Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Smaller Fields for NASCAR? No Problem.

The number of entries for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ races is decreasing.

After lowering the maximum cars to compete in a race from 43 to 40 in 2016, with the inception of the charter system, there have been several events over the past two seasons that haven’t even met the limit. It seems an entirely drastic change from the days of having enough cars to where some were forced go home after qualifying, like years past.

While the numbers and lack thereof has been a discussion since the changes two years ago, the topic has become a popular one among fans early in the 2018 season. The Daytona 500 only had 40 cars show up to the track, meaning for the first time in years, no one went home after the Can-Am Duels, with complaints saying that it took away much of the drama from the annual Thursday night races.

Then, the initial entry list for this weekend’s event at Atlanta dropped, revealing only 36 cars entered for the Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500, which again sparked a lot of outrage among fans.

An outrage that featured many calling for the end of the charter system, and some going as far to say this is the beginning of the end for NASCAR.

So, that raises the question, are the doubters, right? Does NASCAR need to reevaluate the charter system? Are we witnessing the end of NASCAR before our very eyes? Is it time to start the doomsday countdown?

No.

In fact, it should be argued that this may be a step in the right direction for the sport in looking at the names on at the entry list for this weekend’s race.

15 of the drivers entered this weekend have won within the last year, with nine of the remaining 21 competitors that haven’t seen victory lane in that time driving for organizations that have. Meaning, that over half of the field realistically has a fair shot of leaving Georgia this weekend with a trophy.

With all these drivers having a decent shot, it could be argued that the competition level is at a height not seen with a 40+ in the race. An entry list filled that likely was full of lower funded teams that, likely wouldn’t win unless if at a plate track, which Atlanta is not.

So, if the competition isn’t worse with fewer cars, what are other concerns that come along with smaller fields? Are fewer drivers getting opportunities?

Fair enough, while lower funded teams may not have a significant shot at success, there are numerous examples of veteran drivers getting their first Cup start with a lesser group, or a fan favorite, who may not have a full-time ride, seeing the chance to compete. Again, this isn’t a problem, as teams like Rick Ware Racing are giving drivers like Cole Custer and Harrison Rhodes their first rides in NASCAR’s top series. Meanwhile, a veteran of the sport, Brendan Gaughan, is still competing part-time with Beard Motorsports. Not to mention, none of them will have to start and park, as the act of doing so has died off with the charter system.

So, if the competition is in good shape and drivers are still getting opportunities, what exactly is NASCAR losing with a smaller field around the size of 36 cars? It’s simple – around four cars. That’s it, and it doesn’t have a huge overall effect on the action. It’s not killing the sport; it’s not even a significant number of cars missing. Yes, it is a change from what we are used to with NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean it will ruin the sport.

Mitchell Breuer is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Expect the Unexpected Sunday at Watkins Glen

If Saturday’s two rounds of practice for the I Love NY 355 at the Glen Cup race at Watkins Glen International were any indication, Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race might be a very chaotic affair.

Brad Keselowski was fastest in final practice and the Toyota armada from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing dominated the opening session. But lots of top drivers struggled on the day.

Among the drivers who crashed or spun in one of the sessions were seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 2004 champ Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Corey LaJoie and Boris Said.

Add into that the fact that this race has had seven different winners in the last eight years, and Marcos Ambrose, the only repeat winner in that time, isn’t even in the field.

So on Sunday, expect the unexpected — chaos, crashes and fuel mileage all could factor into the outcome.

“There’s so many wrecks that happens on road courses, different strategy plays into the outcome,” said Denny Hamlin, who is on baby watch and may miss Sunday’s race if girlfriend Jordan Fish goes into labor.

Strategy also could play out in terms of fuel mileage.

“When you come to a track where the tires don’t wear out much and you don’t slow down much it definitely becomes a fuel mileage race,” said Joey Logano, who won here in 2015 and was second last year. “I think this race has come down to fuel mileage with everyone trying to pit when they can and not getting caught by the caution. Yeah, there will be a lot of strategy.”

And there will be crashes. There always are.

“We’re running pretty quick times here and so you hang a wheel off one corner and it becomes very tough,” said Hamlin, the defending winner of this event. “When you make a mistake it usually is pretty big.”

Johnson said he expects an aggressive race on Sunday.

“If you’re somebody that needs a win or who is desperate in points, you might have a bumper coming in your direction,” he said.

And that could mean some high drama, especially with drivers who need to win to make the playoffs.

