Texas Preview

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For the second time in less than three months, the NTT IndyCar Series heads to the Lone Star State. The first was for the lengthy road course in Austin at the impressive Circuit of the Americas (COTA), won by rookie Colton Herta. Now the series returns for the high-banked 1.5-mile oval Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) in Fort Worth.

There was a two-hour practice scheduled for last night that started at 7:00 CDT. There was a brief interruption for rain, about thirty minutes in, but practice resumed shortly. But at 7:50, the bottom dropped out – complete with hail – effectively ending practice for the night. IndyCar waited it out for a little while before cancelling practice for the remainder of the night. For the record, Scott Dixon led the abbreviated practice session with a speed of 219.308 mph. Takuma Sato was second at 219.262 mph and Graham Rahal was third at 218.311 mph. What do these speeds mean? Absolutely nothing.

Although the venue and event has been criticized by some (including a few readers of this site), it is a race that I always look forward to. Road courses are great and I’m learning to appreciate the temporary street circuits for what they have to offer, but I still prefer the excitement of Indy cars on oval tracks. I always have and I always will.

Critics like to point to some of the horrific crashes that have occurred there over the past twenty-nine IndyCar events held at Texas. There have actually been thirty IndyCar races at TMS, but that involved the silly twin race format in one night, back in 2011. I still call that one event. The crashes involving Davey Hamilton in 2001 and Kenny Brãck in 2003 come to mind. Both drivers would eventually race again, but they were both effectively career-ending crashes.

But as longtime reader and commenter “Billytheskink” pointed out on Monday, Texas is rarely a crash-fest. He mentioned that only twice has more than a quarter of the IndyCar field been crashed out and only three times has there been more than one multiple crash in an IndyCar race at Texas. What’s more, the Texas IndyCar race has averaged only three wrecked cars per race. Neither race in the double-header at Belle Isle last weekend could make that claim.

Am I saying that Texas is completely safe? Absolutely not. If you want a completely safe event, you don’t need to be an IndyCar fan. Televised Poker may be more what you’re looking for. But my point is that Texas has received a bad rap over the years, mostly based on what could happen instead of what has happened.

Some will point to the frightening crash between Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly in 2016, when Newgarden’s car went sideways on the main straightaway and slammed into the wall cockpit-first. I would submit that a crash like that can happen on any long high-speed straightaway in racing, whether it be at Texas, Indianapolis, Toronto or Road America. When cars collide at a high rate of speed, bad things can happen and not just on ovals.

Still, it’s not just fans and journalists that don’t like the high-speed ovals. Just this week, Max Chilton announced he will no longer run on the ovals – at least for the remainder of this season. Conor Daly will be taking his place this weekend at Texas in the Gallagher sponsored No.59 car. That is a personal decision that any driver has to make. I think David Malsher of Motorsport.com said it best this past Tuesday by stating “…It’s his life, his decision. If the will to win doesn’t outweigh the trepidation, then he’s done the right thing for Carlin, his sponsors and his family.”

If you listened to Trackside this past Tuesday night, you heard an even better explanation why this is the right decision for Chilton. He doesn’t do this for income or to earn a living. Max Chilton comes from a very wealthy family and does not need to work another day in his life in order to still lead an extravagant lifestyle. He has a beautiful wife and a great life. He races strictly for the joy he gets out of it. If he gets no joy out of oval racing and doesn’t need to do it – then why do it? Someone else who enjoys oval racing (like a Conor Day) is going to get better results out of the car. While some have criticized Chilton’s decision, I applaud it. It goes back to the old Clint Eastwood line – a man needs to know his limitations.

But getting back to Texas, others have criticized IndyCar at TMS because of the pack racing that has occurred there in the past. Granted, there was pack racing at Texas in the 2000s. Twenty-four cars would whiz around the track in rows of two at speeds well over two-hundred miles an hour. One slip by anyone up front, could lead to disastrous consequences.

But there is a difference between pack racing and close racing. Some of the recent races at Texas have been a little more-lively than some would like and they were mislabeled pack races. The difference is that while there were close battles for the lead in recent races when cars had room to maneuver, the field was strung out around the track where if there was contact between cars – it didn’t have the potential to take out most of the field.

Pack racing is what occurred on that fateful day at Las Vegas in 2011. There was trouble in the front half of the field and almost all of the cars behind the incident ended up being destroyed – ultimately leading to Dan Wheldon being fatally injured. But make no mistake, close racing does not mean pack racing.

