Indycar Oval Season- Veterans Rule, Passing at a Premium

The NTT Indycar Series completed the oval portion of their abbreviated schedule Sunday at World Wide Technology Raceway. It was quite a feat to get in six races of any kind in a season that was delayed until June. Some positive things came from the abbreviated, revised schedule. The double header qualifying format, the competitiveness of Carlin Racing with Conor Daly driving, and that fans were allowed to attend Iowa and Gateway. Sunday’s attendance at gateway is thought to be around 7,500, which would make it the largest oval crowd of the year.

Qualifying Format for Double Headers

The double header qualifying format in which the first lap set the Race 1 grid and the second lap set the Race 2 grid was fascinating and did scramble the lineup a bit for the second race. I was surprised no one swept both poles at an event. Four different drivers won poles at the doubleheaders- Conor Daly, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Takuma Sato.

If there are more double headers next season, I hope this format stays. This year it was put in to save time and expense on an improvised program, but it was fun to watch.

Oval Points

It seemed as if Scott Dixon dominated the ovals, but Newgarden was not far behind. Dixon’s 95 point margin is largely based on the road course races. Dixon accumulated 256 points on the ovals while Newgarden has 251. Takuma Sato and Pato O’Ward each have 205 points on the ovals. Sato’s win at the Indianapolis 500 made up for his missing the race at Texas.

Passing

The aeroscreen may be a factor. Less tire degradation might also be a culprit. It seems as if passing is more difficult this year than last year. This past weekend passing was non existent except for a few bold moves, especially Sunday.

The aero package works  very well on road courses. Adjustments need to be made for the oval package. I hope that after a season with the new aeroscreen, the series and teams can figure something out.

Yellows

 The seventeen caution periods this season on ovals is I think, about average. Seven were in the Indianapolis 500. While the timing of the yellows can’t be predicted, several drivers have been caught out by the yellow flags just after their pit stops.

 Conor Daly had just pitted in Iowa race 2 when the yellow flew for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s accident. The rain yellow at Gateway this past Saturday pushed Josef Newgarden back in the field.

Two races have ended under yellow because of accidents with four laps to go. I don’t have a problem with races finishing under yellow. A race has a scheduled distance and that’s when it should end. Baseball doesn’t add an inning when a game ends on a strikeout instead of a home run.

Carlin and Daly

Carlin Racing and Conor Daly have been a great match. Daly has made Carlin competitive on the ovals. His average finish with Carlin is 8.8 with four top tens and a pole. The one top ten he didn’t get was because he was caught by a yellow in Iowa Race 2.

I hope Daly continues his arrangement with Carlin next season.

Rookies

The rookies have looked great on the road courses, but have struggled some on the ovals. Rinus VeeKay, who had a disastrous start at Texas,  does appear to be improving. He had a 6th and a 4th this past weekend. Oliver Askew Had a 3rd and a 6th at Iowa, but hasn’t shown consistency at the other ovals. Alex Palou has a best oval finish of 11th.

VeeKay leads the rookie standings overal with 181 points, while Askew has the most oval points, 126.

I’m sad to see the oval portion end. there are five road or street courses left on the schedule. We are still waiting for final word about Mid Ohio and whether fans will be allowed. There is no word yet about fans viewing the Harvest classic races at IMS. St. Pete I still think is iffy to run and definitely sketchy for fans.

Quick Thoughts- Gateway Race 2

Photo: The race on the pit road exit lane decided the race.

Passing has always been difficult at World wide Technology Raceway, and yesterday was an extreme example of it. When leader Takuma Sato couldn’t lap Ed Carpenter or even get close to him, it set the tome for a very processional race. It was definitely a race that could ahve been helped by a yellow flag or two.

While pit work is very much appreciated, I would rather see races won on the track. The pit crews were on their game this weekend, but on track action is what the series needs to showcase.

Sato showed no signs of an Indy hangover this weekend with a second, a pole, and an eight place finish. He is still fourth in points.

