By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
MADISON, Ill. — Post-race review and analysis from the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Will Power. The Australian surged around pole-sitter Scott Dixon on Lap 150 and overcame Alexander Rossi’s late fuel strategy play to earn his third win of 2018.
The summer’s IndyCar championship battle between veteran leader Scott Dixon and scrappy challenger Alexander Rossi hasn’t been a tale of big swings or surprises.
It’s been a battle in the trenches, and in recent weeks Rossi’s had the upper hand.
After a shaky opening to the season for all competitors through the Indianapolis 500, Rossi and Dixon have risen above the pack on sheer consistency through the bulk of the IndyCar schedule. Both drivers have endured at least one shaky result — Dixon struggled to 12th at Iowa, while Rossi finished 16th and 12th at Road America and Detroit — but outside of those fluke incidents the pair have ended every race in the top 10.
Dixon’s led the way with eight podiums in his past 11 starts, but Rossi’s been right behind him with five podiums during the same stretch. The light advantage for Dixon helped the New Zealander stretch out to a sizable advantage in the standings, but a recent surge from Rossi has seen the third-year Andretti Autosport star close the gap.
Rossi entered Gateway on a tear, having won the prior two races in dominant fashion to march his way back into the title fight. Dixon still held the advantage due to his unparalleled consistency, but the No. 27 team’s ability to elevate Rossi a step above Dixon have put the Californian in position to steal his first IndyCar title if he can continue to find a way to best Dixon in each race.
He did just that on Saturday, stretching fuel over the final run to the checkered flag to take one fewer pit stop than Dixon in the 248-lap race. The aggressive call wasn’t enough for Rossi to overcome race-winner Will Power, but it helped him salvage a second-place result that just beat out Dixon in third.
“It’s a mental game because you’re trying to obviously hit a fuel number to go X amount of laps, and it was a very, very big fuel number,” Rossi said of his fuel strategy. “Unlike the 500 in 2016, I didn’t have a teammate to tote me around, so I had to figure out how to do it myself, which was a big challenge.
“But huge hats off to Rob Edwards and the whole 27 NAPA Andretti team for coming up with it and keeping the faith that I could manage it. It was just enough at the end. Obviously you want to win the race, but the goal really is to beat Scott, and we were able to do that, despite it only be a couple-point swing. It’s something, right? So we’ll take that and we’ll refocus and recenter ahead of Portland.”
Dixon was forced to watch his championship lead decrease for the third-consecutive race. But once again the loss was minimal, diminished by another podium run.
The four-time IndyCar champion hasn’t been winning every race. But he’s continued to minimize any possible loss, challenging Rossi and Andretti to strive for true greatness and win their way to the title. Dixon doesn’t intend to race Rossi or anyone else differently in the final two races, either.
After all, the current plan’s been working so well. Why change anything now?
“I enjoy racing Alex (Rossi),” he said. “I enjoy racing everybody in the field. So yeah, you know, it’s always tough when it comes down to the wire. But I think you have that situation throughout the season.
“Everybody at this level, you do everything you can to try and get one race win. It’s no different week in, week out. Obviously as Alex said, coming down to Sonoma, there’s a little bit more on the line, but strictly you’ve got to treat it as any other race.”
Stuck On the Fringe
A host of other drivers contended for the title over the early summer months, but a host of underwhelming performances have slowly whittled them down to the edge of title contention.
Ryan Hunter-Reay lost fuel pressure while running third on Saturday, dropping him out of the race from third. The run was the 2012 IndyCar champion’s fourth finish outside of the top 15 in his last five starts – a streak that’s taken what once looked like his best season and stripped it of all hopes for a championship.
In that sense Saturday was symbolic of the entire year for Hunter-Reay. A strong run and potential to contend for a win gave way to disappointment and confusion after something outside of his control went awry.
