Random Thoughts On Sonoma

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The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season is now complete and there is a brand new champion this morning. Nashville’s Josef Newgarden completed the road from a confident rookie driving for Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman in 2012, to a race winner for the first time at Barber in 2015, while driving for the CFH Racing – the result of a merger between Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher’s team; all the way to winning four races and the championship in his very first year driving for Roger Penske.

Not that any of the recent champions have been disingenuous, but Josef Newgarden brought a refreshing dose of honesty and candor to the championship. Before the race, he admitted it was tough to approach Sonoma as “just another race”. After it was over, he admitted to just how nervous he truly was. Some drivers like to portray that they aren’t affected by nerves and this was not that big a deal; but Newgarden came clean. In doing so, he also revealed just how much this meant to him.

Josef Newgarden will be a very popular champion, but just how popular is up to IndyCar. In 2012, we heard how popular Ryan Hunter-Reay was going to be as the newly crowned American IndyCar champion. It didn’t happen. I don’t know if the fault was with IndyCar or Hunter-Reay or somewhere in between – but his championship was greeted with mostly silence. I think there are more savvy people in place five years later to not let such a golden opportunity get away this time. Newgarden is marketable and extremely personable, while still coming off as very approachable and genuine. Hopefully, the powers-that-be in IndyCar will be relentless in leveraging Newgarden’s star power every chance they get this off-season.

The Race: Thank goodness that Simon Pagenaud’s team decided to do a four pit-stop strategy in yesterday’s race. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to hold our interest other than watching to see if Newgarden might make a mistake. At least with Pagenaud off-sequence, there was some bit of an unknown to hold out interest. Without that, this would have been nothing but a parade.

As it was, the last segment with Pagenaud coming out of the pits just ahead of Newgarden gave us something to look at – especially when it looked as if Newgarden was going to try and pass Pagenaud. You know Newgarden wanted to win the race outright, but he fortunately listened to the coaching from Tim Cindric who kept reminding Newgarden to not worry about Pagenaud and keep focused on the championship.

There is nothing as anti-climatic as the winner of a race when the championship is being decided by someone else. It is usually the most quickly forgotten race winner of the season. Last night, you got the idea that IndyCar officials couldn’t get Pagenaud’s celebration over with fast enough, as if it was more of an inconvenience than anything. He didn’t help his cause by burning donuts after Newgarden had already smoked his tires in celebration. But when Pagenaud attempted his celebration, he stalled the engine in a very forgettable fashion, thereby delaying his already over-shadowed celebration.

But congratulations to Simon Pagenaud on his second win of the season and for finishing second in defending his championship from last season.

TV Coverage: For the final time this season and hopefully ever, I will take up the gauntlet to have Kevin Lee as the full-time lead-announcer for IndyCar on NBCSN. Not only do I know he’d do a good job, because he’s already proven that – but he’d be there for every race, just like he has been for the past several years. I have nothing against Leigh Diffey, but he is rarely on the broadcast. With Formula One and other duties for NBC, Diffey is just not available very often. IndyCar deserves to have one voice on NBCSN. If it can’t be Leigh Diffey every time, give Kevin Lee the opportunity to be that voice. He’s earned it.

Another change I would make would be to get Jon Beekhuis in the already crowded booth somehow. He excels in the booth where he can discuss race strategy and stats. His talents are wasted as a pit-reporter. Interviews are not his strength, but I always thought he brought an added benefit when he was in the booth.

As for yesterday’s broadcast, it was another good performance from the whole crew. But I did have an issue with the way Katie Hargitt interviewed Tim Cindric after the race. She phrased a question assuming that Penske was going to have four cars next season, when all indications are that they will scale back to three. When Cindric responded that there will be a lot of changes next year, she asked “what changes?”. He grinned and said “new aero kits”. Rather than press him on the status of Helio Castroneves for next season, she let it drop there.

I’m also not a fan of in-car interviews between the booth and a driver in the car under yellow-flags. At best, they are awkward and pointless. Usually, the technology breaks down and they don’t even work at all. They fall under the category of: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The interview on the parade laps between Paul Tracy and Helio was useless.

I don’t know who to complain to about this, but there was a new commercial during yesterday’s telecast that I hope I never see again. You know what I’m talking about – the FuboTV commercials with the soccer dude wearing the man-bun, dropping his towel and talking about the biggest sports package ever. It must’ve run seven or eight times yesterday. If I never have to see it again, it will suit me just fine. I didn’t think it was possible, but that ad was worse than any commercial with the obnoxious bearded Verizon millennial guy. That says a lot.

While I’m complaining, I did think there were way too many commercials in the last ten laps of the race. But I did think that the on-air production by NBCSN was stellar overall, and they finished the season off on a high note.

