IndyCar ended both its three-week break and its caution-free race streak Sunday at the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, on a day Ryan Briscoe ended his own two-plus year winless drought. More from the weekend's top performers and unlucky competitors:
BRISCOE CLUTCH FOR THE CAPTAIN – Overshadowed and often overmatched – even if he's still better on average than at least 60 percent of the field in qualifying on most days – it can't have been easy for Ryan Briscoe to keep a positive attitude and stay upbeat given the domination by teammate Will Power within Team Penske.
The stats are hard to argue with. Since Power joined the team full time in 2010, he has 14 wins and 17 poles; Briscoe had only one win and five poles in the same time frame before Sunday. Granted, Helio Castroneves only had five wins and five poles to his name, but with three Indianapolis 500 titles, he's never been the one annually rumored to lose his seat.
A year ago Power had comprehensively outperformed both, with six wins while both Briscoe and Castroneves went winless. Castroneves had been the bigger improver of the two non-Power Penske cars this season, a revitalized season that had seen him back in the title frame and the model of consistency – but back-to-back clunkers at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma have now dropped him near elimination.
While Briscoe's season hasn't been bad – two poles at what could be argued are the season's most prestigious races at Long Beach and Indianapolis – it hasn't exactly been full Penske material, either. Generally, it's been a roller coaster with Sundays not bearing the fruit he or the team would like to see.
In fact, only three times prior to Sonoma had Briscoe finished a race better than he qualified this year. He went from 11th (after a 10-spot engine change grid penalty) to seventh at Long Beach, 10th to third at Texas and 19th to 14th at Milwaukee, but in the other nine races had consistently ended worse. A myriad of poor luck, poor pit stops or being on the wrong set of tires at the wrong time were culprits.
Even though this win came as a result of Power hitting misfortune, that didn't mean Briscoe didn't earn it. Given the fact the race featured restarts for the first time since Toronto in early July, Briscoe could have spun his tires or failed to defend. He was clutch on both restarts, and thus ended the dry spell dating to Texas 2010.
“You get into a slump, you know, you think, ‘Man, am I ever going to win again?'” he surmised. “So this is definitely lifting, a confidence builder.
“We've been fast all year long. I don't know how many front row starts we had, so many, just had struggles executing in the race for whatever reason, whether it's been bad luck or whatever. Today just fell into our hands. We raced hard, ran strong.”
A nice bonus for Briscoe was seeing wife Nicole – ESPN's anchor in its NASCAR pit studio coverage – in victory lane, completely unexpected, after she had taken a last-minute flight from the Sprint Cup race in Bristol, Tenn. Saturday night to get to Sonoma.
POWER BOTH UNLUCKY AND LUCKY – Power's Sonoma didn't end the way it probably should have, having been the dominant driver and in the dominant car all weekend. As at Mid-Ohio, he led a race-high 57 laps but finished second after being eclipsed on the final round of pit stops. Mid-Ohio came down to a straight fight between Power and Scott Dixon's pit crews, Dixon's emerging ahead thanks to a cleaner entry into his pit box, while the timing of Power's last pit stop here came just before the pits stayed open on a caution for the Josef Newgarden/Sebastien Bourdais accident.
“It started well all the way to the last stop,” he said. “I had the quickest car, quite easily keeping a handy lead. Yeah, it went yellow. We had a slow stop, probably lost four seconds there, then came across a bunch of guys on the track who just dawdled all the way back. I don't know who those guys were. That's when I was using the word ‘wanker.' Cost me the race.”
It's a trend that has manifested itself, with Power's strategy with Penske Racing president Tim Cindric almost too good given the way the races have shaken out. He was dominant early in Toronto but an early yellow closed the pits, thus negating his track position advantage; here was the opposite where the pits stayed open as the yellow was outside the boundaries of where pit entry or exit would have been unsafe.
“It would have worked really well for me (in Toronto) if the pits were left open,” he explained. “It's hard to make strategy calls based on that because it's an unknown. We kept pitting early so we wouldn't get caught out by a closed pit. That's what happened at Toronto. I had a big lead; it went yellow.
“You've just got to get a feel for how [race director] Beaux Barfield makes the calls. Is he going to leave it open or is he going to close it? There's so many factors that go into it, it's just something you can't predict.”
Although Power still hasn't won since Brazil in April, the misfortune incurred by title rivals Castroneves, Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay opened his title lead to 36 points over RHR with just two races remaining. It's a very rare situation where now Power has the longest winless streak at Team Penske (nine races).
DENTED CARS, TITLE HOPES – Power's luck of losing just the race win was far better than what hit his three main title contenders. Power, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Dixon entered the day covered by 26 points; they left with 54 from first to fourth, and the much greater gap of 36 instead of five between Power and Hunter-Reay at the top.
Dixon and Castroneves' days started poorly to begin with, Castroneves setting the tone for “carnage at Turn 7” with a first-lap pitch of Dixon into a spin. Dixon's recovery process was slowed for a penalty of his own for running over an air hose, and he ended an unlucky 13th. Castroneves made it back to sixth (his fourth sixth place of the year) despite the early drive-through penalty incurred for the contact.
Hunter-Reay, though, drew the shortest end of the stick, and understandably blew his fuse publicly afterward.
The midseason stretch of three straight wins now seems an eternity ago, and after a mixed Edmonton and a disappointing Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay drove a sterling race to put himself in podium contention from seventh on the grid up to third. By Sonoma standards, that's no small feat.
It all went for nought when Alex Tagliani (shown battling RHR earlier in the day) attempted a low percentage dive-bomb pass at Turn 7 and, naturally, tipped RHR into a spin. Tagliani earned a drive-through, as RHR would later for pitching EJ Viso.
The championship's not over by any stretch, especially considering Power's been leading each of the last two years and not converted that into a title, but now it falls to him hitting the similar black cloud if the other three are to have a realistic chance going into Fontana.