Random Thoughts On Pocono
After much anticipation, the IndyCar Pocono 400 is now in the books. There was a lot of hype going into this race and I was afraid it may fall short of expectations. While it wasn’t nail-biting excitement like some races at Texas have been – it was an extremely entertaining race that made me wish I had been there to see it live.
Apparently, the first break in the schedule since late April proved beneficial to Chip Ganassi Racing, as they finally scored their first win in almost a year with Scott Dixon coming away with the victory. This was a typical Dixon win. He was quiet throughout the weekend, but near the end of the race you looked up and found him in P1. That’s exactly what happened this weekend.
Dixon started seventeenth. He was not among the front-runners early on. That distinction went to Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan, to the extent that Eddie Cheever proclaimed it essentially a two-person race about a third of the way through. Marco finished tenth and Kanaan thirteenth.
From the open test on the Fourth of July, it appeared this race would belong to Marco Andretti, or at least his team. The third generation driver from nearby Nazareth, PA dominated every test and practice session at Pocono and won the Pole. Two of his three Andretti Autosport teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, finished out the starting front row. The Andretti cars were on a roll, having won the last two races and seemed poised to take this race as well.
But something happened between the command to start engines and the unfurling of the checkered flag. James Hinchcliffe‘s day ended almost before it got started, when his car got terribly loose entering Turn One on the first lap. The back end quickly snapped around and he was into the wall before he knew it. Fortunately, he eventually crawled out of the car with only a slight limp that he said was nothing. That was only the beginning of a nightmarish day for Michael Andretti’s team.
On Lap Sixty-One, the boneheaded move of the day occurred. While running third, Ryan Hunter-Reay entered the pits for his second pit stop of the day. Having slowed down to the mandatory 60 mph pit road speed limit, Hunter-Reay was biding his time as his car made its way to his pit. Out of nowhere, Takuma Sato came flying into the pits at what looked like well over 120 mph – more than twice the speed limit. Sato’s car climbed over the back of Hunter-Reay’s car sending him into the pit wall and effectively ending Hunter-Reay’s day and his hopes of overtaking Helio Castroneves as the points leader by the end of the afternoon. Sato’s explanation was that he simply misjudged his speed. Give Sato credit for owning up to his mistake, but his error in judgement could make the difference in Hunter-Reay defending his championship.
Marco Andretti was the class of the field. Through Lap 121, he led eighty-five laps of the scheduled 160 laps. But his fuel consumption was much heavier than anyone else. He pitted with thirty-four laps to go, but had to go into fuel consumption mode and quickly faded from contention. At the end of the race, he crossed the line in tenth position and promptly ran out of fuel. To say that Marco was not pleased would be an understatement.
If Sato’s error in judgment was the boneheaded move of the day, Tony Kanaan had the costliest move of the day when he clipped Scott Dixon’s car with his front wing on a routine pass. Not only was it costly in the championship, as he dropped from fifth to sixth – but it was especially costly in his bank account. Any hopes he had of sweeping the three triple crown races – Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana – vanished when he was forced to pit to change his front wing. Kanaan had been running second at the time and, aside from Marco, appeared to have the strongest car in the field. He also seemed to be getting much better fuel mileage than Marco. Had it not been for that mistake, I think Kanaan would have been in position to pull off his second win of the season.
Helio Castroneves ran in or near the Top-Five for most of the day but finished eighth. Still, his mediocre day was good enough to extend his points lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti – his closest pursuers.
But the day belonged to not only Scott Dixon, but to all of Chip Ganassi Racing. For the first time in their long history, all three Ganassi cars swept the podium. Charlie Kimball continued his breakout season with a strong second-place finish. Dario Franchitti earned a much-needed third place finish. I say “much-needed”, because even though his championship hopes are long gone – he needed this finish to show himself he could still do it. Although he is a four-time series champion and a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – when a driver goes through a bad streak like he has been on, they need to know they can still get the job done. Franchitti didn’t get the win, but he drove a heck of a race.
TV Coverage: This was ABC’s last race of the season. I have to say, I thought they went out on a high note. They made some gaffes – some rather significant. The most comical was when during pit-stop shuffles, Marty Reid proclaimed that Pippa Mann was being shown as the leader. This was as they followed her teammate driving around in the Boy Scouts car. They could have gotten away with that as just a misidentification, but while showing Wilson driving around identified as Pippa – they immediately cut to a shot of Pippa sitting still in the pits. Susan and I both looked at each other and said “What?”
ABC helped themselves by getting James Hinchcliffe in the booth after his early exit. Although he was extremely disappointed to not make it past one turn, he brought his enthusiasm and charisma to the booth on short notice. His wit, charm and keen insight was a valuable bonus for viewers.
