By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The Verizon IndyCar Series has now run the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, a race that began in June. The conclusion of the rain-interrupted event saw Graham Rahal take his first win of the season in the closest IndyCar finish at TMS. Lets take a look at some of the storylines coming out of Saturday night’s race.
1 ) Worth the Wait
With eleven weeks between the red flag for rain and the restart, TMS fans had a long wait for the finish. The decision to pick up the race where it left off did not sit well with some who felt that the fans should get a do-over. However the decision was within the rulebook, and it actually made the most sense.
Track and series officials made to move to postpone the race to an open date on the calendar, in order to give the fans a Saturday night thriller, and the series delivered. Laps of side-by-side and three-wide racing offered an edge of your seat excitement unlike any other race this season. Throw in a four car battle for the lead in the closing laps, and a last lap pass, and everyone is talking about this race on Sunday morning.
2 ) Risk versus Reward
Yes, the racing was exciting, and almost cringe-worthy at times, as the competitors battled just inches apart and often touching at high speeds. While it was certainly exciting to watch, the element of danger was in the air. The pack racing was reminiscent of the early IRL, and some felt that we were just one wrong move away from a tragedy. As it turned out, everyone came home safe, but is the racing unnecessarily dangerous?
“The racing seemed pretty good, and I can’t thank Graham and Tony and Simon and all the guys up there enough, ” said second placed finisher James Hinchcliffe referring to the closing laps. “We put ourselves in some pretty precarious situations tonight and everybody came out OK. Nobody did anything stupid, and everybody played nice, very respectful. There was some racing, though. I had a blast. That’s the problem. I had an absolute blast.”
“It was really intense. Somebody hit Graham, Graham hit me, and thank God we managed to stay on the track,” added third-place finisher Tony Kanaan. “But yeah, I’m not used to that. I think it was just the nature of the product that we created for this race. We kind of went away from a pack race a long time ago, and we kind of migrated back just because it was a very different circumstances today, right; we couldn’t race here 72 days ago, and we came back and we decided it to be a night race, and with not changing the rules because it was a continuation of a race, it created that pack, otherwise probably you wouldn’t have seen some stock car action, in a good way.”
The jury is out, but suffice to say, pack racing brings up unpleasant memories for many and perhaps the exciting nature of the racing doesn’t necessarily outweigh the safety factor.
3) Heartbreak in Hinchtown
The No. 5 Schmidt-Peterson Arrow Electric Honda car of James Hinchcliffe was undoubtedly the car to beat all night long. After leading 188 of the 248 laps, Hinchcliffe crossed the line side-by-side with the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan car losing the race by a scant 0.0080 of a second.
The four-man trophy chase with Hinchcliffe, Rahal, Kanaan, and Team Penske driver, Simon Pagenaud was set up by the caution between laps 232 and 239 when Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth got into one another.
The pack went four-wide on one occasion as Pagenaud backed out, ostensibly to protect his points lead. All three of the remaining drivers at the front were winless in 2016 up to this point, and nobody gave an inch. In the end, Hinchcliffe had a decision to make, and he made the wrong one. He left the inside line unprotected, and paid the price as Rahal made the low groove work.
“I gave him the bottom into 3,” explained Hinchcliffe. “I had to make a decision because I thought he could get the run off of 2, and when I was going side by — that whole last run, the last five, six laps I was side by side with Tony and I was timing the line. I’ve seen so many races won here on the high line, coming to the line because you just have that momentum off of 4, and I was going — thinking back to my IRL Classic days and Sam Hornish Jr.’s tricks and all the rest of it, but man, Graham just pulled through 3 and 4 like no one had all night.”
4 ) Suddenly Tony
Chip Ganassi Racing has a proven closer in Scott Dixon, as evidenced by his four championships. The Kiwi and his team can never be counted out of the title fight until they are mathematically eliminated. Dixon had a rough night in Texas as his Target-sponsored Chevrolet careened into the wall following contact with Ed Carpenter. Dixon was upset enough to give Carpenter a double-bird salute as he feels this championship slipping away.
With a 19th place finish, Dixon tumbled down the standings all the way to sixth place, 132 points out of the lead. At the same time, his teammate, Tony Kanaan, has leap-frogged up to third in the standings. Kanaan last won a championship in 2004, and has been quietly consistent this season as he suddenly finds himself in title contention with two races remaining.
While Kanaan’s gap to points-leader, Pagenaud, sits at 113 points, the double-points at Sonoma make a Kanaan championship a possibility. Kanaan will need an assist in the form of trouble for Penske teammates Pagenaud and Will Power, who sit atop the order, seperated by 28 points.
The ultimate scenario for Kanaan would be to see the Penske cars take one another out of the race at the season-ender. Thinking back just a year ago, this is not an unprecedented outcome.
5 ) Silly Season in High Gear
Many of the team owners of the Verizon IndyCar Series are comfortable with waiting until season’s end to make plans for next season. With a long off-season, there is plenty of time to focus on the here-and-now at this point. This, however hasn’t stopped speculation from revving up into high gear as the season winds down. Opinions seem to be split as to whether the grid will look relatively unchanged, or if there will be high profile moves.
The names most mentioned at this point are Josef Newgarden, considered to be a hot property, and Juan Pablo Montoya who is adamant that he would like to stay in the series. The Newgarden in: Montoya out at Penske scenario was recently fueled by some rather non-committal comments from team principal, Roger Penske, who stated that whatever decision is made will be made in the best interests of the team’s future. Back in May, Penske mentioned that Helio Castroneves would be welcome for one-offs at Indianapolis once the Brazilian retires, leading some to believe that that day may be sooner rather than later.
Some have read into this that perhaps Roger is looking for a younger driver (ala Newgarden), but its really premature to put those words into Roger’s mouth. Certainly, the Captain has surprised us before, first with the hiring of Montoya, and then with the expansion to four cars to accommodate Pagenaud. The only thing that Penske has confirmed is that they plan to field four entries once again.
Alexander Rossi also has a big decision to make, with a reported Formula One offer on the table, while Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta would like to retain his services in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
With many young drivers putting in laps at recent tests at both Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen, including standouts Felix Rosenqvist, Dean Stoneman and RC Enerson, there are a wealth of possibilities for 2017. Stay tuned.