The points battle will be interesting to watch this weekend. Points leader Josef Newgarden has had mixed results at Texas. He won the pole in last year’s race, but finished thirteenth. In seven starts at Texas, Newgarden’s best finish is eighth, which came in 2013 – his second year in the series. His average Texas finish is 14.42. So if Newgarden wants to hold onto his current fifteen point lead over Alexander Rossi, he will need to do better than usual at Texas.

Rossi has three previous TMS starts, which also add up to a mixed bag. His rookie year of 2016, Rossi looked like a fish out of water on the high-banked oval at Texas during practice. But that was the year that the race had to resume two months later. By that time, Rossi had gotten a better feel for the car and he managed an eleventh place finish. In 2017, Rossi crashed out on lap 36 and finished dead-last. But last year, Rossi finished third.

Of those in the Top-Three in points, Simon Pagenaud has the best resume from Texas. Although he has never won and has no poles in seven starts at Texas, Pagenaud has two Top-Five starts and three Top-Five finishes. Most importantly, Pagenaud was running at the finish in all seven races at TMS. His worst-ever finish at Texas was thirteenth in 2013, while driving for Sam Schmidt. His worst finish while driving for Roger Penske was eleventh in 2015 – his first with The Captain.

I’ll be curious to see how Conor Daly does in the Carlin car in place of Max Chilton. As far as I know, he has had little notice to get acquainted with the team that is still struggling to find its way. I’m not expecting much from this sudden pairing, but if Daly has a good showing in this car – he will have improved his prospects for a full-time ride somewhere for 2020.

This weekend’s schedule is slightly different than normal. After last night’s abbreviated practice, which were to be under similar conditions as the race, before the deluge hit – there will be a second practice session, in a revised schedule this afternoon from 1:30 until 3:00 CDT on NBC Sports Gold. Then qualifying will be broadcast at 5:30 late this afternoon on NBCSN. Then the race broadcast will start on Saturday night at 7:00 CDT on NBCSN with the green flag waving at 7:40 CDT. Last nigh’t monsoon notwithstanding, the weather forecast throughout the weekend looks very good, with highs in the low nineties and lows in the lower seventies.

So who do I think will win the DXC Technology 600 on Saturday night? I think Josef Newgarden will struggle and leave Texas with another disappointing evening. I think Alexander Rossi will have a strong evening and collect a lot of points. But Simon Pagenaud is motivated after a lackluster weekend in Detroit. He wants to show that his sweep of the Month of May was not just a fluke. Simon Pagenaud will take his DXC Technology sponsored car to victory lane for the DXC Technology 600. Stay tuned.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Texas Preview”

  1. Scott Dixon looked really strong in practice only driving a few laps and putting 219 on the board. I think he’s got a strong chance of gaining more ground lossed at Detroit. Let’s get more drivers into the championship picture!

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Ah, perhaps my favorite weekend of the year! I’ve got my t-shirts neatly folded, a fresh bottle of sunscreen, a cooler full of water and RC Cola, and disposition sunnier than the day at the track will be.

    I’ll be heading out in a few hours for all of today’s track activity. Here’s to a fun and safe race. Go Rahal and go Brennan Poole!

  3. Tony Dinelli Says:

    Leaving Tulsa at 3 today to head down. It’s always an early Christmas when I get to go to IndyCar at TMS!

  4. Thanks George. I’m kinda tired of the whining about ovals being too dangerous. You nailed this one.

    • Side note: Davey’s crash didn’t totally end his career, he comtinues to race supermodifieds and has been in contention to win the Oswego Speedway International Classic 200 several times since.

  5. Britindycarfan26 Says:

    It wasn’t the speed or even the pack racing at Las Vegas that killed Dan Weldon (although it increases the odds off it happening granted) … it was to quote Jeremy Clarkson the sudden stop that kills you! In Dans case it was going head first into a guardrail and the cheese grater effect of the metal fence above the safer barriers… the same thing COULD of happened with only 2/3 cars because nothing else would be different … street courses can be just as dangerous at the same speed but in Dario’s case it was a bit off track at half the oval speed so hence only a 4th of the forces hence he is alive today road courses tend to have higher speeds but even if it’s the end of a long straight getting close to oval speeds they almost always have a few yards of run off which can make the difference between life and death crashes … my point is people should stop hating on oval racing and instead hate on the heights of safer barriers on ovals instead … if nothing else tony George and the invention of safer barriers have saved countless lives on road/f1 courses … and yet nobody outside of Switzerland post Le Mans 1955 crash have banned road racing!

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