What does winning pole position for the Centennial Indy 500, pole position for the Firestone Twin 275s at Texas race (where he was the only driver capable of hanging with the Penske and Ganassi cars), and scoring a handful of top-five finishes (including fourth at the last race, in Motegi) add up to? It adds up to 11th in the championship, just six points behind a Penske driver and a Ganassi driver.
And what does that earn ya? A one-race substitution, apparently. And thus no realistic hope of breaking into the top 10 in points at year's end.
Last weekend, Alex Tagliani was too classy to talk much about the move that sees him replaced by Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon this weekend in the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry. You could sense he was disappointed and perplexed by this extraordinarily generous gesture that appears to have been made on his behalf, but if it's any reassurance for his fans out there, he also sounded calm. Calm like a driver who knows his IndyCar prospects for 2012 don't depend on one race in Kentucky.
The fact is, Tagliani respects Wheldon's abilities as a driver and likes him as a person. They worked well together throughout May as part of the Schmidt “starfish” that saw Allen McDonald's setup shared with the cars of Bryan Herta Autosport (Wheldon), Tag's teammate Townsend Bell, and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing cars of Bertrand Baguette and Jay Howard.
Although his race day turned to ashes, Tagliani was one of the first to congratulate new two-time 500 winner Wheldon in Victory Lane. He was pleased for him. And, truth be told, if anyone was to replace him in the No. 77 car in Kentucky and gain extra publicity for his loyal sponsor Bowers & Wilkins, Alex would probably choose Dan. But you can be 100 percent sure he'd rather be partnering him than stepping aside.
Now, you can say that Schmidt is simply trying to increase his chances of Wheldon winning the $5m jackpot in the finale by getting his head back into race mode. I get that. After Dan's testing duties with the 2012 car, which doubtless handles differently (the drivers hope) and accelerates differently (we all hope) than the lawn dart he'll be driving at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it's understandable to want your driver to be as race sharp with the current car as he was by the time he started the Indy 500.
I'm also aware that Bryan Herta Autosport's crew won't be available to SSM in Kentucky because they'll have just wrapped up another new-car test at Indianapolis. But why couldn't Dan have used Schmidt's No. 17 car and crew – the same ones who'll be there working for Wade Cunningham? Here was a unique opportunity for Sam to have this year's Indy 500 race winner and pole winner under one roof, working together, improving the cars' setups – which could only have further helped Wheldon's chances of winning that GoDaddy money in Vegas.
I have nothing against Cunningham and clearly he can pedal a car around an oval. But I'd like to think that even the most egotistical of drivers would acknowledge that a guy who's started 170 IndyCar races can bring more to the table in debriefs and engineering forethought than a driver with just two IndyCar races (on one night) under his belt. Cunningham and/or Schmidt can argue their deal has nothing to do with this situation, that their four-race agreement was made preseason, etc. But deals change, agreements change and situations change – just ask Tagliani.
Basically, I refuse to believe that leaving Tagliani sitting idle in Kentucky helps Sam Schmidt Motorsports' chances of winning in Vegas. Nor is it going to help the goodwill that has been fostered by Schmidt among the fans. Sam is seen as the guy who, with his phenomenally successful Firestone Indy Lights team, helps bring young up-and-coming drivers to the attention of open-wheel fans. He's also seen as the guy who stepped in and bought the FAZZT team from Andre Azzi, thus rescuing a team that had pooled many fine human resources but was apparently heading for disbandment. And he's also the guy who appeared choked up with emotion after Tagliani's run to pole at Indy.
Well, you can be fairly certain that there's quite an overlap in the attendees of the Indianapolis 500 and the race just a two-and-a-half-hour drive away in Sparta, Ky., and the people who formed the biggest crowd for Pole Day in 16 years and cheered the fantastic underdog story of Tagliani/Schmidt won't be impressed that, four months later, Alex has now apparently been pushed aside. Do his aspirations for the season suddenly mean nothing?
Not sure Bowers & Wilkins will be too impressed, either. They have seen Tagliani's dedication to his team, his intense drive to succeed and his determination to get everyone working in the same direction. B & W will also have seen him working with their clients at the races and also the race fans. Tag's schedule on race weekend is always jam-packed because he endeavors to give his best to each and everyone, posing for photographs and even taking fans onto the team trailers to give them signed visors, gloves and so on. That's just how he is: it's part of the job, and he gives 110 percent to the job.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that Wheldon doesn't deserve a ride in Kentucky. Of course he does. He should have a full-time ride. But his drive at Kentucky should not come at the expense of Tagliani. And while Schmidt and Wheldon's goal in Vegas is to (of course) win the race and scoop that $5m bounty, I'd love to know what Alex's goal is – and whether it's changed over the past few days.
Should the pair of them be running 1-2 in the closing stages of the season finale, with Tagliani ahead, I guess we'll all find out, won't we? Alex isn't a vengeful sort of guy but, just to be on the safe side, Sam would be wise to offer him a substantial cut of Dan's potential winnings.
David Malsher is the Editor of RACER magazine