Random Thoughts on Iowa

There seems to be a trend developing this season in the NTT IndyCar Series. When a team hits upon the right setup, that team’s driver is able to check out and dominate a given race. Takuma Sato totally dominated at Barber. Alexander Rossi followed suit at Long Beach and Road America, as did Simon Pagenaud at the Indianapolis 500 and last weekend in Toronto. Saturday night, it was Josef Newgarden’s turn as he put on a clinic for his second IndyCar win at Iowa Speedway and his fourth win of the season.

The box score will show that Newgarden only won by 2.8527 seconds over Scott Dixon, but make no mistake – this was as much as a beatdown on the field as Rossi’s twenty-eight second margin at Road America last month. It came close to matching Newgarden’s 2016 performance at Iowa when he won by over four seconds and led 282 of the 300 laps. Saturday night, Newgarden led only 245 laps. Will Power passed pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud on the opening lap and led until Lap 49. But when Newgarden passed Power on Lap 49, the only person that got in Newgarden’s way was the weatherman.

The green flag was originally supposed to fly at 6:10 pm local time on Saturday night, which is actually late afternoon at this time of year in Iowa. But as most know, a major weather system went through shortly after NBCSN went on the air at 5:30 pm. To say they lost the track is a serious understatement. At a time when the sun would have been blinding to drivers coming off of Turn Three, the sky looked like it was midnight. Sideways rain, lightning and high winds at 6:15 pm made it obvious it was going to be a long night. It was.

After the storm subsided and the track began to dry, weepers in Turn Four were the culprit that prevented the race from getting underway sooner. The command to start engines finally came around 10:45 pm local time. Shortly after Newgarden took the lead on Lap 49, the yellow came out for sprinkles. That evolved into a red-flag period of about a half-hour, but the drivers never got out of their cars. When the engines were re-fired, they circled the track for about six laps (or more) before the green flag finally flew.

Newgarden picked up where he left off and only relinquished the lead during pit stop shuffles.

Like the other aforementioned dominating victories of the 2019 season, this race had a lot of action going on behind the leader. Several cars were set up for hot and late-afternoon conditions, but ended up running in much cooler weather than expected. That probably explained why pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud was no more of a factor than he was. Although he finished fourth, he never threatened Newgarden. Scott Dixon was another one who appeared to be in trouble from the moment the race started. But a key call from Mike Hull brought him in for fresh tires with about thirty laps to go, and he somehow ended up with a second-place finish.

Alexander Rossi was another who was never a factor. His sixth-place finish was probably about as good as he could hope for, with the car he had. I don’t think he went into the weekend with high expectations. It equaled his career-best finish at Iowa, which came his rookie season in 2016.

But some drivers were beneficiaries of the cooler conditions. Both of the Ed Carpenter Racing cars of Ed Carpenter and Spencer Pigot, made huge moves early on. Had it not been for Carpenter’s crash on Lap 264, they both could have ended up in the Top-Five, after starting seventeenth and nineteenth respectively. Still, Spencer Pigot finished fifth on Saturday night after finishing second at Iowa a year ago.

James Hinchcliffe had another good run. With two wins at Iowa already under his belt, the defending race champion was near the front of the field all night and finished third, giving him his first podium of the season.

On the surface, this race seemed like a Team Penske blowout. Simon Pagenaud won the pole, while Will Power started on the front-row and led until Lap 49, before yielding the lead to Josef Newgarden who essentially led the rest of the way. But don’t get too caught up in the score sheet. There was a ton of action going on behind the Penske cars.

But, congratulations to Team Penske! They came prepared, with a one-two-three performance in qualifying. Then they adjusted accordingly to the drastically changed conditions for the race. Their only real blemish was when Will Power misjudged his pit-entry on his last pit-stop. Not only did that mistake cost him time on the track, he was also issued a stop-&-go penalty for an improper pit entry. He was running second for most of the night, but the mistake and subsequent penalty relegated him to a fifteenth-place finishing position.

TV Coverage: I don’t know who made the call early on the broadcast to switch to the IMSA race at Lime Rock, but it was the right thing to do. With the shots we saw of the treacherous conditions at Iowa, it was obvious early on that it would be a matter of hours before there would be any IndyCar racing. Rather than giving viewers meaningless filler-time as they waited for the rain to stop, NBCSN made the quick decision to go to the pre-recorded IMSA race, run earlier in the day and was scheduled to air after the IndyCar race. They essentially just swapped the air times. Of course, if I was an IMSA fan that didn’t follow IndyCar and I had set my DVR to record Lime Rock later in the evening – I might be a little perturbed. But from an IndyCar fan perspective, it was definitely the right call.

