By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The Verizon Indycar Series has just completed its return to Watkins Glen International where Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon dominated the weekend and came home victorious. Lets look at some of the storylines coming out of the weekend’s racing.
1 ) The Right Venue
When the Grand Prix of Boston imploded, it didn’t surprise me. As a matter of fact, I was actually a bit relieved, because running the race and having it fail would have been worse than not running at all. The quick decision to reach out to Watkins Glen was the right one, and in retrospect, it is probably where Indycar should have been in the first place.
Now perhaps I am a little biased, based on the fact that the Glen (along with Lime Rock Park and Pocono) was one of the tracks that my Uncle would take me to when I was a kid. However, one cannot deny how beautiful the race course and the surrounding area is.
I would imagine that there were some fans in attendance today that had only been there for that NASCAR race. I’m sure that they must have been blown away by how fast and graceful the Indycars are by comparison to the Cup cars. Sure, there wasn’t the constant bumping, banging and spinning that the Cup cars provide, although there was a fair amount of it. And, yes the fact that the final stages featured a spread-out field saving fuel made the finish somewhat anti-climactic, but I thought it was a great show overall.
With the recent repave, the Glen is the fastest road course that the Verizon Indycars run on. Combine that with the historic and idyllic setting, and the wonderful crowd that showed up, and this is a venue that the series should never have left behind in the first place.
2) Too little, too late for Dixon
With an absolutely dominant performance, Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon has won the battle but lost the war. He won at Phoenix early in the season, and was able to keep the top of the standings in sight, but last place finishes at both Road America and Mid Ohio hindered his chances to advance. With an early exit at Texas last week giving him a 19th he tumbled farther down the standings.
With Sunday’s sweep of all of the available points at Watkins Glen, and leap-frogging back into third in the standings, Dixon still finds himself mathematically eliminated for the title when the series heads to Sonoma in two weeks.
One person who can sleep well going into the season-ender is Roger Penske. Between Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, he has seen Ganassi drivers snatch the title from his team six times in the past decade. The two drivers now mathematically alive for the title, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, both drive for Team Penske making the 2016 championship a forgone conclusion for the Captain in the team’s 50th anniversary season.
3) What’s up with Charlie Kimball?
Have you happened to notice this season, whenever there is an incident on track, or even in the pit lane, that more often than not, Charlie Kimball is right there? Now he has not been responsible 100% of the time, but he has to take responsibility for a fair share of the incidents.
A buddy of mine estimated that Charlie has been involved in 3/4 of the accidents this year. No, I can’t speak for the accuracy of that statistic, nor am I going to painstakingly research it, but suffice to say where there is smoke there is fire.
Kimball, in the #83 Ganassi entry, was involved in two separate incidents at Watkins Glen, one with Will Power, and one with Graham Rahal. Kimball was able to continue both times, but Power and Rahal each sustained enough damage to end their day.
In 2013, Kimball executed a brilliant race at Mid Ohio to capture his first series win, and was pegged as a rising star. In the three years that have passed since that fine win, Kimball has yet to come close to repeating that performance. Perhaps his seemingly new-found aggressive driving is a product of frustration. After all, his entire Indycar career has had him as the third man on the Totem pole at Ganassi behind accomplished teammates who have Series Championships and Indy 500 wins on their resume.
Maybe it has something to do with the new paint scheme. This season Kimball’s car transitioned from a relatively happy-looking orange and blue to a rather sinister-looking flat black with neon green highlights. In Hollywood westerns, the one with the black hat was always the bad guy. Perhaps the black and green has allowed Charlie to channel his inner Kyle Busch, and drive like a man possessed. Of course, Kyle Busch actually wins races…(sorry Charlie)
Whatever the case, it concerns me to watch it unfold, because the attention Kimball is getting is not the type of attention that any driver wants to see. On social media, he has been compared to everyone from Shiggiaki Hattori to Milka Duno. Even worse, he has lost the trust of some of his competitors in the Verizon Indycar Series. Said Will Power after Sunday’s race “No one in the paddock likes racing him. They all talk about it. He’s the most dangerous guy on the track. I haven’t seen the replay, but he’s just a pain in the ass.”
Of course, given the championship implications after the run in with Will Power, Charlie just might find a new best friend named Simon Pagenaud.
4) More troubles in Hinchtown
After leading the bulk of the race in Texas only to be passed at the line by Graham Rahal, SPM driver James Hinchcliffe left the Lone Star State both energized and heartbroken at the same time. By mid-week his team was slapped with a $20,000 fine and loss of 25 points after it was discovered that the low ride height on his car had ground the domed skid on the bottom of the car down to the point that it’s purpose was nullified.
Hinchcliffe himself had joked about his race engineer Allan McDonald and the low ride height at the press conference. “You can tell Allen McDonald’s car because it’s the one that’s sparking the most,” said the Canadian driver. “We call him Allen McDown-A-Flat because he always runs the car lower than anybody else.”
After the findings, Hinchcliffe was very vocal and called the penalty ‘Draconian.” Fast forward to Watkins Glen qualifying, and Hinch was slapped with yet another penalty that he disagreed with. Hinchcliffe took a quick spin on-course during qualifying which caused a brief local yellow. Hinch, however, kept the car going without losing forward momentum and continued on his way.
According to the rules, a driver that causes a yellow during qualifying that hinders another driver’s lap time, will have their two fastest laps disqualified.
Hinchcliffe was furious and, at least in my opinion, rightfully so, His two main points of contention were first, that he never lost forward progress, so the yellow was unnecessary and secondly, that Power did not slow for the local yellow, and therefore his lap time was not hindered.
After being forced to start 13th on race day, he had worked his way through the field through a combination of hard driving and crafty strategy. He appeared to be headed for a certain podium taking the white flag in second place. Three corners from the checkers, his car sputtered and stopped, out of fuel. He was classified with an 18th place finish.
5) This is Simon’s to lose
Simon Pagenaud has had his mind set on a series championship since joining the series full-time in 2012. Signing with Roger Penske’s team in 2015 afforded him the best chance to do just that, and now, in his second year with the organization, that goal is right at his fingertips.
Pagenaud took the Championship lead after the event in Phoenix, and proceeded to tear off three consecutive wins padding a lead that he has maintained all season long. He managed to stay ahead of his teammate Will Power who had a late season resurgence and cut the lead to just 28 points coming into The Glen.
With an early exit from Power at the hands of the aforementioned Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud enters the season finale with a lead of 43 points. While it is a comfortable lead for sure, the double-points nature of the weekend has assured nothing for the Frenchman. One year ago, Juan Pablo Montoya lost the championship to Scott Dixon in a tiebreaker after entering Sonoma with a 47 point cushion.
The ball is solidly in Pagenaud’s court. A fifth place finish should clinch the title, but he’d rather be running at the front, clear of traffic. Either approach, conservative or aggressive, cannot allow for any mistakes.
On a side note, Will Power’s health condition is up in the air when it was reported that he was suffering concussion-like symptoms after Watkins Glen. This is a developing story that could change the complexion of the championship. If Power is forced to sit out, the Championship is Simon’s and the door is open for Scott Dixon to overtake Power for second place. Let’s hope that Power is cleared and the season-ender at Sonoma features a fantastic battle for the title between the Penske pair.