“It’s a shame because we were really making the No. 28 DHL Honda fly,” Hunter-Reay said. ” The track just kept getting more and more grip and we were able to get more aggressive. We were just getting into the mix, the car was coming to us. We were going to fight Will (Power) for the win at the end.”
Defending champion Josef Newgarden hasn’t had a single bad performance over the summer, finishing no worse than ninth in his past five starts. But the Tennessean has failed to reach the same highs he managed in his title campaign down the stretch. Newgarden hasn’t tallied a podium since his win at Road America, a critical failure when both Dixon and Rossi have wins over the same stretch.
The latest failure to capitalize was perhaps the No. 1 team’s most damning.
Newgarden found himself among the contenders early on as he tried to deliver a championship-swinging drive at Gateway for the second-straight year. But the defending champ dropped back slightly as the race went on, and the fuel strategy at the end relegated him to a seventh-place result.
“We tried to make a fuel number there at the end, and it ended up biting us,” Newgarden said. “We worked hard. We had great pit stops; the guys did a great job. We just couldn’t get the timing right tonight and had to settle for the Verizon Chevy finishing seventh. But we have a car in one piece so we go on to Portland and try and redeem ourselves.”
After their latest disappointments, each of the aforementioned championship hopefuls find themselves well out of proper contention with two races remaining. Newgarden is 78 points behind Dixon in fourth, and Hunter-Reay has dropped a massive 147 markers behind the consistent points leader in his quest for a second championship.
The only driver outside of the top two that seems to have an outside chance at the title is Saturday’s winner and the only other driver to reach 500 points on the year – Power.
Power’s championship bid was an easy one to write off after the Team Penske veteran finished 18th or worse in summer races at Texas Motor Speedway, Road America and Toronto. But the Indy 500 winner has returned to form at a critical time in the past three races, securing podiums at Mid-Ohio and Pocono before claiming a pivotal win at Gateway.
The run’s left Power 68 points behind Dixon with Portland and Sonoma remaining – a distant gap, but one that isn’t insurmountable with the double-points of the season finale.
“It’s going to be very tight,” Power said. “It’s really hard to close a gap at this point of the season because as you can see, the same guys are finishing in the top 5 every week, and they’re all the guys you’re racing. I need those guys to have a bad day and for me to win a race.
“We have been so quick everywhere all year, we’ve just had — amongst the guys I’m racing, between them they’ve had one DNF. I’ve had five DNFs, basically five. I’ve had a lot to make up, and we’re on the way there.”
Hidden behind Power’s surge and the strength of the championship duo were a host of strong performances from prospects within the IndyCar paddock.
Leading the group was Zach Veach.
The Andretti Autosport rookie started a distant 16th after Friday’s scheduled qualifying session was rained out, but he quickly moved forward. Veach cracked the top 10 on Lap 8, worked his way into the top five on Lap 177 and continued to run at the front from there to the race’s end.
Veach had nothing for the top trio and fell short of Simon Pagenaud in fourth, but he was able to hold on to finish a strong fifth. The run was the 23-year-old’s second-best of 2018, and extended his recent top-10 streak to four races.
With that sort of consistency and success, Veach couldn’t help but wish he could start fresh and begin the season anew.
“I really wish we could go back to St. Petersburg right now and start this season over,” he said. “I’ve got to give credit to my Group 1001 guys and, of course, my Andretti Autosport teammates.
“Those guys have helped me so much this year, just teaching me little by little. It’s finally starting to come together and I’m just so thankful for that.”
Following Veach in sixth was Spencer Pigot. On a night where his boss and Indianapolis 500 runner-up Ed Carpenter struggled en-route to a 12th-place result, Pigot improved eight positions from 14th to notch his second-best run of the year, trailing only his podium run at Iowa Speedway.
“We were just going flat-out, as fast as we could go, to try and make up as much track position as possible,” Pigot said after the race. “The guys did a great job in pit lane and got me out quick. We were able to hang on to sixth, so I’m really happy with that for the Fuzzy’s Vodka #21 Chevy.”
