By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway saw just two cautions for 24 laps and two other incidents that didn’t warrant a yellow flag from on top of the flag stand.
However, the incident proved detrimental to the outcome of four drivers, after each made contact with the SAFER Barriers after going up across the 1.022-mile oval.
The first retirement of the race came at the hands of Verizon INDYCAR Series debutant Pietro Fittipaldi on Lap 40.
After an impressive weekend that included a 10th-place qualifying effort, Fittipaldi’s No. 19 Paysafe Honda was running in 11th when he lost grip and made light contact in Turn 4.
The Dale Coyne Racing entry laid to rest in Turn 1, dashing an opportune night at the the very place where his grandfather Emerson Fittipaldi won in 1994. Pietro finished in 23rd.
“We were running well, but then I caught a group of cars and I ran a bit hard,” said Pietro. “There was a lot of turbulence, and with that group of cars I wasn’t expecting that much difference, and the Paysafe car just went away from me. Once you get in the gray, you just go straight into the wall.”
Once the race restarted on Lap 50 it went green for 179 laps, but the attrition rate didn’t stall after Pietro’s retirement.
Will Power, who led a race high 80 of 250 laps, relinquished his lead and made his green flag stop on Lap 124. Working his way back towards the front, Power was running in fourth when he hit the wall in Turn 2 on Lap 152.
Power brought his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet into the pits, but his Team Penske crew was unable to fix the damage. The 2014 IndyCar champion finished in 22nd, with his short-lived race knocking him out of the top 10 in points. He’s now 14th in the standings after two races.
Power said Alexander Rossi was accountable for the incident, with the Australian having to make a last minute move to avoid him that ended up backfiring.
“I was having a good race, actually. I felt like we had a pretty good Verizon Chevy,” said Power. “(Alexander) Rossi ran up on the inside of me pretty late and I got on the brakes once I saw him go to the inside because I knew the marbles were pretty bad.
“I was going pretty slow and still got up into the wall because it was like being on ice. Disappointed for the guys, but we will just have to move on, have a couple of good races and get back in the hunt. I am determined for Long Beach, Barber, the Indy road course and the Indy 500. Happy to see Josef (Newgarden) in Victory Lane tonight, though.”
Another IndyCar rookie’s night came to an abrupt end on Lap 173 when reigning Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser also went high and hit the Turn 1 wall, falling off the pace and retiring his No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet to the garage en-route to a 21st-place finish.
Kaiser’s retirement marked Juncos Racing’s second DNF in as many races this season after rookie Rene Binder’s run in the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last month.
“Obviously, I’m a little disappointed with the way things ended, but I am extremely happy with how the car was and effort from the team,” said Kaiser. “I think we had a really nice race car. We had strong pace and were running times with the guys who were running up front.
“The Chevy engine was great the whole time. We had some good runs and got some good passes in and I learned a ton. I’m a rookie with a rookie team, so we are out here on a super steep learning curve.”
The race’s final retiree brought out an end to the stranglehold of green flag laps on Lap 229.
Last year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Ed Jones (Chip Ganassi Racing), was running second behind Robert Wickens when his No. 10 NTT Data Honda shot up across the track and hit the Turn 3 wall.
Jones was trying to get a blue flag waved at lapped cars, notably Spencer Pigot, who was two laps down..
He would get out of his car under his own power, winding up in 20th.
Like Power, Jones also dropped out of the top-10 point standings, sitting 13th after entering Phoenix eighth. The sophomore pilot said tire wear wasn’t a concern, but he couldn’t do much to avoid the wall after having a well-handling car.
“Obviously it was a long race and we didn’t know what to expect coming in with the NTT DATA car,” said Jones. “The car actually handled a little better than expected. The tire degradation wasn’t that bad and my guys did some great pit stops tonight. Every time we came in we made up positions.
“I just got into the turn, and it just started going straight and there was nothing I could do. We were second and having a great run, and I’m looking forward to improving upon that and getting better for the next race.”
While Pietro will have to wait until the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to get another crack at an INDYCAR race, the remaining three drivers will move on from their shortcomings and look for greener pastures at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beachon April 15.
Kaiser will make his first start in the 1.968-mile street circuit, whereas Jones will search for similar success after scoring sixth last season. As for Power, his well-known mastery in road racing led the Aussie to two victories at historic venue in 2008 and 2012.