Random Thoughts On Iowa

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Never have I seen a race so dominated by a driver, when I felt so nervous and so unsure of the outcome as I did in yesterday’s Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway. From the drop of the green flag, Nashville native Josef Newgarden took the lead and never looked back on his way to his third career Verizon IndyCar Series victory and his first on an oval.

Except for the pit stops cycling through, Josef Newgarden led wire to wire on the 0.875 mile oval at Newton, Iowa. For the record, Newgarden led 282 of the 300 laps yesterday. That is more laps than any driver has ever led in a single IndyCar race. Since no other track on the IndyCar schedule comes close to three-hundred laps, that’s probably a record that will be safe for a while.

Newgarden had several opportunities to give up his substantial lead. At one point, he had a thirteen-second lead over second-place Simon Pagenaud, who was the only other car on the lead lap at that point. As he came upon each slower car on the busy track, I held my breath thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Yet Newgarden was flawless as he surgically carved his way through the field.

I also worried about Newgarden’s crew on pit stops. Over the last couple of years, his crew has let him down several times before – including last year at Iowa where they fumbled the last stop and cost him the win, in all likelihood.

His first pit stop was under green and he pitted somewhat early – on Lap 52, I believe. He had just over a two-second lead over Pagenaud when he went into the pits. By the time the pit stops cycled through, Newgarden led Pagenaud by twelve seconds. No problems there.

In fact, his Ed Carpenter Racing crew went head-to-head against the Team Penske crew of Simon Pagenaud all day, and they did exactly what they had to do – keep Newgarden out front.

Restarts are always nerve-wracking for the car out in front. But Newgarden out-dueled Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon on restarts and came out ahead every time. It’s a cliché, but Josef Newgarden did not put a wheel wrong all day long.

Just because the race was completely dominated by Newgarden, does not mean yesterday’s race was boring. Far from it.

There was great racing from second place on back. With so much hard racing, it’s amazing that there were only three caution periods, and two of those were for blown engines. Max Chilton spun on the backstretch and skidded to a stop without hitting anything.

While no one had anything for Newgarden, several drivers looked as though they might take a run at Pagenaud. Tony Kanaan looked racy, but could never get past the bright yellow Menard’s car of Pagenaud. Then Helio Castroneves took his shot. Then Will Power. But two-thirds of the way into the race, Pagenaud seemed to have a firm grip on second. I just had this feeling that the points leader was going to lay back in second and wait for Newgarden to make a mistake and then pounce. If that was his strategy, it didn’t happen. By the last re-start, Scott Dixon had passed Pagenaud. So did Will Power in the closing laps.

In the past, I’ve been accused of being a cheerleader for the Verizon IndyCar Series. I don’t see it that way, and feel like I’ve been a straight-shooter over the years. But if you feel I’m a cheerleader, you probably will want to stop reading this section about now.

If you weren’t beaming after yesterday’s race, you may want to go follow another sport. Yesterday’s race at Iowa is the exact reason I have followed this sport for several decades. It typified what I love about IndyCar racing. The track provided great racing, the drivers raced hard and mostly without incident. It gave fans a great event with a very popular champion driving for an underdog team. If you found something wrong with the racing at Iowa yesterday – well, it must be miserable being you.

Congratulations to Josef Newgarden. Not only did he drive a flawless race, but he did it with a broken hand and a broken clavicle held together by thirteen screws. That was a drive that would make AJ Foyt proud.

TV Coverage: Although he’s been on the NBCSN broadcast for a few years now, I keep surprising myself at how much I like Paul Tracy as a race analyst – considering I was never a big fan of his in his driving days. He makes sensible comments and doesn’t try to be outrageous. His commentary has merit too, considering he just stepped out of the cockpit less than five years ago after a twenty-year career that spanned driving for the top teams in the sport as well as teams with the smallest budgets. I really like his presence in the booth.

Brian Till was solid yesterday. He has a lot of on-track experience as well as being a good broadcaster. Leigh Diffey has been on so few broadcasts this season that I wouldn’t mind Till or anyone else that is decent to sit there and direct traffic in the booth. With Tracy and Townsend Bell there, so long as you’re solid – that’s all you need to be.

Sometimes, I’m not a fan of Robin Miller’s Grid Run, but lately – he’s been getting better participation from the drivers and doing better “on the run” interviewing. Yesterday’s was especially entertaining and he finished it off with a nice tribute to the late Carl Haas.

I also liked Jon Beekhuis bringing out the old-fashioned white board to discuss fuel-window strategy. I’m a visual guy and it made a lot more sense seeing him explain it on the white board.

