The beat goes on for the IZOD IndyCar Series, which had by all accounts, a needed rebound race in Texas after a widely panned and challenging event in Detroit a week earlier. The question now is whether IndyCar and Texas Motor Speedway will stick it out together for 2013 and beyond. Some thoughts on the 2012 edition:
A STELLAR SHOW – Before breaking down some of the other elements of the Texas IndyCar race, I have to say this was one of the best pure open-wheel races on a 1.5-mile oval that I've seen. My slight personal apprehension, after Las Vegas and some of the other 1.5-milers that were conducive to pack racing, went away after about the first green flag run of 30 laps. The downforce changes and the ability for the drivers to have to handle and manage the cars themselves was just great to see.
Too often as an observer, we've been lulled into a sense of needing a great finish rather than a great race. The side-by-side battles that have seen upward of five or six rows deep of cars two or three-wide, while exciting for maybe a couple laps, has always seemed a disaster waiting to happen. Here, where cars became separated and there was still a great finish even though it was not a close finish, made for a fascinating race throughout where at no point were there nerves about the situation.
I'm sure I'd speak for many in saying the race was a needed tonic after Detroit, and I'm genuinely hoping IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage can get in a room, hammer out the details, and ensure TMS remains a part of the IndyCar calendar. We already have a street race in Houston coming in 2013, and losing an oval that produced as quality a race as that really doesn't deserve to get the axe, after Saturday. Before this race, I wasn't sure I'd be thinking or writing that.
DEFINITION OF BADASSERY – Justin Wilson has earned the nickname “Badass” throughout his career, and his drive Saturday night fit the description.
Wilson had already climbed five spots from his 17th starting position to 12th by the first caution at lap 31. However, the progress was stunted when he was blocked entering his pit when Simon Pagenaud overshot his and hit two tires. That dropped him back to 17th again, but he'd gained more spots in the next green run. Speedy work from his Dale Coyne Racing pit crew promoted him into the top 10 for the first time on lap 68.
The adjustments made then helped propel Wilson forward and from there, the Englishman was seemingly shot out of a cannon. He moved up to sixth on lap 76, and third by lap 103.
The final restart on lap 184 saw Wilson and Graham Rahal restart fifth and sixth, but they quickly moved forward. Wilson's car was particularly good on long runs, which paid dividends toward the finish.
For Wilson, the win not only represented his first oval victory, but first for team boss Coyne in his career dating to 1984 as a driver, then owner. It ends the streak of Penske/Ganassi wins both in 2012 (six-for-six) and at Texas (the last seven races, with six different drivers in the last six).
And the first non-Penske/Ganassi win of 2012 equals the mark set by the same pairing in 2009, when Wilson won at Watkins Glen. As that was the only non-Penske/Ganassi win that year, it's a hope that historical stat doesn't repeat itself this year.
I'd be remiss, also, to give a shoutout to Alex Tagliani and the Bryan Herta Autosport crew, who were the first polesitters this year outside the Penske/Ganassi stables. Despite missing Brazil, Tagliani has now finished 12th, 10th and ninth in three races and jumped from 26th to 22nd in the points. Watch this space for more improvement to come.
RAHAL'S NEAR MISS – If he didn't showcase his abilities last week in Detroit – an oversight this author failed to point out – Graham Rahal more than proved his worth Saturday night in Texas. As thrilling as it was to see Wilson's win, Rahal's hitting the wall with two laps to go was almost as equally gut wrenching.
A week ago, Rahal passed eight cars on track in Detroit after recovering from a 10-spot grid penalty to get into the top-10. A late-race electrical issue demoted him down the order after what had been a promising run.
Come Saturday, Rahal seemed primed to end his own four-plus year winless drought, and like others who have been frustrated despite achieving their best results of the year, he had every right to feel mad at himself for the mistake. He owned it, though. It appeared throughout the last stint that Rahal used more of his tires in going to the front early in the stint, while Wilson's ability to save the tires for later helped aid his last charge after Rahal bounced off the wall.