Points for the weekend– Dixon 81, O’Ward 79, Newgarden 69, Sato 67

Congratulations to Rinus VeeKay for his career best fourth place finish Sunday. VeeKay finished sixth on Saturday. He has improved a lot this year after a shaky start at Texas. The rookie is carrying Ed Carpenter Racing this season.

Conor Daly and Carlin is a great pairing. This weekend he earned his third and fourth top tens from his five oval races with the team.

Last year at Gateway vintage cars dropped oil on the track just before qualifying. This year the first responders parade, which was great, also left some fluid on the track. I understand the need for prerace presentations, but Indycar might want to begin the festivities a little earlier to allow for these issues to be resolved.

Was yesterday the last race of 2020 where fans will be allowed? Jay Frye said he is 80-90% certain Mid Ohio will take place, but he said nothing about fans being able to attend.  The Harvest Classic is iffy for fans. and I am stoill skeptical about St. Pete running or running with fans.

The first through fourth finish for Chevy powered cars Sunday was a bit of redemption for their showing at Indianapolis.

I thought Indycar threw the yellow awfully fast when Sato hit the wall. He kept going and maybe should have been black flagged. I don’t think O’Ward would have caught or passed newgarden in any case.

I’m glad that Tony Kanaan had one top ten finish this weekend in what may have been his final Indycar race outside of the Indianapolis 500. He has been a great driver and very popular with the fans. I know many fans who became interestd in Indycar because of him. Sponsorship may prevent him from running more races. If that is the case, I want to say thank you, Tony. You have been a great ambassador for the sport.

Quick Thoughts- Iowa Race 2

Dr. Newgarden has reopened his Iowa clinic.  His 214 laps led tonight give him close to 1,000 laps led at Iowa Speedway.  Newgarden is the first driver to win at Iowa from the pole. His third victory at the track ties him with Ryan Hunter-Reay for most wins  here. Newgarden also joins Hunter-Reay as the only back to back winners.

Newer teams and drivers stood out this weekend. Carlin and Conor Daly had a pole and finished eighth Friday. On Saturday, Daly started third and was definitely  a contender until being caught out by the second yellow. His 13th place finish does not reflect the great race he ran tonight.  Sadly, Daly has only one more race scheduled with Carlin this season, August 30 at Gateway.

Arrow McLaren SP ‘s pair had two good races, contending at times both nights. oliver Askew was on the podium Friday, giving the team podiums two races in a row. Pato O’Ward’s disastrous pit stop probably cost him his second top 5 finish of the weekend. We have not heard the last from either of these teams.

Both yellows seemed to take a long time.  I’m surprised there weren’t more.  Both cautions played havoc with several teams pit strategies.

After a series of frustrating races, Graham Rahal finally gets a podium. He has been strong all year, but has had a difficult stretch of getting a good result.

Colton Herta’s repaired car was a handful tonight. I don’t know how he avoided hitting the turn 4 wall early in the race.

Two top 10s for Rossi  couple with his third at Road America should help his and the team’s morale. Like last year the team doesn’t seem to have the overall pace to contend. Rossi needs another strong Indianapolis 500.

If you are surprised that Team Penske suddenly came alive this weekend, don’t be. Some years it takes them a race or two to get going.  Penske usually gets to the top eventually.

Simon Pagenaud improved 41 spots from his starting position over the two races. He didn’t seem to have the pace he had on Friday, yet still managed a 4th place finish. He trails Scott Dixon by 49 points, gaining just 1 point on Dixon tonight.

Doubleheaders are great, but they shouldn’t be overdone in a normal year. As a fan I loved it, but the toll on the drivers and crews has to be heavy. I realize this is not a normal year. I could live with another double header at Iowa.

I’ll be back Monday with a report on how Iowa Speedway handled its COVID plan. Wednesday a story on my visit to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.

Thank you for following along this weekend.

 

 

Newgarden Leads Practice Joined by the Usual Suspects

Josef Newgarden led the final practice for tonight’s Iowa 250. Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon followed in a session that saw the series veteran stats at the front.