“I anticipate it being very exciting here,” said Johnson, who is looking for his first win here. “The speeds are higher here versus Sonoma. So moving somebody out of the way is a bit trickier and I don’t think as common. But, it should be a very exciting race.”

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

What We Learned from Iowa Speedway 2017

The Big Picture:  Back in the long ago – that’s 2007 – when the Verizon IndyCar Series was more oriented toward short track ovals, the idea to have a race at a speedway 40 miles from Des Moines made lots of sense. Designed by NASCAR veteran Rusty Wallace, the .9-mile course was popular in Iowa for a time.

Event:  But now, attendance of less than 7500 including teams and workers is what we’re getting in Iowa. This is troubling in the extreme. We guess if the series is receiving its sanctioning fee, nothing more needs to be said.

Qualifying:  Short track oval qualifying is only marginally more exciting than watching paint dry, but in this race’s qualifications, Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud went out first, and the session was bookended by his teammate, Will Power, who took the pole at 1.5 MPH faster than second place qualifier JR Hildebrand.

Race:   Helio Castroneves led 217 out of 300 laps in a dominating performance that left most of the paddock with often rueful smiles on their faces. JR Hildebrand started and finished second place, proving he can run at the front. Ryan Hunter-Reay had his best performance of the year while claiming the final step on the podium. There were only three single car accidents which took their drivers out of contention without anyone getting injured. Overall, a nice race day.

Biggest Surprise:  Castroneves’ win, his first since Detroit in 2014. It was his 30th IndyCar Series victory. Back in the day. Castroneves was brought to Team Penske after the sudden death of Greg Moore in 1999. He and Roger’s partnership is one of the longest among current IndyCar drivers and team owners.

Biggest Disappointment:  The poor attendance.

Best Team:  Team Penske took their first victory in Iowa. They took the pole, and their four drivers finished in the top seven.

Sponsor of the Weekend:  The Iowa Corn Promotions Board, the group who have promoted this event from the start.

What We Learned:  That nice 42-year-old Brazilians can finish first. That you can build a top-notch speedway facility and hardly anyone will come. That Chevy has the short ovals dialed in.

Schedule:  Next Sunday, July 16th, the circus goes to Toronto for the Honda Indy Toronto.

Quotes of the Weekend:

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Iowa Corn 300 winner): “That was great. I can’t thank enough Team Penske, Hitachi, Chevy car group and all our partners, and especially the people in the shop. They don’t get much credit, but without their work and effort, we wouldn’t be able to do what we did. And again, it’s a great team effort because we came here, we tried a lot of different setups between all four cars, and man, I picked the winning one, so it was really good. The car felt really good, and it was just great. In the beginning we missed a little bit on the setup, then we made some adjustments after the first stop or second stop, and the car was fantastic. It was really good. It was a long time (between wins), but you can never stop believing, and my team never stopped supporting me on that and today was great. Everything went great. We didn’t have a yellow at the wrong time, we didn’t have issues with the tire or anything else or mechanical. Everything was really, really good, and when you have a day like this, you’ve got to execute.

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I wish we could have gotten the Verizon Chevrolet to Victory Lane, but I don’t feel bad at all with where we ended up. It was a good day. Not unhappy at all. The car was pretty loose on that second to last stint, but very good on that final stint. We got another solid finish and scored some important points. But the story of today is Helio (Castroneves). I’m mega happy for him. It’s really kind of ridiculous that it has taken this long with how good they’ve been. Something always seemed to bite them, but not today. I couldn’t be happier.”

ESTEBAN GUTIERREZ (No. 18 UNIFIN Honda): “It was really, really fun. It was a very nice experience. Obviously being the first time on an oval, I didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the race and I struggled to get up to speed, but after a few laps, I got more and more comfortable and I was using my tools in the car to try to handle it in traffic, which is the trickiest part. I want to thank my competitors because they were very fair to me. It was fair racing, good racing and I really enjoyed it out there today. It wasn’t easy with the different lanes and traffic because once you get really close you have a completely different car so you need to anticipate a lot and for that you need a lot of experience. Every time with more and more experience I will be able to anticipate that better, but I think today was a really good start. I also want to thank the team because they were really good on giving me all the tools and the information on doing a good job today.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “That was a tough drive. We just made the car better and better through the whole race and I wasn’t really happy with the car at all. I have to give big credit to my team and my engineer, Ray Gosselin, for putting the right setup on the car. We finally got it to where I like it – some remnants of the past. A little more straight-line speed and we could’ve given these guys a run for their money. Congratulations to Helio (Castroneves) – it’s great to see him win again. He’s been right there knocking on the door for so long. Hats off to the No. 28 DHL team and thank you to all the Iowa fans, we love coming here. Hopefully we can come back here at night some time, because that is my favorite.”

