Texas wrap-up

After a three-month delay, the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES is finally off and running. Twenty-four cars were expected to compete in last Saturday night’s Genesys 300 at the Texas Motor Speedway, but after Takuma Sato lost control and crashed hard during qualifications, he was unable to make the starting lineup and only 23 cars took the green flag to get the season underway.

Though the race itself fell well short in terms of excitement (perhaps only to the snoozer I attended in my one and only visit to the Fort Worth oval in 2009), there were plenty of great performances throughout the night, a handful of curiosities, and several questions that began to have answers.

The most obvious takeaway from Saturday night’s race was that no matter how much things change, no matter what curveball the team has to face, and no matter what season the Series is in, the championship and most races always go through Scott Dixon, Mike Hull, and Ganassi Racing. With all the changes and challenges faced by all the teams this weekend – the shortened schedule, the lack of testing, the implementation of the Aeroscreen, the baking hot Texas heat, the racing line that was only about 1.25 car-widths wide, untested and unproven tire compounds – Dixon and the Wolfpack once again proved they are always a team, if not the team, to beat.

Scott Dixon and Eddie Gossage, wearing masks and keeping social distance, in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway (Photo: INDYCAR/Chris Owens)

Though Dixon was barely nipped by Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden for the Verizon P1 Pole Award, it was obvious early in the race that Dixon had the car to beat. Without a questionable debris caution when Dixon had built a lead of nearly seven seconds, it is not inconceivable that Dixon could have lapped the field and turned the race into even more of a snoozer. Even a very rare pitstop miscue by the PNC Ganassi Racing crew that temporarily dropped Dixon to third wasn’t enough to keep him behind for long.

On the ensuing restart, Dixon quickly dispatched of Newgarden and teammate Felix Rosenqvist to regain the lead, eventually stretching it to more than 12 seconds before traffic allowed Rosenqvist to whittle that lead down to under two seconds.

Speaking of Rosenqvist, this was undoubtedly his best performance on an oval since making the jump to championship cars last season. Unfortunately he tried a very inexperienced and impatient move attempting to pass James Hinchcliffe on the high side of Turns 1 and 2. Driver after driver showed throughout practice, qualifying, and the race that cars  simply couldn’t run in the part of the track that TMS had previously covered with the PJ-1 sealant. Rosenqvist tried it, lost the rear end, and ended a fantastic run with a wadded up race car.

Back in 2017, a much younger Josef Newgarden attempted a brave outside pass on the other end of the track that ended his night with a broken machine. Newgarden learned greatly from that experience and Rosenqvist is bound to do likewise. While Rosenqvist is hungry to secure his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES win, he will learn that throwing away a fairly certain second-place finish to force an impatient pass is a risk more experienced drivers aren’t generally willing to take.

What worked…

Though Dixon and Rosenqvist received the lion’s share of attention during the race being at the pointy end of the standings, three other drivers, in my opinion, put on dazzling performances that are worthy of consideration for Drive of the Night.

AJ Foyt Racing’s Charlie Kimball had, for most of the night, the team’s best oval showing since Tony Kanaan ran amongst the leaders for the first half of the 2018 Indianapolis 500. Kimball was a strong contender all night, making strong passes from the drop of the green flag. After running in either sixth or seventh position for all but a couple of the first 120 laps, Kimball advanced to fourth and stayed there until a slow pit stop on Lap 156 dropped him to eighth. Another pit stop error on Lap 189 saw his team fail to fill the car with enough fuel to finish the race, and Kimball was forced back to pit lane on Lap 194.

Unfortunately Kimball’s night ended against the inside wall of the backstraight when he lost control exiting Turn 2 on Lap 200. The crash didn’t cost him any further position, and he finished the race in 11th position. It was a disappointing result for the Californian, but he undoubtedly made people realize he was there. It was Kimball’s best run in several years and hopefully one the entire AJ Foyt Racing team can build upon.

Another driver leaving Texas with his head held high was third-year Andretti Autosport driver Zach Veach.  Veach proved his fourth-place qualifying effort was no fluke by running solidly in the Top 6 throughout the entire race, eventually bringing his #26 Gainbridge Honda home fourth.  This tied Veach’s career best finish, which he previously posted during his rookie campaign at Long Beach.  

There is no denying that Veach struggled mightily during his sophomore season – some the result of bad luck and some the result of poor decisions. This is very much a make-or-break year for Veach, whose contract with Andretti Autosport is set to expire following this season.  Zach has worked his career from the bottom rung of the Road to Indy ladder, has a committed sponsor (who also happens to be the presenting sponsor for the Indianapolis 500), is a fantastic ambassador for the sport, and has proven that he is a very capable driver.  I think it would be a real shame for him to not be able to continue his career beyond this season.  More runs like Saturday night’s showing will go a long way to making a continued career a reality.

