Random Thoughts On Watkins Glen
The race at Watkins Glen that we had been waiting for since we found out about it in May, finally took place yesterday. To be honest, I found it to be an odd race. On paper it should have been a very boring race, but it wasn’t. Scott Dixon was on another planet compared to the rest of the grid ever since they unloaded off of the truck on Friday. He completely dominated the weekend and the race yesterday on his way to winning his fourth race at Watkins Glen in seven tries, and his second of the season. Consequently, he and Helio Castroneves are now tied for a distant third in the championship standings.
But it is what went on behind Dixon in yesterday’s race that defied logic. The field didn’t even get past Turn One on the first lap, before there was contact among several cars. Surprisingly, they were all able to get going again before the field came back around – thereby keeping the race under green conditions. Points leader Simon Pagenaud was able to get a good jump on the field and moved from eighth place to third on the first lap. It didn’t take long for Dixon to check out on the rest of the field. Will Power started second and had a good lead on his teammate and points rival Pagenaud, but quickly lost touch with Dixon.
After crashing in practice on Saturday, Josef Newgarden started twelfth, but finished second. That was the spot that seemed destined for James Hinchcliffe, who started thirteenth after being penalized in qualifying. Hinch was running second in the late stages before running out of fuel, relegating him to a disappointing eighteenth place finish. That was not the only disappointment for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team. Mikhail Aleshin also suffered a penalty in qualifying, forcing him to start tenth instead of a spot in the Firestone Fast Six. On Lap 15, Aleshin suffered a catastrophic tire failure in Turn Four. The tire explosion shot rear bodywork all over the track and sent Aleshin into a scary spin. Although his car was heavily damaged, the Russian emerged unscathed.
It was a timely caution for some, not so for others. Scott Dixon and Max Chilton had just pitted before the caution. Point leaders, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power among others were not as lucky. They pitted once pits were opened and fell to mid-pack, among the others near the front that had yet to pit.
Once the race re-started, it didn’t stay green very long. Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball touched in Turn One, sending Rahal headfirst into a frightening collision with the inside tire barrier. Rahal would later say he thought it was the hardest hit he has ever had in racing. It looked like it. Kimball carried in the race while Rahal had some pointed comments regarding Kimball.
Charlie Kimball was also involved in the next and final yellow. As he tried to pass Will Power on the outside on the backstretch, Power drifted over to the left and into Kimball’s front wing. The result was Kimball continuing as Power lost control and pancaked the outside wall, ending his day and possibly his championship.
I’m not a racer and it is hard for me to tell who was at fault in each incident. Initially, I thought Kimball was at fault in both of them, but he made a case after the race showing how the other driver was at fault in each incident. Apparently, it was hard for Race Control to tell as well, because they chose to penalize no one in each incident. Ultimately, that was probably the correct decision.
That caution period lasted from Lap 39 to Lap 41 – ending with nineteen laps to go. That exceeded the maximum fuel window by one lap. Helio Castroneves had to pit for a splash of fuel with three to go, yet still finished third. James Hinchcliffe ran out of fuel before the end and Conor Daly ran dry on his cool-down lap. Points leader Simon Pagenaud crept around in the final laps in an effort to save fuel and finally made it, crossing the line in seventh. Scott Dixon, famous for his ability to save fuel (I will not use the trite “make fuel” term, that Jack Arute coined a few years ago), was able to stretch his lead and still make it to the end.
It was a good race and one that kept my interest from start to finish. As I said earlier – if you just looked at the box score, you would see that Scott Dixon started on pole and then proceeded to lead fifty of the sixty laps scheduled. One would conclude from that that the race was a yawner. It wasn’t.
Now the series is set up to move on to the season finale at Sonoma in two weeks – a race that pays double points, by the way. I am not a fan of the double points at any race, and wish it would go away for next year. But since we have it, Will Power still has a shot at winning the championship, now trailing Pagenaud by forty-three points – that is, if he races. He has not yet been cleared to drive, suffering from concussion-like symptoms. More on that later.
I think Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves still have a mathematical shot at the championship, but being 104 points behind, they may not. I believe there are only 103 points in play next week so it may already be over except for Pagenaud and Power. In all reality – the rest are now racing for pride. If the finale at Sonoma has as many side stories as yesterday’s race had, it should be an interesting show.
TV Coverage: For the second week in a row, Kevin Lee was in the booth as the lead announcer for NBCSN. And for the second week in a row, I’ll say that a case could be made for Lee to be in the booth permanently. He is pleasant, personable and the consummate professional. Plus, he knows this sport like th back of his hand. Like Bob Jenkins and Paul Page before him, Kevin Lee grew up in Indianapolis and IndyCar racing is in his blood. Not only does he know the sport, he knows the drivers, the team owners and the key players within IndyCar and IMS. He is balanced enough to call Pacers and Colts games, and has proven over the last two races that he can call IndyCar races. We all talk about date equity and the continuity of the IndyCar schedule. I think it also helps to have the same voice week after week calling the races – at least for the NBCSN portion.
I would also give a shout-out to Jake Query, who is normally a turn announcer on the IndyCar Radio Network. He hosted the Friday morning practice on NBCSN in place of Kevin Lee, who had to do a Colts game the night before, and did a masterful job.. I’ve always considered Query to be one of the most professional sounding announcers on IndyCar radio. He handles everything very well and never gets flustered. As professional as he sounds on the radio, you’d never know he has one of the most sarcastic wits on Twitter. If you are on Twitter and don’t follow Jake Query (@jakequery), you should.
Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy provided their usual spot-on analysis, and Robin Miller, Jon Beekhuis and Katie Hargitt did their usual good job in the pits. It’s easy to get spoiled with the job that NBCSN does in covering the series.
Shameless plugs: In Friday’s practice, I noticed that Scott Dixon went out of his way to plug the new Advanced Verizon 4GLTE network, since Verizon is the primary sponsor for Team Penske and Will Power – not Chip Ganassi Racing and Scott Dixon.
By Saturday’s qualifying, it had become a joke as every driver in the paddock was giving the plug. By then it was obvious that the series sponsor had programmed each and every driver to pitch their new network. Helio Castroneves confirmed what most already knew when he confessed he was reading it from the bottom of the monitor in front of him.
I have no problem with sponsors pitching their products at races. That’s why they are there and no racing series could survive without their life blood (read: money). But I think Verizon could have come up with something a little more effective than giving an edict to every driver to plug a product that they obviously knew nothing about. Your opinion may differ, but I thought it came across as Amateur Night.
Ill-timed cautions: Is it me, or does this seem like the season of ill-timed cautions. The random yellow flag has always been a double-edged sword. Sometimes it is welcomed by drivers and others can’t believe their misfortune –but they have always been a part of racing. But this season, it seems like more and more people have had bad luck by a caution falling the wrong way just before or after a pit stop. While Scott Dixon benefited yesterday at Watkins Glen, he got bitten by it at Toronto.
An ill-timed caution probably cost Helio Castroneves a win at Belle Isle earlier this season, if he had just pitted one lap earlier. Instead, he finished fifteenth on a day when he was the class of the field.
At the Indianapolis 500, the entire field suffered when the last yellow came out on Lap 163 when Takuma Sato crashed. Most pitted, but it was right at the cusp of the fuel window. They were hoping for one more yellow that never came. One by one, they all pitted for a splash of fuel at the end – all except for Alexander Rossi. Had that caution come out ten laps later, the race would have had a much different complexion at the end.
It seems to me that every race this season had had at least one ill-timed yellow, if not more. Is it my imagination or am I on to something?
Line of the day: Without question, the line of the day belonged to Paul Tracy. The discussion in the booth was whether or not Marco Andretti might go under Bryan Herta’s part of the team, but still under the Andretti Autosport umbrella. All in the booth were in agreement that Marco needed a change of scenery, but his results bring him no value on the open market.
But Paul Tracy summed it up when he said “The only ride that Marco could get right now would be Uber”. Well played.
Being careful: As I mentioned earlier, there is some question if Will Power will even be allowed to race for the championship in two weeks at Sonoma after his car hit the wall sideways yesterday on Lap 39.
That seems odd, considering how light the hit looked. But you can’t tell by what you see on television. Looking at the crash in which Dale Earnhardt was fatally injured in 2001, it looks like he barely brushed the wall with the nose of his car. Not once did it cross my mind that that wreck would result in a fatality. It’s also odd that Power missed the first race with concussion-like symptoms after a practice crash at St. Petersburg. How ironic would it be if Power missed the first and last race with the same problem?
But concussions are nothing to laugh at. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. just announced this weekend that he will sit out the remaining NASCAR season with the same problem. Dario Franchitti has recently revealed how concussions have altered his core personality. IndyCar is right to make sure that Power is able to drive before putting him in harm’s way again.
We’ve all learned from the NFL’s mistakes of allowing its players to compete further with concussion-like symptoms. We now know that having one makes it easier to get another and then another.
As much as Power wants to race for his second championship, there is life after racing that he needs to think about – on top of the safety of his fellow competitors on the track. No one wants a driver driving around in a fog, no matter how much he wants to race for the championship.
As much as I’d like to see Power take this thing to the very last lap, I think IndyCar is doing the right thing by making sure Power is not a danger to himself or his fellow drivers.
Public venting: When a race finishes a little early, the post-race show has lots of time to fill. How else would you explain an extended on-air conversation with Jack Hawksworth, who currently sits in twentieth – the lowest of any driver that has started every race? Hawksworth looked justifiably dejected and was at a loss as he tried to explain what the team was lacking.
For what it’s worth, I think Jack Hawksworth is a much better driver than what the results are showing. Let’s be honest, the second Foyt car is probably one of the most underfunded and understaffed car in the paddock. They couldn’t get out of their own way with one car. The second car has had abysmal results over the last two seasons.
But I don’t know if Hawksworth did his short-term future any favors by publicly saying that the team had to get back to fundamentals to try and solve things. My interpretation was that Hawksworth was saying no one on his team had a clue. That may be true, but going public with that will probably rankle the feelings of his ultimate boss – AJ Foyt. Once a driver does that his days are usually numbered – if they weren’t already. I just hope Hawksworth can salvage another chance elsewhere and doesn’t join that long list of drivers whose career went to AJ Foyt Enterprises to die and never be heard from again. The names Vitor Meira and Darren Manning come to mind, along with a host of others.
All in all: Yesterday’s race at Watkins Glen didn’t come close to matching the excitement that the Firestone 600 at Texas did the week before. No one expected it to. If you did expect it to provide the same type of fireworks as Texas, you don’t know much about racing.
What it did provide was a hard-fought race with lots of twists and turns along the plot lines, as it set up an interesting confrontation between Simon Pagenaud and his Team Penske teammate Will Power. I believe that the championship has now been guaranteed for Team Penske. If Power races, The Captain and Tim Cindric are now able to let the two of them go at it, without worrying about taking each other out – because the team has already won it. Let’s just hope Power races in two weeks, or the race will be about nothing but pride. That won’t be good for anyone.