Monday, April 8, 2013

Barber Storylines: The Great Duels Continue

If you were going to script the first two races of the IZOD IndyCar Series, they couldn't have gone much better than the first two races have. We've had two great battles for the win now, and Ryan Hunter-Reay's duel with Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves will not soon be forgotten. I'm still in shock the race ran green for nearly the entire length, with only the early yellow to mar it.

Fans have been treated to some of the best in street course and road course racing, and it's always good to have an example where you can tell your friends "that's why I love this sort of racing". Not every race will be a blockbuster, but we've seen some great races so far this year, with the sort of dueling fans would love to see each and every week. After both races--and this is just as a fan!--I have felt drained, emotionally wiped out. That's a sign that a) I'm a giant weenie, but also b) fan excitement and investment. I certainly hope I'm not alone on that.

Here are a few other mentions on the race weekend at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama:

-Obviously, Andretti Autosport is in a great place right now. For a number of years, Penske and Ganassi were teams 1 and 1A, with Andretti seemingly just behind those two in terms of performance. Well, if last week didn't convince you, this week should have: Andretti isn't just back, but through two races, they've staked their claim as the team to beat. Seem like a bold statement? That's how it is until it's proven otherwise. Given how that team is clicking right now, I could see them giving everyone all they could handle at Long Beach, too. When Ryan Hunter-Reay is on his game, it's a beautiful thing to watch.

-A massive thank you to NBC Sports Network for their coverage this weekend. The cars just "looked" fast out there, and the camerawork was excellent. They also hit on items relevant to how the race was playing out and strategy throughout the afternoon, and used replay as needed. It was a slick-looking broadcast, and just what IndyCar needs on there.

-Two notes on commercials: I have absolutely no problem with NBCSN promoting both F1 and IndyCar races heavily during their broadcasts (great, keep it going!), and the "sign a waiver" Mario Andretti commercial is tremendous.

-That's four times now Scott Dixon has been runner-up at Barber Motorsports Park. I made mention yesterday about how he's the "Bridesmaid of Barber", and that seemed to be the running joke yesterday evening, with Dixon himself using the same sort of reference. What isn't a joke is Dixie's driving, which is absolute top form. If any Honda has a chance at the championship this year, you can bet it's Dixie.

-Speaking of Honda, they didn't win Sunday, but between Dixon, Charlie Kimball, Simon Pagenaud, Justin Wilson, Tristan Vautier, and Josef Newgarden, they certainly didn't have any trouble competing. It seemed as if some of the contention around their slow start at St. Pete disappeared this week, and that's a good thing. I don't believe anyone would contend that Honda (particularly Ganassi) didn't have a shot at this week's race, which is what we want to see.

-Dario Franchitti started off the weekend slow, but looked to be at least in good form for the actual race before a broken header ended his day early. That's clearly something that's going to need to be looked into before Long Beach, along with a host of other mechanical gremlins we've begun to see pop up this season. Meanwhile, Dario sinks to dead last in points, behind both Ana Beatriz and AJ Allmendinger. There's still plenty of time for him to find his form, but this was no way to start a campaign.

-We might as well round out the Ganassi drivers, and that means discussing Charlie Kimball. CK led Sunday, and though he ultimately fell short of a podium, he drove his car like a bat out of hell for most of the race. His late-lap pass of Will Power was a thing of beauty. Kimball is under a lot of scrutiny to perform well, given the team he's on, and he came through with flying colors this past weekend. The trick is going to be seeing Charlie get those Top 5s and Top 10s every week, not just a couple of races per year. If drives the rest of the year as he did Sunday, he shouldn't have any issues with that.

-The streak is over! Josef Newgarden recorded his first Top 10 finish in IndyCar at Barber, and was it ever overdue! Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing didn't qualify particularly well, but Newgy ran a controlled, patient race--something the fans have been waiting to see. It's a good result, and the sort to build upon.

-Helio Castroneves' quest for that elusive series championship is going well through the first two races. Two podiums in a row will not hurt his cause any! I also enjoyed the promoting of the Turbo movie he was doing throughout the weekend. That movie represents the most mainstream exposure outside the Indy 500 we've had in decades. It needs to be pushed, and tied in, and referenced, and embraced. It helps that it sounds as if it's going to be a great, talent-laden film.