Another who was probably a bit sad to see the race end was Conor Daly, who possibly put on the best drive of the evening.  Though he qualified a lackluster 19th, he essentially started the race in 16th position and was up to 14th after the first lap.  Daly continued to move up steadily through the evening, finally cracking the Top 10 on Lap 45 and staying there for the rest of the evening.  Amazingly, Daly was not passed a single time on track for position, losing positions only as a result of pit stops.

It is no secret that Daly’s Carlin Racing team has struggled since making the leap to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, but the foundation of the team is solid.  The team has been successful in every series they have entered, and one would be foolish to believe they won’t eventually find success here as well.  I have long held that the team and the folks behind the wall are not what holds this team back but instead the problem lies in the cockpit.  This has been evidenced on a multiple occasions when stand-in drivers have replaced Max Chilton in the #59 Gallagher car.  Daly himself showed this on a few occasions last season.  Though Daly will be racing road courses in the #20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, Carlin would be very wise to secure Daly’s services for the long-term and build upon their great foundation with his driving services.

Another tip of the hat should go to Ryan Hunter-Reay and his Andretti Autosport team for climbing to a respectable eighth-place finish after starting the race two laps down (more on that later).  On a night where passing was difficult, the 2012 Series champion never threw in the towel and used savvy strategy to get back on the lead lap.  If IndyCar had followed their own published rule book (more on that later as well), RHR likely could have pick up one or two more spots after the final restart.  But given how the race started, no one on the #28 entry is likely to be upset about their finishing position.

What didn’t work…

It easy to make a list of everything you didn’t like about the race, but with a few days of hindsight at my disposal, some of the more pertinent topics have percolated to the top of my mind. 

The biggest issue on Saturday night’s primetime display was the lack of passing.  A lot of smart people are pointing the finger at a lot of complicated and intertwined reasons for the overall lack of excitement that has come to be the calling card of IndyCar races at Texas Motor Speedway.  Opinions vary as to whether the PJ1 traction compound, the Aeroscreen, the blazing Texas heat, the untested Firestone tires, rookie drivers, a nine-month layoff, the early starting time, or other assorted factors are to blame.

Firstly, credit needs to be given where credit is due, and there you have to start with Scott Dixon and his team.  They simply got everything right for the race and were clearly the class of the field.  Dixon drove a great race with a car perfectly set up for the conditions and claimed victory deservedly.  When a driver and team get a car that perfect, they are bound to dominate and make the race at the front a bit lackluster, but that shouldn’t take away from their excellent preparation and performance.

Unfortunately, it had to occur when INDYCAR was primed for its largest non-Indianapolis 500 TV audience in a long while.  This was the first time for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES to be on primetime network TV since the 2013 Texas race, which, unfortunately, was another snoozer when INDYCAR tweaked the aero regulations too far and made passing difficult then as well.  The viewership and rating were good for this race, but a more exciting presentation would have helped both this race and future races where casual fans come to revisit.

But the problem with lack of passing wasn’t just an issue at the front of the field.  It affected the entire serial from top to bottom, negating the argument “there was plenty of good racing further back in the field.”  Looking at the official INDYCAR timing lap chart below (which I randomly selected from a point in the second half of the race), you can see that between Laps 128 and 149 when no drivers pitted, not one single solitary pass for position took place on track.  For 22 laps, no driver changed his position.  That’s a problem.

Yes, this is just one example that I randomly selected, but looking through the lap chart for the entire race shows the same thing.  Even between Laps 160 and 180 as the track was cooling and the race was winding down (which typically yields braver drivers and more passing), the only change in position is when Graham Rahal pitted on Lap 169, dropping him from 18th to 20th.

Now if this was an isolated problem, it would be easier to shrug it off and blame any one or combination of the above-listed factors.  However, this has been a recurring problem since the introduction of the UAK-18 in 2018 and is now prevalent enough that INDYCAR needs to stop making excuses.  

The UAK-18 was supposed to be the panacea that cured all of IndyCar racing’s perceived problems with oval racing (which, in all honesty, were really only seen at Phoenix and arguably Gateway).  The move to higher horsepower and lower downforce was supposed to highlight driver skill and actually increase passing due to speed variations among cars and drivers.  To it’s credit, it has put more of the driver back into the equation, but it has done so at the expense of the entertainment value of the product.

During the manufacturer aero kit era, oval racing was breathtaking at places like Indianapolis, Fontana, Texas, and Iowa (more so than some fans, participants, and media were able to handle).  Even in the original DW-12 days, most oval races were spectacular except when INDYCAR move too far with the specifications toward separating cars and eliminating anything that could be perceived as pack racing.

