Random Thoughts On Fontana
You can’t help but wonder what was really going through Will Power’s mind on Lap 55 of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday night. In TV interviews, a subdued Power said something to the effect of he couldn’t believe he let another championship get away from him. Based on what we’ve seen from Will Power in more candid moments, I have an idea what was said to himself beneath his visor was a little more colorful than that. It should have been.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post saying that if Power somehow loses this championship – many will unfairly label him with the dreaded C-word: choker. After what I saw on Saturday night, I’m not sure how unfair that would be. I’m not a driver and do not pretend to know how I would handle driving a car over 200 mph and crossing a rubber seam in the pavement. I do know that twenty-six cars started that race and twenty-five of them managed to keep their cars off the wall for five-hundred miles of dealing with the seams. I say that not knowing exactly what bit Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato, but they were both mounting charges late in the race. Power had his mishap on what was mostly a clear track, except for Ryan Hunter-Reay, his only true rival for the night.
Nothing else mattered for Will Power. He only had to make sure he kept the car off the wall and make sure Hunter-Reay didn’t win. Even a mid-pack, mediocre finish would have wrapped up Power’s championship after coming agonizingly close for the past two years. Instead, Power inexplicably let the car get away from him as he helplessly smacked the Turn Two wall. Credit his crew and others from Team Penske for thrashing the car back together enough to allow him to run twelve more laps to pass the retired EJ Viso and force Hunter-Reay to place fifth instead of sixth in order to win the championship. As we all now know, Hunter-Reay did what he had to do – just as he did in Baltimore – and wrapped up his first championship and Michael Andretti’s fourth as an owner. Hunter-Reay and Andretti celebrated well into the night, while Will Power and Roger Penske were left to ponder what might have been – again.
It’s hard to decide who is hurting more this week – Will Power, for letting another championship slip through his fingers; or Roger Penske, who has only one IndyCar championship to show for eleven full seasons of competition after he moved his two-time defending championship team from CART following the 2001 season. While Roger Penske has won only one championship, Sam Hornish in 2006 – Michael Andretti has amassed four championships with four different drivers; Tony Kanaan (2004), Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2007) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012). Those that predicted in 2002 that Roger Penske would turn the IRL into his playground were way off-base. I take no pleasure in stating this, since Team Penske is the team I have traditionally pulled for since they first showed up at Indianapolis in 1969 – but facts are facts. Since Roger Penske made the move from CART in 2002, Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti and even John Barnes have beaten The Captain at his own game. I will bet it is not real pleasant at the team’s facility outside of Charlotte, NC this week.
But congratulations to Ryan Hunter-Reay, Michael Andretti and everyone on the DHL/SunDrop team. It was a hard fought and well-earned championship. They deserved it.
TV Coverage: I can’t speak to the pre-race show because I missed it. I made the ill-advised choice to watch the Florida-Tennessee game, while recording the race on the DVR. When the game mercifully ended (we won’t discuss the outcome), I switched to the recording in progress but fast-forwarded to the beginning of the race. Zapping through the commercials, I finally caught up to the live broadcast by the post-race ceremonies.
One negative thing I noticed was the poor camera angles. For me, it was hard to tell which car was which. I initially blamed it on the sun, but even after the sun went down – it was still an issue. The cameras seemed to sit too far back. Maybe someone needed to use the zoom. Maybe it was just that my eyes had been blurred by the sight of Florida players rushing past Tennessee defenders. I don’t know, but the angles were not good.
It’s not often that you witness a booth of three go silent after a crash, but that’s what happened on the now infamous Lap 55. All three announcers were speechless as they watched Will Power and his championship hopes slide to a skidding stop. There was an audible awkwardness as the three collected their thoughts as they attempted to be as diplomatic and sympathetic as possible.
Of course, the end of the telecast belonged to Bob Jenkins, who is now retired with the end of the season. As usual, Bob handled the situation with class and dignity. He would not allow himself to steal the attention away from the dramatic developments of the evening. Instead, in his typical understated fashion – he simply wished God’s blessings on all of us. Well done.
So, who won the race? Oh, by the way – the race itself was won by Ed Carpenter. Although Carpenter ended up an abysmal eighteenth in points, this was not a shocker. After all, Robin Miller predicted he would win before the race. Ed Carpenter has been very fast on ovals the past few seasons. He finally had a break-through win at Kentucky last season that was overshadowed by the ill-fated season-ending race at Las Vegas. Saturday night, Carpenter’s victory was an after-thought to the championship battle that wasn’t decided until Takuma Sato crashed on the last lap – again.
