Random Thoughts on Mid-Ohio

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There are a lot of old sayings in racing that may sound trite, but carry a lot of truth behind them. To finish first, you must first finish is attributed to the great Rick Mears. You can’t win a race in the first turn, but you can certainly lose it there is an old favorite. Darrell Waltrip didn’t come up with catching him is one thing, passing him is another but he sure did like to use it a lot. Well, I’m adding one more to the list…Never count out Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio.

Scott Dixon won his sixth IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course yesterday. That puts him in rarefied air among the legendary IndyCar drivers. Only Al Unser, Jr. (six wins at Long Beach) and Michael Andretti (Seven wins at Toronto) have as many or more IndyCar wins on one track than Dixon’s six wins at Mid-Ohio. Even the great AJ Foyt never won more than five times at any one track, although Foyt did it at multiple tracks.

But don’t think for a minute that Dixon cruised to this win. He had to fight until the bitter end – with his own teammate no less.

I’ve been watching IndyCar races at Mid-Ohio for a long time. Some have been more interesting than others, but in all those years, I’ve never seen a last lap there like we saw yesterday. Not only was Dixon’s teammate, Felix Rosenqvist, almost successfully pull the win away from the far more experienced Dixon – but the championship took a major turn on the last lap when points leader Josef Newgarden made a very aggressive move on Ryan Hunter-Reay in the keyhole exiting Turn Three. Newgarden ended up in the runoff area, helplessly watching the rest of the field pass him by.

Had Newgarden been content to stay in fourth place, two spots ahead of Alexander Rossi, he would have extended his points lead over Rossi to thirty-four points. Instead, Rossi finished fifth and Newgarden wound up finishing fourteenth, only sixteen points behind Newgarden.

Rossi was not the only one to benefit from Newgarden’s mistake. Scott Dixon was ninety-eight points behind Newgarden entering the weekend. He is now only sixty-two points out of first place with four races to go. Dixon still needs some help, but he is now in much better shape than he was just a few days ago. And Simon Pagenaud made up eleven points on Newgarden and is now only forty-seven points out.

This was the second year in a row that the Honda 200 at Mid-Ohio ran caution-free. Last year, a two-stop race proved to be the winning difference for Alexander Rossi. This year, the red alternate tires that Rossi had on his car at the beginning of the race proved almost disastrous as he became easy prey for those behind him after his tires fell off. Rossi was able to complete yesterday’s race on only two stops, but he ran out of fuel just after crossing the line in fifth place. After the race, Rossi said they didn’t have the pace regardless of which tires they had on the car.

But Scott Dixon was able to pull off the win making only two stops. He conceded his tires were gone for the last fifteen laps or so, but that’s where his experience paid off. Had it been someone else leading those last fifteen laps, it may have been Felix Rosenqvist standing atop the podium yesterday afternoon.

This was an entertaining race that kept things even more interesting with all of the different strategies going on. The tire and pit strategies were fascinating, but there was some great racing on the track. Some outstanding passes were made, while others were attempted but successfully held off.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been on the edge of my seat while watching a race at Mid-Ohio, but when Felix Rosenqvist was taking it to Scott Dixon in Turn Two, that’s about as good as it gets on a road course.

We now head into another three week IndyCar hiatus. There will not be another race until Aug 18 for the 500-miler at Pocono. Six nights later, NTT IndyCar Series heads west for the Saturday night race at World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway) – the last oval of the season. The weekend following Gateway is the Labor Day weekend at Portland before the season wraps up two weeks later at Laguna Seca. That’s a Super Speedway, a 1.25 mile oval and two natural terrain road courses. That’s a pretty good sampling to decide the championship.

TV Coverage: Leigh Diffey was away on assignment this past weekend, so that put Kevin Lee in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. I’ve always thought Kevin Lee would do a good job if he landed the permanent gig, but he still does a nice job filling in. What makes Lee so good is that he realizes that he is not the star of the show and that his role is mostly to be a traffic cop. He is smart enough to set things up and then sit back and let Bell and Tracy take things and run.

I really liked having Helio Castroneves on Saturday’s qualifying broadcast. He was entertaining and brought some good insight. But if he wants this as his next job, he needs to learn to stay focused and not let normal trackside activity become too much of a distraction.

I thought Sunday’s pit reporting crew of Robin Miller, Jon Beekhuis and Dillon Welch did an excellent job.

My only real complaint of the weekend was when they had broken away for a local break with no side-by-side and they missed Rossi’s second pit stop. Other than that, I thought NBC did a great job for having a partial crew.

Newgarden Woes: Not only did Josef Newgarden throw away an excellent opportunity to pad his lead, he also suffered a slow pit stop on his second of three stops. His fuel hose malfunctioned, causing a fourteen second pits stop. Excellent pit work on his third pit stop combined with superb driving put Newgarden where he needed to be in the late stages of the race – two spots in front of Rossi. But all that hard work in the pits and on the track went out the window, when Newgarden forced an Ill-advised move on Ryan Hunter-Reay that ended up with Newgarden off course. Hunter-Reay was fighting for only his second podium of the season, so he wasn’t in the mood to be cutting Newgarden any slack.

This wasn’t the first time this season that Newgarden has forced the issue with disastrous results. After winning Race One at Belle Isle and reclaiming the points lead, Newgarden got too aggressive in Race Two and ended up in the tire barrier with a damaged car that couldn’t continue. Newgarden obviously knows how to win a championship. He did it during his first year with Team Penske in 2017.

