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Welcome back to Racing Roundup for the weekend of August 9 and 10. There's no Formula One talk this week - no races or testing, nor do I really care one iota about KERS. Still, we've got road racing for NASCAR (really!), IndyCars at Kentucky, some team issues in IndyCar, and a little bit of TV stuff.
NASCAR: Double dip at Watkins Glen suits Down Under driver
The tintops finished up their road course racing for the year at Watkins Glen as both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars made the trip to upstate New York. This meant a bigger crowd of Cup regulars in the Nationwide race among the main contenders. Kyle Busch, who won at Mexico City and Infineon early this year was among them, along with two guys who are not known for their road course skills: Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson.
The Nationwide race came down to fuel mileage. Although Burton and Johnson tried to stretch their cars out as the two leaders, they both eventually ran out of fuel. Burton finished 14th, and Johnson 29th (he lost additional position by speeding in the pits).
The major beneficary of the gas problem was the #59 car of Marcos Ambrose. The Australian has been so strong on the road courses ever since moving to NASCAR, and he finally got the trophy to prove it. Ambrose running third prior to Burton and Johnson's fuel issues, won the race, his first in a NASCAR event. Kyle Busch was second, Matt Kenseth third, Kevin Harvick fourth, and Dario Franchitti fifth.
Ambrose is the first driver from the Southern Hemisphere to win a race in NASCAR, and the sixth foreign-born driver to win a Cup or Busch/Nationwide event. The others were:
- Mario Andretti. The Italian-born racing legend won the 1967 Daytona 500
- Earl Ross, a Canadian who won a Winston Cup race at Martinsville in 1974
- Larry Pollard, another Canadian who won a 1987 Busch race
- Ron Fellows, road race ringer extraordinare (and yet another Canadian) who has won three races at Watkins Glen as well as last week's Montreal race
- Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia, who won the Mexico City and Infineon races last year
Kyle Busch had the pole, as qualifying was cancelled and the grid was set on points. Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the majority of the race laps, but Junior was taken out of race contention after a major gaffe from his long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
The race was clean for the majority of the race, with three brief cautions. It would be one of the those cautions that cost Dale Jr., as Eury held him out on the track longer than any other contenders for the final pit stop. On lap 65, Travis Kvapil drove off course into the gravel. Kvapil kept the car running, but dragged a lot of gravel onto the track, causing NASCAR to throw the yellow to clean. Earnhardt had to pit under yellow, causing him to lose positions to much of the field. He ultimately finished 22nd.
Busch did not get much of a challenge late in the race, as the second place car was his teammate Tony Stewart. Stewart is battling to stay in the Chase, so he was not going to aggressively challenge Busch, opting to keep the critical second place points. Indeed, the only time he got around Busch was when Kyle let Stewart lead the race for one lap to earn bonus points.
This was one of the cleanest races I've ever seen at a road course for NASCAR. That is, until lap 84. Michael McDowell and David Gilliland were fighting for position. McDowell sent Gilliland's car spinning in Turn 11, causing the chain reaction wreck here on the video:
Bobby Labonte got the worst of it, and was taken to the hospital. Fortunately, no major injuries for the former Cup champion. The crash caused the race to be red flagged for nearly 45 minutes prior to the race's end. Once it finished, Busch held on to win, with Tony Stewart second. Despite starting 41st, Marcos Ambrose turned in perhaps a better race on Sunday to finish 3rd, with Juan Pablo Montoya fourth and Martin Truex Jr. fifth. Miscellaneous Thoughts:
- It's nice to see these cars out on the road courses, although Watkins Glen feels somewhat neutered as a stock car track.
- Great job for Dario Franchitti. He has been out of a ride for two months now, so it was great to see him in a car again. He showed everyone he can still race by winning the pole for the Nationwide race and running up front most of the time. Hopefully he'll use the momentum on his way over ALMS next year, where his skills would be much more suited.
- ESPN needs to do a little more research before calling foreigner on a road course something related to Formula One. Marcos Ambrose was never a Formula One test driver, and to call Max Papis a "Formula One ace" would be a gross exaggeration (7 races with 0 points for his career).
IndyCars at Kentucky
Another race, another Scott Dixon victory. The points leader was strong throughout, and because of his pit stops again he charged ahead. His biggest challenge on the track came from Marco Andretti, who led 38 laps, although this was 100 short of Dixon's total.
In an attempt to gain points on Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves tried to replicate Danica Patrick's Motegi victory by stretching out his fuel mileage. Consider that neither Penske car was a factor on Saturday night, it was a good time to gamble. Castroneves did indeed take the lead when Dixon pitted late in the race for a little fuel, but was unable to stretch it out enough and was passed by Dixon before reaching the finish line. As a result, Helio collected his third consecutive runner-up finish and his seventh of the season but has no wins to his credit. Andretti finished third, while Vitor Meira, who sat on the front row with Dixon, was fourth. Dan Wheldon rounded out the top 5.
