IndyCar Toronto postscript

Power takes the win in Toronto

There was intrigue aplenty oozing out of the concrete canyons and reconfigured circuit at Exhibition Place. Today, in AutoRacing1’s Honda Indy Toronto Postscript, I will use a topic/statement elaboration format to break down some of the key stories from the Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual pilgrimage to The Great White North.

Andretti Autosport

The utter look of confusion and despondency on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s face after qualifying was a picture that could have told a thousand words. Of course, it has aside from the Indianapolis 500, been largely a forgettable campaign for traditional powerhouse Andretti Autosport. This weekend was no different as the team’s top-finish came courtesy of a 10th from Marco Andretti.

While it’s generally accepted that Honda is behind Chevrolet, laying the blame entirely on the team’s engine/aero-kit situation would be incorrect. Keep in mind, two Dale Coyne Hondas, two Schmidt Peterson Hondas, and one from A.J. Foyt Racing all bested the AA Hondas in qualifying. And Graham Rahal edged three of the Andretti cars, save for Carlos Munoz.

And go back a week to Iowa, long an Andretti Autosport playground. The team was out qualified by four Hondas and only placed one car in the top-10 during the race.

In short, the problem here isn’t entirely Honda.

Now, I’ll note that many in the paddock have pointed to losses of engineering personnel as an explanation for the Andretti Autosport struggles. Kyle Moyer, for example, left Andretti Autosport for Team Penske before the 2015 season after 23 years with the organization. Also, like other teams in the paddock, Andretti Autosport seems to be behind the Penske armada in terms of grip – part of which can likely be explained by Penske’s shock program. Furthermore, with Formula E, Global Rallycross, Indy Lights and the like, the Andretti operation is spread quite thin.

All the above could be valid explanations. However, in addition to diminished and thinly spread resources and apparent horsepower and aerodynamic deficiencies, I wonder if Andretti Autosport might also have a chemistry problem. Hear me out.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]You probably remember 2009-2011 were rather pedestrian seasons for Andretti Autosport. The team was transitioning if you will, with Tony Kanaan, Hideki Mutoh, and Danica Patrick all moving on into its current form with Hunter-Reay as the clear No. 1 driver. After that transition phase, the team enjoyed a strong run from 2012-2014, with Hunter-Reay winning the championship in 2012, and the Indianapolis 500 in 2014.

During that stretch, the team also employed one, James Hinchcliffe. Although not Hunter-Reay’s equal behind the wheel, the beloved Mayor of Hinchtown seemed to bring a levity to the team that doesn’t exist currently. To be clear, I am not criticizing anyone for not being Hinchcliffe. I’m merely noting that there is no Hinchcliffe amongst the team’s inhabitants.

Another thing to consider: you probably remember the team had a dismal start to the 2015 season before a strong stretch run highlighted by Hunter-Reay winning at Iowa and Pocono. Call me crazy, but was there any coincidence to the fact that stretch happened to coincide with Justin Wilson joining the team? Although not the outgoing personality of Hinchcliffe, Wilson, who lost his life following an accident at Pocono last year, was similar to Hinchcliffe in that he was someone everyone got along with; a ‘glue guy’ so to speak.

Sure, the team’s late-season stretch in 2015 and the arrival of Wilson could have been total coincidence. Or maybe Wilson’s brief tenure with the team actually expose an overlooked but very important dynamic within the team has been missing since Hinchcliffe departed following the 2014 season?

I don’t know, and quantifying such a dynamic would be near impossible. But if I’m Michael Andretti the above is certainly something I’m looking into.

Newgarden is being lured by NASCAR. Can't blame the guy for wanting to become rich
Newgarden is being lured by NASCAR. Can't blame the guy for wanting to become rich

Newgarden

One person who undoubtedly be a good addition to Andretti Autosport is Josef Newgarden. Of course, the hottest free agent in this year’s IndyCar market, probably isn’t headed to a Honda-powered team. The consensus on Young Josef is that if he does not land with Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing, he will be back with Ed Carpenter Racing.

That, or he may be trying NASCAR.

Granted, he didn’t exactly say it that way. But at a test for the Brickyard 400 last Thursday, Newgarden appeared as an interested spectator, and had this to say:

"I love open wheel racing, IndyCar is the best, you can't beat the Indianapolis 500 and everything we do, but I always am intrigued with NASCAR. I love all forms of racing, if there's anything going on with four wheels I want to check it out. I would never rule out getting to drive one of these things one day, I'd be all for it."