Patience yesterday would have rewarded Newgarden with a thirty-four point lead over his closest pursuer. Because he got too aggressive, his lead is now less than half of that.

SPM Woes: A so-so qualifying effort on Saturday led to disaster on Sunday for the two Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports drivers. Takuma Sato was weaving erratically on the opening lap and bumped Marcus Ericsson into his SPM teammate James Hinchcliffe. Ericsson was retired after returning to the pits and was credited with last place. Hinchcliffe returned to action, but had to pit a total of five times. Hinchcliffe finally finished two laps down in twenty-second – one spot ahead of Ericsson.

About the only bright spot for the team was the performance of their part-time pseudo-teammate Jack Harvey, who started ninth and finished tenth.

Slight Improvement: It was good to see the beleaguered Will Power having a decent weekend. Power won the pole on Saturday and was poised to break out of his current winless slump. Although he didn’t win, he was up front for most of the day and finished fourth. Power has not gone winless in a season since 2006, when he was driving for Derrick Walker in Champ Car. That’s twelve seasons in a row with at least one win per season. Count me as one who wants him to extend that streak to thirteen seasons. He has four more races to get it done.

Return of the Old Sato: During the first half of this season, it was popular to talk about the new and improved Takuma Sato. People (including myself) talked about how Sato had mellowed in his driving style and seemed to be looking at the big picture, instead of the next car on the track.

During this time period, Sato had two poles and a race win at Barber and a strong third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. After winning the pole at Texas and leading the first sixty laps of the race, Sato came charging into the pits for his first pit stop of the night. That’s when it all went terribly wrong.

Since that fateful pit stop where Sato came in too hot and skidded into his crewman, it seems the old Sato is back. He finished fifteenth at Texas that night. A tenth place finish at Road America looks decent, but he incurred the wrath of several drivers and seemed to be off course more than anyone else.

This July has not been Sato’s best month. Before he had an engine expire during the race at Toronto, which sealed a last-place finish for him – he aggressively went after Sébastien Bourdais in the pits after the third practice. He tangled with Sage Karam at Iowa and finished twentieth. Then yesterday, he instigated the SPM carnage and seemed to be threatening Scott Dixon on-track, even though Sato was a lap down. He finished nineteenth yesterday.

With a three-week break coming up, maybe Takuma Sato can use this time to get back to the state of mind he had in the first half of the season. I’m hoping we don’t continue to see Bad Sato for the rest of the season.

Drive of the Day: Felix Rosenqvist came ever so close to winning his first IndyCar race in driving in driving from sixth to second. Still, he earned his first podium finish. Ryan Hunter-Reay started tenth, but finished third for only his second podium of the season. Spencer Pigot started thirteenth and finished sixth for another strong finish two races in a row. But this meaningless honor from this site doesn’t always go to the person that made up the most spots, and it rarely goes to the winner. But this week, it goes to both.

Like Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon also made up seven spots but he did so in winning. And once he got to the front, his skilled driving kept him there and kept him in the championship hunt. It also gave me my second correct pick for the season, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever done before. By doing so, Dixon earns my nod for Drive of the Day.

All in All: With all of the different strategies and last-lap action, this would have been considered an exciting race no matter where it took place, But when you consider that it happened on a course that can sometimes lull you to sleep, that makes it even more special. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that this was the best IndyCar race I’ve ever seen at Mid-Ohio. Granted, that’s not saying a whole lot – but this was a good one. I just hope being on NBC gained this race a decent viewership.

So now, we wait for Pocono. Susan and I are both excited because we will be attending the next two races – at Pocono and Gateway. I went to Pocono for the 2016 and 2017 races, but I missed last year. This will be Susan’s first trip to The Tricky Triangle. I’m hoping she likes it there as much as I do.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Mid-Ohio”

  1. Really great race. Not sure why Frosenqvist went for the pass in the keyhole, that was a low percentage move. If he’d focused on getting a good exit out of the keyhole he likely would have been able to outbrake Dixon into turn 4 and take the win.

    Another weekend with both a great IndyCar race and F1 race, I could get used to this.

  2. Hate to correct you, but A. J. Foyt won SIX HOOSIER HUNDREDS in the 1960s when those races were part of the National Championship.

    Sorry, but those races count!

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • Thanks for that, Phil. The IndyCar record book lists each of Foyt’s wins simply as “Indianapolis”. Then to the side, the description says “paved oval” or “dirt oval”. I guess I missed one. STILL, it’s rarefied air for Dixon, which was my point. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      As do the races at Trenton, where Mario Andretti won 6 times and Foyt won 12 (!!!) times.

      Rodger Ward won 7 times at Milwaukee.
      Jimmy Murphy won 7 times on the Beverly Hills board track.

      Though I suppose in fairness to Dixon, all of these tracks were visited multiple times per season. Foyt’s record at the Hoosier Hundred stands out along with Dixon at Mid-Ohio because the track was only visited once per season. Still, 12 wins at Trenton?!

  3. It was obvious early in the race that Rosenqvist had the fastest car. The way he stalked Power in the first part of the race was a thing of beauty. I don’t disagree with your Driver of the Day pick but I give it to Felix

    • billytheskink Says:

      Agreed. All respect to Dixon for being the great driver that he is, but Felix was really worth the price of admission and really showed why Chip Ganassi coveted him so much.

  4. Looks like tire management is more important in IndyCar than in NASCAR.

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