With Townsend Bell racing at Lime Rock this weekend, AJ Allmendinger was brought in to join Leigh Diffey and Paul Tracy in the booth. If I’m being honest, while I was watching the replays of practice and qualifying on NBC Sports Gold on Friday night, I was not too impressed. Allmendinger seemed nervous and didn’t offer much in the way of insight. I don’t know if it was getting Friday out of the way, the delayed starting time or what, but on Saturday night – he seemed just fine.

And I thought Diffey and Tracy did an excellent job in the race, although in the final practice on NBC Sports Gold, Diffey asked Tracy a question relating to something Allmendinger had said. Tracy’s response after an awkward pause was (paraphrasing) “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening. I was reading something in the rule book”. I realize the Gold broadcasts are a little less formal, but come on PT!

One eye-opening segment they had at the very beginning of the pre-race as the storm was about to release its fury, was the comparison of an Indy car in one screen and an Xfinity Series car in the other. Both cars crossed the line at the same time, but the Indy car came back around five seconds quicker than the Xfinity car. They pointed out that the Indy car would be lapping the Xfinity car every three to four laps. I found that very interesting, even though people don’t like to compare relative speeds.

It was good to have Kevin Lee back on the broadcast after he skipped Toronto. Lee, Robin Miller and Dillon Welch were the three pit reporters. Robin Miller certainly has his own unique style that will never be cloned, but I continue to be very impressed with the young Dillon Welch.

It’s unfortunate that the winning pass on Lap 49 came during a commercial break, but at least it was on side-by-side. And at least twice during commercials, the track went yellow – once for rain and another for an incident involving Takuma Sato and Sage Karam. That’s just the luck of the draw. It’s not like they were away for local commercials during predictable pit windows.

But given the late hour and the thirty-minute red-flag period, I thought NBCSN did an outstanding job on Saturday night.

Herta Sponsor: I noticed this weekend that Colton Herta’s Harding Steinbrenner car was carrying the same livery it had for most of the season, but his sidepods were solid white and blank. The omission of the GESS International logo was very noticeable. Maybe I missed something, but why were Herta’s sidepods blank? Someone suggested because it was because this race was in ethanol country. Since the event no longer has the sponsorship of the Iowa Corn Farmers, I seriously doubt that that was the case. If someone can enlighten me, please do.

Bright spot for Kanaan: After an abysmal stretch of races for AJ Foyt Enterprises, it was good to see Tony Kanaan finally have a decent race. You know how far Kanaan’s expectations have fallen when he is happy after a tenth place finish, but that’s where things are.

Tony Kanaan has led over five-hundred laps at Iowa Speedway, winning once and scoring four more podiums. He hasn’t forgotten how to drive a race car. But in this current role of trying to jumpstart AJ Foyt’s struggling team – it’s sometimes hard to watch this great driver having to settle for being happy with a tenth-place finish.

To his credit, Kanaan seems to be happy in this role. He has accomplished a lot behind the scenes by demanding (and getting) better pit stops among other things that are a given at most teams. But he has his work cut out for him.

It’s tough to see your heroes on bad teams late in their careers. The only thing that looked worse to me than Joe Namath in a Rams uniform, was seeing Johnny Unitas finishing out his great career as a San Diego Charger. But watching the former IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion languishing in the back of the field each race is painful to watch, especially when I know he can still get the job done. So it was good to see TK get a Top-Ten finish on Saturday night.

Was it luck or skill? It’s odd how two people I know (who will go nameless), both of whom have high racing IQs, can see something totally differently. On Sunday morning, I got texts from two people, about an hour apart, giving me their opinions of the race. One said that he thought it was a fantastic race, but the fact that Scott Dixon magically finished second because of a yellow flag kind of ruined the integrity of the race for him. About an hour later, someone else texted me how Dixon had the drive of the night thanks to Mike Hull’s call for tires after Carpenter’s crash.

Who is right?

Personally I kind of side with the second text, but I can see the point of the first. Sometimes the racing gods have a say in things that transcend the way things are going in any given race. Racing history is made up of countless ifs, buts, shouldas, wouldas and couldas that sometimes defy logic. Had it not been for fate, Mario and Michael Andretti would have had multiple Indianapolis 500 wins and AJ Foyt may have none. That’s just the way things work out sometimes.

It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way it goes. But in my opinion it makes racing a lot more interesting when you factor in the unpredictable. Otherwise, there would be no need to race – just score everyone by how they qualify.

