Well, we have an interesting season on our hands… and when I say “we,” I'm talking about the IZOD IndyCar Series as a whole. My Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves is out in front in the championship, Scott Dixon's making a charge, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti are also solid contenders with five rounds to go.
For the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske crew, things have been interesting too, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong reasons… but at least we are having fun just going for it, experimenting a bit, while also trying to help get that title for Mr. Penske, who's had to wait for it for too long. Yes, I hate thinking about the long gap since the last time our half of Team Penske went to Victory Lane, but I think there are definitely areas where we've made good progress.
You may have noticed that we've shown quite well on the ovals this year. At Milwaukee we got third, close behind Helio. Very close actually ;-) and then Iowa could have been a stronger finish but we had issues with the rear of the car. But still, the second place in the heat race final was satisfying. And then Pocono, we were fourth, but we should have been at least second. Unfortunately, as I came out of the pits, I'd just passed Dario Franchitti and was homing in on Charlie Kimball, but I got an overboost penalty, which knocked us back, so Dario and Simon Pagenaud got around me. I got back past Pagenaud, and finishing as top Chevrolet runner was good, but I believe we could have crashed that Ganassi team party on the podium.
Texas initially looked like the most promising for us because we got a strong pole position. But in the final stint of the race, the car just went loose and I lost five places at the finish.
The restrictions on developments have definitely mixed up the performances of the teams and certainly affected some of the race results this year. Is that a good thing? Well, some would say yes. Others would say that it would be good if IndyCar allowed more room for changes with the teams, especially now as we've gotten familiar with this car.
On the engine side, we've also been able to point the Chevrolet/Ilmor guys in a certain direction regarding the improvements we need. Inevitably, every time we make a breakthrough, the guys with Honda eventually pull level with us, so it's important that we as drivers and teams give the most comprehensive feedback we can to help keep the Bowtie at the front. As a result, I'm sure Chevy has some big plans not just for this year but also when the engines get re-homologated for next season. That should be very interesting.
My incidents near the end of the two races at Toronto are simple to explain. Yes, I could have just settled for fourth in Race 1, but now that the championship is realistically out of reach, we are focused on getting podiums and wins. So when I saw a gap between Dario and the wall, I went for it, and although this time it didn't come off, on another day it might. On the final restart in Race 2, both myself and Hunter-Reay needed the same bit of track and I had no idea his front wheels were alongside my rears.
And now that we have a couple of them under our belt, I've got to say I think the double-header races are really good idea. It's great value for the fans to get two full-length IndyCar races on one weekend, and personally, I like being busy and hate long periods of downtime between sessions. I realize doubleh-eaders are quite tiring for some drivers – can you imagine twin races at a track as physical as Mid-Ohio?! – and I know it's a lot of work for the teams. But, to be honest, it's not that much extra
work. Whether it's a race the next day or a qualifying session the next day, our crews still have a major workload and tough hours anyway, so I'm fine with having races on consecutive days. What I think was hardest on the teams this year was the run of consecutive weekends
of racing, from Indy through to Iowa. The trucks were barely back at home base before they were being loaded up for the next event.
Last weekend at Mid-Ohio is one that I think we've got to regard as a missed opportunity. If we couldn't get ahead of Hunter-Reay at the start, we committed to doing whatever he did and not risk the car or waste fuel or push-to-pass trying to get into the lead. If he tried to make it on a two-stopper, that's what we'd do.
But with five laps added to the race distance this year, and no yellow-flag laps, that was the wrong way to go. It meant we were going two seconds off our potential pace, so when someone at the back of the crocodile – Charlie Kimball – committed to three stops, he was able to duck in and went for it, laying down some quick laps. And he was able to jump us. If we'd switched strategy (which in itself is always an added risk) we should have been able to beat Dario to third place. But, like Hunter-Reay, we stuck with it and ended up fourth. At the other end of the extreme was Dixon, who switched too late to the three-stopper and wound up seventh. It's just one of those situations where you don't know what the right strategy is until after the race!
So now we just have to keep looking ahead to Sonoma, where Team Penske has taken pole and won for the last three years. It's definitely a track I enjoy, and one of my proudest moments was leading a Penske 1-2-3 there in 2011. But although it's another natural road course and it's in a beautiful part of the world, those are about the only comparisons you can make with Mid-Ohio, which is a very physical, very high-grip surface. Sonoma, is usually much less grippy, because the balance shifts a lot according to wind direction, and that wind also brings a lot of sand onto the surface.
Can we win? Yes. The Chevrolet engine is strong, our cars are strong and our pit stops are strong – this year's Verizon Team Penske pit crew is the best I've ever had. But will
we win? That's a very different question! There are too many variables to make predictions like that. But between Tim Cindric, Dave Faustino and the rest of the team, you can be sure we'll give our best.
One more thing I wanted to clear up. Since the Toronto races, when Roger's radio transmission to Helio – “Will's got your back” – was heard by everyone watching on TV, there have been questions about team orders. Well, there aren't any team orders at Team Penske because there doesn't have to be: Helio and I are grown-ups (most of the time), we understand each other (most of the time) and definitely understand what we should do for the good of the team. The best thing I can do for Helio is to make sure that I finish races ahead of his championship rivals and that's what I plan to do.
Hope to see you at the races.
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