Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio

While the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course may not be remembered for its excitement, try telling that to the fans of Josef Newgarden. The twenty-six year-old from Nashville delivered a masterpiece in winning yesterday that shows everyone why he was so sought after by Roger Penske.

The race itself was not the best we’ve seen this year, and not even the best we’ve seen at Mid-Ohio in recent years. Other than pit stop shuffles, there was essentially only one pass for the lead – but it was one to remember. Newgarden was running second to teammate Will Power when he faked left and then went to the right of Power and drove past Power heading into Turn Five. From that point on, Newgarden checked out on Power and the rest of the field.

A late yellow on Lap 67 took away Newgarden’s near ten-second lead as the field was bunched up behind the pace car. Newgarden was on the primary black tires, while the second and third place cars of Power and Graham Rahal were on sticker reds. What appeared to be an interesting battle in the remaining twenty laps never materialized as the lapped car of Esteban Gutierrez unwittingly held everyone at bay behind Newgarden. Newgarden went on to win by 5.1 seconds over Power.

Just because the race did not have the same amount of excitement as Texas or Iowa doesn’t mean it was void of action. There was quite a bit of good driving going on behind the leaders. Alexander Rossi had a very spirited battle with his Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, which saw Hunter-Reay getting the worst of it when he spun on Lap 18. Hunter-Reay got it going again on his own and managed to crawl back to an eighth place finish.

Rahal and Takuma Sato also battled each other for position early on before Rahal was finally able to get by. Marco Andretti drove like someone driving for their job in the first stint of the race, but reality set in and he eventually faded to a twelfth place finish. But Conor Daly had one of his best drives of the season and managed to pass his former landlord James Hinchcliffe for a spot in the Top-Ten late in the race. Landlord may be a bit of a stretch because a landlord generally collects rent. I’m not sure that ever happened in Daly’s stay at the Hinchcliffe residence.

But the story of the day may be how Scott Dixon was a non-factor for most of the day. In his post-race interview, he bemoaned the fact that just about everything that could have gone wrong, did on Sunday. After an eighteen second pit stop that saw Dixon fall a lap down and in eighteenth place; I was surprised he managed to finish ninth and on the lead lap. It was an off-day for the entire Chip Ganassi team, as Dixon gave the team their best result of the day. Charlie Kimball finished thirteenth, Max Chilton was fifteenth and Tony Kanaan came home in sixteenth place. Come to think of it, it’s been pretty much of an off-year for Ganassi. Their lone win for the entire season so far has been Dixon winning at Road America. Dixon came into the weekend in the points lead, but left Mid-Ohio in third place.

Helio Castroneves had a so-so weekend. He started fifth and finished seventh. With Dixon running into bad luck, you would have thought that Castroneves would be the points leader right now. Instead, Josef Newgarden leap-frogged over everyone and assumed the points lead for the first time in his career. It won’t be the last time. There are four legitimate contenders remaining for the championship with four races to go. Newgarden may or may not win the championship this year, but it’s only a matter of time. He’s that good and he’s with the right team. The Penske-Newgarden pairing may be one that spans the next decade and a half.

So while yesterday’s race at Mid-Ohio was very forgettable in terms of excitement, it gave us a lot to talk about as we wait out the next three weeks with no races until the season resumes August 20th at Pocono.

TV Coverage: I will continue to sound like a broken record until we get word that Kevin Lee has been given the official title as NBCSN’s lead announcer for all of the IndyCar races. He does a good job and turned in another solid performance yesterday. He knows the series and all of the players, so familiarity is not a problem. Most of all, he always sounds like he’s having a good time and seems more than willing to step back and let Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy have the spotlight.

I thought Robin Miller turned in another humorous, but informative grid run. The look on Lauren Kanaan’s face was priceless when Miller asked her if she was willing to dip into the family 401(k) to fund Tony’s career next season. Later he caught Kanaan himself and tried to pin him down on his plans for next season. All he could get from him was that he would be back in IndyCar next season. Stay tuned.

