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.
THE RACE WINNER – Meanwhile, while most of the fixation was on the title battle, Ed Carpenter won the race. And he did so in a fashion that proved his oval skills once again.
Carpenter's been something of an afterthought this year with a schedule heavy in road and street courses for which his skills lacking by comparison to the rest of the field. That said, his team targeted the ovals as potential success areas, and a great organization for those events coupled with Carpenter's oval prowess have meant he's been at or near the front in these five races this year.
Starting from fifth, without an engine change grid penalty (which 14 drivers had to deal with!), Carpenter had a built-in advantage of not needing to drive through the field. But he was already in a good position and with a good balance on his car, he largely stayed up front all day. In fact, he led the most laps with 62 circuits out in front.
Two elements stood out. The first was his save through Turns 1 and 2 late in the going, when he nearly walled it but somehow hung on – his sprint car and dirt track background came in handy there. And with his ability to run the high line well, he launched better out of Turn 2 to slingshot past Dario Franchitti in the decisive pass for the win, which was confirmed once Takuma Sato crashed behind them.
It's a bit unfortunate his win was overshadowed, but Carpenter drove a very impressive race. The magnitude, too, of a first-year owner/driver winning a race cannot be understated. This was an upset even given Carpenter's oval credentials – it's not everyday someone goes out and beats Franchitti and Scott Dixon at their own game.
THE SURPRISES – Carpenter aside, credit where credit is due to two drivers you might not have expected to finish the 500 miles – and for that matter, finish well. To me, Katherine Legge and Wade Cunningham were easily the surprises of the race.
Legge, in only her second race since Iowa in June, was far from rusty in the lone TrueCar Dragon Racing Chevrolet. She was reasonably on pace and had a grid position in the upper half of the field, promoted to seventh with some of the grid penalties ahead of her.
In the race, she ran as high as fourth, and despite the mistake of nudging Justin Wilson under caution, plus two pit road penalties, she still finished ninth in a race where 17 cars finished. Since switching to Chevrolet, Legge definitely showed signs of improvement and wasn't made to look as miserable as she had been when compared directly to Sebastien Bourdais at the start of the year, when both were saddled with Lotus engines.
Cunningham, by contrast, only got a last-minute notice to replace Mike Conway at A.J. Foyt Racing. He hadn't been in a car since Indianapolis but armed with at least some experience in the DW12 – unlike other recent subs Bruno Junqueira and Giorgio Pantano – he wasn't totally out to lunch.
Despite an accident at the end of practice Friday night (it didn't look bad, but did keep his crew working until 1 a.m.), Cunningham helped to dial in the car after his first stint and ran relatively solid laps thereafter. In the race, he made it home, and ended up 14th – not a bad result given the challenge he was up against. Like Carpenter, he's a solid oval shoe who could flourish under the right circumstances.
THE EVENT ITSELF – Honestly, going in, I had my doubts about whether a return trip to ACS would prove beneficial to the series. Fears of completely empty stands, lingering concerns about safety for the race after last year's finale (granted, two completely different situations in cars and how they race) and the heat of the day were not positive harbingers going in. I'm so happy to be wrong.
Without echoing what Robin Miller said in his SPEED.com post-Fontana column, I was pleasantly surprised by the fan turnout despite a low-ish number at the start of the race (the crowd was estimated anywhere from 20,000 to 34,000, solid by IndyCar oval standards in 2012), thankful all 26 starters returned home safely (even after Conway's withdrawal and E.J. Viso's threat he wouldn't race), and thrilled by the actual race itself (even despite the red flag concern already addressed).
Outside of the 100-plus degree temperatures, a 500-mile season-ender just felt right. It had been a full 11 years since that was the case, when the CART championship ended its 2001 season at Fontana. I'm already disappointed that in 2013, the season is likely to end at a street course in Houston rather than at Fontana, given the racing product witnessed Saturday night. Perhaps this race may change the schedule makers' minds.
THE OTHER STATS OF NOTE – Saturday night marked the first time in two years that all four Chip Ganassi Racing cars all finished in the top 10. There have been multiple races where three of four made it, but with Franchitti and Dixon second and third, Graham Rahal sixth in his likely “G2” swansong and the ever-improving Charlie Kimball 10th, Ganassi had a small accomplishment achieved.
JR Hildebrand turned in arguably his most impressive performance of the year with 56 laps led and being the pioneer of the “high, wide and handsome” line used to great effect through the turns. It bit him early and forced repairs, but he recovered to 11th by the flag. A win could have vaulted him to 10th in points but 11th was three spots better than his rookie year at Panther Racing.
After a switch to new tires on the last caution, Helio Castroneves drove like a banshee and nearly caught Hunter-Reay and the like in front of him. The charge ended in fifth but not before Castroneves had turned in a string of fliers at 215-plus in a race where most laps were in the 207-211mph range.
Takuma Sato and the last lap have not been friends this year. He was taken out at Long Beach while running third, crashed on his own from second at Indianapolis, and crashed from fifth this race – all on the ultimate lap of the race. Those races ended eighth, 17th and seventh, and the net loss of points (42) demoted him from a possible 11th to 14th in the final standings for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Kanaan's crash and Alex Tagliani's late mechanical issue cost both possible victories, and for Kanaan, it also cost him a shot at the A.J. Foyt Trophy for top-placing oval driver this season. There was a tinge of irony in the fact Tagliani's retirement promoted Hunter-Reay to fifth, the position he needed to take the title, after Tagliani's contact with Hunter-Reay at Sonoma cost the American more than 30 points.
Marco Andretti finished eighth after scoring the pole position. The end result was only his third top-10 result of the year and placed him in a tie with Wilson, the Texas winner, for a career-worst 15th in points. In Andretti's six prior seasons, he finished between seventh and eighth five times and 11th in 2007.
This puts a wrap on the 2012 season IndyCar race analysis pieces, but there will be more to come throughout the offseason in digesting the season as a whole on RACER.com. Thanks to all for reading!