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Musings on NASCAR’s Pocono adventure and no cautions at INDYCAR’s MId-Ohio Race

August 6, 2012

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Photo courtesy IZOD IndyCar Series LAT/USA

After a weekend of weather impacted racing, it’s time to sit back and take stock.

First of all, I’ve got to send condolences to the family of the fan killed by a lightning strike at Pocono International Raceway, and those injured. There were tweets for about an hour before the Sprint Cup Series race was halted, stating that first a severe thunderstorm watch and later a warning were in effect. Since my childhood, I’ve learned that thunderstorms nearby impact everything in their paths and that the right thing to do when you know they’re coming is to find someplace safe to be.

Be that as it may, I do remember refusing to leave the fourth floor of the media center at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on two separate occasions when I was working on deadline: the first came after Buddy Rice won the Indy 500 in 2004 during a monstrous rainstorm complete with tornado warnings; the second in the first MotoGP held at the track that featured storms impacting Friday practice and the race, knocking out power to the giant facility for a while and cutting the contest short.

Did I leave? No. Did I move away from windows? Well, yeah – there’s always that self-preservation gene that kicks in during instances of this type.

While I understand why NASCAR wanted to keep the race going long enough to make it “official” after two mid-race caution periods, the series does have weather advisories at its fingertips and could have, with the assistance of the circuit, pulled that red flag out earlier and allowed fans – most of whom were suitably attitude-adjusted – to get to safety either below the stands or at their cars, well before the violent lightning storm with its high winds arrived.

Can’t change it now, but can we learn, please?

Nice job by Jeff Gordon to earn the win with his pass as teammate and race leader Jimmie Johnson experienced a right-rear flat tire, got into Matt Kenseth and took both of them out. Gordon knew what to do, as did another teammate, Kasey Kahne who slotted in second behind him. Early leader Dale Earnhardt Jr wasn’t a factor after his second transmission problem of the weekend. Bet Mr Rick Hendrick won’t let that happen again, but Junior maintains the point lead since Matt Kenseth finished worse than he did!

At Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course it rained overnight from qualifying to race day and almost into the delayed morning warmup, which was shorted by 10 minutes and still ended up with three red-flag stoppages. When it came time to race, the track was dry – but green, rain water having washed away anything resembling a groove.

That the Indy cars ran this race without caution was pretty much of a marvel; that it happened for the second race weekend in a row? How about the first time since 1987 that’s happened, when CART held its final two races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Tamiami Park outside Miami, both without cautions.

What happened with this scenario is that only one driver went home happy – but isn’t that what happens anyway? Scott Dixon became the first Indy car driver in MId-Ohio history to win four races at the 2.258-mile, 13-turn technical road course, taking the victory because he had a clear pit entry on his second stop and then-leader Will Power, the polesitter for this race had to go around Dixie’s crew to get to his pit box. That fractional difference got the Honda-powered car ahead of the Chevy and that was all she wrote.

After the race, Team Penske president Tim Cindric was irked (on Twitter, of course) that the 85-lap contest became a fuel economy race. Well, Tim, when drivers behave properly and put on a clinic of road racing skills, it’s going to impact the fuel rates and the competition. You got beat in the pits, pal, and you’ll just have to deal with it – his driver Will Power does have the points lead at this time and why he’s bitching about strategies, I haven’t a clue.

Some believe that Scott Dixon learned how to mileage race when Team Target was saddled with Toyota engines and that could be true. I think Dixon is one of the most feared racers because there’s precious little he can’t do, given proper equipment and Mike Hull’s clinical strategies. As he jets across the Atlantic while I”m writing this to see the Olympics with wife Emma Davies Dixon, a former world class runner, I’m sure Dixon feels complete, relaxed and ready for anything that comes his way in Sonoma three weeks hence.

And let’s give cheers – in French, please – for third-placed Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais, who finished fourth yesterday. Pagenaud has always been an exceptional racer (and I don’t rate all that many drivers as racers) as has Bourdais; getting the opportunity to show their skills hasn’t always been easy, although Seb’s four titles in Champ Car didn’t come as easily as some might think – remember, he had to contend with 2002 Indy 500 winner Paul Tracy, who is one racer anyone should fear. And Pagenaud, Power, Alex Tagliani were in that mix, too.

Prior to last weekend’s Ohio race, we learned that Ohio native Graham Rahal’s contract wasn’t extended by Chip Ganassi Racing on its due date, placing the second generation driver on the open market – although he might still drive for Ganassi, given the Service Central partnership he brings to the table. Rahal’s destiny still hasn’t been determined – he has great skills but stuff hasn’t gone his way, often due to operator error (we all experience this problem, don’t we – see Dario Franchitti’s costly mistake on Sunday).

Even so, letting people know he’s available could be a good or bad thing for Graham, a delightful young driver who merits another good ride next year. Whether he’ll get it or not depends on musical chairs around the paddock.

One place I wouldn’t suggest that Rahal land is KV Racing Technology, which has a wealth of experience, one fabulous racer in Tony Kanaan (who moved from 18th to sixth on Sunday), one Formula One expat (Rubens Barrichello, who’s still learning) and EJ Viso in its stable. This team should be winning races but just can’t seem to take that next valuable step to the top spot on a podium – or often even close to a podium! There’s a good deal of engineering expertise here that’s being wasted and I’m loathe to see how and why it’s ended up this way. Tony has 193 consecutive starts, second to all-time leader KVRT co-owner Jimmy Vasser (211).

With Power leading the points over Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was the sole entry not to finish this race due to a kaput Chevy engine – no penalty as he stopped the car during the race rather than trying to gain a couple of points and having to pay for it in grid spots – with the luckless Helio Castroneves in third, even with a 16th place result, just ahead of Franchitti. Scott Dixon is fourth but on the move – will this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series points chase come down to the grand finale, a 500-mile dash for cash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana? It very well could.

By Anne Proffit

 

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