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management, or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

 

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

What We Learned from Road America 2017

The Big Picture:  The road course in Elkhart Lake, WI was a fixture for decades on the CART schedule through to Champ Car that came to an abrupt halt with openwheel reunification in 2008. Nearly everyone missed it, but because Michael Andretti was promoting the oval race at the Milwaukee Mile, it was thought the market could not support two races, so there was no Road America for eight long years. The return of this event in 2016 was great news to all, so hopefully, the Verizon IndyCar Series is here to stay.

Event:  The weekend is a road racing extravaganza. In addition to IndyCar, there are races for Pirelli World Challenge and all three Mazda Road to Indy Presented By Cooper Tires support series: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires, and Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda. No wonder it’s so popular among road racing fanatics!

Qualifying:  Helio Castroneves took his 50th IndyCar pole. Only Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt have more of them than the Brazilian racer. Team Penske grabbed the top four places in qualifications with Will Power, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud starting behind a jubilant Castroneves.

Race:   Nice clean race with little to no carnage unlike the previous event in Texas. Newgarden looked to have the winning car and led an impressive 13 laps. Castroneves also led 17 circuits and appeared to be a contender. But Sunday was Scott Dixon’s day. He practiced fuel economy to make sure he could go longer than others, his pit stops were flawlessly executed by his crew, and he had the right tires at the right time.

Biggest Surprise: That Scott Dixon, after running at the front nearly every race this year except the Indy 500 but never winning for all that, won. Good job, mate.

Biggest Disappointment:  The continued poor finishes of Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti. RHR has always been an excellent driver, and Andretti has Bryan Herta calling his races instead of his dad. Finishing 14th and 18th must be disappointing to both competitors.

Best Team:  Team Penske was best even if they missed the win. The four drivers worked very well together and finished in the top five.

Sponsor of the Weekend:  Koehler, who sponsored the race weekend. Their town is charming and features a “Great Wall of China.” Worth a visit if you’re in the area.

What We Learned:  That Team Penske seems to need the Captain to finish the way they wish. Also, Road America is great to have back on the calendar.

Schedule:  The Iowa Corn 300 in Newton, IA follows on July 9th.

Quotes of the Weekend:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet): “You can’t predict (yellow flags) and I think our strategy was spot on. We were doing what we needed to do to stay out front there all day, but you just can’t predict those yellows, and some days they fall your way and some days they don’t. Today they didn’t fall our way. (Scott) Dixon and the whole Ganassi team did a great job and they deserved to win with the job they did. I felt good about what we had and we had four strong Chevrolets all weekend with Team Penske. It stings a bit that we didn’t get the win because of how good this car was all weekend. We looked good and you couldn’t miss us.  We had the fastest lap which was pretty cool and I am just proud of all our guys. Just disappointed we couldn’t get it done.”

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet): “The REV Group Chevy was good, especially in the beginning. I was taking it easy and saving fuel, a lot of fuel actually. When we put the blacks (Firestone primary tires) on, I knew it was going to be rough. At the end of the race Scott (Dixon) did a good job saving fuel and going a lap farther. They were fast, for sure, and it’s a shame because our car was really good without question. But when you battle this close with everyone it’s the difference of one small detail. At the end of the day, it was a good day for the points championship. It’s kind of disappointing that Team Penske didn’t get the win here today considering how strong all of the cars were. That’s the way it goes sometimes. We’ll come back ready to go for Iowa.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 NTT Data Honda, 2017 KOHLER Grand Prix winner): “The NTT Data car has really had pace all weekend. The Penske cars definitely had something figured out this weekend and we knew we were going to have a battle on our hands. Then we missed the morning warmup today with a fuel pressure issue. The team worked hard to fix the car and it was a bit of an unknown for the race, but it held up. We had great strategy and great pace today and I couldn’t be happier for the team. We had a few races earlier this year that I felt got away, so this feels good and it’s good for us in the points.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 10 NTT Data Honda): “It hasn’t been our weekend here at Road America for sure. We were working our way back up and we thought we had a good chance at getting a top-10 finish, but then he (Alexander Rossi) blocked me and put me in the wall. I don’t think it was a nice move at all, but I’m not going to waste my time with it. My wrist is a little sore, but I’m OK overall. That was a big hit. Congrats to Scott (Dixon) and the No. 9 car. They were fast all weekend.”