Most drivers would probably be bothered by this, but Ed Carpenter does not seem to be one that seeks the spotlight. Although he knows his sponsor, Fuzzy’s Vodka, wants and needs all the publicity it can get – flying under the radar is probably just fine with Ed Carpenter, so long as he can win.
With all the focus on Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the championship, I don’t think enough attention has been given to how extraordinary it is for a brand-new team to go out and win a five-hundred mile race in their very first year of existence. What is somewhat disconcerting though, is the disparity of his performance on ovals versus non-ovals. While Ed carpenter may be a threat to win every weekend the IZOD IndyCar Series visits an oval – he is practically invisible on road/street courses. So long as there are half as many ovals to non-ovals, Carpenter will have an uphill battle. Although his eyes are set on winning the Indianapolis 500, he needs to focus on beefing up this team’s road/street course program in order to attain full credibility.
Seeing red: Most that know me will not be surprised that I was not a fan of the red flag that came out after Tony Kanaan’s crash on Lap 240. It was brought out in order to give fans the opportunity to see the race and championship decided under green-flag conditions. While it stops short of the shameful green-white-checker utilized in NASCAR, I feel the red flag used in that situation can artificially manipulate the race results.
Although Beaux Barfield reportedly told the teams that the red flag may be used in such a situation – I felt that it was ill-timed. I’ve been following this sport for a long time. I’m not sure that I can remember a time in open-wheel racing when the red flag was used for any reason other than driver safety.
I’m a staunch believer in series officials listening to the fans, but I’m not sure I’ve heard a lot of clamoring to end races under the green flag. In this particular situation, I felt they had ample time to clean up the track. There was not an unusual amount of debris strewn all over the track. With it being a 2.0-mile oval, laps under yellow take a while to complete. I think they could have kept the cars running and still have gotten three to four green-flag laps in. As it turned out, it was a non-factor. Ryan Hunter-Reay was neither hurt nor helped with the red-flag. Ironically, the race ended under yellow anyway – but purposely and artificially manipulating the situation is going down a slippery slope. Races sometimes end under yellow. That’s just the nature of the sport. Football games are sometimes played in rainy and muddy conditions that can have an effect on the outcome or stats. That, too, is the nature of the sport. Fans deal witb that and they can also deal with yellow flags. They are a part of racing.
Briscoe’s future: After Power’s crash, about the only hope for Team Penske and Will Power to still win the championship was to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay mired back in the pack and prevent him from finishing fifth or higher. He finished fourth. Helio Castroneves had an ill-handling car most of the night and could not be counted on running beyond tenth. Ryan Briscoe had a better car and stayed in front of Hunter-Reay for some of the night, but that hope ended when he grazed the wall late in the race.
Now that Hunter-Reay has inked a two-year extension with Andretti Autosport, it appears almost certain that Team Penske will scale back to a two-car team for 2013 and that Ryan Brsicoe will be moving on. For his part, Briscoe began contacting teams earlier this summer. He had grown tired of not knowing his plans at Penske until February of each season. I can’t blame him there, but waiting for a deal at Penske to come through is better than firming up a deal at a lesser team in September.
Most reports have Briscoe landing back at Chip Ganassi Racing in the car to be vacated by Graham Rahal. Most would not call this a lesser ride, but I don’t think the “G2” teams of Ganassi are on the same footing with the two Target cars. I think Rahal thought that also, which explains his desire to move on. It’ll be interesting to see what a change of scenery does for Briscoe’s career.
Fearing the ovals: Although not a lot was discussed on the telecast (at least, what I saw) about Mike Conway’s decision to step out of the No. 14 car due to his fear of ovals – there was no shortage of opinions in cyberspace. I have my own opinions which I’ll discuss on Wednesday – although it’ll probably be old news by then.
All in all: One would think that Power crashing out early would have ended all of the drama of the evening – far from it. Ryan Hunter-Reay had an ill-handling car that had not been good all weekend. He also felt a shock going bad and had to battle rising oil temperatures as he nursed the car around all night en route to a fourth place finish – one spot better than he needed – and the season championship. It was high drama all night as we watched Power and then Hunter-Reay both face adversity.
The race itself was great also. There were twenty-nine lead changes among twelve different drivers. In the end, Ed Carpenter got by Dario Franchitti for the race lead, just before the yellow came out for Takuma Sato’s last-lap crash. It was a fitting end to a wild race and a great season.
I’ll discuss the entire 2012 season at some other point in the near future, but Saturday night was very exciting and entertaining.
Not only was the season-ending race exciting and exhilarating at times, there were smiles across the board. Sure there was disappointment in the Penske camp, but Will Power and all the other drivers went home safely. When you can have an exciting race that everyone was talking about the next day and have everyone walk away safely – that’s a successful race.