For the last three seasons, the Verizon Team Penske No. 12 car has visited Victory Lane twice in the opening few races. This year is different, and seven races in, we're a little frustrated and we just want to go out and kick everyone's backside! We've got the pace. It's just a different thing every time that holds us back.
You know what happened at St. Pete [if not, read all about it here]. Well, at Barber, we qualified second and finished fifth, but actually felt that was a bit of an achievement in the circumstances.
If I hadn't run wide at Turn 1, would I have had anything for Ryan Hunter-Reay that race? Yeah, I think so. We made a mistake on setup in qualifying and gave the car too much understeer, while Ryan did a great lap and got pole. But at least we understood where our time had gone, and we had the car adjusted fine for the race. The problem with starting on the outside line is that you're braking for a left-hander and also looking in your left mirror for someone on your inside and at the same time I was having trouble adjusting the fuel mixture, so I was busy multi-tasking and ran wide and off the road.
Once we'd dropped to eighth, we wondered, “Should we use up tires to get back up to the front, or should we go for just two pit stops and hope for a yellow?” It's a real dilemma to be in because you don't want to go for an alternative strategy and then need to switch back again; you make a decision and then commit. Well I got to lap 31 before pitting, and if there had been a yellow at any point in the next stint, we'd have been golden, but there wasn't another one for the rest of the race. So I had to just make each tank of fuel last 30 laps and that required sticking to a lap time about one second off the pace.
And even then it was very close and we ran dry as I crossed the start/finish line, so I guess that means we got our calculations pretty accurate…. Looking back, maybe we'd have done better if we'd just gone for it and done a three-stopper. For sure, that would have been more fun anyway.
Long Beach didn't bring the results we were hoping for, either, but for different reasons. In qualifying, I did one flying lap, not a particularly great one, and then backed off to get a clear lap, ready to go for The Big One…but when I crossed the timing line next time through, I got the checkered flag! It was just a misunderstanding between myself and team president Tim Cindric, my strategist, and so I'd backed off too much. It would be arrogant to say, “Oh yeah, I was gonna be on pole,” because for all I know I might have made a mistake or whatever. But the lap that got me third wasn't stellar, so I'm pretty sure we had the potential to have found the tenth or two tenths I needed for P1.
That had a huge bearing on the starts and restarts, because as polesitter, you choose when to go. Behind them, the rest of us wait, and then a bit further back, people just go when they go. So we got shuffled a bit and then we struggled on the harder-compound tires. Then later in the race we got clipped by another car as we turned into our pit box, which ripped part of the rear bumper, so I had to come back in again to have half of that removed. Plus the anti-stall device was giving us trouble all weekend, and on the last stop it actually caused us to stall, which kind of defeats its reason for being there. That probably cost us a top-five finish.
Sao Paulo should have felt even worse, because we clearly had the quickest car in the place and we ended up with a mechanical failure. But actually, we had a blast in the Verizon car before we had our issue, and I just felt energized being able to race hard. Of course, I had to: I'd started 22nd….
After qualifying, Team Penske got some stick in the media for not sending Helio and me out earlier to set a banker lap before the red flag, but like Tim said, if James Jakes' car didn't give way and brought out the red flag just 40 seconds later, then it would have been Hunter-Reay who missed out because he set a banker lap on black tires and we'd have all gone quicker on reds. So it's a fine line between being damned if you do, damned if you don't. We were just the wrong side of that line.
Just before I make my next point, I want to hold my hand up and say, “I admit that was our mistake.” But to me, it's also tough to understand the logic behind IndyCar's change to the rules for qualifying this year. Last year, in Q1 we had 15 minutes but we were only allowed one set of tires, so no one went out for the first five minutes. This year, they've allowed us as many sets of tires as we want to use…but they've cut us down to 10 minutes! So now on the shorter tracks we go out on blacks, pit, then do a run on reds and we all struggle to get a good lap in.
If they're going to allow us to use more sets of tires, they should give us enough time to take advantage of that: drivers and fans would appreciate it a lot more. Or alternatively, IndyCar could keep Q1 at 10 minutes, restrict us to just one set of tires, but then at least guarantee us a lap so that red flags don't ruin people's chances of showing their potential. Or they could stop the clock if the session was red-flagged. We got burned in Brazil, so it sounds like I'm just thinking about it now that it affects us, but I also remember it happened to a bunch of people at Baltimore last year, including Hunter-Reay.
As for the DNF in Brazil… well, (sorry to speak in code here) but it was caused by a part that hadn't previously caused any issues. Chevrolet will fix it for all its engines going forward. And to be honest, I didn't have a single engine failure last year during the race weekends, so I can't complain.
Anyway, like I said, for those first 16 laps in Sao Paulo, the Verizon car was a rocketship and we climbed from 22nd to 11th. It was kind of liberating to just go racing, not having to think too much about saving fuel. I wish we'd been around at the end because it would have been fun to race for the win there.
And, by the way, there's no great secret to why it was such a good race. Those long straights force you to take off downforce, so then the braking zones get longer, the cars are coming down from 190mph into tight corners, they're sliding, there are little errors here and there, and so you get passing. Also, Sao Paulo is quite high at 2,493ft altitude, compared with 233ft for Long Beach (You see what drivers do in their spare time? They read Wikipedia.), so the air is thin, so again, less downforce. The end result is that you have to really drive the cars at Sao Paulo. Like I always say, too much downforce kills real racing, and that's true on circuits beyond just the ovals.
Our May at Indy was encouraging: the Verizon car was fastest in main qualifying which gave us the best pit box (pitlane exit) for the race, but we stripped off a bit too much downforce to earn pole once we got into the Fast Nine shootout. Then on race day, we had too short a top gear – quite a few teams went that same route – but were able to get into the lead legitimately. But coming out of the pit lane into traffic cost us time and, in that race, just one or two seconds covered a whole bunch of cars, as you saw. Once we were shuffled back, we couldn't make forward progress as quick as we wanted, and then a refueling issue forced me to pit again in the closing stages.
The positive was that I learned a lot, and I'm pleased that Chevrolet got the win. Congratulations to KV Racing, but especially big congratulations to Tony Kanaan – he deserved that victory after all those years of trying.
At Detroit, it was definitely a challenge with the Dual races. I thought the changes to the Belle Isle street circuit were awesome and I really like racing that course. Once again, our results there were not what we wanted as were hoping with all those points on the table the door was open to make up some ground in the championship. With Detroit being where Roger makes his home and the world headquarters of Chevrolet, it was also a very important event for our team.
We brought home an eighth-place result in the first race and we felt good going in the second Dual and were running well before we were hit and spun from behind. Again, that was a tough pill to swallow because we were affected by something out of our control. I felt really bad for the Verizon team because my guys worked so hard to prepare the car to race twice in less than 24 hours. It was also a tough weekend overall for Team Penske but at least Helio emerged with the points lead, so we will look at the positives and move on to Texas.
It will be fun to race there at night again and that was where I was able to get my first oval win, so hopefully it's where I can secure my second victory on an oval as well.
So now we're 82 points behind Helio and Marco Andretti in the championship race, and I'm not thinking in terms of there being 12 rounds to catch back up. If you drive like you're just banking points, you're going to slip further behind in a field as competitive as this. So from here on out, I'm flat-out, and how I drove in Brazil is how I want to drive for the rest of the year. We know how strong the opposition is, so we need to take full advantage of being Team Penske. Roger gives us everything we need to succeed and so it's time we repaid him.
Talk to you down the road.