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management, or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Formula One Open Wheel

What We Learned from Canadian Grand Prix 2017

The Big Picture: The Canadian Grand Prix, held since the early 1980s in historic Montreal, is the most stable of all North American Formula One races. Mexico City has been on and off. The US’s race has been in many locations and irregular in frequency. Contracts signed last weekend extend the event through 2029.

The Event:  The Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is laid out on the Ile Notre-Dame in the St. Lawrence River. 2.87 miles in length, the track is famous for its “Wall of Champions” into which many a world champion driver have crashed, including Sebastien Vettel, Michael Schumacher, and Jensen Button.

In Our Last Episode:  Vettel won decisively in Monaco with teammate Kimi Raikkonen as a disgruntled second place.

Qualifying: Lewis Hamilton earned his 65th career pole, tying the record of his idol, Ayrton Senna. The Senna family presented Hamilton with one of Senna’s actual race helmets. Starting after the jubilant Briton was Sebastian Vettel, Valterri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bulls.

Start: Clean, but Max Verstappen got around Vettel and Bottas which led to wing damage for Vettel. Lap 2 featured contact between Romain Grosjean and Carlos Sainz. Sainz then collected Felipe Massa. Neither Sainz nor Massa finished.

Race: This was Lewis Hamilton’s day from start to finish. Vettel was unable to take podium because of his early wing damage. Bottas had trouble keeping up with Hamilton but was assured of second when Verstappen’s car stopped on Lap 11 for unknown reasons. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo claimed the final spot on the podium. Hamilton led every lap, scored the fastest lap, and won the race, giving him a grand slam.

Best Team:  Mercedes was the most outstanding team of the weekend, taking pole, fastest lap, and the race win.

What We Will Remember:  It was Lewis Hamilton’s second grand slam of 2017 and the fourth of his career. His grand slams now equal the total for Sir Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, and Sebastian Vettel.

Quote of the Weekend: “It’s been such an incredible weekend. I just couldn’t be happier with how it’s gone and I’m so grateful for this result. We came away from Monaco and we were scratching our heads, but we pulled together and look what we achieved. We came here with a much better understanding of the car and we delivered a real blow to the Ferraris. Valtteri did a fantastic job too and this is our first one-two finish together. We’ve scored a big load of solid points and it’s well deserved. It’s crazy to think I had my first pole and win here 10 years ago. The race actually felt very reminiscent of 2007, in terms of how it unfolded. It’s a long race here, especially when you’re out there on your own, but I knew the car would hold together and it did perfectly.” Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes driver.

Runner-up Quote of the Weekend: “I think my start was not particularly good but at the same time not that bad either. The car was good, I think it was clear that today we could have been better than fourth, but that’s how we finished and what is done is done. Overall, we know we have a strong car. Looking back at the start, Bottas and I were trying to go from the inside when Max came around but these things can happen. Then, with the safety car on track I did not realize that the damage to the front wing was as bad as it actually was, we only noticed it at full speed. There was also some additional damage to other parts of the bodywork, hard to say what they cost me in terms of laptime, but the car did not feel as the one I had driven in the past two days. Yet the pace was there and I would have liked some more laps to finish on the podium, the trophy here looked nice… That was my target and I missed it. But we are growing up as a team.” Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari driver

Schedule:  In two weeks, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in the capital city of Baku on June 25th.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management, or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary Open Wheel

What We Learned: Phoenix International Raceway

The Big Picture:  The Verizon IndyCar Series oval races begin. Back in the olden days, the Indy Racing League (1995 – 2007) was all about ovals, at least at the start. Now, not so much.

Event: We call them fly in races. Arrive Friday, qualify and race Saturday. Except they changed qualifying to Friday. Woo Hoo. The crowds were sparse both days. Somebody lost money on this one, but it may take time to build this race as it only started running again in 2016.

Qualifying: Ever watched paint dry? Oval qualifying in the ICS is even less exciting. However, veteran Helio Castroneves took the number one spot and set a new track record. It appeared that Chevy was going to dominate the weekend.

Race:   After a horrible first lap crash that took out five cars, pole sitter Castroneves led the field through 50 odd laps of decent racing, followed by pit stop generated leads by Josef Newgarden and then Simon Pagenaud. It seemed we were going to see a Will Power win as the Australian headed the field for 59 circuits. But wait! Defending series champion Pagenaud took the lead on Lap 137 and never let go. There was relatively little passing for an oval race, with the notable exception of Hildebrand, who picked off cars like it was a spectator sport. Overall, not a bad contest of speed except for that nasty Aleshin wreck.