My only two complaints about NBCSN’s coverage yesterday is that they cut away to commercials just as the leaders were pitting for the first time. Granted it was earlier than expected, but they should have picked their spots better.

The only other complaint was how practically everyone on the air kept on referring to the race as “tonight”. Maybe the race finished at 7:30 on the east coast, but I’m sure it was just as bright there as it was in Iowa – which means…it was daytime!

Bad commercial: This has nothing to do with the TV coverage, but lately I’ve been seeing two of the worst commercials of all time. The Graham Rahal commercial where he directs the different sounds of racing would normally be considered the worst ever. However, it is superseded by the Butterball commercial featuring Ryan Hunter-Reay and Michael Andretti, where Andretti warns Hunter-Reay to not eat before the race or he might get Indy-gestion. Please.

Bad rule: Although it prevents complete and total domination, I am not a fan of the wave-around rule that allowed many of the cars that Newgarden lapped to get back on the lead lap. When the first yellow came out, Josef Newgarden had lapped the entire field with the exception of Simon Pagenaud – and he wasn’t too far from lapping him. It was frustrating enough for Newgarden to have to re-start the race with Pagenaud directly behind him, but to give the lap back to nine more cars to put eleven cars all on the lead lap is nothing more than manufactured competition. If you get lapped, it should be up to you to un-lap yourself.

Unfazed by injury: I don’t know which was more impressive yesterday – the way Josef Newgarden put on a clinic, or that he won the race with a surgically repaired clavicle and a broken hand. Keep in mind, yesterday’s picture-perfect win by Newgarden follows a great drive at Road America where he confounded everyone by even climbing into the car. Then he proceeded to move up from the back of the field to finish eighth, while he was dealing with severe pain.

If you weren’t a Josef Newgarden fan prior to the last month, you‘d be hard-pressed to not be a fan now. Not only is he a great driver, but he has shown grit and a toughness that we haven’t seen in a long time. On top of that, he is a marketer’s dream. He’s good looking, funny and charming.

Plus, did you see his post race interview? When asked if he was nervous about the last pit stop and a repeat of last year, he quickly deflected the question and said his guys were the best in the business. That may or may not be true, but Newgarden was not about to let any doubt linger about his team’s ability. His crew has got to love him for that.

Andretti woes: After qualifying on Saturday, it was no surprise that the six-year winning streak at Iowa came to an end yesterday for Andretti Autosport. Carlos Muñoz was the top qualifying Andretti car at fifteenth. Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi qualified seventeenth, while Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay – winners of four of the last five races at Iowa – both qualified on the next to the last row.

Clearly, Honda was at a disadvantage at Iowa – with Mikhail Aleshin qualifying highest of the Honda camp in ninth; but Michael Andretti’s team just simply could not find the handle on the setup this weekend. Hunter-Reay looked like he had finally been put out of his misery after his Honda went up in flames and a trail of smoke. He indicated that the engine letting go was the least of the team’s problems. I wonder if RHR is re-thinking his decision a few years ago to snub Roger Penske and re-sign with Andretti.

Chevy issues? Two of Simon Pagenaud’s worst finishes this season have come about due to a mysterious glitch in the electronics. Scott Dixon had a DNF at Road America due to an electronic issue in the engine. Tony Kanaan’s engine mysteriously cut off on him for a few seconds at a crucial spot in the race, before coming back on. He’s lucky it only cost him one position. The common denominator with these cars is that they all have Chevy engines.

It begs the question – does Chevy have an electronics issue? While it would have been a great comfort to have a Chevy engine for a driver yesterday; it has to be a little disconcerting to Chevy drivers to know that a gremlin could surface and end your day immediately. Still, yesterday I would have rolled the dice and stuck with a Chevy. But you wonder if this could be the wild card in Simon Pagenaud’s championship run.

Drive of the day: Of course, the drive of the day really belongs to Josef Newgarden for the way he schooled the entire field. But beyond that – the drive of the day had to belong to James Hinchcliffe, who started dead-last and finished ninth. He didn’t pass thirteen cars by using pit strategy or saving fuel. He did it the old-fashioned way – by going faster than they did on the track and passing them. What a unique concept!

Points battle: Josef Newgarden jumped ahead of Scott Dixon, Will Power and Helio Castroneves to land in sole possession of second place in the championship standings. While he only finished fourth yesterday; Simon Pagenaud lost only one point in the lead he had prior to going to Iowa. Before winning the pole, Pagenaud had a seventy-four point lead over Helio Castroneves. He leaves Iowa with a seventy-three point lead over Newgarden.

Many are lobbying for Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly to be allowed to run the conclusion to the Texas race in August. While I’m a big Newgarden fan and would love to see him win the championship; I’m a bigger fan of sticking to the rulebook. If you start changing rules just to bend to popularity – then why have a rulebook at all? While I think fans should be listened to, I admire Jay Frye for sticking to his guns and not being swayed by the fans on this one.