Colton Herta drove his repaired car and Rinus VeeKay drove a backup car. Herta was 13th and VeeKay was 14th.

The top seven:

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Newgarden On Pole for Genesys 300

Josef Newgarden nipped Scott Dixon for the pole for tonight’s Genesys 300. Newgarden, the final qualifier, averaged 215.740 to beat Dixon by 0.03 seconds.

Takuma Sato crashed during his qualifying run. He will likely start in his backup car.Rinus VeeKay, who had crash in practice, did make an attempt. Neither did Santino Ferrucci. A statement from Dale Coyne Racing said the car didn’t feel right.

Starting grid will be up in a few months minutes.

Newgarden: Aeroscreen Will Affect Setups

In a teleconference this morning Josef Newgardenand Simon Pagenaud agree the 2020 season will be interesting as teams  look to figure out setups with  the aeroscreen. Newgarden said that it seems to affect setups differently at different tracks.  He said the first team that gets a handle on how to work with it best will have an advantage.

“… it’s very different, I would say. It’s reacting differently to different tracks so far. I’ve had a taste of it at Richmond, COTA and Sebring. Those are all pretty different places. So you get these small characteristic differences everywhere. Sebring was quite interesting. It was very fun I think for all three of us yesterday to sample that and see what it was all about. But the moral of the story is I think there will be definite differences with the car. It’s going to want certain things from a setup standpoint, certain things from a driving standpoint. We’re not the same as 2019. I think it always brings an opportunity for us to try to figure that out quicker than the rest of the pack. We’re working pretty hard as a team right now to make sure we come out of the gates the best with the new opportunity and try to get on top of it the quickest. It’s always fun to have that. As a driver you like change, the opportunity to try and shine at something new. Yeah, we just need to make sure we’re on top of it when we get to St. Pete next week.”

Simon Pagenaud, commenting on Scott McLaughlin, who may drive in as many as eight races for Team Penske this season:

“Scott got the first taste of it in 2020. I must say he did a really good job. He’s obviously a great champion. You don’t win the V8 Supercars champion twice without being an incredible driver. It’s expected for him to jump into anything and be fast and end up understanding the series. I’m as excited as you are. First of all, having champions come from other series for INDYCAR is really good. It just shows the interest. It just shows that the series is on the upward trend. I’m excited to see him come in, do a few races this year. I think he’s going to bring fresh for us blood, a new perspective. That could be very interesting for our development, as well. I’m looking forward to it. He’s a great guy, so far it’s been a great relationship starting. We’ll see how he goes. I hope he does well. I think it’s going to be awesome for us to gather more fans.”

Jimmie Johnson to Test for Arrow McLaren SP

Seven time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson had a sat fitting at the Arrow McLaren SP shop in Indianapolis today. He will test in the team’s Indycar next month at Barber Motorsports Park. There has been talk that Johnson would like to run some Indycar road and street course races in 2021 following his retirement from NASCAR after this season. He currently has made no commitments to running a race next year.

Johnson’s Tweet:

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I think it would be amazing if Johnson and Fernando Alonso drove in the same race next season.

On the Way!

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway began mailing tickets for the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 today. Receiving the blue envelope is one of the most exciting days of the year.

 

Team Penske News: XPEL Sponsorship for Newgarden; McLaughlin Gets Indycar Test

Photo from Team Penske

From the Team Penske news release yesterday:

“Team Penske and XPEL, Inc. (NASDAQ: XPEL) a leading provider of automotive paint protective film and window tint, today announced a multi-year partnership. XPEL will be the primary sponsor of the No. 1 Dallara/Chevrolet driven by reigning and two-time NTT IndyCar Series Champion Josef Newgarden for two races in 2020. XPEL will also serve as the “Official Protective Film Partner of Team Penske.