However, I thought the grid run fell flat as a pancake with his wedding packet for Max Chilton who is getting married in two weeks. Unlike some of the drivers in the paddock, Chilton is not known for his wisecracking sense of humor and the items brought out one-by-one did nothing to help that. Crickets could easily be heard in the background.

Bad Nicknames: Speaking of crickets, when did Paul Tracy decide he wanted to be a standup comic as a sideline? I’ve complained before about the new nickname he has bestowed on Will Power (Slick Willy-P). While he never used that one in yesterday’s race broadcast he used it three times in the Qualifying show on Saturday. But he came up with two new ones yesterday that may be even more lame. For Graham Rahal, he blurted out something that sounded like Gee-Zees or something like that. It was hard to catch and not worth rewinding to hear it again. But his new name for Newgarden was unfortunately easy to hear, because he said it twice – Joey New-jive. Seriously? Enough, already! I think PT needs to stick to racing stories and quit trying to come up with very un-funny nicknames. Chris Berman has retired.

Someone got wise: For years I’ve complained about drivers leaving their sunglasses on while being interviewed on television. Sunday, it seemed that a memo must have gone out directing drivers to forget about their eyewear sponsorship deals and let us see their eyes in interviews. Josef Newgarden made sure to remove his twice – in the pre-race show and in victory lane. Scott Dixon, one of the worst offenders in the past, removed his just as he started talking in his post-race interview. Helio Castroneves had his off after the race, but he did wear his for his interview on Saturday after qualifying.

Great crowd: We’ve seen good crowds on cool cloudy days at the natural terrain road courses at Barber and Road America this season. But with a clear blue sky on tap and a perfect ambient temperature of 81° at the start of the race, the crowd came out in droves for Mid-Ohio. Kevin Lee remarked at what a strong walk-up crowd showed up on Sunday, even though there had been good crowds for Friday and Saturday. The camera showed viewing mounds that were crammed full of race fans. There is something about a natural terrain road course that really brings out dedicated and knowledgeable die-hard race fans. Yesterday was no exception.

What was he thinking? I’m not sure if it would have made a difference in the outcome, but Esteban Gutierrez sure took any possible intrigue out of the one re-start of the race with twenty laps to go. With his rookie driver a lap down to Newgarden and sitting between Newgarden and Power on the restart, Dale Coyne apparently told Gutierrez to try to pass Newgarden and un-lap himself. As Paul Tracy said, that’s a tall order as strong as Newgarden had been all day and as slow as Gutierrez had been.

But he followed orders and failed to get past Newgarden. In the process, he held up Will Power and Graham Rahal who were anxious to engage Newgarden before he got too far gone.

Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Gutierrez had every right to try and battle Newgarden and get his lap back. Should he have? Some think so, while others don’t. I’ve never raced, so I see it from a fan’s perspective. But that perspective says he should have given way and let the leaders go by him. Others say it’s his duty as a racer to fight and scrap and never let anyone pass. I see that point too, but in this case I side with those that say Gutierrez should have been a good sport and let the leaders pass. It turned out to be a moot point because he eventually pitted, but by then the damage had been done and Newgarden was again out of reach.

All in all: Mid-Ohio is usually a crap-shoot. I’ve seen many parades from that track over the years, while I’ve seen some races that are exciting and intriguing. Yesterday’s race bordered more on parade than spellbinding. Newgarden got past Power and Rahal got past Sato all before Lap 20. For the remaining seventy laps, there was no change in the order of the Top-Three except for pit stops cycling through. It continuously read Newgarden, Power & Rahal. That doesn’t automatically make it a boring race, but it doesn’t help.