Wait ‘til next year: With so much at stake, most of the field that was not in the championship hunt was ignored for much of the day. That’s a shame because there were a lot of drivers that were auditioning for next season. As far as I know, James Hinchcliffe is still a free-agent; although all indications are that he’ll return to Schmidt next season. Still, I’m sure he wasn’t happy about being punted off-course in the opening lap. He finished dead-last, thirty-three laps down. That’s not how you want to go into the off-season, when your future plans have yet to be firmed up.

Hinchcliffe was not the only one driving for a job next season. Rookie of the Year Ed Jones is without a ride for next season. With Tony Kanaan headed to Foyt next season, either Carlos Muñoz or Conor Daly will be displaced – or possibly both. JR Hildebrand’s plans for next season are murky, at best. The same can be said for Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball. It should be an interesting offseason.

The way it should be: That was how Robin Miller wrapped up his pre-race interview with Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, when describing the five contenders fighting it out on the track for one race. I took that as a not-so-subtle jab at NASCAR and their contrived “playoffs”. Quite honestly, I don’t know how the NASCAR announcers keep a straight face when referring to this part of the season that was formerly known as The Chase. Thank goodness IndyCar has nothing like this to decide their champion. Now if IndyCar would only do something about the double points at Indianapolis and the final race of the season. They are not needed.

All in all: Yesterday’s GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway was a typical yawner for that facility. That’s why I don’t like it being the last race of the season. Had it not been for the championship being decided yesterday, I may have dozed off watching the processional of cars that could not pass each other. Even with what was at stake, it was mostly boring throughout. I remembered seasons that ended at Fontana, Laguna Seca, Texas and Chicagoland and longed for a finish like those tracks produced.

But with all due respect to Simon Pagenaud, yesterday was about crowning Josef Newgarden. I look forward to Newgarden carrying the No.1 on his car throughout next season. Who knows? He may break precedent and carry the No.1 on his car in consecutive years. When was the last time that happened?

So congratulations to Tim Cindric, Roger Penske and all of Team Penske. Most importantly, congratulations to Josef Newgarden. He made Nashville proud!

George Phillips

17 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Sonoma”

  1. I voted other because I actually like the points at Indy, it helps the Indy winner to be represented well in the title chase.

    That race was a dog yesterday. My wife was bored with it, she wanted to watch the Emmys and I had to give her the TV during parts of the event. Not a great show at all.

    Looks like we have some driver changes coming up.

    As I noted the other day, I would love to see Ganassi run Kasey Kahne in several races. I think Alonso ends up in the series as well, that would be great crossover potential for the series.

  2. The large build of of marbles just made a narrow course even smaller and swiftly became one groove was my issue .

  3. Double points for INDY only

  4. Brian McKay Says:

    I will always echo a recommendation that Kevin Lee or Jon Beekhuis be in the ‘booth,’ as I don’t like the sporadically-attending Leigh Diffey mispronouncing many words and names, and Lee and Beekhuis have proven that they can do very well in the ‘booth.’

    hearty congratulations to Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Newgarden is our first champion to have begun his career post-split, and the first to have driven exclusively in the reigning DW-12, Chevy-Honda era. Congratulations to him.

    Pagenaud was laying down some killer laps to make that 4 stop strategy work, which was interesting. A caution could have spiced things up, but this track seems to lack the straightaways to facilitate much passing. Was surprised the announcers did not note late in the race that an issue for 2nd place Newgarden would have elevated Dixon into the championship lead and not 2nd in “points as they run” Pagenaud.

    And… Seven or eight times? Man, I could have sworn that sports “package” ad ran at least a couple hundred times.

  6. Congratulations to the Hendersonville Kid! (And thank you Sarah Fisher)

  7. I was very happy with Newgarden for winning the title, but that was an awful race and I was disappointed he was not allowed to use Push 2 Pass to at least try and come out ahead of Pagenaud. So many Penske drivers have lost so many championships over the years it was sort of shocking to see it all come together for Newgarden. Dixon posed no threat to either Pagenaud or Newgarden this finale.

    Overall I thought 2017 was not the best season of Indycar, but we got a great champion out of it. The two most iconic moments for Newgarden have to be passing Dixon at Barber and Pagenaud at Gateway. Both showed that he was capable of beating the last two champions on the track. What is a little scary is Newgarden won despite wrecks at a number of tracks including Indy and Watkins Glen. If he can win 4 or 5 races and have one of those be the 500, he will be in good shape for the next title.

    The Indy 500 should probably be his focus now that the championship monkey is off his back.

    • Don’t forget the pass on Power at Mid-Ohio.

      What you’re alluding to is that Josef’s championship shows that when your points system awards 25% more points for a win over a 2nd and 67% more points for a win over a 5th, it’s not enough to just try to finish 3rd-4th-5th most weeks. If a guy manages to rip off a run of 3 wins in 4 races (as Josef did this year), that guy is gonna wind up controlling his own destiny in the championship. You gotta go for wins, because that’s where the points are at.

      • Yeah I forgot that pass too. I like the Indycar points system alot because it really forces you to win. I wrote for years that the change NASCAR needed was not the CHASE or Playoffs, but just rip off Indycar’s points system. Newgarden’s win streak closed a huge gap in points.

