Random Thoughts On Watkins Glen

With two races to go in the Verizon IndyCar Series season and a very tight championship battle; most people were expecting an exciting race on Sunday at Watkins Glen. They were not disappointed. It’s a shame that more people did not make the trek to western New York to see it in person (but who am I to complain as I watched it from the comfort of my den?). Ticket sales had been weak leading up to the race. Cold temperatures and threatening skies didn’t help anyone waiting until the last minute to make the decision to go. It’s too bad. Those that were there got to see a heck of a race.

NBCSN said that Alexander Rossi dominated on his way to his second career victory. I really never felt that way. Yes, he won from the pole and led the most laps; but he lost the lead on Lap Two, after everyone ditched their rain tires, when he got squirrelly and lost the lead to Helio Castroneves. He did not resume the lead until Lap 23. Rossi’s crew had an issue with the fuel hose on their first pit stop on Lap 18, which brought him in for an unscheduled stop for more fuel on Lap 24. Rossi rejoined the field in twelfth and off-sequence. You had to wonder if any hope for a win was done at that point.

But a curiously-timed spin by teammate Takuma Sato on Lap 27, brought out the yellow and Rossi was back out front where he stayed for most of the remainder of the race. Whether or not he had intentional help by Sato – Rossi had the fastest car of the weekend and deserved the win. The fact that he was able to hold off a motivated Scott Dixon in the closing stages of the race, is testament as to how far Rossi has come as a driver. Make no mistake; this win meant a lot to Alexander Rossi.

Unfortunately, Rossi’s second career win and first since his surprising win in the 2016 Indianapolis 500 will not be what will have everyone talking this week. It will be the mistake that points-leader Josef Newgarden made exiting the pits on Lap 46. Newgarden came out of the pits too hot and bumped (not brushed) the barrier with his left-front wheel. As if to add insult to injury, Sébastien Bourdais plowed into the back of Newgarden’s already injured car causing even more damage to the rear of the car than what had already been done to the front.

Newgarden had a thirty-one point lead entering Watkins Glen. He was not going to win yesterday’s race. Newgarden was already mired back in eighth place, but he was still going to have a fairly comfortable lead over Scott Dixon heading into the season finale in two weeks at Sonoma. But after the mishap, Newgarden finished eighteenth and goes to Sonoma with a miniscule three-point lead over Dixon. Followers of this series know that three points over Dixon in the season finale means nothing.

Whether you are a Newgarden fan or not, you can’t help but feel for the young Nashville native in his first year with Team Penske after yesterday’s blunder. He was in the midst of a dream season with Penske, but a silly self-inflicted mistake may have thrown away the championship hopes for not only himself, but for Team Penske as well.

As I watched him running up against the barrier leaving the pits, I couldn’t help but think of Ryan Briscoe leaving the pits in the next to the last race of the season at Motegi with the race lead and the points lead, only to lose control and end up against the wall in similar fashion. Briscoe also finished eighteenth that day. He ultimately finished third in the championship and his standing at Team Penske was forever scrutinized from that day forward.

Am I suggesting that Newgarden will suffer the same fate as Briscoe? No. Newgarden still controls his own destiny. If he wins at Sonoma, he wins the championship. But it must weigh on Newgarden that of the Top-Five in points that are all still alive for the championship – Newgarden is the only one of the five that does not have at least one win at Sonoma.

But before we get into all the what-ifs and speculation about Newgarden’s damaged hopes for winning the championship, let’s remember what should be the big story coming out of yesterday’s race – Alexander Rossi served notice that he is coming of age as a complete driver, and that winning last year’s Indianapolis 500 was not a complete fluke.

TV Coverage: The best piece of news coming out of the NBCSN broadcast is that for the first time in nearly two months, Paul Tracy did not utter his dreaded nickname for Will Power – Slick Willie P. It could be because Power was never much of a factor and did nothing to really brag about yesterday, or maybe he’s been told to drop it. Either way, I did not miss hearing it.

I cannot remember the last time that Leigh Diffey was in the booth for a Verizon IndyCar Series race, but his return yesterday felt awkward – especially considering that his more than adequate replacement for most of the summer, Kevin Lee, started the broadcast up in the booth in a suit as Diffey was en route from the Formula One broadcast booth. Once Diffey got there, we next saw Lee in a firesuit reporting from the pits and sending Anders Krohn to the sidelines.