Pigot was disappointed after believing he could have contended for the win. But the 2015 Indy Lights champion was proud of his team’s continual growth. The Californian’s three best runs of the season have all come in the past six races.
“I think we’ve for sure come a long way this year, especially on short ovals,” he said. “We think back to Phoenix, where we really struggled; but the last couple have been really solid. So, I think this team has a lot of good things going for us, and hopefully we can end the season on a high-note as well.”
He didn’t end on the same high as his fellow prospects, but 2016 Indy Lights champion Ed Jones might have had the best run along the way. The Dubai native put together a strong drive for Chip Ganassi Racing, jumping from 12th to ninth on the opening lap and rising the seventh on Lap 8.
From that moment on Jones was a consistent presence in the top 10, slowly rising forward as he put together the sort of drive that built his reputation on the Road to Indy. By the time the field hit Lap 200 of 248, Jones found himself in third with a chance to play spoiler with the playoff contenders.
A fateful podium proved unachievable. Jones faded over the final run, dropping to ninth after his final pit stop for fuel on Lap 227. The sophomore powered his way past the fuel-saving Takuma Sato for eighth, but he would rise no further before the checkered flag flew.
An eighth-place finish was little to celebrate for Jones, particularly as CGR teammate Dixon continued his march toward a potential title. But the result was his best since the second Detroit race in May, bringing an end to Jones’ recent struggles and showing promise for the final two races of the year.
“When we caught the backmarkers, I got pushed up a bit high and lost a lot of grip when I got up into the marbles,” Jones said. “It was not a bad result for the NTT DATA car considering we started 12th, but for sure, I think there was more in there.”
Dale Coyne Racing rookie Pietro Fittipaldi also joined the list of feel-good finishers, rising from the last row to claim an 11th-place finish in his third race back from injuries sustained in an FIA World Endurance Championship race at Spa-Francorchamps in May.
“We knew our pace was good going into the race, but since we were starting last, we thought that if we finished 15th or 16th that it would be a good race for us because it’s so difficult to pass here,” he said. “But we got some good runs and passed a couple of cars and we did a fuel-saving strategy that worked in our favor and we finished 11th.
“I’m really happy with that, especially after coming back from my injury and now finally getting my first solid finish.”
- Zach Veach likely isn’t the only one that wishes he could have a do-over on this year. Simon Pagenaud notched his eighth-consecutive top 10 on Saturday with a fourth-place run that probably could have been better. He said afterward that he thought his No. 22 was “a winning car. When Will (Power) passed me, I was saving fuel and I tried to hold the high lane. It didn’t work. So, we lost about, I don’t know, six or seven positions. But we came back because the car was so good.”
- Hidden at the bottom of the top 10 were the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing duo of Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal. Their nights were far from memorable, but the duo were able to stretch fuel at the end to salvage top 10s from an otherwise miserable weekend in Illinois.
- For the second-straight week, the IndyCar field failed to get through Lap 1 before bringing out caution. This week it was the snake-bitten No. 18 Honda driven by Sebastien Bourdais that crashed out, with the Frenchman slapping the Turn 2 wall. Afterward Bourdais claimed he wasn’t sure what he didn’t wrong.
- Much of the talk at oval races has been the importance of track position, but Saturday’s night race was the fifth won from outside of the front row in six 2018 oval events. Only Power’s Indy 500 win (from third) has been claimed from the front row. The average starting position of oval winners this season has been 5.83 – a full position worse than the 4.78 of winners on road courses and street circuits.
- Shortly before Saturday’s race Schmidt Peterson Motorsports released a positive update on the injured Robert Wickens, claiming that he is “breathing without medical assistance and speaking with his family.” The announcement gave hope to series fans ahead of the race, and proved fitting in a weekend highlighted by scores of tributes to the beloved Canadian rookie.