Photo: Justin R. Noe/ASP, Inc.

Bearden Breakdown: Honda Indy 200

By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor

LEXINGTON, Ohio — Post-race review and analysis from the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Who Won? 

Alexander Rossi. The third-year star scored his fourth victory with Andretti Autosport, winning from pole with a two-stop pit strategy.

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The Rivalry Continues

Robert Wickens questioned polesitter Alexander Rossi’s form at the initial start of Sunday’s race after rallying for a second-place finish.

“I thought it was cheeky,” he said of the maneuver. “Alex definitely changed the speed before he accelerated. He obviously had a much shorter first gear than anyone else around us. He just took off.

“The whole thing, slowly increased the speed, accelerated. Went on the edge of being early, but I thought it was a little cheeky how he changed the speed.”

Having heard Wickens’ take on the race start prior to Rossi’s trip to the media center, members of the media brought it up to the Indy 500 winner during his post-race availability.

His response?

“(Wickens) complains a lot,” he said, pausing with a wry smile for a moment. “Does he not?”

The comments from both drivers continued a rivalry that’s persisted since Wickens debuted in the series in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. That day Wickens dominated the event, only to see his race ruined by contact with Rossi on a late restart.

Both drivers shrugged that run-in off as a racing incident with a win on the line, and two months later they contested an impressive battle on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. But after another incident of contact on Lap 1 of IndyCar’s June trip to Road America, Wickens was heavily critical of Rossi.

Since that incident, the duo have engaged in a rivalry that’s often proven more playful than serious. Just three days ago Wickens poked fun at the pair’s relationship, posting a tweet of him pretending to lock Rossi behind bars.

Two days after that the rivalry cropped back up. As long as both drivers continue to run well – Rossi won at Mid-Ohio, with Wickens following behind him in second – they should keep finding themselves close together with potential to add another chapter to their budding rivalry.

Qualifying success leads to post-race frustration

Will Power has been an unstoppable force this season… At least in qualifying.

Power’s second-place qualifying effort at Mid-Ohio yielded his seventh front-row start in 13 races – a streak of time trial success that’s seen the Australian tally a 2.6 average start through the 2018 season to date. The 2014 IndyCar champion has made the Firestone Fast Six in every possible qualifying session, and has started no worse than sixth in any race.

His consistency has been undeniably impressive, but it’s yielded just two victories. One of them was the race — the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 — but even that massive triumph wasn’t enough for Power to deny frustration with his lack of victories after a third-place finish at Mid-Ohio.

“It has been frustrating that way,” Power said. “Every race that we finished, we finished strong, just had too many DNF’s. Just one of those years.

“Whether it’s a mistake by me, radio communication, engine issue, just way too many DNF’s. We’d be so much further ahead right now.”

Outside of his perfect sweep of the Month of May, Power has proven unable to find a way to victory lane. Instead he’s suffered four DNFs while scoring just five podiums, dropping what could be a championship season into a mid-pack slog that has the veteran a distant fourth in the standings heading into the final four races.

The latest example of the No. 12 team’s struggles came from the front row at Mid-Ohio. Power promised to be a contender for the race win, but he proved unable to pass Rossi for the top spot early on and fell behind Wickens due to pit strategy. The 37-year-old seemed to have a car up to the task of securing a victory, but in the end he took the checkered flag in a distant third.

Runs that fall short of their potential like Sunday’s are what appear to be keeping Power out of title contention for another season. He’s well en-route to scoring his ninth-straight top five finish in the standings, but a second IndyCar title will elude him once again without a strong surge to close the season. Perhaps it would serve Power better to qualify poorly – his 2014 championship season came with an average start of 8.5, a stat better only than the 10.9 average start of his 2008 season with KV Racing.

Timid ‘Playground’ Celebration

Scott Dixon made his 300th-career Indy car start as a favorite to bring home a race win, despite starting ninth at a Mid-Ohio track known for the challenge of overtaking at the front of the field. Any other driver would have been a dark horse at best under those circumstances, but Dixon’s stats entering the day – five wins in 11 starts – meant that he had numbers too historic to ignore at the track considered his ‘playground’ by many in the paddock.

In the beginning stages of Sunday’s race the New Zealander appeared to be a contender. He rose from ninth to sixth over the first fuel run, and found himself behind the lead pack as opening stops began. His No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing team hoped to push him clear of his rivals with a combination of pace and pit strategy.

That game plan never fully materialized. Dixon kept Team Penske’s Power and Josef Newgarden within range, but when the checkered flag flew the ‘Ice Man’ had only risen to fifth.

“I think we got the best of what we could have,” Dixon said. “I think we were definitely faster than the (No.) 12 and the (No.) 1. We would pit and they would do it right after us, and obviously we just couldn’t get a jump on them.”

Dixon saw his massive points lead take a minor hit courtesy of Rossi’s race win. The four-time IndyCar champion left the road course with a 46-point edge on the Andretti Autosport star, with third-place Newgarden an additional 14 points behind.

The loss was minimal, but it meant that Dixon hadn’t accomplished his team’s overall goal for the weekend.

“We knew both of those guys – Rossi and Newgarden – were going to be tough,” he admitted. “But I think ideally you want to come out with more points lead, but that’s not the case. We’ve definitely got to dig deep moving forward.”

Rossi was happy to have gained on Dixon’s near-insurmountable lead. But with four races remaining the former F1 prospect admitted that he’ll need a near-flawless drive to steal the series crown.

