There's a wealth to digest from a fascinating and exciting MAVTV 500, which drew the curtain on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season.
THE CHAMPION – Ryan Hunter-Reay now has an IndyCar championship before any of the Team Penske drivers. The former vagabond who was always the American earmarked with so much potential is now in rarified air.
Put simply, the last two races for him and the Andretti Autosport team have been the definition of clutch. Backs up against the wall after Sonoma, RHR and crew adopted a “nothing to lose, we're not out of it” attitude and thrived. Team principal Michael Andretti made the inspired call to stay on slicks at Baltimore, netting RHR the key track position, and his second-to-last restart jumping Ryan Briscoe was a well-timed move.
In Fontana, despite fighting an ill-handling car throughout the week, and after already crashing in testing on Wednesday, the team stuck to the “never give up” mantra and with a revised race setup, hung on in the early stages before the track got dark. Hunter-Reay again came to life on the second-to-last restart, passing cars once he was in a position to secure the championship.
Either champion would have been worthy, but Hunter-Reay's title is well deserved. Will Power's class, too, was as impressive as Hunter-Reay's drive. The sportsmanship he displayed in defeat was a fitting end to a great race.
THE ACCIDENT – Earlier of course, a stunned silence fell over Auto Club Speedway on pit lane when Power crashed in Turn 2, on lap 55. Fortunately, it wasn't the “shock and horror” pall that hit Las Vegas Motor Speedway a year ago when the fiery, multi-car crash that took Dan Wheldon's life happened – this was more of a, “Did this really just happen to this guy, again?!?” type silence.
Anyway, Power's accident was the catalyst for a race that had the makings of a barnburner early and then really sprung to life afterward.
THE REBUILD – This race being advertised as relatively near Hollywood, the Penske Racing team made its best pitch for an Academy Award with its performance. This wasn't acting, though. This was an incredible effort in turning around a wounded chariot and giving its driver one last fighting chance.
Using all its manpower and resources, Penske returned Power to the track near the halfway mark to make up those 12 laps and pass E.J. Viso, and thus earn two additional points.
The spirit of rebuilding cars and returning them to the race happens frequently in sports car endurance racing, and occasionally in NASCAR (although not for top positions), but rarely in IndyCar. It was a valiant performance by the team.
THE RED – More thoughts about the late red flag based on driver input and the rule stipulations on how red flag conditions are called per this year's series rulebook can be found here, but I have to view the red from two perspectives. The first is from an entertainment standpoint. IndyCar is a business, and the bottom line there is making sure it ends up in the black, not the red (no pun intended), financially speaking. Beyond that, IndyCar needs to cater to its fan base, work to create new ones, and ensure the best possible form of entertainment as a motorsports product. In this case, what had been a thrilling race up to that point was then all but guaranteed a green-flag finish by the decision to go red, then restart and give anywhere from six to seven laps of green-flag racing. From that standpoint, the call to go red was correct.
But here's the flip side of it. IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield opened up a serious can of worms by establishing a situation where, with track conditions not any worse than usual under a normal yellow flag, he threw a red and altered the complexion of the race. Nothing came of it, but say Hunter-Reay's, or Ed Carpenter's, or anyone else's engine did not restart after that red, and suddenly the outcome of the race was altered. IndyCar would have had some explaining to do and major egg on its face.
Earlier this year, IndyCar had three races – Indianapolis, Iowa and Toronto – all end under yellow. In each race, an accident occurred too late for the possibility of a red to ensure a green finish, but in Toronto, Barfield did opt for a “quickie yellow” where the track was not swept in order to provide the possibility of a green ending.
The danger is that now a precedent has been established where, in a situation where the track or a driver was not seriously affected, a red is now an option. If it's done where drivers and teams have prior knowledge, and it's definitively stated in the rulebook that “a red can be thrown within a certain number of laps of the finish to provide the possibility of a green finish,” or something to that effect, would be one thing. But to throw it here, without a clear idea it would be coming, reeked of “discretion” – everyone's favorite word that got former competition director Brian Barnhart thrown out a year ago. And IndyCar is damn lucky and should be thankful Hunter-Reay held on for the title given the potential fallout.