The IZOD IndyCar Series has ended its Canadian swing and moved closer to the end of the season with a caution-free round at Edmonton. With his second win of the year, Helio Castroneves served notice he is still a contender to capture his elusive first championship.
HELIO HANGING AROUND – One of the last adjectives you might use to describe Castroneves is “quiet,” yet until his win Sunday the normally ebullient Brazilian was just that. Of course, it was only mere seconds after the checkered flag that he leapt from his car and stormed for the fence to alert everyone that with his win, he's still in the championship picture.
Without garnering the “big” results – no podiums since his third-place finish at Barber in April – Castroneves slipped below the radar over the summer months. But with six top-10 finishes in that run of eight races from Long Beach to Toronto, Castroneves tied Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay for the most in the series.
In the three races Castroneves has finished on the podium (St. Petersburg and Edmonton wins, Barber third), he's outscored Hunter-Reay 136-80, and that 56 point advantage just on those three races has kept him in the championship frame.
Realistically, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Will Power have the best shot at the title, all within just 26 points with four races remaining. Scott Dixon isn't out of it yet but, 61 points down, both wins and luck will be required to propel him back into play.
MORE PROMINENT, BUT UNFULFILLING, PUSH-TO-PASS – After a relatively unnoticed return at Toronto, IndyCar's push-to-pass was certainly back in the spotlight in Edmonton – even if it was more a drinking term than something that actually netted on-track passing.
There was a swath of passing around the track in the early stages, and in some cases, it was because drivers deployed “the button.” Still, with no cautions, the element of using push-to-pass on a restart never entered the equation. When it counted most at the end, push-to-pass couldn't make a difference.
Castroneves had banked enough of his available 120 seconds to where he had more than Takuma Sato from a leading and defensive standpoint, and tactically, he was always going to have the advantage. Any time Castroneves burned one of his pushes, Sato would use one of his, and that drained his number even lower.
Without ever getting within four tenths of Castroneves, Sato was unable to make a passing attempt. It almost makes his effort at Indy that much more impressive because it was pure and unaided by any such system – it was pure guts rather than an extra horsepower boost.
RAHAL'S DRIVER, SON IMPRESS – Edmonton marked the first race this season where Bobby Rahal was faced with his best possible potential problem: rooting for his son or his own driver to win.
It was always going to be a busy day as Rahal's two BMW M3s were racing earlier in the day in the American Le Mans Series round at Mosport on the other side of Canada – one finished third – and that number served as the average finish of Sato and Graham Rahal once the checkers flew in Edmonton.
Graham, who'd started only eighth, had a methodical and uneventful race that was firmly entrenched in the top seven or eight for the duration. Compared to races where he was stuck with a grid penalty for an engine change, it was the type of smooth, bounce-back race we've seen all too infrequently this season. After his early crash at Toronto, the fourth place couldn't have come a moment too soon (only his third top-five of 2012). Young Rahal is now entering a stretch of tracks where he could contend for victories, with his home race at Mid-Ohio next up.
Bobby's driver, on the other hand, Sato, was back in that spellbinding, aggressive, “he's doing great, but we're waiting for him to do something unwise” stage for the first time since Indianapolis. The setup on the ovals left something to be desired – particularly given the lack of testing for RLL in comparison to the rest of the field – and four straight DNFs after the last lap passing attempt at Indianapolis tested even the most ardent of supporters. Mere finishes at Iowa and Toronto were great results.
But, as Bobby has said in his RACER blogs this year, Sato's speed has never been in question – and the key to success is harnessing it to make sure there aren't mistakes. On a day when enough observers were wondering on Twitter whether Sato would throw away a runner-up finish with another desperate last-minute pass, Sato instead was coached to push when needed, use his push-to-pass at the right moments, and try to manage the gap to seek the right opportunity.
Say what you will about the fact Sato never got that right opportunity on Castroneves, but a runner-up was a just result for driver and team after some of the “almost… nearly… not quite” finishes this year. Bobby also delivered the line of the race, and a contender for “one-liner of the year,” when he said to one of NBC's pit reporters: “Castroneves starts blocking when he picks up his rental car at the airport.”
TAG'S “NEARLY” DAY – Want an “almost… nearly… not quite” driver on Sunday? Once again the unluckiest man – per usual it seems in 2012 – was Team Barracuda-BHA's Alex Tagliani, who was halfway toward what would have been a popular win on home soil.
Although Tagliani's from the other side of Canada in Montreal, the Edmonton crowd was no doubt thrilled to see his move on Franchitti for the lead on the front straight entering lap 2, with the noise level highly audible. Tagliani led the first 25 circuits, then returned to the point after the first round of stops and switching from Firestone reds to blacks. All told in the first two stints, he led a race-high 49 of 75 laps.
Castroneves' strategist John Erickson forced Tagliani's hand with an earlier pit stop to reds; Tagliani would pit a lap later and got beat by a fraction of a second out of the pits. The gap was irrelevant at that point since his car didn't seem to take kindly to the reds on the last stint, and Tagliani quickly dropped back to his eventual finish of fifth.