  8. Happy for Newgarden. Nice guy, American, used to drive or Sarah, well earned. I didn’t watch the race. Flipped over occasionally. I rarely watch Sonoma unless the points leader qualifies well back. It’s always going to be a pig of a race, but it’s not going anywhere. Sponsors love to chill in wine country and, given the reality of tiny TV ratings, it’s important for IndyCar to keep those sponsors happy. I’d prefer it not be the last race of the season, though.

  9. It had been quite some time since I’d managed to watch an IndyCar race fully live (having three small kids and about a million things happening on weekends will do that to you), but with the help of timing and scoring, I thought the Josef/Pagenaud battle was a lot of fun to watch yesterday.You could see Simon really going for it with lap times consistently in the 1:19 bracket (often even at a 1:19.0), while the rest of the leaders were lapping in the mid- to high-1:20 bracket. It was disappointing, and a real miss on their part, that the NBCSN guys didn’t do more to highlight this difference, either in showing Simon being more aggressive, or just in talking about the lap time differences. I’m normally a HUGE NBCSN crew fan, but I didn’t think yesterday was their finest hour, in this regard (although they’re still a damn sight better than the ABC guys, who only seem tangentially aware that T&S even exists). When you have a race at a place like Sonoma, where the passing isn’t all that easy, then you’re gonna have to find the drama elsewhere. Sometimes, that’s on the T&S monitor, and you can use that to direct where you’re watching. For instance, I spent 5-6 laps wondering how much time Simon was gonna lose while coming back through the field after coming out in 10th after his 2nd or 3rd stop. He stalled out for 2-3 laps behind Charlie Kimball, which cost him some 3-4 seconds of going from 1:19s to 1:21s, but once by Charlie, he dropped back into the 1:19s and BLEW past Bourdais in less than a lap (merci, mon ami). We didn’t see any of that on the screen, but it would have been fun to watch that instead of watching Josef cruise around by himself.

    Anyway, I for all of these reasons, I actually really enjoyed yesterday’s race. I won’t remember the on track passing (because there wasn’t a whole lot), but I’ll definitely remember the drama of wondering which strategy was gonna play out the best. Oh, and also the delight of watching that kid from Tennessee make me look smart by declaring him a future superstar after marveling at a great come from behind drive after an early tire change at his second Lights start at Barber. Thanks, Josef. I’m looking forward to watching the kid defend his title in 2018.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I’m with you on appreciating that race. I love when multiple strategies can be in play and I love following them. It’s a bit harder to do, but more enjoyable when you can. Also glad for racers in the booth who can recognize those things and hopefully communicate those to the director of the broadcast for improvements in covering them.

  10. I still remember Josef’s rookie year at Indy, fastest almost every day in the new chassis with the banana yellow Dollar General Sarah Fisher Racing car

  11. I fine with the double points at Indy and the extra qualifying points. It’s an important race so I understand the extra points. Sonoma however does not need them. I don’t see the point. That is why I voted- other in the poll.

  12. Doug Benefiel Says:

    Voted other in your poll. I think Indy should be double points. It’s the most coveted race win in the world and should be weighted that way. I’m also okay with points for Indy qualifications. It’s treated as a separate race weekend and again deserving of points. I don’t think double points are needed in the final race. The final race of the season needs to runs on an oval. How about moving the Texas date to finish the season. Give the existing Texas date to COTA.

    Thanks for the blog, enjoyable and thought provoking reading.

  13. I am thrilled Josef won the championship. I have been a fan since his debut in 2012. Now I want to urge IndyCar to do something positive for a change and get him out there to represent the series. Here is a golden opportunity for the series. Let’s see if they take up the gauntlet.

    I don’t dislike Leigh but I thought it stunk that he came for the last two races. Kevin Lee has been stellar in the booth all season (wish Jon had more of a role too). I resented it and felt bad for Kevin. I did like that the pit reporters were stationed at the championship contenders pits for frequent updates. (BTW with Leigh here in California, I was blessed with Bob Varsha in Singapore for F1. )

    I am not ready for the post season. Hopefully next year things will be different. Football is nothing right now, so a couple more weeks at least for IndyCar would be nice. Oh well, I am preaching to the choir, aren’t I.

    Thanks George for hosting for another season!

  14. Agree re Kevin Lee. However, you cannot lay the blame for the snoozefest on the track. Basically, as soon as Pag took the lead, Newy backed off. With Power behind him, there was never going to be a race as long as the front two have a shot at the title. Just the way it goes. I was at the race, it was – as always – great fun. Sad that yet again, the IndyCar nation (not just George) is dumping on Sonoma. Maybe just get used to it because the series and its stakeholders love it. Given how hard it is to make a go of this sport, financially, the fact that Sonoma welcomes the series for its final weekend should be a good thing. Instead, it’s treated like a visit to the dentist. Come out to the race, George. You will have a blast.

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