Scott Dixon was out to lunch all day. He spent a good portion of the night one lap down, and if memory serves me correctly – he was down two laps at one point. But if you want to put an asterisk beside Dixon’s second-place finish on Saturday night, you are penalizing any struggling team who resorts to strategy in order to counter-balance their lack of pure speed. Does that cheapen an improved result? I don’t think so.

Rookie Sensation: Coming into the season, there were several rookies that had people talking. Colton Herta had turned heads for a couple of years in Indy Lights and certainly got everyone’s attention by winning in only his third-ever IndyCar race at COTA as an eighteen year-old, back in March. Patricio O’Ward was the reigning Indy Lights champion, and raised eyebrows in his IndyCar debut last fall at Sonoma. Marcus Ericsson had five years of Formula One experience and had tested well with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. His Swedish countryman, Felix Rosenqvist, had no F1 experience but spent more than a decade in practically every junior formula in Europe. He came off as a natural when he tested for Ganassi, who pursued him over the course of two seasons.

Oh, by the way – there was also Santino Ferrucci, a young kid from Connecticut who had found trouble when he tangled with his teammate on and off the track in Formula 2. He had brought money to Dale Coyne’s second car in an effort to salvage what was left of his career. Most thought Ferrucci would tear up more equipment at Coyne than his sponsor’s check would cover.

With five races remaining, Santino Ferrucci is leading in the Rookie of the Year standings. He has completed all but two laps in the entire season, leading all drivers (not just rookies) in that category. Saturday night, they were saying that Ferrucci has passed more cars than any other driver this season. To say he has been a pleasant surprise, would be an understatement.

Had I been sitting in the stands at Iowa on Saturday night, I would have considered the show that Ferrucci put on to be well worth the price of admission. At the start and on one restart, Ferrucci must have passed a total of fifteen cars – both times on the outside. Typical for a rookie, Ferrucci seems to have no fear. Atypical for a rookie, he has been successful pulling off almost all of the bold moves he has made.

But he is a rookie and he made a key rookie mistake on Saturday night. Late in the race, Ferrucci was running in the Top-Five and was poised for a possible podium finish. But he found out late in the race that those bold moves and hard-fought battles come at a price. He mismanaged his tires. At the end of the stint, his tires were gone and he was lucky to hold on to a twelfth-place finish and one lap down. Something tells me that the twenty-one year-old will learn from that mistake.

Drive of the Night: There are many drivers to choose from for this honor. Scott Dixon started eighth and immediately fell back several spots at the start, but pit and tire strategy found him sitting in second at the end. Zach Veach had a fuel leak that required repairs just before the start of the race. He started twentieth and battled all through the night to finish seventh and on the lead lap. A similar feat was accomplished by Sébastien Bourdais, who started twenty-first and finished ninth.

But my drive of the night goes to Spencer Pigot, who started nineteenth and finished fifth. His boss and teammate, Ed Carpenter, may have been in line for this title, but you can’t win drive of the night when your car ends up on the hook.

Championship Battle: Not only did Josef Newgarden win in a decisive manner, but he added a big cushion between himself and his pursuers in the championship. Going into the weekend, Alexander Rossi had been steadily cutting into Newgarden’s lead until it was down to a mere four points. Simon Pagenaud stormed back into contention a week earlier at Toronto. By winning the pole, Pagenaud was only thirty-eight points out of the championship lead with six races to go.

But Newgarden won and Pagenaud and Rossi had mediocre nights. Scott Dixon is fourth in points and finished second, but still lost ground to Newgarden and sits ninety-eight points out. Pagenaud lost twenty points to Newgarden and is now fifty-eight points behind. Rossi went from four points back to twenty-nine back – losing twenty-five points to Newgarden on Saturday night. The tight battle just loosened up quite a bit in Newgarden’s favor.

All in all: Was Saturday night’s Iowa 300 worth staying up for? I thought so. The race should have been over by 8:30 Saturday night. Instead, it didn’t even start until 10:45, had another rain delay after fifty-one laps and finally ended around 1:15 am CDT. While Newgarden went pretty well unchallenged throughout the night, there was always a lot going on behind him.

I was fairly certain that Josef Newgarden would win the race, even before it was half over – but I had no clue where anyone else would end up. That and all of the action, which was mostly clean, made this race very entertaining and worth staying up for.