Biggest Surprise: J.R. Hildebrand’s astonishing comeback after a broken hand at Long Beach and missing Barber; he got a podium finish at Phoenix.

Biggest Disappointment: Without a doubt, the initial lap first turn spin by Mikhail Aleshin, causing a crash taking out himself, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Max Chilton, and points leader Sebastien Bourdais.

Best Team:  The Penskes were once again awesome, taking pole and finishing first, second, fourth, and ninth, plus setting fastest lap of the race. No other team led during the event.

Worst Team:  Andretti Autosport failing to post a top-12.We can only hope it gets better as the series moves to Indianapolis for the month of May.

Sponsor of the Weekend: Menard’s, sponsor of Pagenaud’s #1 car.

What We Learned:  Races that start with crashes taking out a big part of the field are not as exciting as those which start cleanly. Frenchmen can learn to drive oval tracks in their mid-twenties.  Events with only two cautions and no penalties can go very quickly.

Say Goodbye, Part I: Motorcycle and Indy 500 racer Joe Leonard died at the age of 84 on April 27th, but we heard about it race day. Leonard won the pole at Indy in 1968, driving for Parnelli Jones. Among others, Leonard is survived by his 1968 teammates Mario Andretti and Al Unser.

Say Goodbye Part II: Allen Bestwick and Dr. Jerry Punch were unceremoniously dismissed by ESPN along with 97 other employees on Friday. Dr. Punch, a loyal employee for 30 years is also credited with saving the lives of racer Rusty Wallace and singer Vince Gill’s daughter. This follows an earlier dismissal by ESPN of print and internet journalist John Oreovicz.

Schedule:  In two weeks, many of the drivers get to drive one of their favorite races, the IndyCar Grand Prix, the road course at Indianapolis on May 13th.

Quotes of the Weekend:

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “I can’t explain how excited I am. Ovals are not my specialty. I grew up in Europe racing go-karts. I learned about ovals when I was 26 years old, so I had to learn the skill and the technique that I didn’t know. Man, this is incredible. What a win. The car was phenomenal and thanks to the Menards Chevrolet crew. On the pit stops these guys never make any mistakes – I can completely rely on them and the car was just incredible from the beginning to the end. The car was so strong at the beginning of the race; we were able to save fuel in traffic. And it paid off with that lucky yellow but we’ve had our fair share of bad luck too this year so it doesn’t hurt sometimes to have a little break.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda):“Certainly not the end result we were hoping for. For us, the race started pretty decently. Obviously, I felt bad to see Mikhail get caught up in a Turn 1 incident. From there we had a decent first stint. During the first round of stops, we realized we weren’t on the same program as everyone else. We ended up having to stop a whole lot earlier than the other cars, and we just weren’t getting the (fuel) mileage. Even though it got us the track position early on, ultimately having to stop five, six laps earlier than everyone over the course of a race adds up. There was no yellow that kind of came out at the right time to put us on the same page as everyone else, and at the end of the race, we had to come in for a splash and go which cost a couple spots. It’s too bad; I think we could have had a solid top-10 finish. The Arrow Electronics car was the strongest that we’ve had here between last year, the test and now; it was a really good car. Unfortunately, the mileage situation really deterred us today. Big credit to the Arrow boys – we rolled off the truck with a good car again. We’ll head into the Month of May and see what we can do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “I was told by my spotter ‘Go low, go low’ but Max (Chilton) was spinning in front of me to the bottom so I could not go low. My only choice was to go above him and when he released the brake pedal, his car came back up the banking. Where do you go?  There was no way to stop the car on the banking. It’s not his fault, that’s just the circumstances of racing. Unfortunately, we got pinched between Max and Marco (Andretti). We’re all innocent bystanders. I haven’t seen the replay yet but I heard Aleshin lost it. With all the smoke, you can’t see a thing. There are cars flying everywhere. I was just kind of hanging on. It’s a shame because we obviously wanted to get a good finish for United Rentals and all of our sponsors.”

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.         

Categories
IndyCar Open Wheel

What We Learned from Barber Motorsport Park 2017

The Big Picture:  The Verizon IndyCar Series comes to the Deep South with its legendary hospitality and beautiful scenery. It arrived here in 2010 and looks like it’s a keeper.

