A Mid-Ohio race for the ages

First of all, let me say welcome back to the handful of visitors who have noticed my absence over the last several weeks since the Indianapolis 500.  To say life has gotten in the way of this blog would be a massive understatement.  As usually happens when the calendar turns to June, my work schedule has taken off and required a lot of travel, and family matters, both good and not-so-good, have diverted my attention.  I’ve obviously continued to follow along with the the NTT IndyCar Series but just haven’t been able to chisel out the time necessary to sit down and pound out a lot of thoughts.

Interestingly, George Phillips and I did record a “Two Sites Unite” video about three weeks ago and were planning to post that.  The conversation was riveting and offered unparalleled insight into the coming races on the IndyCar calendar.  I even correctly predicted all the races winners for the month of July (right…).  Unfortunately, the video quality was unacceptable and we scrapped the whole thing.  Such a shame.  I’m sure you missed us terribly.

One of the highlights of my sabbatical was an opportunity to catch up with my old MoreFrontWing.com colleague Steph Wallcraft while I was on a 10-day visit to Toronto in late June.  As far as we could recall, Steph and I hadn’t actually gotten a chance to catch up in person since I took my kids on vacation to Toronto in June 2015, over four years ago.  As it always is with old friends, catching up was a treat and we picked up right where we left off when we shut down that site in October 2014.  Perhaps it was because we’ve both grown over the past several years or we didn’t have anyone listening in on our words, but the evening had a very relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, like two former “rivals” who reunited many years later to look back on the joy of being part of an experience without regard to which side of that experience they were on.  Steph and I spent many years bickering about the nuances of IndyCar racing, but on this evening, it was like we had never disagreed.  As a matter of fact, we really barely talked about racing at all.  There was a lot of life discussions and talking about the roads life has taken us down over the past several years.  Both older and wiser now, our fans at MFW would have been insanely bored with our conversation.  But if I may speak for Steph, I know we both enjoyed the evening immensely and look forward to another opportunity to catch up again before another four years passes us by.

Now, back to the business at hand… Mid-Ohio…

Being completely honest, Mid-Ohio is probably one of the stops I least look forward to on an annual basis for the NTT IndyCar Series.  Generally speaking, the race doesn’t produce very exciting action once the field gets strung out.  There have been more races where I end up channel surfing than ones where I find myself on the edge of my seat.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been a some good moments at the Ohio roadcourse.  Watching Charlie Kimball get his first – and only – IndyCar win was a good moment, and watching Scott Dixon drive to victory after starting last was a defining moment of his career.

Sunday’s race, however, completely broke the mold of the typical Mid-Ohio race and was sensational throughout.  From the start of the race with Marcus Ericsson getting ping-ponged into his teammate to Felix Rosenqvist’s last turn effort at his first victory, this was one of the most exciting IndyCar road course races I can ever recall.

With about 10 laps to go, I was wondering when the Firestone alternate, red tires were going to finally start wearing out on Scott Dixon’s machine. Scott is one of the legends of the sport, but given how Alexander Rossi and Will Power had struggled so mightily early in the race, I didn’t think even Scott was going to be able to hold on for 30 laps, even if he was able to nurse them mightily over the last 10 laps with a giant lead.  Sure enough, the 12-second gap back to third place Ryan Hunter-Reay with 8 laps remaining started to close by about 1.5 seconds each lap.  It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that RHR and the train of cars behind him were going to be right on Scott’s tail at the checkered flag.

What made the race just as fascinating was the line of lapped cars between Dixon and Rosenqvist, who were obviously faster than and being held up by Dixon.  (That’s a sentence I’m pretty sure I’ve never written before.)  Even if Rosenqvist was able to catch the line of traffic, Mid-Ohio tradition would indicate there simply weren’t enough corners and passing opportunities to pass all of them and catch up to Dixon.  Only this wasn’t a traditional Mid-Ohio race.

With the race on the line, the ability for Dixon to keep Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato behind him was probably the move that eventually won the race for Scott and kept his championship hopes alive.  Had Marco or Takuma been able to slip by, it’s likely the rest of the train would have come along with them and A.) slowed Dixon considerably and B.) Given Rosenqvist and RHR a clean shot at him.

On the final lap, Rosenqvist finally cleared traffic and took his shot at his first NTT IndyCar Series victory.  I honestly wasn’t expecting him to take a shot at Dixon and would settle for second (if for no other reason than being directed to do so by his Ganassi team to preserve Dixon’s shot at the championship), but I was pleasantly surprised to see the Ganassi team turn him loose (though reminding him to be cautious) and to see the young Swede take a swipe at Dixon.  Unfortunately for Felix, I believe his inexperience got the best of him when he tried a late move inside of Dixon at the keyhole instead of setting up Dixon for a higher-percentage pass at the end of the backstretch.  Felix ended up losing the backend of his Dallara on entry, banged into Dixon, and lost a great amount of momentum.  He would regain his car and get one final shot at Dixon coming to the start-finish line but fell just short, by about one car-length, from victory.

His attempt to pass Dixon in the keyhole reminded me of Takuma Sato’s attempted pass on the last lap of the 2012 Indianapolis 500 where he took the first opportunity to make a pass instead of waiting for the best opportunity.  Of course it’s easy for me to say from the comfort of my couch, but I honestly believe a more experienced driver would have waited to make that move.  In time, I think Rosenqvist will too.

Then again, experience doesn’t always necessarily result in wise decisions in the late stages of a race.  Exhibit #1 was just behind Rosenqvist when points leader Josef Newgarden attempted a very aggressive late pass on Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Holding a not-commanding-but-signficant points lead coming into the weekend, Newgarden’s goal for each weekend is to simply finish ahead of Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud.

Entering the final lap, Newgarden was doing exactly what he needed to do as he was two spots ahead of Rossi, his nearest championship rival.  Instead of mailing it in and accepting the fact he would gain points while the number of remaining races dwindled, Newgarden inexplicably tried to move inside of RHR, a move that backfired terribly when Newgarden ended up in the sand trap at the edge of the track and could do nothing but watch the rest of the field file by.  Instead of a solid fourth-place finish, Newgarden wound up a disappointing 14th.  Though he could have walked away with a 35-point advantage, Newgarden’s lead shrunk to only 16 points with four races remaining.  There are still a lot of points on the board, but you have to hope this mistake by Josef doesn’t turn into a Ryan Briscoe moment when he spun into the pit wall at Japan in 2009 when it seemed he had the championship in hand.

With four races remaining – one on a super speedway, one on a short oval, and two on natural road courses – the championship is still up for grabs and picking a favorite would be difficult.  Newgarden has not excelled on the super speedways, so Pocono might be advantage Rossi.  But Rossi has yet to break through on the short ovals, so Gateway may be advantage Newgarden.  Portland and Laguna Seca are toss ups.

I’ll be on-site for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, my fourth visit to the the historic and charming 2.5-mile triangular oval in eastern Pennsylvania.  Conventional wisdom might suggest Chevrolet has a slight horsepower advantage given Pagenaud’s dominance at Indianapolis, but Honda always seems to find a way to stay competitive.  It’s going to be a great finish to the season!!

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