All in all: To use yet another cliché, yesterday’s race was one for the ages. Maybe it’s because I’m such a Newgarden fan. Nothing against Simon Pagenaud, but had he won and extended his points lead – I doubt that I would be beaming as much as I was yesterday immediately following the race. But since it featured a dominant performance by a driver that I really like, dealing with the painful circumstances he faced – it was a race I’ll remember for a long time.

IndyCar now has two feel-good races in a row. They were already coming off of an unbelievable crowd at Road America that featured an exciting race. Now they head into Toronto on the heels of one of the best races I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s hoping they can capitalize on all of this feel-good momentum.

George Phillips

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22 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Iowa”

  1. madtad1 Says:

    Kudos to NBC for a very good job of showing racing and passing throughout the field. I shudder to think what a horrible job Always Bad Coverage would have done with this race.

    I do hope NBC does some investigating into the mysterious engine glitches with Chevy. That thing with TK was damned weird; in the post race he admitted he didn’t know what happened, tho his comment was hysterical! “No power, no power, there’s Will Power…” Losing power like that on a high speed oval could be a recipe for disaster. Ditto on a blind curve on any of the twisties.

    Can’t wait for Toronto!

  2. Joe Newgarten fan. Lots of talk about him going to big team, which I’m fine with, but there’s something about him running with a small team I like too. Curious how poorly Carpenter ran considering how dominate Joe’s car was. Big Iowa fan. If I won the lottery I’d build another Iowa on my back forty to host a race once a year, right after I bought a back forty.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Carpenter was competitive yesterday, spending plenty of time in the top 10, until he had gearbox trouble.

  3. Epic as usual at the track. My 10th year in a row going to Iowa race. Glad they re-upped for two more years. Sponsor happy, fans happy, everyone happy. A great event for our area.

  4. That was as good as I have seen in a while. ECR really put together a big day and with that I am not surprised. Ed has always shown that he has the goods to become a top team owner. However, there are two other teams coming after Josef Newgarden and maybe Ed can settle this situation soon. Ed works great with these guys and they all appear to enjoy working with him, too.

    • SkipinSC Says:

      I am somewhat concerned about what happens with ECR when Newgarden departs (which I believe falls perilously close to a foregone conclusion.) Who are THEY going to go find to replace Josef when he goes to Penske or Ganassi? That’s certainly going to be a crossroads, since Ed is probably getting ready to step away from driving altogether. Who’s out there that’s going to be the NEXT big thing?

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Josef is currently ahead of 3 Penske drivers and 4 Ganassi drivers, has a excellent engineer and crew, and is having fun. What do you see as his incentive to leave that behind?

        • SkipinSC Says:

          $$$$$$ and opportunity, at least perceived. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see him sign on with Ed for at least another year, but I just don’t see it happening.

          • Ron Ford Says:

            You are probably right. I could stand to be a bit more rooted in reality-at least that is what my daughter says.

    • Skip, it looks like JR Hildebrand is getting that seat when Josef leaves.

  5. S0CSeven Says:

    When half of the field (my half) is totally out of contention for a win before the green flag even waves, there’s no race and there’s a problem. This aero kit phase has had it’s day and is ruining races for me.

    And I wouldn’t like it if it was the other way around either.

  6. keith r Says:

    Fun race to watch… I agree on the comment about newgarden and Dailys being able to race at Texas… But are all the other teams going to continue with their cars as they were when the race stopped? Or have they been used at other races and will need to be re-set up or even rebuilt from a crash since? So if that is all true could newgarden and dailys cars be fixed up as well… Even though a car crashes during a race, a crew can (depending severity and laps remaining) get it fixed up to turn a few more laps…

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    I have been a fan of Josef Nicolai Newgarden since Sarah Fisher hired him, so I was more than just happy to see him put a Vukovich style whuppin’ on the rest of the field. (Drivers are lining up to get some of those clavicle pins installed) In fact I am still a bit medicinally enhanced from my jug of Four Roses Small Batch.
    This must be a very satisfying result for Sarah, Wink, and Ed who have invested a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and money in Joe Newgarden. This was also a good result for the series IMO.

    Of course, there are now even more comments about whether he will wind up with either Penske or Ganassi next season. To those folks I will say this: Yesterday Newgarden with his underdog team simply ran away from the best in the business. He said that at times it “seemed like a video game”. No other team matched the car setup that he was provided with, and it should be mentioned that J.R. Hildebrand played a significant role in that. Changing race teams does not automatically provide better results. It is not likely that Penske or Ganassi would allow Josef Newgarden to bring his engineer and other team members with him. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, or as they have been known to say in the hoots and hollers of Tennessee: “Dance with the girl what brung ya.” I’m a loyalty guy.