I’ve said it many times this season and I’ll continue to say it until something is done about it. IndyCar fans deserve a constant voice from the booth. In the old CART days (pre-split), Paul Page was on every broadcast. On ESPN, he was paired with Derek Daly, while on ABC he was with Bobby Unser and Sam Posey. But you immediately knew when you heard Paul Page on a telecast, you were tuned in to a CART race.

This season, I believe we’ve had Diffey, Lee, Rick Allen and Brian Till all doing IndyCar races for NBCSN; not to mention Allen Bestwick on ABC. Regardless how the TV contract ends up for 2019, NBCSN will still be broadcasting IndyCar races next season – possibly beyond. They need to settle on one voice, no matter who it is.

Personally, I think it should be Kevin Lee. He has done the bulk of the races for NBCSN this season and has done a good job. I couldn’t help but feel like he was snubbed yesterday when Diffey flew in and banished Lee back to the pits. I’m hopeful that Kevin Lee will become NBC’s voice of the Verizon IndyCar Series starting next season.

The Great Equalizer: Most weather forecasts made it a certainty that all of yesterday’s race was to be run in a cold downpour. That was to be the great equalizer, where the usual Penske cars and Dixon wouldn’t be found up front as has been the case for most of the second half of the season.

As it turned out, only the first lap was run with rain tires. With rain during the warm-up and prior to the race, a wet start was declared and all cars were to start on rain tires. The thing about rain tires is that they are just that – made to run in the rain. The treaded tires cannot last long at all on even semi-dry pavement and will overheat very quickly. As soon as the race started, drivers couldn’t shed the treaded rain tires quick enough. While the radar looked iffy throughout the race, there was no rain throughout the race whatsoever. So much for the great equalizer.

Honda Rebound: After getting embarrassed at Gateway last week, Honda rebounded nicely at Watkins Glen. They won the pole and the race with Alexander Rossi, adding to the enthusiasm of Andretti Autosport staying with Honda and Rossi staying with Andretti. But Honda also swept the podium with Scott Dixon finishing second and Ryan Hunter-Reay finishing third. Honda also had four of the Top-Five, with Helio Castroneves being the only Chevy in the Top-Five by finishing fourth. This was Honda’s seventh win of the season, compared with Chevrolet’s nine wins.

Foyt Momentum: Last weekend at Gateway, the two drivers for AJ Foyt Enterprises had their best race of the season with Conor Daly finishing fifth and threatening Helio Castroneves for fourth late in the race; while Carlos Muñoz finished ninth. Skeptics said they were just enjoying the tremendous advantage that the Chevy engine and aero kit had at Gateway.

Fast-forward to yesterday at Watkins Glen, where Honda enjoyed the distinct advantage. Muñoz earned a tenth-place finish while Conor Daly was right behind them in eleventh. These aren’t Penske-like results, but for the second race in a row we are starting to see an upward trend at the Foyt team, which has had a very rough year. Perhaps they are finally getting a handle on their swap from Honda to Chevy over the offseason.

The problems at Foyt do not lie with the drivers. They need engineering in the worst way. I’m hoping that Larry and AJ Foyt realize this and will not make any driver changes in the coming offseason.

Out of Control: At the beginning of the telecast, NBCSN showed highlights of last year’s race at Watkins Glen. There were two major shunts of the race. The first saw Graham Rahal getting punted exiting Turn One, while the other was Will Power getting sent into the outside wall of Turn Four. The common denominator in both of these incidents was Charlie Kimball. He initiated both incidents sending his competitors into the wall and out of the race, while Kimball ended up with a sixth-place finish.

Then in yesterday’s race, Kimball was at it again. He tangled early with Ryan Hunter-Reay but neither driver suffered any discernable damage. The around Lap 30, Kimball had a close brush with Newgarden and fell all the way to seventeenth. Shortly thereafter, Kimball was battling with teammate Tony Kanaan and went out of control, slapping against the wall on the main straightaway. Then on Lap 45, Kimball also sustained a penalty for hitting pit-equipment belonging to another team.

I think if you were to go around the paddock and ask each driver which of the veteran drivers they least like to race against, it would be Charlie Kimball. He is wrapping up his seventh full season in the Verizon IndyCar Series and has one win (Mid-Ohio in 2013) and only six podiums. If you have cultivated the reputation of being that reckless and unpredictable to the point that drivers are afraid of you – you should be putting up better results than that.