Rahal's comments both after qualifying and after the race though, did a great job emphasizing the changes the drivers were facing in running with reduced downforce, and how much the drivers had to work to hang onto the cars. Add him to the list of 2012 moral victors along with the driver at his father's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing squad – Takuma Sato – who, if karma comes their way, would be due actual victories later this year.
TEXAS JUSTICE – It's rare all parties in a confrontation initially agree on a controversial move. Yet that was the situation when on the final restart, Will Power made a reactionary move to Tony Kanaan's charge – even as Power was trying to pass teammate Ryan Briscoe – and was called in for a drive-through penalty for blocking by IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield (Kanaan led Power on track earlier in the race, LEFT).
Drivers have been allowed more flexibility in being able to defend their positions this year, and as was stated by all members of the NBC Sports Network broadcast team in the moment – Jon Beekhuis in particular – had Power swung low out of Turn 2 to begin with, there would not have been a penalty called. It was only when Power moved low as Kanaan came to attack him – with slight contact that damaged Kanaan's second front wing of the race – that it was an obvious block.
The thing about it was, Barfield was unafraid to make the call to penalize the race leader as the situation warranted it, Kanaan said the move shouldn't have happened especially given the drivers' safety concerns, and Power apologized for the move right after the race.
HILDEBRAND'S RECOVERY – I tweeted after his qualifying run went horribly awry on Friday with two laps only in the 202mph range, “Who shot JR's speed?” in a reference to the episode of Dallas. The show was before my time but the question remained after Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand had a mysterious issue in qualifying – in Texas – at a track where Panther has always ran rather well.
Luckily, the adjustments made to the car in race trim alleviated the stresses and issues that plagued his two-lap qualifying run. Hildebrand was a man on a charge from his eventual 23rd starting position – two cars didn't start – up to 12th by lap 40, fourth by lap 68 after pit stops, and largely in the top-10 the remainder of the race before ending up a solid fifth. The day was made especially impressive because Hildebrand twice fell a lap down, and was able to recover in both instances.
“The last few stints the car was super loose, but we were able to keep the speed up enough that we didn't lose a lot of time or positions,” he said. “And when the car was good we could hammer on it and catch up. We would have liked the car to be a little bit better at the end of those runs, but shoot man, we're happy to take a finish like this tonight.”
CHEVY'S TECHNICAL WOES – The first four races when it seemed Chevrolet could do no wrong now seem an eternity ago. Mechanical issues took four big bullets – KV's Rubens Barrichello and E.J. Viso, Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay and Panther/DRR's Oriol Servia – out of the race. None of the issues were engine-related, but Hunter-Reay and Servia both mentioned an injector problem where their cars lost power and parked. Barrichello didn't even start.
Additionally, with three straight Honda wins, Honda has now closed what was a 12-point gap in the Manufacturer's Championship down to just three; Chevrolet leads Honda 54-51 through seven races. A fourth straight Honda victory next weekend in Milwaukee would equal Chevrolet atop those standings.
OTHER TEXAS TIDBITS – Despite his penalty, Power's eighth place ensured he finished ahead of both Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti – who had awful endings to their races – for only the third oval race since the start of the 2010 season (2010 Iowa, 2011 Texas 2). While eighth was surely not the result he was looking for, the fact it was a beneficial points day after Franchitti's handling woes and Dixon's crash despite leading 133 laps, serves Power very well from a championship standpoint.
Wilson, Rahal, Briscoe, polesitter Alex Tagliani, James Jakes and Katherine Legge all recorded their best finishes of the 2012 season in Texas. Jakes' 10th marked his first top-10 in his career, and the first time both Dale Coyne cars have recorded a top-10 finish in the same race since Watkins Glen 2008, when Bruno Junqueira and Mario Moraes finished sixth and seventh.
Despite fighting ill-handling racecars, Josef Newgarden and Legge did well to finish their first Texas starts in 13th and 15th, respectively. Meanwhile, Simon Pagenaud made a strong comeback to come home sixth despite earning a penalty for his pit incident and hitting his own tires. Pagenaud has nearly 100 points in hand on his fellow two season-long Rookie of the Year competitors.
The fourth race in as many weekends sees IndyCar now heading back to the Midwest with the Milwaukee IndyFest at The Milwaukee Mile this Saturday.