Newgarden as usual, was very coy and measured with his words. He didn’t really say anything other than “if someone is offering a chance to drive a race car, I’m interested." And I suppose it could be nothing more than that.

On the other hand, there may be more to this than meets the eye.

Let’s face it: if Newgarden wants to be a well-compensated race car driver (why wouldn’t he?), he probably needs to move from his current situation. And if a move to Penske or Ganassi isn’t possible (I broke down why this could be the case last week), becoming a well-compensated race car driver might necessitate a move to NASCAR.

So, the long and short of it is this: if Josef gets an offer to drive for Penske or Ganassi in 2017, that’s where he lands. But he can’t wait forever. And if that move continues to be delayed, he would be foolish not to look at NASCAR.

Speaking of Penske and Ganassi

Due to a 22nd-place finish this weekend, which dealt a significant blow to his championship hopes, the two teams Newgarden aspires to join in the future seem destined to determine the IndyCar championship in the present.

With his third win in 4 races, and fourth-consecutive top-two finish, Will Power is currently on a streak similar to that of Simon Pagenaud earlier in the year. The Aussie has closed his teammate’s edge in the championship to 47 points with five races remaining. After finishing second at Toronto, Helio Castroneves sits third, 74 points behind Pagenaud. While Castroneves sits a strong third with his luck bound to turn at some point, the smart money would indicate a Power-Pagenaud title duel is shaping up.

Since we’ve never seen Pagenaud in this position, it is hard to say how exactly he will react. While he has endured a string of poor finishes, he has been consistently running in the top-five, and continued to play it cool. Will that change going forward?

As for Power, he is currently driving footloose and fancy free and collecting a boat load of points. In the last 4 races, he has shaved 77 points off Pagenaud’s lead. But could the worst thing for Power actually be to overtake Pagenaud the lead prior to Sonoma? Remember, Power has historically driven much better when playing the role of cop rather than that of criminal; he’s better at hunting, than he is fleeing from predators.

The Wounded Animal

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Of course, it would be silly to forget about defending series champion Scott Dixon, who started from pole and dominated in Toronto before an ill-timed caution dropped him to eighth (more on that following). In 2015, the Kiwi made a late-season charge to nip Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreaker at the double-points season finale at Sonoma.

Now, let it be known that a Dixon title-run is statistically less probable in 2016 than last year. With 5 races remaining in 2015, Dixon trailed Montoya by 49 points. This year, he is 83 behind Pagenaud. Further, the trio in front of Dixon has been very formidable in 2016. If Dixon is to charge to a fifth series title, it will be a greater feat than what he did in 2015.

While most wounded animals will eventually often succumb to their injuries, some are known to lash out. Keep in mind, we have and a number of Dixon-favorable tracks upcoming (Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Watkins Glen). And we’ve seen the Dixon and Ganassi Derail Penske Title Hopes Then Chip Crowd Surfs movie before.

VSC

A Dixon title charge might be more of a possibility had there been a virtual safety car type procedure at Toronto. I’ve written previously in favor of such a measure being added to IndyCar. And the race in Toronto helped perfectly illustrate my argument.

Having run in the top-3 all race, Power came down pit lane on lap 57 of the 85-lap race for his final pit stop. As he was coming down pit road, the yellow light came on signaling the caution period for a crash by Josef Newgarden in turn 5. Of course, in IndyCar a yellow flag closes the pits while the field queues up behind the pace car. This is a safety measure, which due to trucks and safety crewmen on track, makes sense. However, in this particular case, it gave Power a significant competitive advantage, as he was able to complete his pit service.

Now, you can point out that Power and race strategist Tim Cindric made the right strategic call. They did. You can also say that Power has been often been on the receiving end of poorly- timed cautions in the past. He has.

People will also point out that an unintended benefit of yellow flags is they mix up the running order. This is true, but does the series want races and championships decided by who guesses when the caution comes out? The caution flag is a safety measure for drivers, marshals, and team personnel. While the simple reality is that it will always in some impact the actual racing on track, the virtual safety car is a way of minimizing the impact, and not penalizing drivers for leading the race. Because really, all Dixon and strategist Mike Hull were guilty of was not guessing exactly when the caution would come out and following the safety procedures outlined by the series. And that shouldn’t result in the penalty it did.

A virtual safety car would eliminate some of this silly randomness, and in my opinion is worth exploring.

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

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