IndyCar Pocono Postscript

Will Power busted the championship wide open by winning at Pocono
Will Power busted the championship wide open by winning at Pocono

In early June, it had all the makings of a runaway snooze fest. By mid-July there was some faint hope someone might be able to mount a late-season charge.

Fast-forward to Monday afternoon after Will Power won the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, and make no mistake: the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle is on. And it’s layered with more drama and intrigue than it seems many suspect.

Today, AutoRacing1 will discuss those stories and more in our Pocono Postscript, starting with the man who clings to a slim lead in the series standings.

Simon

As regular readers know, I’ve been something of a Simon Pagenaud admirer in 2016. Early in the season, as the driver of the No. 22 Chevrolet was racking up three wins, two poles, and two second-places in the first five races, I drew likened Pagenaud to a Swiss Army Knife. Whether it was coming back from late-race contact with Graham Rahal at Barber, beating Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon in the pits at Long Beach, or simply laying the smack down on the field from pole at the GP of Indy, the Frenchman seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Like a Swiss Army Knife, Pagenaud and Team Penske could seemingly find a solution at will for any obstacle that came their way. .

While Pagenaud’s top-notch driving has by and large continued since, some notable misfortune and the emergence of Power, who is riding a streak of 4 race wins and six top-2 finishes in the last 6 races, has cut a lead that was 137 points after the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to a mere 20. Furthermore, Monday we saw something of a first from the Frenchman in 2016: a genuine mistake. Entering turn 1 on lap 157, Pagenaud lost the No. 22 Chevrolet, and backed the car into the wall ending his day.

Of course, the uncharacteristic mistake might have been an easier pill to swallow had a different driver emerged victorious.

Power

No question, Power is the hottest driver on the circuit right now. But what interested me most was not so much what Power did Monday at Pocono, but what he said afterwards.

As we know, the 2014 series champion has at times been his own worst enemy. He endured some excruciating near-championship misses, in which the pressure seemed to clearly get to him, before breaking through in 2014. Two of those near-misses of course, came at the hands of one Dario Franchitti, who cool, icy demeanor contrasted with the outwardly anxious Power.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]But that Power appears to be so 2012. And if you don’t believe me, ask him.

“I remember when I used to battle Dario for the championship," said Power. “I can see now, I've got older, you get more mature as a driver, you let the race unfold. That's what Dario was great at. Used to frustrate me because I'm quicker, I'm fast. He was just very methodical and good at it.

“I think, yeah, I have a lot of respect for Dario. I have more respect for him now that I've got older, just seeing how he worked and all that."

Now on the hand, Power didn’t exactly say much. One could argue that he merely noted his heartbreaking scraps with Franchitti imparted a certain wisdom his younger self did not possess.

On the other hand, the fact Power is even willing to talk about Franchitti probably tells one that he is no longer carrying the burden of those near-championship misses. If anything, he views those misses no longer in the context of disappointments rather as part of an overall maturation. Further, whereas he was the apprentice who could not fend off Franchitti the master, Power now sees the roles as reversed.

If anything, he could have been saying “that guy Pagenaud is ok and all, but he is unsuspecting the ways of The Force . I Luke Skywalker have completed my Jedi training at the feet of Yoda (Franchitti.). This championship is mine b******!"

Anyway, I could be reading too much into this. But at the end of the day in a heads-up battle like we have, there is usually someone applying the pressure and someone fending it off – a hammer and a nail, if you will. I think we know at least one of the combatants is relishing the opportunity to for one time be the hammer.

A Note

With the close championship battle, some have referenced Power missing the opener at St. Pete due to concussion-like symptoms (even though it later turned out he didn’t have a concussion). Of course, Team Penske replaced Power in the No. 12 Chevrolet with Oriol Servia. Remember, had the team simply withdrawn the car, Power would have earned half-points for a 22nd place finish (4 points) and not starting the race.

While it’s easy to be revisionist about such things, let’s be clear: Team Penske made the right decision for the series and event by fielding the entry. The real takeaway should be, how stupid is a rule that encourages not fielding an entry in such a situation? But that’s a different discussion for a different time.

Aleshin/RHR

Power’s impressive work aside, the two drivers who stood out the most were undoubtedly, Mikhail Aleshin and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Aleshin secured his first career pole Saturday and very much looked a man at ease throughout the weekend. While many drivers often hole themselves up in their haulers during race weekends only to appear when duty calls, the likable Russian was very outgoing signing autographs, and chatting with whoever was up for a chat. One got the sense Aleshin viewed the Pocono race as his breakout opportunity. While it was conceivable Aleshin might back up in the race, he very much validated his pole effort running in the top-3 most of the day.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Undoubtedly, the ballsy Russian appears at ease on the American roundy-rounds. While he came up a little short Monday, make no mistake Aleshin’s day is coming. And don’t look now, but the Russian will be scored in third-place when the Firestone 600 restarts Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway.