But if you are a Josef Newgarden fan, which I am, then you got to witness quite a show yesterday. The scary thing is, I saw an article over the weekend where Newgarden says he is still getting used to the new surroundings at Team Penske and hasn’t hit his stride yet. I feel sorry for the rest of the field when he does actually hit his stride. He is the first driver this season to win three races, and he is still in his first season with Team Penske. He has already doubled his career win total this season with four races remaining. In his previous five IndyCar seasons, Newgarden had earned three career wins. This year he has three more. We are witnessing a driver that is officially coming into his own this season. It’s fun to watch it all come together from one of the really good guys in this sport.

So now we go into a three week break before the Verizon IndyCar Series hits the final stretch run of Pocono, Gateway, Watkins Glen and Sonoma. That’s two ovals and two more natural terrain road courses. Seventeen points separate first and fourth in the points. Helio Castroneves trails Newgarden by seven points, while Dixon is only one point behind Helio. Simon Pagenaud trails Newgarden by only seventeen.

At the risk of sounding overly clichéd, this championship is still anyone’s ballgame among those four. After that, you’ve got three or four drivers within striking distance but they need some luck. Will Newgarden continue his hot streak or will he cool off by the time the series gets to Pocono? Will Scott Dixon bounce back or is this just simply not Ganassi’s year? Can Helio Castroneves remain consistent over the next four races and finally win the championship that has eluded him throughout his career? Can Simon Pagenaud be opportunistic and make up those small seventeen points? Or will someone further back mount a charge similar to the one Newgarden is in the midst of, that has seen him win two races in a row?

These final four races are going to be very interesting.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Mid-Ohio”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    Along with Gutierrez, Carlos Munoz should have gotten the hell out of the way of the podium contenders also IMHO. Regarding Newgarden, it should be remembered and sometimes mentioned who gave him his start in IndyCar. It was not Penske.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      For those drivers stuck behind Guterrrez and Munoz yesterday, whatever happend to the blue flags? Rather than use the Paul Tracy approach, perhaps really annoying siren and flashing red lights would work.

      It will be great to see Bourdais back on the track at Mid-Ohio today.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    When Newgarden was glued to Power’s rear wing from the drop of the green flag, I started to wonder if he was toying with “Slick Willie P”. Sure enough, he pulled off one of the prettiest passes I’ve seen in a while shortly after that thought entered my head.

    Poor etiquette from both Gutierrez and Munoz when a lap down. Gutierrez, at least, was in position to race for his lap back (he was never going to get it back, of course, but was right there with Newgarden). I think Rahal and Pagenaud lost 5-6 seconds to Power in the 10-15 laps they were stuck behind Munoz, who was lapped by two cars and no where close to either of them at the time.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I think Josef Newgarden put on a racing school. That pass on Power was a thing of beauty, put me in mind of Mario in his prime. On Gutlerrez , I think it was ok for him to try and get his lap back for a lap or two. But after that he should have let them bye. I don’t belive anyone had anything for Newgarden.

    • I agree. Josef was the star yesterday and that pass was something! I am thrilled he is our current series leader.

      BTW George, I thought the grid run was very funny. The look of worry on Max’s face was priceless.

  4. Mark Wick Says:

    This season is a bit below usual Ganassi standards, but it is also a year following his switch to Honda from Chervrolet, So that really shouldn’t be a surprise.
    Munoz, Daly, and Gutierrez are all trying to trying to prove they should be in the series long term. They have to use every lap of every race to demonstrate that. I appreciate sportsmanship but I also appreciate the desire to show you are worthy of a job.

    • It was mentioned during F1Extra yesterday that Leigh Diffy is going to cover NASCAR for the next couple of weeks during the F1 summer break. I sure hope that means Kevin Lee will keep serving as the lead for IndyCar broadcasts.

  5. If you think Indycar drivers are bad at remembering to take off their sunglasses, my favourite driver Kimi Raikkonen deliberately keeps them on even when urged to removed them.

    As for Esteban Gutierrez, his poor etiquette for being lapped in F1 became so legendary that Daniel Ricciardo remarked (to his engineer via radio during Hockenheim last year), “I love this guy!”

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