Since then, I don’t recall a single oval race with the UAK-18 that has thrilled me and left me aching for more at the end of the race.  Thankfully this current package has been most fantastic on the road and street courses, and I still contend last year’s race at Mid-Ohio was one of the best road course races I’ve ever seen.  But unfortunately, while the current kit is certainly a beautiful car (well, was a beautiful car), I think INDYCAR needs to really focus its attention on making the oval racing package much better and get the racing back to what many fans want.  With more than two years of evidence, the litany of excuses blaming tracks, weather, and other factors needs to cease with a priority focused on the common denominator – the car.

With the unanticipated rant out of the way, what else didn’t work?  In general – and given the circumstances – I actually thought INDYCAR’s one-day show worked well in this situation.  I don’t think INDYCAR should make a habit or even a trend of racing this way, but for this special circumstance, it went alright.

My biggest problem with the rules for this show were the unnecessarily harsh penalties that were levied on the three Honda-powered teams at the start of the race for “infractions” that were no fault of their own.  When the engines of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, and Alexander Rossi failed to start, the Honda technician who is normally assigned to each of their car had to be tracked down, his laptop plugged into the cars, and the ECUs reset before each took off for the race.  (They may not have all exactly been ECU issues – I honestly don’t remember – but the point remains the same.)

With some silly social distancing requirements in effect and on full display for all the world to see (more on that later as well), the Honda engineers were not right by the car to perform a simple and, from what I understand, routine reset.  Instead each driver lost a significant amount of time stationed on pit road while the rest of the field rolled away.  Once each finally got going, they were forced to start the race from the rear of the field.  That’s a tough penalty already given the difficulty in passing seen all night long.

BUT WAIT!  THERE’S MORE!  Not only did RHR, Rahal, and Rossi have to start at the back of the field, there were also given drive-through penalties and, in the case of Rahal, a stop-and-go penalty for “unapproved changes” to the car during the impound period.  WHAT?!?!?  As if starting at the back of the field wasn’t torture enough, now each of these drivers is further penalized one or two laps due to circumstances that were completely out of the race team’s hands.  I found this penalty to be egregiously harsh.

What’s that?  Such a penalty is in the rule book?  Interesting… somehow INDYCAR was able to use its discretion to waive the rule of removing lapped cars at the end of the race, but they were apparently not able to remove a double-harsh penalty for drivers and team who themselves committed no fault.  Right.

Given the extremely tight timeline everyone was working on after the very long layoff, I really felt INDYCAR could have given the teams a bit more latitude and waived the second penalty for each of these drivers.  Impose the penalty of starting at the rear of the field.  Fine.  But to double-whammy these teams for an infraction that was not of their doing was wrong, harsh, and unnecessary.

On a somewhat lighter and less consequential note, Norris McDonald, the great motorsports writer for the Toronto Star/wheels.ca and member of the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame, wrote a great article earlier this week, part of which dealt with the ridiculousness of Scott Dixon and Eddie Gossage wearing masks while standing by themselves in Victory Lane.  I realize it’s probably a controversial subject, but to say the mask requirement was anything more than show and symbolism is a fallacy.  They both looked silly.  

The social distancing requirements also had a great effect on the above mentioned nights of RHR, Rahal, and Rossi.  Considering the drivers were wearing helmets, as are the crew members generally alongside each car, what social distancing justification could be made for not allowing the Honda engineers to be alongside the cars when the engines were fired?  It was silly and an attempt to appease the masses gone wrong.  Hopefully this will be the last time we ever have to talk about engines not starting and penalties being incurred because of social distancing.

Final thoughts

Was this a great Texas race?  No.  Was this an IndyCar race that will be highly regarded and considered an instant classic?  Definitely not.  BUT was this a race with actual cars and not a simulated world?  YES!  It’s said by many that having a somewhat-dull-to-decent race is better than no race, and while I may contend that laying an egg in front of your biggest potential audience and perhaps the audience hungriest for any race isn’t necessarily better than not racing, I think the NTT INDYCAR SERIES did enough with this race to tip the scales in the overall positive direction.

Three cars suffered significant damage during the day.  Hunter-Reay soldiered his repaired car home to eighth.  Takuma Sato’s team was not able to finish repairs on his car in time to even participate in the race.  And Rinus Veekay prompted took his repaired car and crashed it again, leaving the boss man less-than-pleased with his young rookie’s maiden outing.

I don’t want to see INDYCAR continue one-day shows for ovals, both from a fan and a promoter perspective, but it had to been done in this case and everyone made the best of it.  I was personally glad to see Indy cars back on track but devoting my entire Saturday to watching practice, qualifying, and the race is more than I am typically willing to invest (or than the Mrs. will often approve).

There is now a entire month away before the big cars return to action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4.  With no testing in store between now and then, hopefully the vacuum will be filled with some positive INDYCAR news.  But regardless, it feels good to finally get the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season underway!

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