Event: It’s a three-day event headlined by IndyCar and featuring its support series. The facility is beautiful and getting better each year. Its museum features the largest motorcycle collection in the world.

Qualifying: Team Penske’s Will Power won his 44th career pole, and the practice and qualifying sessions for the weekend could also be called “Return of the Penskes”. Teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, the reigning series champion, took the next two spots.  Also, worth noting is that Graham Rahal qualified last, the first time this has happened in his career.

Race:  A classic road race with enough lead changes to keep things interesting and enough surprises to give the crowd some suspense. For much of the event, it was Will Power versus Scott Dixon. To add some spice towards the end,there was rain. But the contest came down to one punctured tire for Power and Penske newcomer Josef Newgarden being able to capitalize on the leader’s misfortune to assume and maintain the lead for a win.

Biggest Surprise: The fifth-place finish of reigning Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi was certainly not expected and well-deserved  for Andretti Autosport. Another surprise was the Saturday arrival of Formula One champion Fernando Alonzo, who will join Andretti for the 101st Indianapolis 500 in May.

Biggest Disappointment: Without a doubt, Will Power’s tire puncture while leading late  was a huge disappointment after his dominating performance up until then.  The Australian finished 14th after having to quickly pit for new tires.

Best Team:  Team Penske came back strongly at Barber. They lead the  most sessions,  won the pole and the race. Josef Newgarden won his first race at Penske in only his third start with the team.

Worst Team:  The other two Chevy teams, A.J. Foyt Racing and Ed Carpenter’s team, both had less than stellar finishes given the relative success of Penske and the relative mediocrity of their finishes.

Sponsor of the Weekend: Engine manufacturer Chevy/Ilmor came roaring back after a somewhat slow start to the 2017 season.

 Quotes of the Weekend:  JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet, Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama race winner): “That was an awesome day. This is what we work for as an entire group. We always want to get one of these cars in victory lane. And, for (teammate) Will Power, I feel so bad for those boys on the 12 Verizon car – they were on it today and I feel like it would have been a great battle between Will, myself and Scott (Dixon). But it ended up just being Scott and myself. It’s a group effort here (at Team Penske) – all four of these guys work together. I’m thrilled for the (No.) 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevy guys but this is a team effort with all four cars. So whoever is in victory lane – we just want to get someone there with Team Penske.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 NTT Data Honda): “What a great race here at Barber. Another second-place finish for the 9 car. I think that’s our fifth runner-up here. One of these days we’re going to win here. We had a great NTT Data car and we were right up in the mix for the win at the end. We just didn’t have enough there, but all in all a good points day for the team. I saw (Josef Newgarden) late coming into (Turn) 15 or 16 on the last restart and I tried to turn down but the car was just so neutral I just didn’t have the rear grip to pull it off. Kudos to Josef – he drove a hell of a race and the win was well deserved. The NTT Data car was strong in the race. I think we actually had the speed – I think if we would have had clean air in that race we would have checked out. I feel bad for Will Power too – I think maybe a flat tire there or something. It was definitely a good fight.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 10 NTT Data Honda): “We’re moving in the right direction for sure. I think it goes without saying that I want to finish a lot higher than seventh, but I’ll take a top-10 after the way this season has started. We had a pretty clean race and our stops were good, we just couldn’t get up with the lead pack. I have a good track record at Phoenix, so hopefully we can come away with a good result next weekend.”

 What We Learned:  One of the big teams finally posted a win in the third race of the season. No matter how good you are, (Power) ill luck can still strike you unfairly.

Schedule: It’s less than a week until the next race, a nighttime contest at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona on Saturday April 29th.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Formula One Open Wheel

Formula One Power Rankings: Bahrain

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Throughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in Formula 1 following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

Team Rankings

2017 Constructor’s Championship After Bahrain

  1. Ferrari (+1)
  2. Mercedes (-1)
  3. Red Bull (NC)
  4. Force India (+1)
  5. Williams (+1)
  6. Toro Rosso (-2)
  7. Haas (NC)
  8. Renault (NC)
  9. Sauber (NC)
  10. McLaren (NC)

So, a few changes after Bahrain. We have three tiers right now in Formula One. At the bottom are two teams yet to score any points: Sauber and McLaren. In the middle of this sandwich are five teams that have scored points: Toro Rosso, Force India, Williams, Renault, and Haas. These teams are unlikely to win any races unless something catastrophic happens to the top three. Force India and Williams move up one place each while Toro Rosso goes down two. On the top of the heap are Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull. Red Bull could win in 2017, but right now the Scuderia Ferrari and the Silver Arrows of Mercedes are switching the team rankings back and forth. 