Kudos to Hinch and Rahal: The situation in Houston was not far from many people’s minds this past weekend at Watkins Glen. The Foyt team was selling T-shirts to benefit flood victims in AJ’s home town and many drivers were carrying decals supporting the Foyt team efforts.

Drivers James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal went one step beyond that. They pledged all of their earnings from yesterday’s race to help flood victims. Unfortunately, Hinch’s check will not be that big since he finished last yesterday, going out early with gearbox problems. But Graham Rahal finished fifth. IndyCar purses are embarrassingly low, but good for both drivers for agreeing to give up whatever they won for a very worthy cause.

All in all: With all that was at stake regarding the points chase, Watkins Glen was very important to a lot of drivers. With Newgarden’s blunder, it sets up a very intriguing race at Sonoma in two weeks. In that time, there will be a lot of mentions of double-points being awarded at Sonoma. The double points are again unnecessary. There would still be four drivers in the running for the championship. Plan on hearing more here and from others on the gimmicky double-points in the next couple of weeks.

But yesterday’s race was not all about the championship. It was about Alexander Rossi and the second half of the season that he has put together. This win makes three times in the last six races that Rossi has been on the podium. With Andretti sticking with Honda and Rossi for the next two seasons, I don’t think this is the last time we are going to be seeing Rossi in an IndyCar victory lane. In fact, we would be wise to get used to the sight.

George Phillips

16 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Watkins Glen”

  1. Absolutely agree about Kevin Lee. Would love to see him as full time announcer next year. I like Leigh but he is way too busy. We need someone for every race and no one can do better than Kevin. Sure hope it is his job next year!

  2. You know of course that I am totally biased, but I’d love to see Kevin Lee full time next year with Townsend Bell and Jon Beekhuis in the booth!

  3. Kevin Lee has carried the water and would be a excellent choice for the Voice of Indycar

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Sounded like Robin Miller couldn’t remember the last time Diffey called an Indycar race either, throwing it back to “Kevin, uhhh… Leigh” on a couple occasions.

    Big kudos to the drivers who donated their winnings to the relief efforts in Texas, a cause very close to home for me (figuratively and literally). No matter how big or small the checks, the gesture is most appreciated.

  5. Don’t forget Foyt Racing set up a fund to help those in Houston too…

  6. “Track owner ISC is not normally fond of opening up a track for nobody.” well, that’s who showed up this time. even as we
    criticize TV, those contracts have provided financial stability.

  7. Anyone know why Castroneves didn’t get a penalty for crossing the line leaving the pits? It got overshadowed by the Newgarden wreck but it sounded like the announcers had thought he should’ve had a penalty initially.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Helio moved back inside the line before reaching the official pit exit where the line ended. This negated any advantage he might have gained from entering the track across the line and allowed him to avoid penalty. He did well to correct his mistake.

  8. Brian McKay Says:

    In past two races, Muñoz ninth place and then tenth, and Daly fifth place and then eleventh … is not an upward trend.

    “m hopeful that Kevin Lee will become NBC’s voice of the Verizon IndyCar Series starting next season.’

  9. James Roney Says:

    The Sato spin left a weird taste in my mouth. I doubt it was on purpose, although it sure was convenient for Rossi. I wondered why Indycar can’t throw a local yellow there for the 5-10 seconds Sato was stopped on track and then keep going (why Indy can’t throw more local yellows anyway, especially on long tracks like Watkins Glen… Not that cautions din’t add intrigue and give us the awesomeness of 15-20 cars in the pits at once, but the “luckiness” of reduced speed laps and a bunched field for oftentimes minimal incidents…)

    Also, as far as leaving the Glen with a smile, NAPA, who re-upped with Andretti and was rewarded immediately with a win. That’s how to please/keep a sponsor!

  10. I enjoyed the race this weekend, it was different for sure. The points confuse me, Sato has rode that Indy win to a top-10 in points and not doing much else. I had honestly hoped (once he got out ok) that the Indy wreck would doom Dixon’s points effort and it should have, but here he is, probably winning a title again with 1 win and a bunch of 2-4th place efforts. I hate it but Penske has done this for years, win a bunch of races and choke the title away to Ganassi.

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