Random Thoughts On Iowa
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.