 

Driver Rankings After Bahrain

1. Lewis Hamilton: Although second in points, Hamilton could easily change this, and he has not finished lower than the runner-up spot so he remains numero uno in our rankings.     

2. Sebastian Vettel: He won in Bahrain, but a lot of that was luck and happenstance. We need more dominant performances to move Vettel up.

3. Valtteri Bottas (+2) earned his first pole in Bahrain. He also drove a strong race for Mercedes. Good job.

4. Max Verstappen (-1): His DNF in Bahrain due to brake failure was not his fault. So, the drop in rankings is more due to Bottas driving better than he is driving worse.

5. Kimi Raikkonen is driving like it’s the twilight of his career and that may be. The better Vettel does, the more it is making a case for Ferrari to find someone younger and hungrier to be his teammate. Ouch.

6. Daniel Riccardo moves up from seventh, strictly due to his sixth-place in the driver points.

7. Sergio Perez (+1) is consistency scoring points makes us wish we could move him up more. 

8. Felipe Massa (+1) rocked a sixth-place finish at Bahrain and is currently seventh in driver points.

9. Carlos Sainz drops from fifth-ranked down to ninth due to going pointless for the last two races.

10 (tie). The two Haas drivers, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, both have four championship points, tying them for 10th in the rankings.

 

We will resume the rankings in two weeks, after the Russian Grand Prix.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement,

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Observations From Texas – Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. And More

With your kind tolerance, a few observations from Texas:

—- Jimmie Johnson had not recorded a single top-10 finish six races into the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (working on it). There quickly arose rumblings that Johnson – in fact the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization – wouldn’t be championship fodder.

I’m not certain why such talk about a seven-time champion and his team would transpire so early in any given season. Reckon Johnson’s sluggish start had its impact.

But it has all been put aside after Johnson won the O’reilly Auto Parts 500 to log his first win of the season and the 81st of his career.

Johnson may be 11th in points but there are 19 races remaining before the payoffs begin. He really doesn’t have to worry too much about points. His Texas win puts him in the 10-race title hunt.

Which means he will have the opportunity to race for an eighth career championship. Should he win it he will become NASCAR’s all-time leader, moving out of a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Make no mistake Johnson wants that eighth title.

—- Speaking of Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded his first top-five of the season at Texas, finishing fifth.

His best previous finish was a 14th at Phoenix. Before Texas he had not recorded a single top-10 finish.

His lumbering start, something largely unexpected, created some speculation that he had not fully recovered from the concussion that robbed him of half the 2016 season.

I chimed in over Earnhardt Jr.’s travails but I’ve never believed his injury had anything to do with them. I didn’t speculate over a cause, but I accept the explanation of crew chief Greg Ives, who suggested that it was a combination of “mistakes and the need to gain more speed.”

“I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it’s nice,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I know our fans are really pulling for us.  Could have finished a little better, but we will take top five.”

Sometimes in racing it takes one positive, if small, development to turn things around. That may well be the case for Earnhardt Jr.

—- Kyle Larson continues to amaze.

The baby-faced Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished second at Texas. Hey, nothing new there.

He did it despite the fact he started from the rear of the field after failing pre-qualifying inspection. He also sustained a pit road penalty.

“I felt like maybe if I didn’t have that pit road penalty early in the race I could have gotten to the lead,” Larson said. “Just a little mistake on my part and we’ve got to clean that up a little bit and maybe we will win some more of these.”

In seven races Larson has collected five top-five finishes, including second four times (!) and one victory. He has also earned two pole positions.

He remains first in points, as position he assumed after Phoenix four weeks ago where he finished – you guessed it – second.

I’m not sure if Larson has established a NASCAR record. I only know that I don’t remember any other driver with such success in the span of a season’s first seven races.

—- When the Wood Brothers returned to full-time competition a year ago with driver Ryan Blaney, many long-time NASCAR fans hoped they would, at some point, approach the great success the Woods enjoyed in the past with such drivers as A.J. Foyt, David Pearson and Neil Bonnett.

The 2016 season wasn’t a bad one. However, early in 2017, things are different and at Texas Blaney and the Woods showed sparks of days past.

Blaney led 148 laps, more than any other driver, and won two of the race’s three stages. They were the first such victories of his career.

His dominance ended when he and six other drivers did not pit during a caution late during the second stage. Blaney held on to win.