“I don’t expect (Dixon) to make a mistake,” Rossi said. “The pressure is on me to deliver the results, to deliver under pressure.”

Disappointment for Chilton, Carlin

When Max Chilton rolled off sixth for Sunday’s race after his best-career qualifying effort on a road course, it appeared that the Briton and IndyCar newcomers Carlin were ready to turn the corner and establish themselves as true contenders American open wheel series. The run showed their capability at a track they had data for – they’d tested at Mid-Ohio prior to the race – and it came just two weeks after Chilton’s teammate Charlie Kimball notched Carlin’s first top five in Toronto.

That optimism ultimately lasted all of one lap.

Chilton was involved in an early run-in with Takuma Sato on the 2.258-mile circuit, leaving his No. 59 Chevrolet with minor damage. A review from the stewards led to a drive-thru penalty for the former F1 driver for avoidable contact, sending him to the back of the field with a sizable gap on his closest competitor.

There was still a chance that Chilton could come back after the incident with strategy, but damage to the wheel nut on his left-front tire led to a slow pit stop when he came back to the pit lane on Lap 11. From that moment on Chilton never recovered. He ultimately finished last in 24th, with Kimball struggling home a few positions ahead of him in 17th.

“That was just a really disappointing way to end this weekend at Mid-Ohio after hitting such a high note yesterday with our Firestone Fast Six qualifying effort,” a deflated Chilton said afterward. “We had a good start at green flag, but it turned for us pretty quickly after Race Control gave us a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact with (Takuma) Sato. We were hoping with how quick the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet was that we would be able to recover and fight back through the field, but with no yellows (flags) and some issues in pit lane, we just couldn’t move forward at all.”

Chilton disagreed with the decision from race control after the race, voicing on Twitter that he’d done all he could to avoid an incident.

But regardless of fault, the penalty was issued and the 27-year-old’s race was ruined. There are still positive takeaways from the weekend after Chilton found himself surrounded by championship contenders like Wickens and Power on Saturday, but the 90-lap race served as a brutal reminder of just how difficult contending in IndyCar can be.

Notes

  • The two-stop strategy that won Rossi the race wasn’t decided until after the race began. Rossi admitted that his team “didn’t know” which strategy would be preferable when he took the green flag. Most in the paddock believed a three-stop strategy would be the only way to find success heading into the race, but the No. 27 team kept an open mind. “We went into it with the option of doing the two stop if we could hit a fuel number in the first two or three laps,” Rossi said. “We were able to do that while opening up a gap on Will (Power). It was at that point that we decided to commit to it.”
  • He didn’t make his way to the podium, but Sebastien Bourdais put on a show for the Midwestern fans in attendance on Sunday. The French ace started shotgun on the field in 24th on Sunday, but put on a masterful drive through the pack to salvage a sixth-place finish for Dale Coyne Racing (DCR) – despite the difficulty of passing at Mid-Ohio and a lack of cautions to regain ground. “Today was making up for a big mess up yesterday,” he said afterward. “It’s sad, as this car could have been a winner today with our pace. “It was a heck of drive and I don’t think it gets much better than that going from 24th to 6th in a straight-up fight on a track that’s difficult to pass.”
  • Lost in the championship storylines and Bourdais’ masterclass was the return of DCR teammate Pietro Fittipaldi to the field two months after sustaining broken legs in a May FIA World Endurance Championship event at Spa-Francorchamps. The physical nature of IndyCar provided a fierce challenge to the third-generation driver – he admitted that he felt tired and noted the “really physically demanding” nature of Mid-Ohio after the race. But in the end Fittipaldi managed to complete the full distance without issue en route to a 23rd-place result. “I finished the race and that was my goal with my leg still hurting a bit,” he said afterward. “It’s still healing.”
  • While Fittipaldi was in the car, another notable driver of the No. 19 – Santino Ferrucci – was also on-hand at Mid-Ohio over the weekend. Ferrucci admitted to RACER’s Marshall Pruett that he’s scouting out potential rides for next year at the event. Ferrucci made two starts in DCR’s No. 19 Honda at Detroit, splitting the ride with Zachary Claman de Melo following Fittipaldi’s injury. Ferrucci’s been left to piece together future plans after alleged payment issues and a mid-race meltdown cost him a ride with Trident Team in Formula 2.
  • Conor Daly made a second start with Harding Racing in the No. 88 Chevrolet on Sunday, finishing 22nd after running out of fuel while coming to the final lap. He noted in a tweet that he isn’t sure what’s next for his IndyCar future, but was thankful for his third drive of 2018. The next confirmed race for the Hoosier is a trip to Road America for his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut on August 25. Harding’s plans for the rest of the season are uncertain. There’s potential for one or more prospects from the Mazda Road to Indy to pilot their machine, and contracted driver Gabby Chaves is still waiting in the wings.
  • Michael Shank Racing (with SPM) made their first IndyCar start at Shank’s home track of Mid-Ohio on Sunday – another milestone for a team that’s trying to grow into a potential full-time entry in the coming years. Jack Harvey delivered the group a 20th-place result after a “high-risk, high-reward type of strategy” failed to bear fruit.

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Aaron Bearden is a Contributing Writer for Motorsports Tribune, handling coverage of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and ABB FIA Formula E Championship. A native Hoosier, Bearden has attended races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since he was three years old. He can be found on social media at @AaronBearden93.