The main lessons we learned from the Indycar Race at Phoenix Saturday night were:
- The new Universal Aero Kit did not help the entertainment value of a short oval race. This is an issue that Indycar needs to fix quickly. Throughout the main portion of the race, the only driver that could pass anyone was Alexander Rossi. Other than that, track position was everything (almost).
- After two races, the manufacturer war is shaping up to be Penske versus the Honda world. And It looks like there are way too many bullets in Honda’s gun.
- Alex Rossi and Robert Wickens are the real deal.
It’s the tires
As far as the race itself, Josef Newgarden won on last caution tire strategy. He was leading the race when Ed Jones crashed. The race was going to restart with 7 laps to go. Newgarden hit the pits for fresh tires and came out fourth. He easily drove around James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens for the victory. Why didn’t Wickens and/or Hinchliffe pit? I don’t know. If I were SPM , I would have put at least one of those cars on new tires. But no one asked me.
Penske vs. the World
This race was a classic for showing how Penske and Chevy are in trouble this year in the Manufacturer’s race, even though Penske won the Phoenix race. The most interesting thing to look at are mishaps.
First, if you paid attention to the pre-season test, practice and qualifying, it should have been clear that with this new Universal Aero Kit ( UAK ) on short ovals, the top Chevy cars and the top Honda cars are pretty close to each other. This is a big difference from last year, when the top Hondas had no shot on a short oval. The Problem for Chevy this season is there are three times as many top Honda cars. The same thing is true with the road/street course version of the UAK except that there are only twice as many top Honda cars.
At the beginning of the Phoenix race, the top five were Sebastien Bourdais (the Dale Coyne Honda Pole-sitter), Simon Pagenaud (Penske-Chevy), Will Power (Penske-Chevy), Rossi (Andretti-Honda) and Wickens (SPM- Honda). Over the course of the race, Bourdais, Pagenaud, Power, and Rossi all had mishaps on one type or another. Only Rossi was able to race back into contention (more about that later). Everyone else from that group finished 10th or worse.
The key point here is what’s left on the “bench” when your leading cars drop off the pace. Since Chevy had only three competitive cars, they were left with: Josef Newgarden who ended up winning the race and finished ahead of Five Hondas in places 2-through-6. For Honda, that “bench” is Indy 500 winner and former series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti); James Hinchliffe ( SPM ), four-time series champ and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon (Ganassi); Graham Rahal ( RLLR ), Takuma Sato ( RLLR ), and Ed Jones (Ganassi), who snuck into the top five before crashing out.
There is a significant advantage to having more good cars in the Manufacturer Points standings. Sure, only the top two cars qualify to score manufacturer points. But the scoring also turns on how many of your cars finished ahead of the opponents. At Phoenix, Chevy scored 78 for first and sixth. Honda scored 76 for second and third. At St. Pete, Honda’s 1-through-6 finish led to a 90-46 tally.
Put another way, even if there is a Penske 1-2-3, the worst Honda finish would be 4-5 which would lead to 90-62.
After the Phoenix race, the manufacturer score is 175-127.
Indycar Power Rankings
After the first couple of weeks it’s clear that Honda’s Driver lineup is stronger than anyone thought it was. A lot of that is because of the unexpected strength of Robert Wickens, who dominated the St. Pete Race before he crashed with Rossi, and finished second in his first oval race ever Saturday at Phoenix.
The other factor is the blossoming of Rossi. On a night when no one could pass, he passed more than 50 cars on track. His mishap was that he hit one of his crew members on a pit stop. First, he got put to the back of the pack. Then he went a lap down after serving a drive-through penalty.
So how did he end up third? This was not one of those “lucky dog” situations where the series gives you your lap back. Nor was it strategic where you catch a lucky break on a yellow flag. He raced his way past the leaders to un-lap himself and then passed his way from the being the last car on the lead lap to the front to finish third. This from someone set to complete 10 oval races in his career.
These two are new members of the group that I call: “Every race favorites”. No matter where they are, you have to consider them both among the group that can win any race on any day.
Others in that group would be:
Josef Newgarden (Penske-Chevy)
Will Power (Penske-Chevy)
Simon Pagenaud (Penske-Chevy)
Scott Dixon (Ganassi-Honda)
Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Honda)
James Hinchcliffe (SPM-Honda)
Sebastien Bourdais (Coyne-Honda)
Graham Rahal (RLLR-Honda)
Takuma Sato (RLLR-Honda)
Right now I would rank Rossi above Hunter-Reay and very slightly behind Dixon. Wickens I would already put above Hinchcliffe, and perhaps even with RHR . The fact that there are eight of those drivers in the Every-Race favorite group bodes well for Honda.
This weekend’s race in is Long Beach. Given Honda’s dominance on street circuits, I expect Rossi and Wickens to to be at the front, with at least a couple of other Hondas.
If you have time, it’s usually a good watch on NBCSN . And if the sun’s out, it’s damn pretty on TV.