This is my 11th in a
continuing series of articles that take a different perspective
on races, i.e. what happened that others might have overlooked.
Check back with AutoRacing1.com the week following every race for my
The story of the Nazareth 225 started with a spectacular rookie performance in qualifying with Junqueira taking the pole and finished up with a spectacular finish for Scott Dixon in his Pac West Reynard. Bruno Junqueira made the most of his rookie testing at Nazareth to put his Lola on pole. Unfortunately his teammate couldn't come to grips with the quirky oval and crashed heavily during his qualifying run. Upon watching the onboard footage, it was obvious that Minassian was way off in terms of set-up. His hands were moving a bit more than one would like on a short oval.
The second story of qualifying is the continuing dominance of the Lola chassis. The top 4 starters all in Lolas with Fernandez the best of the Reynards. That is, the best of the non-Penske Reynards. Castroneves put in a qualifying performance worthy of fifth place. Gil de Ferran didn't look like he was to repeat his stellar performance of last year that brought Penske's 100th victory. Kenny Brack continued to show that he is a force to reckon with in Champcars. Brack is certainly coming to grips sooner with the change to the Lola than his teammate Papis. Despite putting in the fast practice times Papis could only muster a 14th place start. Another qualifying run of note was that of Jourdain Jr. This team struggled last year after losing their team owner Tony Bettenhausen. This year the team is moving forward and making the most of their new relationship with Ford Cosworth.
The opening laps transpired just as one might have expected. Brack has experience on this track and certainly used it to his advantage. He was able to get around Junqueira for the lead and that would be the story of the race. Brack has been extremely strong this season in all the key areas. He is qualifying well, leading a bunch of laps, and has overcome the pit stop problems that plagued him last year. However, it doesn't matter how many laps he leads if he is not leading the money lap. For whatever reason this team just can't seem to get Brack ahead on the last lap. I have to admit that I felt this was going to be Brack's day. It was his race and the other participants were building their race based on Brack. even in the closing laps when Dixon was leading and Brack was fifth, he knifed through the field to get right on the gearbox of Dixon. It just wasn't to be his day today, again.
Zanardi gave Brack a hard fought run today. Unfortunately, it was because Zanardi was trying to avoid going a lap down. I had huge expectations for Zanardi this year. I really thought that he would come back and pick up somewhat where he left off when he left for Formula 1. It is taking Zanardi a while to find his ground. Hopefully with Mo Nunn relocating to Indianapolis to spend more time at the shop will help get Zanardi up towards the front. I will say that I don't expect this slump to last the remainder of the year.
After the postponement of Texas, this race becomes the first oval race of the season. I was interested to see that kind of bodywork development would appear. It didn't appear to me that the Lolas made any outward changes to the bodywork. Except it looked like Ganassi's cars had a good portion of their cooling inlets taped off. This is in stark contrast to the very large, very prominent opening on the Rahal Lolas, for example. Even the Newman-Haas Lolas are wide open and they are running the same basic Lola-Toyota package. Maybe Ganassi found some aerodynamic advantages in the wind tunnel.
Perhaps for the first time since entering Champcar competition, Reynard has found itself in the unfamiliar position of being a little behind in development in comparison to Lola. I am not suggesting that Reynard is on the ropes I am just saying that Lola has really put a lot of effort into their Champcar program and it is showing on the track. All this is true if we take the Penske-Reynards out of the equation. Penske is still showing a lot of strength out of their Reynards but how much is Reynard and how much is a Penske PC28 in disguise? The rest of the Reynard teams pulled a lot of tricks out of the aero bag. The teams of Pacwest, Patrick, and Fernandez all are running those long side pod decks. These decks made an appearance at Fontana at the end of last season and appeared last week in Texas. Pacwest coupled the pod modification with the platypus nose. Team Green has probably the least outward modifications to their Reynards. It is interesting to see how the different teams translate wind tunnel data into these aero pieces. Each team finds something different with what should be the same basic chassis.
We said earlier that de Ferran wasn't able to put together a defense of last years win and that all came to an end when he tangled with Tagliani. It looked as if Tagliani was more comfortable with a wider approach into the corner. De Ferran saw this as an opening and went for it. Unfortunately it was too small an opening and both ended their weekend in the wall. I'm sure it was a tense moment for Roger Penske as de Ferran and his teammate Castroneves planned to head to Indy for some shakedown runs.
It is expected that with any new team that there is going to be a transition period before everything starts clicking. This can't be any more of the case for Fernandez Racing. They have struggled in qualifying and they have struggled in races. Nakano was running at the desperate end of his fuel run and missed the pit road entrance. Fernandez ran out of fuel in the closing laps and watched a possible points finish vanish. It can only get better from here.
I am at a loss of words to compare how very contrasting a weekend the Ganassi teammates had at Nazareth. Junqueira qualified on pole and unloaded fast on Friday. Minassian struggled to come to grips with this short oval. I have to give him credit for staying out of people's way and sticking with it to get some valuable seat time.
Yet again, not enough time for victory circle interviews. Why is it that CART and ABC/ESPN schedule these races with barely enough time?
The Big Finish
We started this weekend talking about a fabulous rookie performance. Who knew that we would wind up the weekend talking about a fabulous rookie performance? Except that these would be two fabulous rookies. Nothing can take away from how impressive Junqueira's qualifying run was. However, nothing can compare to Scott Dixon making history in becoming the youngest winner in CART history and being the first driver in CART history to win his first race on an oval. Not just any oval but the tough Nazareth almost-mile oval. This is a tremendous accomplishment not only for Dixon but also for Pacwest Racing. Pacwest struggled for competitiveness with the Mercedes/Ilmor engine. This is the team's first win since Blundell took the checkered at Fontana in 1997. I can think of no more a fitting tribute to Mauricio Gugelmin who suffered a personal tragedy with the death of his son.
I would like to extend my deepest condolences to the Gugelmin family on the loss of their son Giuliano. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
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