So now it’s off to Mid-Ohio, a track where all four of the drivers remaining in the championship have won. Alexander Rossi won last year in another dominating performance. Josef Newgarden won the year before – the same year he won the championship, and Simon Pagenaud won there in 2016 – the same year he won the championship. And Scott Dixon? All Scott Dixon has done at Mid-Ohio is win five times. Oddly enough, none of Dixon’s Mid-Ohio wins led to a championship. It should be interesting.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Iowa”

  1. I like the Dinger but not really a fan when he’s in the booth. He learned from NASCAR, when Diffey/Bell/Tracy are calling a race you get the impression they’re trying to tell you about something awesome, every time AJ was talking I felt like he was trying to sell me something.

    I read on the Twitter that GESS apparently forgot to come up with the money they had promised in exchange for having their logos on Herta’s car, so they are gone as a sponsor due to failure to pay.

    Iowa was entertaining, really hard to pick a favorite for the title at this point.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I think much of that was simply Allmendinger being new to IndyCar broadcasts. New color commentators often fall into stating the obvious until they get comfortable, and AJ certainly did that. Like George, I thought he got better as the weekend went on. I also rather liked the fact that he is a very different personality and had a different racing style than PT (win or wreck) or Bell (wreck, and take Jimmy Vasser with you). If he continues to do it, he’ll likely continue to improve. Of course, I might not be completely objective, since I have a closet full of Allmendinger t-shirts…

      • Yes, he certainly got better as the weekend went on and the NASCAR-style diminished a bit by race time. It’s more the tone I was referring to with the “trying to sell me something” analogy, like he was always trying to make things sound a little more exciting than they actually were. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the Dinger and at first I was excited he was going to be on the IMSA broadcasts but unfortunately that team excels in talking about everything except the on-track action and his NASCAR commentary training is a perfect fit there.

  2. I voted for Bourdais. he was just as lost, if not more so, than Dixon at the start. he started 21st but caught fire after the last pit stop. It was fun watching slice throught the field to the top 10.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Newgarden was masterful in traffic, which is how you dominate on an oval this short. Traffic would allow Power and Dixon to reel him in from time-to-time, but they never handled the cars Josef was lapping as well as he did and subsequently fell back again.

    Rahal apparently ran the last 100 laps with a cracked header. That’s pretty remarkable.

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    Insight from Robin Miller posted on Racer.com website today.

    Miller: 4:30am Thoughts From Iowa Tarmac.

    “Brad Sweet won $175,000 for 40 laps in a sprint car at the King’s Royale (at Eldora Speedway) on the same night that Newgarden earned $35,000 for 300 laps at Iowa.

    Think about that.”

    Or How to attract new teams to INDY CAR race …….

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Incomprehensible and disgusting! Thank you for posting Robin Miller’s thoughts Bruce.

    • That’s leaving a little bit of the details out and not an apples to apples comparison. But the point rings true, the purses for IndyCar races are paltry and the whole Leaders Circle system, while unfortunately necessary, is really unfortunate. When you know this it’s not hard to understand why manufacturers and new teams aren’t banging down the door.

    • billytheskink Says:

      How much of Sweet’s $175,000 goes into car owner Kasey Kahne’s pocket?

      Who got to keep a greater share of their 2nd place $20,000, Scott Dixon or Logan Schuchart?

      Was Justin Peck’s team owner happier to receive $3,150 for his 22nd place King’s Royal entry than Trevor Carlin was to receive $60,000-$70,000 for his team’s 22nd place Iowa entry?

      Did Ray Harroun and Cyrus Patschke keep all of the $10,000 they won at the Indy 500 in 1911?

      Is anyone concerned that Sweet earned much much more for winning the King’s Royal than the winners of this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans won… and more than any Formula 1 driver has won in prize money in many many years?

      Banging the drum for increasing purses is admirable, but I really wish Miller was not so terribly disingenuous about it.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        I suppose Robin could have chosen to be ingenuous and asked all the questions you have asked here without giving the answers, but I doubt if he had the time at the time he wrote what he did, and if he had, what purpose would it have served? As for me, I could not care less what percentage of prize money Formula 1 drivers get to keep. I do care about how much prize money Brad Sweet gets to keep. He is a sweet open wheel race car driver.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        How about asking Robin to write a story asking all the excellent questions you have posed here along with the answers?

  5. I was more than a little disappointed that what I “taped” Saturday night was IMSA. Gold rescued me today. I was happy for Hinch’s first podium of the season.

  6. While Road America has their famous brats and Indy has George’s favorite, the giant tenderloin, it is hard to top the pork chops on a stick that you can get at the Iowa track. They were a favorite of Simona DeSilvestro when she raced there.

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