The partnership with Team Penske – the most successful team in motorsports history – represents the first racing sponsorship for the San Antonio, Texas-based company. Newgarden will race the No. 1 XPEL Dallara/Chevrolet in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 9 and in the Texas Indy 600 at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) on June 6. XPEL will build on the partnership and become a primary sponsor for a third IndyCar Series race with Team Penske in 2021 and beyond.”

This is a nice looking car with hints of a Shell livery from a few years ago.

It’s always good to see another sponsor in Indycar. I am also glad to see the Newgarden will carry the No. 1 on his car. I think the series should require the champion to do so every year.

McLaughlin Will Test Indycar at Sebring

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Photo: Team Penske

Back to back Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will drive a Team Penske Indycar at a January 13 test at Sebring. McLaughlin drives for DJR Team Penske in Virgin Australia Supercars. He won a record 18 races this year.  Since joining the team in 2017, McLaughlin has won 35 times to go along with 44 poles in taking series title in 2018 and 2019.

I don’t expect an Indycar ride to happen from this test. Right now It is a reward for achievement in Supercars, but with of Penske’s current NTT Indycar Series drivers approaching retirement, maybe he’ll be in the series in a few years.

The link to the full story:

bit.ly/2qTrqPK

 

Richmond Raceway Excited for Indycar Return

Photo: Team Penske car ready for the aeroscreen  test at Richmond Raceway. Josef Newgarden drove the car in today’s sessions. The  aeroscreen looks much better painted. Photo from Team Penske

You could hear the excitement in track president Dennis Bickmeier’s voice as he talked about the NTT Indycar series returning to Richmond Raceway.

“…it’s really exciting to hear the sound of IndyCars going and Richmond Raceway again. A buzz around town, a luncheon around here with some of our invited guests, some of our partners, hopefully some of our potential new partners as well that are getting a glimpse of seeing IndyCars back on the track here at Richmond Raceway after a decade. Certainly exciting. Much quicker than even I anticipated. Again, given my previous history watching open cars around two-mile tracks, this is a different experience.”

“The track has sold tickets to fans in 26 states and two areas of Canada for the June 28 race. After the season ticket renewal period ends, more seats will be available for the Indycar race.

I asked Bickmeier to explain how Indycar’s return to the schedule happened. He  said discussions began in 2018.

“But really it was about trying to find an opportunity in
the schedule. We were open to a lot of different dates.
This June date is more along the traditional date where
IndyCar raced here before. We love this date. It works
well between our two NASCAR races. For us, it really
presents kind of a big cadence to our year as we’re
promoting all of our racing events here at Richmond
Raceway…
one of the most
asked questions I got in the time I’ve been at
Richmond is, When are the IndyCars coming back? I’m
happy to say we’re able to answer that question now.
It really wasn’t that complicated. These guys made it
easy, Jay and the team, to discuss the possibilities of
having IndyCar return. I’m just thankful we were able to
get it all together.”
It looks to be a promising successful event for the series.

Morning Testing Session Focuses on Tires

The morning part of the Richmond test was mainly  dedicated to Firestone tire testing. Today was Josef Newgarden’s first time in the car with red Bull Advanced Technologies Aeroscreen. He found the transition pretty seamless

“It was my first time with the screen. Just getting a feel
for that. It honestly was pretty seamless. Honestly
didn’t feel that different. Perception-wise it was a little
different when I got in. It took maybe 30, 40 laps, after
that you’re used to it. It feels kind of normal at this
point.”
Newgarden said the track was like “a smooth Iowa.”
“I’m hoping a second lane comes in. If it does, I could see it
racing very similar to that place.”
Scott Dixon said the car felt pretty much the way it did at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month. he thinks the oval configuration is fine. Dixon believes lap times may be slightly down because of the added weight, but thinks overal there will be a net zero effect on performance.
The final aeroscreen test will be at Sebring  November 5 with Sebastien Bourdais and James Hinchcliffe driving. The test there will be the closest the series can come to testing on a street course.

Harding Steinbrenner Releases Al Unser, Jr.