But he lost track position on his subsequent pit stop. He fell to 20th place. However, he steadily moved up the ranks. He cracked the top 10 before an errant pit stop, during which he slid through his pit box, removed him from contention. He wound up 12th.

Nevertheless it was the Wood’s most dominant performance since Rockingham in1982 with Bonnett on board.

“We made our way up to seventh or eighth and then pitted.” Blaney said. “I got into our box too long and we were wedged in between two cars. I was over the line by a few inches.

“I put us in that hole. We probably should have stayed out looking back on it, but that is easy to do. I think it says a lot about this team about how good a car we had today.”

Blaney’s two stage victories helped him climb to sixth in points.

That’s good but there will likely be better. I think Blaney, along with Chase Elliott, will win. For both it is merely a question of time.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Formula One Open Wheel

What We Learned from Chinese Grand Prix 2017

The Big Picture:  The Chinese Grand Prix ran for a 14th time with no contract extension  announced – yet. This will be another challenge facing Liberty Media. The race promoters have publicly stated that the event loses money.

The Event: The 3.328 mile Hermann Tilke designed track was built on a swamp. As a result, parts of the track have started to sink. This event started out with much success, drawing a crowd of over 250,000 spectators in 2004 in its first year. Since then, attendance has continued to sink along with the track.

In Our Last Episode: Ferrari came roaring into the season in Melbourne with Sebastian Vettel victorious ahead of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

Qualifying: Lewis Hamilton pulled all the stops to take his 63rd pole over Sebastian Vettel.

Start: All drivers except Carlos Sainz elected for intermediate tires in the damp conditions.  Hamilton’s start was picture perfect while the Ferraris appeared to get away much more slowly.

Race: There were really two races taking place on the same track at once. The first was Hamilton’s nearly flawless drive  to win his 54th F1 contest. The second was everything  behind him.  There was the scramble to change from inters by Lap 2 to slicks, as conditions dried very quickly with 21 Formula One cars.Then Vettel, who ended up in sixth at one point, had to battle back to the front, as Max Verstappen held off his teammate Daniel Ricciardo. But mostly it was  Hamilton who while challenged at times by Vettel and Verstappen, won by 6.2 seconds.

Best Team: Red Bull Racing whose cars finished third and fourth. Ferrari left Raikkonen out too long before his final pit stop costing him a podium while Valterri Bottas’ spin did the same for him.

What We Will Remember: Race winner Lewis Hamilton’s Grand Slam (pole, fastest lap, race win, leading all laps), the third of his career. Simply brilliant.

Quote of the Weekend: “My pole lap put me in a great position and then the start was just fantastic. I’m really happy with my starts right now so I want to keep that up! During the race I needed to keep my composure in some really tricky conditions out there. After the pit stop under the Safety Car the speed was low and the tyres were very cold, so it would have been very easy to make a mistake, so I’m just grateful that I didn’t. In those final 20 laps Seb and I were just pounding around as fast as we could, exchanging fastest lap times, that’s what racing is all about. In the future there will be times when we don’t have a Safety Car and we won’t have that gap. I’m excited for that. It’s very close and there were times when it was hard to match Sebastian. It has been a fantastic weekend and I’m so grateful for the effort the team has put in for us to be where we are today. It’s very overwhelming when you have a weekend like this, because I’m just a single link in the chain and there are hundreds of people who are involved to put me up here on the top step. Big congratulations to everyone, especially those back home, I hope they’re celebrating and feeling the spirit and the fight.” Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton

Runnerup Quote of the Weekend: “That was a very special race. When I woke up this morning I never expected to be on the podium. It was a very good first lap, I passed nine cars I think which is very positive. The conditions really helped me get past the cars as quick as I could, that was important as I knew it would only dry up and get tougher to pass. I always enjoy driving in the wet so I made the most of the fun conditions early on. I think in the first eleven laps I got up to seventh place which set me up for a strong finish. We were a bit unsure of how the balance of the car would be towards the end of the race as I didn’t run much yesterday in Qualifying and the temperature is a lot lower today. We had quite a bit of understeer but just about managed to hold on to third place. These balance issues combined with being within two seconds of another car in the closing stages of the race made it really hard to drive, there were blue flags out but I still couldn’t get past, this needs looking into. The battle with Daniel at the end was hard as my car was not fun to defend in. I’m glad we hung on and obviously it was a great race to watch and for the team. I think on pure pace in the dry we are still a bit slow for a podium but all things considered today we definitely MAXED it out.” Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen

Schedule: Bahrain is one week away, on Easter Sunday.

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.