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.
RUBENS' GREAT DAY, SPLIT FOR RAHALS – Going into Sonoma, there were plenty of reasons to think Rubens Barrichello would have his best race of the season thanks to two spring tests at the track. Indeed Barrichello followed through, and said the track familiarity was mostly the key to success.
“I kept on saying I've been struggling with some of the tracks this year just because I haven't got the knowledge,” he admitted. “I think that it's more to the fact that it's more familiar with the track more than the car itself.”
Barrichello and Graham Rahal had a great dice in the waning stages and Rahal, officially a free agent, battled the Brazilian strongly rumored to be on the move for next year. Any drive from 13th to fifth at Sonoma is one to be commended.
“I thought overall the racing was good,” Rahal said. “There was almost too much action! Guys were spinning around; there were a lot of wing parts laying around; Barrichello and I hit each other; Marco (Andretti) punted me. There were a couple other things, too – but this new car can take it. In the old days, I would have had two flat tires.”
Unlike Edmonton when both Rahal (fourth) and his dad's team (Takuma Sato in second) finished in the top five, a miserable weekend for Bobby Rahal's squad ended when Sato retired after just two laps with an engine failure. Sato was already resigned to a 10-spot grid penalty for using his sixth engine of the year, and rarely cracked the top 20 on the timesheets.
ON THE NEWGARDEN/BOURDAIS DUSTUP –The first caution, which broke the string of 200-plus green flag laps dating to Edmonton, was a big one, and not easy to watch. Dragon Racing ended a caution-free race at Sonoma last year (Ho-Pin Tung) and did likewise again this year.
Sebastien Bourdais got enough ahead of a then-lapped Josef Newgarden, before his car ran wide through the dust and dirt, went right back across the track and collected the rookie, who had nowhere to go. Bourdais' car struck Newgarden's twice and both were faced with difficult repair prospects in a short time frame before Baltimore next week.
“It was a very bad impact,” Bourdais said on the NBC Sports Network broadcast. “The tub is broken in two, and the gearbox went through my shoulder. It was a really bad hit. It's a shame, I don't know what happened. It didn't turn; it was my mistake. I was on a brand-new set of tires.”
“I talked to Sebastien, and he didn't really know what happened,” Newgarden said. “He just got out of control – maybe he hit the gas to correct it – and it was just one of those deals where it was completely the wrong place and I got collected.
“When he went off, he almost straight-lined it and then came back across. He tried to turn in but it shot left, and I was there.
“It all happened so fast. He just lost control. At that point I was headed for the barriers and couldn't get hands off the wheel.”
Fortunately, the only injury was Newgarden's left index finger, which he had re-evaluated in Indianapolis on Monday. In a coincidence, it marked the third straight race a green Angie's List sponsored Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car (Tomas Scheckter Las Vegas 2011, Bryan Clauson Indianapolis 2012) was involved in an accident – Newgarden estimated he and the car will be back, repaired, in a blue and black livery next weekend.
SAAVEDRA'S IMPRESSIVE WEEKEND – Much like Giorgio Pantano at Mid-Ohio, the end result for one-off driver Sebastian Saavedra doesn't look particularly impressive (23rd to 15th, almost a mirror image of Pantano's 24th to 14th), but dig deeper and you'll find Saavedra was one of the unheralded stars of the weekend.
In the fourth Andretti Autosport entry, jointly fielded by AFS Racing, Saavedra was able to test at Sonoma a week ago but only had two sets of tires available to use per a rule limiting the number for partial season drivers. In his first road course race in the DW12, Saavedra finished a respectable 10th and 15th in the two practice sessions before just missing out on advancing out of his group in Q1. He had a 10-spot grid penalty leftover from an engine change after Indianapolis, so started 23rd.
But in the race, he made a number of good passing moves, stayed largely clean except for being penalized for a pit lane speed infraction and generally did the things he would need to do in an audition role for a full-season return to the series in 2013.
Saavedra actually ended best of the Andretti quartet – James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti each had mechanical issues and RHR had his troubles at the end of the race. A day to forget for the squad before team boss Michael Andretti's second stab at solo race promotion this year, next week at Baltimore.
OF NOTE – Former Champ Car teammates Power and Simon Pagenaud completed formalities, officially, on Sunday. Power took the Mario Andretti road course championship for the third time in as many seasons, while Pagenaud secured Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Neither realistically appeared in doubt from the start of the year. Chevrolet also confirmed the manufacturer's title, with its ninth win from 13 races this season.
With third, Dario Franchitti recorded only his third podium finish of the season – and, in a statistical oddity, his first in the No. 10 Target car. His win at Indy came with the No. 50 and second at Detroit came in a black No. 10 with Suave for Men signage.
The top six in qualifying (Power, Briscoe, Bourdais, Castroneves, Dixon and Franchitti) matched the top six in Sonoma's 2011 race, albeit not in the same order. Bourdais for Dragon Racing was the only non-Penske/Ganassi representative, where for the first time this season five of six Firestone Fast 6 participants were from the Penske and Ganassi stables.
With eighth place, JR Hildebrand very quietly confirmed his third top-10 finish in the last four races and is just outside the top-10 in the championship in 11th. Hildebrand featured prominently this week in his special San Francisco 49ers themed livery and firesuit.
In his return after missing Mid-Ohio, Charlie Kimball had two incidents in practice and qualifying but again ran solidly in the race, on the fringe of another top-10 in 11th before late race gearbox issues resigned the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver to 21st.
Ed Carpenter is now 13-for-13 in finishing races this season for Ed Carpenter Racing – although he's only twice finished higher than 18th on road and street course races.
The series heads to the streets of Baltimore next weekend.