It's still his best finish of the season and, for the third straight race, Tagliani made it into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying. His second half of the season since the team switched to Honda has been largely overlooked due to the lack of the results, but one of the most impressive efforts this season.
POWER, CONWAY SURGE – It's hard to describe the magnitude of what both Power and Mike Conway achieved on Sunday. A caution-free race, with not even a local yellow until the final turn of the final lap in a battle for 12th, and with pit windows fairly closed offered so little chance to perform a quantum leap from starting to finishing position.
Bottom line, both drivers put on a passing clinic throughout the race. Power advanced early from 17th to crack the top 10 by lap 24, and stayed eighth when emerging from the pits ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay (much to RHR's chagrin). A demon series of laps on reds in his second stint propelled him further into the top five before his last stop on lap 53. A pass on Tagliani for third at lap 57 moved him into his eventual podium position.
Conway, starting 23rd, had advanced to 16th by his first stop. Once the first cycle was complete Conway followed Dixon through the field to the fringes of the top 10 – 12th by his last stop at lap 51 – and later passed James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud in the last stint to end in 11th at the flag. After his largely chance third place in Toronto, you could argue his drive at Edmonton was a better one. And this time there were no post-race penalties assessed.
BIG TWO'S RESURGENCE – Following the surprise run of three straight races where only one Target Chip Ganassi or Team Penske entry captured a top five out of 15 potential top-five finishing positions (Scott Dixon's fourth at Iowa), the “big two” recovered in a big way in Edmonton. Call it “The Empires Strike Back.”
Penske earned its first podium since Ryan Briscoe's third at Texas with Castroneves' win and Will Power's charge from 17th to third. The Target duo of Dario Franchitti and Dixon were a less satisfied sixth and 10th, but for Franchitti, it still represented his best result since his runner-up finish at Detroit five races ago. Briscoe's eighth (his first top-10 since Texas) meant all five drivers from the power teams were all represented in the top 10 for the first time all season.
RHR'S CALL – With no accidents or cautions, the closest thing to a controversy came when Power exited just ahead of Hunter-Reay after his first pit stop on lap 28. To hear Hunter-Reay on the radio was one of the most entertaining elements of the race.
“It's absolutely ridiculous that wasn't called!” the points leader called out, with his team owner and race strategist Michael Andretti striving to calm him down for the duration.
From multiple angles, it appeared that Power didn't swerve into Hunter-Reay's path or force the American to either lock his brakes or take evasive action to avoid him. There was enough of a gap from where Power exited the pit-out blend line to fall into traffic in between the car ahead of him and Hunter-Reay. A no-call there appeared the right one; if anything, the reaction was purely from a frustration standpoint that Power's pit stop was good enough to jump RHR before he took off on the reds.
Hunter-Reay needs to forget the Edmonton weekend as quickly as possible, because there had to have been extra pressure placed on him that forced him into a couple questionable calls. Racing with the possibility of winning a fourth straight race, and as the points leader for the first time in his career, RHR was almost driving as if the world needed to part ways whenever he was coming through. The James Jakes dust-up on Friday was a perfect example; all Hunter-Reay needed to do was wait one more corner to pass him in the practice session.
He did well to score pole on Saturday, but compared to how Power made the most of his engine change grid penalty, RHR was lackluster in contrast. Whether that came down to psyche or actual performance will be seen another day, but all told, he didn't lose a ton of points despite the seventh place, and can still move closer to the title if he can recapture the same form and mental state that served him so well prior to this weekend.
DISAPPEARING ACTS – Of the top-10 finishers in Toronto, only Hunter-Reay (first in Toronto), Castroneves (sixth), Sato (ninth) and Tagliani (10th) made it back to the top-10 in Edmonton.
Save for Rubens Barrichello starting seventh, KV Racing Technology entirely missed the setup and Tony Kanaan's team opted for a strange three-stop strategy that went nowhere fast. E.J. Viso was far from the pace as well. Panther Racing and DRR were also baffled by Edmonton, with JR Hildebrand and Oriol Servia rarely cracking the top 20 at any point over the course of the weekend. The team tried new things that Hildebrand said “they'd be better for” in the long run.
James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud are in respective top-10 droughts; Hinch is zero for his last three, with Pagenaud's fifth at Iowa his only one the last four races. Meanwhile, Toronto runner-up Charlie Kimball wasn't able to provide an encore performance, and dropped himself from 12th to 19th with his last lap contact on Pagenaud that earned him a 30-second penalty.
All three, Hinchcliffe, Pagenaud and Kimball, have showed strongly at Mid-Ohio in their prior appearance last year. Pagenaud deputized last-minute for Justin Wilson a year ago, while Kimball had his second-best qualifying performance (10th) and Hinch led 26 laps.
After a week off, IndyCar will be back in the U.S. at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 5.