By Tanner Watkins
Saturday night’s edition of the Verizon IndyCar Series at Texas Motor Speedway saw sparks, tempers and excitement flare into a cauldron of conversation this week that will carry on to the next event at Road America on June 25. With so much chatter in the air, let’s recap the action and wrap up this crazy stretch between the month of May and back-to-back event weekends in June.
Will Power Outplays and Outlasts the competition for Texas victory
While it wasn’t quite a game of CBS’ Survivor, Will Power and his Team Penske squad certainly earned each ounce of victory they captured on Saturday evening upon taking the checkered flag. After taking the lead on lap 47, Power led 180 of the next 201 laps and more importantly, kept himself ahead of the mayhem that ensued as the night progressed. Series points leader Scott Dixon was quick enough to agitate the Australian in the closing laps before Power took the lead for the final time on lap 243, and subsequently Takuma Sato clipped the grass and Dixon for the race-ending caution on lap 244.
Following the victory Power credited his pit crew for keeping him up front once he seized the lead early on, and additionally mentioned that there was a touch more motivation to win this race with Texas being his wife’s home state. Always cool to see an athlete win with family on hand, so good for the Power’s.
Winning the race provided the 2014 champion his 31st career victory in the Verizon IndyCar Series and placed Will only 40 points behind Dixon in our 2017 points chase. More on the championship below.
Resilient as ever, Coyne flexes muscle on another 2017 oval
The struggles of racing on a budget have been well documented over the last couple months as Dale Coyne Racing perpetually finds themselves repairing race cars from IndyCar events dating back to Phoenix in April. Throw in the horrific crash sustained by Sebastian Bourdais at Indianapolis and the driver changes that have followed, and you would be hard-pressed to find any team that could be successful after six weeks of what you can only classify as hell.
Obstacles-be-dammed though, Coyne and his crew once again showed improvement on an oval circuit and were as entertaining as ever. Tristan Vautier made his first IndyCar start since 2015 by qualifying an impressive 5th, and went as far as leading the race for 15 laps before being swept up in a multi-car accident on lap 151. Ed Jones strengthened his case for rookie of the year by starting further back in 19th and working his way through the field before he fell to the same fate of his teammate in that lap 151 scrum.
Unfortunately, pats on the back don’t pay for wrecked race cars. DCR once again compiled a lofty bill to cope with moving forward and Coyne himself voiced a frustration that has certainly been building during this trying 2017 campaign that started off so promising. During the red flag period that followed the accident which wiped out his drivers, Coyne made a trip down pit lane to have a conversation with Chip Ganassi Racing driver Tony Kanaan, the man who seemingly caused the chaos with a slight bump of James Hinchcliffe. After a few seconds Dale was ushered away from TK’s car and the moment was over, but the stress of another week spent rebuilding cars was undoubtedly visible on the car owner’s face.
1.8 million reasons to be angry
Speaking of the elephant in the room, it is time to discuss that wreck which claimed over a third of the field during Saturday’s race on lap 151. With lots of finger pointing, crash damage estimates and egos busted, it has been the hottest of headlines to leave Texas. First things first, let’s once again give credit to the Holmatro Safety Team for their rapid response to each accident on Saturday. They got a fair share of positive publicity for the reaction to Scott Dixon’s wreck at IMS a couple weeks ago and the job they do week-in and week-out should not be taken for granted.
As for the accident, it appears that Kanaan drifts up on corner entry from the bottom line of the backstretch causing just enough contact to James Hinchcliffe’s machine to trigger a reaction. While plenty of the blame was placed on TK, there were many voices that identified the racing itself as a problem. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin both mentioned that though pack racing is insanely entertaining, it’s also incredibly dangerous. It seemed most of the paddock echoed a similar sentiment.
So while as fans we love to see this intense, white-knuckle action as much as we can, it is important to remember what byproducts emerge from pack racing in IndyCar. There is a fine line to toe and the series must be at least somewhat relieved to not be visiting another track like Texas in 2017. With that in mind, it is not necessary to completely revamp the rules for the rest of this season, and the new car coming in 2018 will present its own challenges to the racing which are not yet known. Yes, IndyCar will catch heat up until the event at Road America on June 25th, but by then it should be back to business as usual and they can continue with the new car’s preparation as they should.
Championship intensity rises with the summer heat
As the Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off the back half of its 2017 campaign, the points battle is an incredibly-tight boat race at the moment. The top seven drivers are separated by less than 50 points with eight events remaining in the season, the finale being a double-points event at Sonoma Raceway. Four-time series champion Scott Dixon currently leads the reigning champ Simon Pagenaud by a slim 13-point margin, while Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato used his double points at IMS to hold steady in third place. Penske kings Helio Castroneves and Will Power round out the top five.
With the week-to-week parity found in IndyCar it would be impossible to make a confident prediction on this year’s champion presently, though I would have to put Dixon, Power and Pagenaud on my current shortlist. While it is nice to see Castroneves and Sato in the current top five, the remaining schedule is a grueling mixture of four proper road courses, two short ovals, one high speed oval and another punishing street course. This series rewards consistency and performance across many different surfaces and layouts over the course of the season and I am not yet convinced that those two teams can continue their exceptional runs, though we will wait and see.
On the tour’s next stop, Road America provides a unique challenge as a wonderful flowing course that is featured as IndyCar’s longest track on the circuit. It tests a driver’s focus in the braking zones and can stress equipment over the course of the race which breeds interesting plot twists and memorable moments. Last year it was Will Power edging out Tony Kanaan by less than a second in IndyCar’s much-anticipated return to the venue, while this season’s contest is shaping up to be even more exciting with Honda’s continued improvement on all circuits.
Just past the halfway point in this 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season there has been much to talk about and it seems the governing body is doing a fine job of keeping momentum rolling from the offseason. A compelling Indianapolis 500, tight points chase, mini rivalries and a new car on the horizon is more than enough to keep the avid open-wheel fan occupied, and thankfully it has been enough to attract a few more followers. Keep up the good work IndyCar, and let’s settle in for what should be a wild end to 2017.