But other than giving over-simplified explanations about a few racing matters, I thought the ABC crew did a much better job than what they’ve given us most of this season. They did a good job explaining the rich history of open-wheel racing at Pocono and they tried to convey some sense of excitement. While I’ve been harsh on the crew for most of this summer, I’d say they wrapped up the season with a solid B-Grade.
Reversal of fortune: I’ll credit Susan with this observation. She pointed out how unique it is for one entire team to sweep a three-car front row in qualifying and then have a completely different team sweep the podium at the end of the race.
While Andretti Autosport stole all the headlines leading up to the race, it was the Ganassi team that everyone had completely overlooked that grabbed the most important headlines after the race.
The Andretti cars earned the top three spots on the starting grid, but failed to place any of those drivers finish any higher than tenth – that was pole sitter Marco Andretti. In the meantime, the unheralded Ganassi drivers started seventeenth, twelfth and twentieth. Those cars finished first, second and third respectively.
Credit Chip Ganassi Racing for not throwing in the towel, as I had suspected they had. They obviously didn’t spend the off-weekend at the beach. Instead, they put their heads together to figure out how to turn around what had been a very miserable season to this point.
Also give credit to Honda for keeping their wits. After an embarrassing run on the ovals, they won this race and had six of the top-seven spots in the final standings. Only Will Power was able to spoil the Honda party at the top when he drove his Chevy-powered Dallara to a fourth-place finish.
Nashville Pride: To be honest, after Dario Franchitti announced that he and wife Ashley Judd were splitting up last winter – I’m not sure if he still lives here. I assume it was because of his wife that he lived here in the first place, unless the Scotsman has a secret love of country music that I’m not aware of. But for arguments sake, we’ll claim him until I hear that he has left us for good.
That being said, it was good to see two Nashvillians make up the Top-Five at Pocono yesterday. Not only did Dario Franchitti have a well-earned third-place finish; Nashville native Josef Newgarden quietly carved his way through the field to finish fifth. Why he and his team remain virtually unsponsored is beyond me. He is a marketer’s dream. He’s a personable young driver that is a natural in front of the camera and behind a microphone. Plus, it’s obvious the guy can drive. He has taken a once part-time team that was pretty much one-dimensional on the ovals, to a team that is now considered a contender at every race.
I would like to see Josef Newgarden stay at Sarah Fisher Hartemn Racing, but if they don’t get full-time sponsorship soon, I’m not sure how they will afford to keep him. While those that are all about nostalgia (like myself) yearn for the day that Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal come of age and revive their family names, there is a full-blooded American growing up before their very eyes. If I were Roger Penske or Tim Cindric, I would be doing everything I could to steer Newgarden toward Team Penske for the day that Helio Castroneves decides to hang up his helmet.
The Eagles in Concert: Forgive the personal update on my weekend activities, but I actually had several people ask me on Twitter how The Eagles concert in Louisville was, so I’ll give a quick debrief here.
In short – they were outstanding! Although they are all in their mid-sixties, they all still sing like they did forty years ago – unlike many old aging rockers who now sound terrible.
They played most of the old favorites for over three hours. Don Henley and Glenn Frey still have their pipes and can really belt it out. As an added bonus, original Eagle Bernie Leadon joined them on stage for the entire first set. If I had a complaint, it was that they left out some of their classic songs in favor of performing the entire Joe Walsh library of hits. While he is a great guitar player, Joe Walsh’s solo career could go completely ignored and it wouldn’t bother me. But other than that, it was a great night. We got up early Sunday morning, drove back to Nashville and caught the race on the DVR about an hour behind real time.
Following Pippa: It was good to see Pippa Mann finish the race and move up some. She spent most of the race on the lead lap until near the end but still came away with a decent fifteenth-place finish after qualifying twenty-first. Although she got few on-air mentions, I was able to follow her along when she did happen to get in a few camera shots. Aside from what Simon Pagenaud says, she appeared to drive a clean race and most importantly – got some very valuable seat time. I knew if she got a chance, she would prove she belongs.
All in all: To me, it was a very good race. Even though the drivers said it was tough to pass – there was passing. There weren’t the constant lead changes at the front like this year’s Indianapolis 500; but the passing was frequesnt enough to keep it entertaining – especially behind the leaders.
Except for the mistakes by Hinchcliffe, Sato and Kanaan, it was another very clean race. There were only two caution periods for the entire race and none past the one at Lap Sixty-One for the Sato Hunter-Reay incident.
This was an old-school type race. Not only did it involve a tremendous amount of talent on the track, but the teams had to be on their game on how to set up the car before the race and what strategy to utilize during the race. This race had all of those facets and is what appeals to me most.
I’m hoping the IndyCar Series returns for many years to Pocono. It appeared to be an overall success, but venues have a habit of dropping off of the IndyCar schedule for the strangest of reasons. It’s for that reason that I want to get up there next season if at all possible. Time will tell.