As for RHR, the best thing that can happen from an entertainment standpoint to any IndyCar oval race is for Hunter-Reay to have a poor qualifying effort. You might remember, Hunter-Reay started the 2014 Indianapolis 500 19th. Without any caution period, the 2012 series champion drove through the field and into the lead at lap 100. And he has done the same elsewhere.

Starting last Monday, Hunter-Reay began picking cars off after the green flag fell. By lap 49 he passed Aleshin to take the lead.

Unfortunately for Hunter-Reay, an electronics issue caused his car to lose power, and he had to settle for third. Still, in what has been a difficult year for RHR and Andretti Autosport, we were once again reminded Hunter-Reay is the best Indy car oval driver of this generation. And it isn’t even close.

Canopies

Until IndyCars have a full canopy drivers will always be a great risk
Until IndyCars have a full canopy drivers will always be a great risk

By now you’ve surely seen the Alexander Rossi-Charlie Kimball-Helio Castroneves lap 63 pit lane incident. An exiting-his-pit Rossi contacted an entering-his-pit Kimball forcing the No. 98 Honda off the ground. As Rossi’s car came back to earth, it landed in the cockpit area of an exiting-his-pit Castroneves. Luckily, no one was hurt.

Castroneves and Rossi were unable to continue while Kimball lost a lap before finishing 15th. As for fault, INDYCAR assigned the blame to the exiting car of Rossi, and assessed Car 98 a 20-second time penalty. This essentially switched the finishing order for Castroneves (19th) and Rossi (20th).

Of course, finishing order and assigning blame constitute the small picture here. Because however close Rossi’s car came to Castroneves’ head, let’s be very clear: it wasn’t more than centimeters from game over for the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Just as one could say Justin Wilson’s fatal accident last year could have been a different outcome a few centimeters either way, the exact same can be said for Castroneves. And once again, the discussion of canopies for Indy cars is once again at the forefront.

Now, when it comes to this particular discussion, frankly, I’m shocked we’re still even having it. Yes, I know it’s not simply a matter of slapping canopies on the cars this weekend at Texas, and yes, I know matters such as driver extrication in the case of say a James Hinchcliffe (Indy 2015) accident must be fully vetted. Still, off the top of my head, Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, Hinchcliffe (2014 GP of Indy), Wilson, and Castroneves have in recent years endured significant head trauma or come excruciatingly close to major head trauma. While not a full proof solution, I cannot fathom why on earth the IndyCar community cannot agree canopies should be pursued going forward. They’ve worked successfully in NHRA, sports cars and other types of racing for decades, and there is no good reason a future Indy car cannot be designed with a proper canopy?

Of course, one argument you’ll hear from many is the tradition of open cockpit cars. I have absolutely zero time for such idiocy. The term ‘open cockpit’ like ‘open wheel’ is a nebulous one. There is nothing that expressly states an Indy car must be open anything. Heck, they’re only half-open wheel now. Before 1964 seatbelts were not standard at the Indianapolis 500. Were people then proselytizing about the purity of ‘Non-Seatbelt’ Indy cars?

Look, if you’re one of those that is hell bent on keeping some tradition alive here’s a cause to rally around: innovation and improvement. Because as we saw AGAIN Monday, the men and women who risk their lives for this great sport have their heads exposed to regular, imminent danger. Although racing will always have some element of danger, there is a clear solution to this problem.

A Quick Addendum

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]If you look at the Rossi-Kimball-Castroneves accident, it seems to me there was going to be an accident even if Rossi had jammed on the brakes. Kimball may have very well hit Castroneves as three cars were basically headed for the same spot in the slow lane at the same time. Granted this is all a hypothetical and one could say Rossi being there blocked the view of Castroneves’ team. Still, Kimball hit Castroneves it may have been potentially worse as it would have placed crew members in danger.

Anyway, the crew members are often overlooked in the whole safety discussion. But they of course assume certain risks absent the possibility of fame and fortune that drivers have. And that should not be overlooked.

A Final Note

Yes, there are one or two things I can nitpick about the 2017 IndyCar schedule. Still, excellent job by Mark Miles and INDYCAR getting the 2017 schedule out in a timely fashion while maintaining date equity at the existing events. Miles said he was going to place a premium on date equity and consistency, and for 2017, he unquestionably delivered.

Brian Carroccio is a senior columnist for Autoracing1. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com

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