-Marco Andretti seemed a bit peeved at his P7 finish (the way he was moving at the start of the race, I had him figured for a podium), but after his woes to open the season in recent years, I should think that would seem pretty great. Much has been made of Marco's work on his craft in the offseason, but I'm curious to see where he is in the troughs as well as the valleys. He's still right in the title hunt, so we'll see which Marco we get for Long Beach. It's never a bad thing to have an Andretti fighting up front, though.

-How great was James Hinchcliffe on Sunday? That sounds like a funny thing to say about a guy who finished dead last with mechanical issues, but his exaggerated yawn-and-stretch routine after being stuck in his car for 80+ laps was a total riot. Hinch took his situation with good humor and grace after the race, and showed he might be the only guy that can make the highlight reel of a race even when he hardly runs any of it.

After about 10 minutes, they realized Hinch was still stuck.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
-Until the late stall in the pits, AJ Allmendinger looked set for a Top 10 finish. He was definitely disappointed after his P19, but the good news is he'll get another shot at it at Long Beach. AJ will catch on quick, but I'm sure there's still the question of a comfort level there. I'm still very happy to see him in the Series, and think he'll give some folks a run for their money before the season's done. It's a process.

-Carlos Munoz won a pretty quiet Firestone Indy Lights race, which puts him only 12 points behind Sam Schmidt's Jack Hawksworth (who finished P2) in the Lights title chase. We're used to Schmidt's drivers having their way in this series, but Munoz ran just about as dominant a race as possible at Barber. This race should be very tight going into Indianapolis next month. Sage Karam also warrants a mention, for essentially finishing his race on nubs of tires and managing to hold onto P4 against several very strong challenges.

-May we take just a moment and appreciate what sort of athletes we're dealing with in the IZOD IndyCar Series? For two hours Sunday, there was no yellow flag respite, no break for these drivers, as they used every bit of their physical training to wrestle theirs cars around a demanding road course. Towards the end, you got the sense the drivers were simply exhausted, as if it were the last round of a heavyweight boxing match. You begin to understand why working with folks such as PitFit Training is so important. Conditioning and endurance certainly plays its part.

Other Notes: Great work by Mark Jaynes, Pippa Mann, and Nick Yeoman on the Firestone Indy Lights radio broadcast. Superb work in keeping things flowing and the fans informed...the Rahal team can't catch a break, with Graham Rahal and James Jakes both having woes Sunday. Rahal running out of gas on the last lap was especially brutal. Sometimes, a team just seems snakebit...It was a shame to see Simona's car so loose after a good weekend leading up to the race. Just not a good weekend for KV Racing after a strong effort at St. Pete...We are coming up on an entire year since Will Power won a race. Crazy, isn't it?...EJ Viso's P12 probably won't register on most radars this weekend, but he's in the Top 10 in points after two races, and has looked very comfortable this year...Justin Wilson drove very aggressively on Sunday, and was absolutely awesome to behold. We forget just how good he is at times, just because he isn't in a high-visibility ride...congratulations to Tristan Vautier on his first IndyCar Top 10. Judging from his performance so far, it will be the first of many...IndyCar Fantasy players, I'll try to get results tallied by mid-week! Thanks for your patience!


  1. Ken @AbuelosDeTreceApril 9, 2013 at 7:42 AM

    Zack - Excellent read on the race. I think everyone loves the Mario Andretti commercial as I saw several comments on Twitter about that.
    NBC Sports did have a excellent broadcast. My only complaint would have to be their coverage of the last lap. Apparently there was still lots of racing after the RHR crossed the line because several cars changed positions when it was all said and done. EJ Viso was in P14 and Tony Kanaan was somewhere either just ahead or just behind at the start of that last lap. Somehow, They ended up P12 and P13 at the end so it seems there was still lots of racing after the checkered flag dropped. I would like to see the broadcast stay with the race just a little longer, rather than going straight to commercial after the top few cars cross the line.
    I also think it's very cool that ALL of the Andretti cars are in the top 10 after two races... I think it's going to be a very long season for the Penske and Ganassi teams.

  2. Great job, Zach. I was there listening to Hinch on the scanner while he sat in the car. Hilarious! This was a great race with duels for positions all over and many strategic storylines. As great as the Mario waiver commercial was, I have to say the Fuzzy Zoeller ad was pretty tasteless. Can't wait to see the DVR.

  3. Zachary HoughtonApril 9, 2013 at 6:30 PM

    @Ken: That's an interesting point. I know Graham was P12, but ran out of gas and finished P21 after the last lap.

    @Mike: I think I missed the Fuzzy Zoeller ad! I'll have to check it out.