IndyCar – Mid-Ohio Indy 200: If You Ain’t Last, You’re First

indycar-2014-midohio-dixon-checkered-flagWhile fuel mileage runs don’t often have a reputation for being exciting, the winner coming from 22nd on the starting grid, being hounded by a couple of talented drivers and then only having enough fuel onboard to cross the finish line before coasting to a stop at the end of Turn One makes for a pretty cool race. Just ask Scott Dixon who pulled all that off en route to his first win of the season.

One of the interesting in-race storylines that had developed over the last few Mid-Ohio races was the absence of cautions over the last two races there. This time, they didn’t even make it through the first turn under green. Tony Kanaan spun hopping the curb and hitting Josef Newgarden as he looked for a trademark move on cold tires but instead had his day ended when Marco Andretti hit him while cars were scrambling to avoid the stranded Ganassi car.

The story of the early part of the race was the dominance of Sebastian Bourdais. The polesitter clearly had the fastest car in the early part of the race, only briefly losing the lead to Ryan Hunter-Reay on the first round of pit stops before passing him like he was parked.

The only thing that worked against Bourdais in this race was the race’s second caution flag. RHR spun and stalled heading into The Carousel which brought out a caution. That brought most, but not all, cars to pit road. That’s because, having already committed to an alternate strategy that would stretch fuel as thinly as possible, Scott Dixon pitted shortly before the yellow and cycled through to the lead when everyone else jumped to pit road for their second stops.

From there, it was a mix of fuel mileage and strong defending for Dixon. He had to fight off challenges from both Bourdais and Newgarden at various points during the final 50 laps. At one point, it seemed as though only the young American could push the Kiwi hard enough to ruin his strategy but a mistake in the pits left it clear sailing for Dixon.

indycar-2014-midohio-podiumDixon’s win scored he and Ganassi their first win of 2014 after plenty of close calls with Kanaan this year. It’s also the lowest starting position for a winner in an American open-wheel race since Max Papis went from 25th to 1st at Laguna Seca in 2001. That race prompted CART to implement the maximum pit window length rule to eliminate fuel strategy racing. Yeah, the split made people do weird things.

It was a coulda, woulda, shoulda win day for Sebastian Bourdais but sometimes you just can’t beat a perfect fuel strategy. He turned his pole for the race into 2nd place. And James Hinchcliffe showed signs of life just as silly season started to claim his first podium of the season. He was helped by jumping nine spots at the start of the race.

Carlos Munoz all but cemented his rookie of the year title with a 4th. He’s now over 100 points ahead of Mikhail Aleshin. Graham Rahal scored his third top five in four races by finishing 5th. Will Power had a critical championship day with his 6th. Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe put in strong performances for the rest of the Ganassi finishers in 7th and 8th, respectively. Simon Pagenaud could have been happy with a 9th but it doesn’t help his title chase. The same could be said for RHR who recovered to 10th.

As for the championship, it’s down to a four-horse race as everyone else is over 100 points behind. After finishing 19th due to a throttle sensor malfunction, Helio Castroneves went from having a solid lead to down four points to Will Power. RHR and Pagenaud are 63 and 64 points back, respectively. They’d normally be out of it but RHR can definitely make that up at the final race which is a double points Triple Crown race.

We did the silly season update last week and it looks like not much has changed in the intervening break between the last two races but I thought I’d fill in a bit of the background info that will affect how things play out.

The seven cars at Penske and Ganassi are all locked in through 2015. The only seats that appear to open heading into 2016 are Montoya’s at Penske and Kanaan and Briscoe at Ganassi. It’s believed Montoya and Kanaan will be able to re-sign if they want to. Briscoe’s seat might be the only one in play and even that might not be the case if he can become a consistent top ten runner.

The biggest factor working for and against both Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe right now is the interest that Honda has in keeping both drivers in their camps. While Ganassi has been a rumoured destination for both drivers, Honda would try whatever they can to hold onto both.

indycar-2014-midohio-hinchcliffeMost of the rumours right now say that Pagenaud to Andretti Autosport is almost certainly a done deal. The question then becomes whether that’s in the #27 or in a fifth AA car. Andretti had considered a 5th car for a graduating Indy Lights driver in his stable but it could go to Pagenaud if he can keep Hinchcliffe and muster up two cars worth of sponsorship (for Hinch and Pagenaud).

Also at play in silly season is Justin Wilson who is rumoured for every seat but the Andretti one. That makes three top caliber drivers in play for only a few established seats on the grid.

I make that last distinction because three teams are interested in adding another car to the team (besides the Andretti possibility). KV Racing is looking to add sponsorship for a second car alongside Bourdais (third car if you count the KV/AFS partnership for the #17 of Sebastian Saavedra). AJ Foyt Racing would consider adding a second car if they could get one funded. Rahal Letterman Lannigan still have the #16 car ready to roll when the money arrives. And Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will be back for the 500 but could expand that with the proper support.

While the grid could get to upwards of 26 cars (which admittedly would be a totally unrealistic expectation but going up to 23 or 24 wouldn’t shock me), who lands where will be determined by the fallout of Hinchcliffe and Pagenaud. They’re the dominoes at the start of silly season that will cause all the other blocks to quickly fall.

The next race of the 2014 IndyCar Series season is coming up following the final break of the season. The drivers and teams get two weeks between now and the final short oval of the year. It’s a return to the flat, one-mile oval that is known simply as The Milwaukee Mile for the Wisconsin 250.

indycar-2013-milwaukee-startWhile the race dates back to 1937, IndyCar has been their nine times in its current incarnation. Andretti Autosport has won five of those races (with Penske and Ganassi splitting the other four). The two most recent of those wins belong to Ryan Hunter-Reay who also owns a Champ Car win there. If I was picking a favourite for this race, his Milwaukee history, two oval wins this year and desire to get back into the championship picture makes RHR my favourite for this race.

As for the championship favourites, over the last three years, Castroneves has finished ahead of Will Power twice. Generally, Helio has the superior oval racing record so you would expect him to get out of Milwaukee ahead of Power again. The positive for Power is that he’s been improving his oval game. If there was ever a time to prove it, this would be the week.


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