    Having said that, I can’t help but wonder about the difference in results between the 20 and 21 cars this season.

    Does anyone know if Curt Cavin is on vacation? The Iowa race result story in the Indianapolis Star was written by some guy from USA Today.

    Doug Boles, Jay Frye, Road America, Newgarden, the Glen…….

    • I have mixed views on this. I really want ECR to make the jump to Big Three status. On the other hand… I do not want Newgarden to end up like Wilson and Unified Indycar Bourdias who ends up never getting a realistic shot at multiple titles. I dislike Penske and Ganassi domination, but what I really dislike is the drivers they have. If Penske/Ganassi were to be Hinchcliffe, Newgarden, and Pigot then it would be more bearable. I think in the end if ECR can’t get strong funding for two cars, he’s gotta jump.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        I don’t find myself liking or disliking drivers and their personalities much, so I find your “immense” dislike for Scott Dixon curious. Wow! Does he owe you money? Good points though, particularly about Wilson and Bourdais.

        • Another big issue is pit crew. Newgarden’s pit crew has failed him many times, including this season. The speed gap in pit crews between Penske, Ganassi, and everyone else in Indycar is rather noticeable and that alone could be worth a change. In some ways Newgarden might be in a similar situation to Pagenaud. Clearly one of the top 5 drivers and able to win races and finish top 5 in points year after year. But can he win a title without Penske and Ganassi? I hope so, but I think it’s reasonable to doubt. Look at how good Rahal’s team was last year compared to this year. Look at how KV, Newman Haas, and even Coyne were so competitive and then fell off the wagon. One of my biggest issues with Indycar since 08 has been that teams rise up, almost take on Penske/Ganassi, then collapse. Even Andretti has been in this cycle. Newgarden moving to Penske/Ganassi might be the right move if he thinks ECR is about to fall down. Sadly, what that comes down to is sponsorship money… and if ECR can’t reliably fund two full and strong programs he’s got to jump. Even Andretti struggles with funds, so that’s another problem.

          Rahal had a great 2015 and he’s been fine in 2016. But for him to be competitive Rahal Letterman’s got to get enough funding for a full time and strong second car. Ideally the future of Indycar is a very strong ECR and Rahal Letterman joining the ranks of the Big Two and Andretti reviving… but I’m not sure that’s realistic.

          • Ron Ford Says:

            Yes, I was holding my breath every time Newgarden made a pit stop Sunday. The rather sharp Andretti fall off is puzzling, at least to me. I don’t think they have gotten paid yet from NOLA.

  8. sejarzo Says:

    I’ve wondered the same thing about recent Chevy engine glitches (though I am unsure if TK suffered an engine or gearbox glitch yesterday.) Both Honda and Chevy must use the same ECU from McLaren, running software supplied by the series–so the problem would appear to stem from somewhere between the ECU and the engine itself, if there really is a problem.

  9. I am a huge Newgarden fan, and I agree the possibility of him being taken out on pit road by his own crew was very concerning. However much I like Newgarden, that was probably the most boring race of 2016, and probably the worst race at Iowa since the 07/08 timeframe. It just wasn’t very interesting beyond the enjoyment of seeing Penske and Ganassi cars get lapped.

    As for Texas, I really want them to just restart the race from the beginning. The Indycar rulebook is already “flexible” enough, and Indycar needs to be exciting, because frankly this season’s been kinda dull. Restarting Texas accomplishes that, and gets Newgarden into the title fight which is good… unless you want the title clinched at the Glen. But really, there is a better reason to restart. Indycar cannot afford to lose another oval, and there are already issues with Texas. Texas deserves a full, real race to sell to their fans. I dislike Scott Dixon immensely, but I think his comments on Texas were spot on. Eddie Gossange and Texas need a full race not the rain farce and 3/4ths of the race two months later.

  10. hey George. best thing to happen to the vics is josef stepping up and taking the lead for the young americans in the series. now what would be even better would be josef and graham rahal battling for the title! congrats to josef and ed carpenter racing!

  11. billytheskink Says:

    I’m not saying I will get actively angry in the future when someone other than Jan Beekhuis is trying to explain pit strategy, but the possibility is there.
    The guy is simply amazing analyzing this sport.

    George, you liked last year’s Sunoco ad with Rahal getting out of the shower better than the this year’s “music conductor” ad?

    • I gave Professor B an A for his performance Sunday. Maybe because I am a white board user in the classroom too. His strategy explanations made sense.

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