Luck – It all balances out in the end, doesn't it? I mean, you can drive yourself crazy talking about missed opportunities, whether they're your fault, another driver's fault, the way yellows fall…whatever it is. There's always something that causes bad things to happen. And then you have to think about the good things in your career: I'm lucky not to have been more seriously hurt in the couple of big accidents I got caught up in over the past few years, I'm lucky to drive for Team Penske and I'm lucky to make a living out of being a racecar driver.
But I will say that between me and Scott Dixon, I think we've now discovered every possible way to lose an IZOD IndyCar Series race. Seriously, being taken out by a lapped car on track while under caution is a new one for me, but maybe I shouldn't be surprised anymore. But a couple of hours after the race, it had an interesting effect – it sharpened our determination. The way our team looks at it is this: If we have the No. 12 Verizon car always up front and banging on the door of Victory Lane, eventually it will open. And we feel our team has that potential if we bring our A game, every race.
It was great to get a fourth straight pole at St. Petersburg and win that first Verizon P1 award – it's awesome how Verizon continues to support IndyCar and I like the design of the new pole award. That string of poles shows that the Team Penske guys give me a great car each year. OK, so we've only converted one of those into a victory , which is annoying for all of us. But I know I'd rather be in that position than with a car that we can't figure out, where we're slow and not knowing why. That sort of thing happens to others, but hasn't really happened to us in a long time. What I'm saying is, we don't really get lost over the course of a race weekend. We're always contenders. And that's the power of Penske and also the power of Chevrolet. Judging by the St. Petersburg race, Chevy has still got the upper hand.
It was obviously a crazy way to miss out on the win this time, but you still have to look at what we could have done better. I lost six percent of front downforce when I clipped Helio Castroneves in the braking zone on one of the restarts, and that's when James Hinchcliffe got past me. But my car was still great, and so when that yellow flag came, basically, I was getting ready to rock, and try to pass Helio and Hinch on that restart. That's when JR Hildebrand came flying over me.
That's just one of those things and JR was quick to say sorry, which I appreciated. We've all made mistakes that have cost other people chances: If you watch old IndyCar races when everyone pits together, you see how many times some of the drivers – even the legends – trip over each other in pit lane, because they haven't realized the guy ahead is slowing down for his pit box.
Speaking of pit lane, just before the collision, the Verizon boys gave me a really good pit stop that should have got me back out ahead of Hinch, but I grabbed first gear twice, because it didn't engage the first time, and when you do that, there's a pause before you can try it again. So I was slow leaving my box. If I'd left on time, it would have been Hinch, not me, who JR Hildebrand hit. You see what I mean? There's cause and effect for everything!
And then finally there was that moment when I gave up the four places we'd gained on track and I slipped from 12th to 16th. I'd like to blame that on something breaking because of the collision with JR, or because the car was now handling a bit strange, but I'd already had a few laps to get used to that, so I can't look for any excuses there. Pretty sure that one was my fault. At least my teammate Helio put Team Penske on the podium.
Looking at it as a fan, though, I thought the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was a strong event: a new winner (congratulations, Hinch!) and some good surprises – Takuma Sato and Simona De Silvestro were up at the front, and Tristan Vautier and Sebastian Saavedra did nice jobs. The competition is strong and in qualifying it's so close that you really have to nail your fast laps and get everything right.
If I was going to make a suggestion – and this is my column, so I will – it's that I think the restart procedure has got to become stricter. At the moment, there's a vagueness about it that some people exploit, some people don't and no one is quite sure if they're going to get penalized. It took me a while to accept that double-file restarts were a good thing, but after watching a lot of racing, I think IndyCar was right to go in that direction for the sake of the entertainment. But that means it's even more important that Beaux Barfield [race director] gives us a really regular restart procedure and that he's really strict about enforcing it. NASCAR has the basic concept sorted – no one's allowed to go more than 55mph until the leaders are into the restart zone. On ovals, we could do the same but at a higher speed.
Next up for us is Barber and Long Beach. Barber was where everyone tested just before the St. Pete race, and I can tell you that these cars are pretty quick around there. The track was ground down since last year and that's made it more grippy. Add that to the engines making a bit more power and the teams understanding the Dallara DW12 a bit better so there's a bit more downforce, and once we've put on red [softer, grippier] tires, you're going to see us quite a bit quicker than last year.
Traditionally, Barber has been a strong track for us – over the three years it's been on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar, Helio and I have taken all the poles and all the wins for Team Penske. And we went well there in testing in March, so I'd be disappointed if we weren't strong there for race weekend. But like we saw at St. Pete, being strong doesn't mean being strongest: the competition is pretty fierce and we've got our work cut out as usual.
And then in the race, there are more variables, especially once you build in the different strategies, pit stops and the unknown number of yellow flags. That's when team president Tim Cindric is great to have on my side as race strategist. He thinks smart and quick, reads the race and works out the best way to take advantage of our pace.
The other difference for Team Penske at Barber will be my old Champ Car rival, AJ Allmendinger, making his open-wheel comeback. That's really cool and I'm going to do everything I can to help him, just like the rest of the team will. For one thing, he's a good guy and, secondly, we all remember how fast he can be in a single-seater. I think you're going to see him further up the field than in the test, because that was a bit of a culture shock for him. Barber is a much more demanding track than Sebring because the corners give you so much grip, so you only get faster as your confidence builds up. The more miles and laps AJ does, the more confidence he'll have, and the quicker he's going to go, simple as that.
Long Beach will be awesome, as usual. We won from mid-grid last year. I hope the Verizon car will start nearer the front this time around, to make our lives a bit easier. But I could name about 10 drivers who could stop us from winning, so we'll take nothing for granted. And we won't leave anything to luck…
Thanks for reading!
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