Al Unser, Jr. announced in a Tweet this morning that he has been released from Harding Steinbrenner racing. The release is part of the ongoing transition of the team as it becomes part of Andretti autosport. I wish Al well and hope he can find another team with a young driver to help.

 

 

 

Indycar Season Review- Newgarden Reclaims Title and Rookies Shine

Photo: Josef Newgarden on his way to clinching the championship at Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca. Photo by Kyle McInnes

In some ways 2019 was an unusual season for the NTT Indycar Series. In other ways, it was a typical season.

Some unusual items:

All three of the championship contenders heading to the final race had at least one finish of 15th or worse.

The seven race winners each won multiple times. I can’t recall that ever happening before. Seven winners seems like the lowest total in a few years as well.

None of the three contenders won a race after July 20.

Alexander Rossi did not lead a lap after his dominating win at Road America on June 23.

Typically, Team Penske drivers led more than 900 laps and won nine races. The team also enjoyed a 1-2 finish in the final standings.

Josef Newgarden combined  consistency and some great pit strategy by Tim Cindric to jump to an early points lead which he held most of the season. Rossi climbed to within 16 points after Mid Ohio, but the lead expanded in the following race after Rossi’s involvement in the first lap incident at Pocono. Simon Pagenaud saved his job with his two brilliant victories in May. He had a 4.8 finishing average over the last six races and came up just 25 points short of his second title.

Rossi was dominating at Long Beach and Road America. He finished second in the Indianapolis 500. The rest of the time he was good, but not great. I thought Rossi was more consistent in 2018. Since his Road America win, Rossi had an average finish of 7.7

Dixon’s Title Defense Stalls

Scott Dixon’s season was typical of his title defense years. He never got going. 2019 was just the second time he has finished outside the top three in the standings.

Dixon finished second three times and third once in the first five races. A 17th place in the Indianapolis 500 followed by a crash and 22nd place in the first Belle Isle race put Dixon  in a hole he could not climb out of. He did bounce back to win the second race at Belle Isle and also won at Mid Ohio. Dixon now has 46 career wins, just six short of Mario Andretti for second place all time.

Rookies Have Outstanding Year

The four rookies- Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, and Santino Ferrucci- collectively had a season that any rookie group would be thrilled with. The class earned  2 wins, 4 poles, and 6 podiums. Ferrucci had an average finish on ovals of 6.2. Rosenqvist’s street/road course average was a respectable 7.1. Herta took most of the headlines with his three poles and two victories, but mechanical issues and accidents suppressed his averages and kept him behind in the points standings.

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Felix Rosenqvist edged Colton Herta for Rookie of the Year. Photo: Kyle McInnes

Rosenqvist won the Rookie of the Year title with a fierce drive at Laguna Seca from 14th to fifth to edge Herta by five points. He served notice at St. Petersburg that the rookies meant business when he passed Will Power on a restart. With Rosenqvist staying at Ganassi and Herta moving to the main Andretti team, I see a future rivalry between these two in a couple years.

Surprises and Disappointments

The biggest surprise of the year was Takuma Sato winning two races and earning two pole positions. Sato had a big slump beginning at Texas and was blamed for the early accident at Pocono. It would be nice to see him put a full season together.

Jack Harvey and Meyer Shank racing deserve consideration for driver and team of the year. Harvey earned the team’s first podium at the Indycar Grand Prix. In just 10 races, Harvey had four top ten finishes, got into the Fast Six twice, and finished on the lead lap in seven races. They seemed to struggle after their long break following Road America. If their plan to be full time in 2020 works out, they should be even better.

Zach Veach was probably the most disappointing driver. After finishing 2018 strongly, I thought he would have a great year. He lingered in the back half of the field most weekends and finished 18th in points, ahead of only Matheus Leist and Ed Jones among the drivers who drove all 17 races.

The Best and Not So Best

Not every race can be great, and like most years a few races stood out.

For me, the best races were the Indycar Grand Prix, Mid Ohio, Iowa, and Gateway.

The worst races in my opinion were Pocono, Detroit 1, Toronto, and Portland.