As a result of Kentucky, Dixon's lead in the standings has been extended to 78 points. With a victory and a poor result from Castroneves at Infineon in two weeks, Dixon could clinched his second IndyCar title with two races to spare. If Dixon scores 28 more points than Castroneves, he cannot be caught, even if he does not race the final two events.
As for other runners, kudos to one of my favorites, Sarah Fisher. IndyCar's first female regular returned as a driver-owner for her second race of the season with new sponsorship. She ran as high as 11th with a few laps to go prior to having a wheel baring issue that resulted in her finishing 15th. I also have to give credit to Ed Carpenter, who finished sixth. While he struggles on road and street courses, Carpenter has been in the top 10 at every oval longer than a mile.
Andretti Green Drama
The biggest team in IndyCar had a ton of drama the last two weeks. The debacle at Edmonton saw the team hold a closed door meeting after Marco and Danica failed to let Tony Kanaan pass them on an alternate strategy. Meanwhile Kanaan, whose contract expired at the end of the season, was able to negotiate with other teams starting August 1. Although Robin Miller reported he signed with Ganassi (which would have turned things upside down), it turned out to be false, and instead resigned with AGR.
The frustration for Kanaan is understandable. He has been charged to take the lead at AGR both in leadership and in setting up the race car. Whereas in the pass he could share the role with Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti, he was alone this year in the leadership aspect. Couple that with the fact one teammate's mistakes are impossible for the team owner to criticize (that of course being Marco Andretti, son of AGR co-owner Michael). The only reason I believe Kanaan resigned with AGR was that no lateral move was available - Penske is happy with Ryan Briscoe's performance so he will not be canned, nor is Ganassi troubled by Wheldon's. And neither team is interested in running a third car, so unless Tony wanted to drop to a second-tier team like Vision or Rahal Letterman he would be out of luck.
In my opinion, running four cars is no longer a fruitful enterprise for Andretti Green. Not only is the car count not needed, but teams that have pared down recently has seen improved results. But how to drop the car count down? This may mean letting Hideki Mutoh go, but his performance will garner him a spot with another team. The other move may be the most uncomfortable one for Michael, but it is to get Marco onto another team.
My reasoning is that the connection to his son makes it much harder to be that critical. Plus it might make Marco a better driver to have the pressure of performing well to keep his ride. It's not unprecedented, after all there are two other drivers in the series with owners in their family who do not drive for their kin: Graham Rahal and A.J. Foyt IV. I think it has helped Graham's development not to drive for Bobby, and prove himself on his own merits. A.J. was in a similar example as Marco, since he came up in the series driver for his grandfather. Quattro was terrible at first, but has improved since moving to Vision.
New TV Deal for IndyCars
IndyCar announced this week that the primary carrier for the series starting next year would be Versus, although ABC will televise six races including the Indianapolis 500. I am very pleased with this deal in a number of ways:
- IndyCar is very low on the priority list on ESPN, and is often pre-empted when other events run long.
- The amount of time races are covered is often rather short. Pre-race coverage is often no more than three or four 30 second driver interviews (typically Danica Patrick, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, and the polesitter if not one of them).
- Post-race coverage that's even shorter: talk to the winner and jet.
For the hardcore fan, it's going to be an improvement, since they are obligated to more pre and post-race coverage, will run an hour long preview show the day before a race, and possibilities for live Indy Lights races and other programming.
ESPN hasn't always been the best, but I have to give them some credit. I don't think the IRL/IndyCar would have survived without their coverage during the more difficult years of the split.
- Marco Werner and Lucas Luhr, the overall winners at the American Le Mans Series event at Road America. Werner and Luhr won the LMP1 class, while David Brabham and Scott Sharp won the LMP2 class, Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen taking honors in GT1 and the team of Dirk Werner, Richard Westbrook and Bryce Miller topping GT2.
- Dillon Battistini, who won the Indy Lights race that followed the IndyCar race (an unusual scheduling quirk). The Englishman had been strong at the beginning of the season, but everything went wrong in July and he went from leading the series to fifth. He has rebounded to be third in the series standings.
- Scott Speed, who won his fourth ARCA race of the season at Nashville Superspeedway. The ex-Toro Rosso driver has been driving in the stock car series (typically a developmental series) to get acclimated to the tin tops.
- Jonathan Bomarito and Jonathan Summerton, who won the Atlantics races at Road America this weekend. Indeed both drivers won at Edmonton as well, and as a result the last race not won by a Jonathan came in June.
It will be three weeks before the next RR, as I will be going on a cruise next week and will miss parts of the next two race weekends.