Random Thoughts On Long Beach
One thing you can say about the Verizon IndyCar Series – things don’t always follow the script. That was the case yesterday in the fortieth running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Following the script would have meant that the top two qualifiers – Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe would have battled each other for the win. But fate has a strange way of blowing up the script.
For most of the race, it appeared that Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe were headed for an all-Andretti showdown. Hunter-Reay started from the pole and had led all day long. Will Power made his final pit-stop earlier than anyone else in an attempt to duplicate the strategy that led to victory at Long Beach in 2012. But try as he might – Power failed to improve his position on his out lap and get ahead of Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe as they left the pits. Surprisingly, Josef Newgarden pitted after the two Andretti leaders and pulled off what Power could not – exiting the pits ahead of Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe and Power.
This is where the race took a seriously ugly turn. On Lap 55, as Newgarden was exiting the pits – he still had the lead, but was on cold tires. Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe both had their tires up to temperature. It was a foregone conclusion that Newgarden would surrender the lead on his out lap. But Hunter-Reay was impatient and tried to pass Newgarden in Turn Four, where it is very narrow and difficult to execute a pass. He would have been better served to wait for a better passing zone on that lap or to try and overtake Newgarden on the main straightaway at the beginning of the next lap.
Shoulda, coulda, woulda – Hunter-Reay stuck the nose of his car inside to Newgarden’s right. Newgarden followed his line and the two cars touched. The ensuing melee was one to remember. Altogether, there were five cars taken out in the crash, including Newgarden, Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe, who were all running First, second and third respectively. Will Power skirted free of the mayhem and it looked like he would score his fourth win in a row.
But a funny thing happened on the re-start. Power allowed Mike Conway to get past him in Ed Carpenter’s Fuzzy’s Vodka car. Scott Dixon was up front, since he had not pitted. After another yellow, it looked like Dixon may be able to hold on with worn out tires and a near-empty fuel cell. Had there been just one more yellow in the final stages, Dixon may have been able to finally score a win on a track that has been brutal to him over the years. It was not to be. Dixon was called in for fuel with two laps remaining. Power had nothing for Conway, who went on to score his second Long Beach win in four years. Power settled for second and now has a commanding points lead. Conway is twenty-seven points behind in second, but is a non-factor since he will not be running the ovals. Power’s closest threat is Simon Pagenaud, who is thirty-three points behind.
Pagenaud was the beneficiary of a Power punt into the tire barrier. While I thought it could have gone either way, Pagenaud was furious with Power after the race. Power was very apologetic, so I guess he gets the blame.
TV Coverage: This was this year’s debut for NBCSN’s Verizion IndyCar coverage. They did their usual good job and I have no real complaints. The only problem they have now is that since ABC/ESPN stepped up their coverage so much at St. Petersburg, the stellar job that NBCSN has done over the years no longer stands out as much. They still have their trump card of a Saturday Qualifying show that ABC doesn’t, which will always get the peacock network some key points over their rival.
This was also the IndyCar debut of Kelli Stavast. Although she has covered motorsports before, I was not familiar with her. But I thought she did an excellent job. If she was nervous, she didn’t appear to be. She also seemed very knowledgeable about the nuances of this series. She handled herself like a pro and I see no reason why she won’t do a stellar job.
Unfortunately, it appears she may be on the telecast at the expense of Jon Beekhuis. Although Beekhuis will do a few races when Marty Snider is not available – he will be on the sidelines for many Verizon IndyCar races that NBCSN is covering. That’s a shame, although I always felt “Professor B” was more suited for the booth than as a pit reporter. Perhaps when NASCAR moves to NBC next season, Marty Snider will move to NASCAR and Jon can return to the IndyCar broadcast team full-time.
Paul Tracy also made his debut in the booth. Fortunately, we got the good Paul Tracy who gave good insight from a very interesting perspective. He was on good behavior, but didn’t seem to be tempering his candid comments. If he can keep up this performance, I look forward to more races he does. If he would only pronounce Helio correctly, instead of HEE-le-o.
Good crowd: For those that wonder why the Verizon IndyCar Series has street courses – look no further than the crowd that attended Long Beach over the three-day weekend. From what I heard, each day was packed. This is certainly not the case with all street races, and I’m certainly much more of an oval guy – but the huge crowd looked great on television. Fortunately, the broadcast was not going against any other racing or NCAA basketball. The Masters was going on, but I’m hoping this race garners a decent rating. If anyone tuned in, they saw an entertaining race in front of packed stands. Maybe they’ll be more inclined to tune into Barber in two weeks.
The Rahal slide continues: I’m not talking about the team of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. I’m talking about the driver, Graham Rahal. He has a new engineer that has an excellent reputation. He has one of the most coveted sponsorship packages in the paddock. He also has job security, since his father owns the team. But there is something not connecting with Graham. One might wonder if he was not anxious to get a teammate, so that he would not be exposed.
For the second week in a row, Rahal started dead-last on the grid. This week, however – Rahal had a teammate in Oriol Servia, who I’ve always thought was one of the most underrated drivers in the paddock. With very little testing time, Servia qualified twelfth in debut with RLLR and finished seventh. To his credit, Rahal had worked his way up to seventh before a late shunt in the hairpin forced him into a thirteenth place finish.
If young Rahal doesn’t turn this season around soon, he is going to be out of excuses. He has been quick to blame others for his problems, yet he continues to slide further and further away from the promise he showed as an eighteen year-old rookie.
All in all: This was an entertaining, but sloppy race. Had it not been for Ryan Hunter-Reay being so impatient on Lap 55 and taking out several front-runners – I’m not sure it would have been that entertaining. Hunter-Reay was dialed in and running away with it. Hinchcliffe seemed content to run for second, but perhaps would have gone for the win at the end. We’ll never know, because of what happened
Personally, I was pulling for Josef Newgarden to get his first win. The third-year driver from Nashville should be poised for a breakout season. If he can stay out of trouble, I think he will get a win or two this year.
But Hunter-Reay wasn’t the only one that made a bad decision. Will Power, Justin Wilson, Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves and Sebastian Saavedra are just a few that made a bone-headed move or two. Sébastien Bourdais found the tire barrier more than once. Juan Montoya showed that he has knocked most of the rust off and still knows how to drive an open-wheel car.
Was it the best race I’ve ever seen? No, but it was more entertaining than St. Petersburg a couple of weeks ago. I’ll be in attendance at the next race in two weeks at Barber. It’ll be curious to see what kind of show they put on there.