A weekend like the one that just took place in Houston can easily drain one's enthusiasm for the sport. And, admittedly, it took a few days to digest and process all of it before making any attempts to analyze what happened.
Early emotions ranged from feeling embarrassed for the fans and sponsors who sat idle four hours Friday morning as the track surface issue was addressed, to frustration as the pitfalls that delayed opening day at the Baltimore Grand Prix for two consecutive years were seemingly ignored as the Houston track was assembled. By the time the final lap of the Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston was complete, another round of emotions swept through the facility as fear, anger and concern had manifested in many different ways.
Voices and engines quickly fell silent as replays of Dario Franchitti's troubling crash were shown. And with the sight of debris, a wheel, and large sections of fencing flying into the grandstands, it was hard to keep some of the darker fears associated with such a violent accident at bay. Leaving the track later that night felt like a release – an overdue end to what had become a depressing and prolonged experience.
There were positives that took place over the three days in Texas, but the lasting memories of the event will likely be attached to the negatives.
Before delving into the significant shortcomings to discuss, it's worth looking at some of the noteworthy performances and happenings that might have been lost in the margins.
Let's take a moment to gush about Justin Wilson, aka Badass, for his epic march up the championship standings. Dale Coyne Racing's finest put on another of his patented why-hasn't-he-been-hired-by-one-of-the-bigger-teams performances over the weekend, taking a third-place finish on Saturday, his fourth podium visit of 2013, and claimed fourth on Sunday.
It also marked his fourth consecutive finish inside the top-4, a trend started at Sonoma. Wilson has made an impressive jump from ninth in the standings leaving Mid-Ohio on August 3, to seventh after Sonoma and sixth after Baltimore. He arrived at Houston with Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay directly ahead of him in fifth, and RHR's teammate Marco Andretti in fourth, proceeded to draw down the gap after Houston Round 1 and leapfrogged the pair in Round 2.
Sadly, Wilson can only improve one more position in the standings at the season finale. Championship leader Scott Dixon, and Helio Castroneves, who sits 25 points behind Dixie in second, have built a lead the Englishman cannot overcome. Simon Pagenaud, however, is within striking distance in third place.
Given Wilson's impressive oval form in recent years, including a win at Texas in 2012 and a fifth at the Indy 500 in May, Bad Ass could track down Pagenaud at Fontana. The Frenchman is also an emerging threat on the ovals, and actually has a better average finishing position this year (9.0) compared to Wilson (9.4) at the art of turning left.
With Badass and Pagenaud so evenly matched, Wilson obviously needs to separate himself at Fontana in order to make one final pass in the standings, and with oval specialists Andretti and RHR directly behind him, it's also possible for him to lose ground. It's hard to say how he'll fare in the finale, but you can count on Wilson and super engineer Bill Pappas to go for the jugular.
HE'S HUMAN AFTER ALL
The Houston race confirmed, for the first time since Sonoma, that Helio Castroneves is a mere mortal.
Team Penske's championship leader had a relatively unremarkable run going at Sonoma while his main rival Scott Dixon was, until that fateful pit stop, in a position to win the race and draw down the Brazilian's lead. With Dixie's ensuing penalty for contact with one of Will Power's Penske crew members, Helio's day was inexplicably turned into another opportunity to pad his lead over the Kiwi. Dixon finished 15, Castroneves took seventh.
It happened again the following weekend in Baltimore when Dixon, once again in a position to win (or at least land on the podium), had Castroneves covered on pace until that fateful restart ended his day in a rather abrupt manner against the wall. Dixon: 19th. Castroneves: ninth. To have it happen once was a blessing, but two times in a span of seven days? Had to be divine intervention.
If you believe in karma, Houston's double-header was a perfect follow-up to Sonoma and Baltimore for Dixon, and looking at how badly Helio's weekend went, it felt like some form of universe-balancing phenomenon took place.
A dismal qualifying performance for Round 1 was met with gearbox issues that struck in the first few laps for the three-time Indy 500 winner. Dixon: 1st. Castroneves: 18th.
The rained-out Round 2 qualifying session gave Castroneves an advantage, ode to the grid being set by Entrants' points, which placed him first on the grid. Dixon, starting alongside Castroneves, watched as his rival led him away from the starting lights, but broken transmission mountings forced the Penske driver into an early retirement. Dixon: second. Castroneves: 23rd.
Helio's 49-point lead became a 25-point deficit in 48 hours, and now the series heads to a track where both drivers should excel. Will the universe tip the scale in the direction of Dixie or Helio, or will the two be able to fight for the title without interruption? Let's hope their engines hold together, tires maintain pressure, gearboxes shift, wings stay attached and the other drivers in the field can keep from punting them into the barriers.
After the wildly unpredictable season we've witnessed, an old fashioned sprint to the finish in Fontana would be a welcome conclusion to the championship.