectively. Realistically, this is now down to a two-driver race.
This looked like it was as well attended as last year’s inaugural event. With the bad press over the past year locally, track modifications needed Friday and a threatening weather forecast, there were plenty of reasons why this event may not have been well-attended. Congratulations to Michael Andretti and his promotional efforts for making this event a success. Since his driver wins at every race he promotes, I’m wondering if Michael might want to promote all the races next year.
TV Coverage: First of all, please keep the family of Bob Jenkins in your thoughts and prayers. Due to family health matters, Bob could not be present to call the race for the NBC Sports Network. Here’s hoping that he will be able to get to Fontana to call the race in two weeks for his last race prior to his retirement, but Bob did the right thing to be with his family this weekend.
In the meantime, Brian Till did an excellent job filling in on such short notice. He didn’t hold back on his opinions, but he also let Jon Beekhuis and Wally Dallenbach do what they do best.
When they announced that Robin Miller’s Grid Run would be the next segment, I cringed. Those had been painful and awkward to watch in the past and I thought they had abandoned the idea. Instead, we got one that was probably the best since he and Dan Wheldon did them together last season. Yesterday’s Grid Run seemed to flow and was actually funny. If they can all be like that, I say stay with it.
With poor TV ratings come poorly produced commercials. We’ve had some bad ones over the years on a very repetitive basis. Add another one to the list with the Cars.com singing hair commercial. In fact, this one may go to the top of the list. Not only is it bad – it’s downright creepy.
Just as they had hoped: Not that they play favorites, but the biggest fear of INDYCAR was avoided when Will Power lost precious points to Ryan Hunter-Reay in yesterday’s race. The big fear was that Power would clinch his first championship at Baltimore, rendering the season finale at Fontana meaningless. Now that Power has left the door open for Hunter-Reay, it’s wide open. Although Power has a seventeen point edge, the finale is a five-hundred mile oval – the type track that is not a strong-suit of Power. Anything can and will happen at Fontana. Power has seen his championship hopes dwindle the past two seasons. Headed into Baltimore, one would have thought he had this one in the bag. But a mediocre showing coupled with a win by the driver chasing him has to be causing some self-doubt right now. He now has two weeks to think about it. And the series has two weeks to promote the showdown.
Green means “Go”: Most of the conversation after the race centered around the next to last re-start when Ryan Hunter-Reay was thought to have jumped the re-start. To me, there was no controversy. The green flag was waving when Hunter-Reay took off. Green means “Go”. Hunter-Reay went and Briscoe did not. Afterwards, Briscoe pleaded his case on television about rule interpretations, two sets of cones and blah, blah, blah. The thing is, when the green flag flew – Briscoe waited for Hunter-Reay to line up beside him. Hunter-Reay saw the green flag and took off – as he should have. I’m no racer, but I know that the sight of a green flag waving trumps cones and anything else. Green means Go!
Last week, I wrote a post outlining the reasons why Roger Penske should retain Ryan Briscoe for next season. I’m a Briscoe fan and I still think he should be back next season. But if The Captain were to make a change in the cockpit of the No. 2 car, look no further than yesterday’s restart if you need an example of why. I’m also a Penske fan, but I found it a little amusing that a team would protest someone jumping a restart when one of the team’s drivers, Helio Castroneves, made jumping a re-start an art form.
Not only did Briscoe cheat himself out of a win by napping at the re-start, but he allowed the person chasing his teammate to get up front. Had Briscoe not been caught napping, he could have kept Hunter-Reay in second place. That way, Power would have a twenty-seven point lead heading into Fontana rather than a seventeen point lead. No wonder Roger Penske looked so angry.
Rubens has caught on: After some rather lackluster showings in the first half of the season, Rubens Barrichello has shown why his arrival was so celebrated. The man can drive a car. In the last two races, Barrichello has finished fourth and fifth. He told Robin Miller before yesterday’s race that he would certainly return to IndyCar for 2013. When asked if it was with Honda, Rubens smiled and said “You ask too many questions” or something to that effect. His KV teammate and friend, Tony Kanaan, didn’t fare as well. He bounced over the chicane and slapped the concrete barrier, ending his day with a twentieth place finish. It’s a shame that those two will probably be separated next season, but most teams don’t go for packaged deals.
Look out for Pagenaud in 2013: Not only did Simon Pagenaud have a great re-start yesterday, he drove a great race and finished third. Not only has he performed well in his rookie season, Sam Schmidt has certainly provided him with everything he needed. Not only do I think that Pagenaud will be a contender for the championship next season, I think that Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports will continue their ascent to where they will be in the discussion with the more established top-tier teams in the series.
All in all: I thought this may have been the most intriguing non-oval race this season. With all that was at stake, the unexpected track modifications, the rain tire strategy that came into play and the outstanding driving we witnessed – I was entertained from start to finish. I’m hoping that all goes well with the internal Baltimore politics and this race can become a Labor Day staple on the IndyCar schedule. They certainly had my attention yesterday.