Random Thoughts on Portland

No one ever said that a race had to have a lot of daring passes to be interesting. While fans of some series insist that there must be lots of rubbin’ to be a race, fans of the NTT IndyCar Series realize that they can actually have both. The Grand Prix of Portland provided something for everyone.

The start of the race provided enough crashing in the first turn to satisfy most appetites for seeing cars banging around, to last for an entire afternoon. From that point on, it became a battle of the race strategists of each team.

I’ll be honest; I’m not smart enough to know how these strategies play out. With about thirty laps gone, NBC’s Townsend Bell proclaimed that “Scott Dixon can still win this race”. Even though the six-time champion was running somewhere around thirteenth-place, right around his teammate Alex Palou, I wondered to myself what Bell knew that I didn’t. As it turns out, Bell was spot-on in his analysis. Alex Palou won the race, while Scott Dixon finished third. Alexander Rossi ended up in second, earning his first podium finish of the season.

Most comments I read on social media after the race were favorable, but of course – not everyone was happy. Still. The majority of the comments I read saw the race for what it was – a tactical race that was won mostly on strategy. But strategic races are not a bad think, in my opinion. They are particularly fascinating when the championship is winding down, as this one is.

When the race was at its exact halfway point on Lap 55, the race was running under caution. Not only did I have no idea who would win, I couldn’t even guess what group of cars the winner was going to come from. Would it come from the pack that was running up front? Well, that was Graham Rahal and Ed Jones, who finished tenth and eleventh respectively. If I’m not mistaken, I’m not even sure that the podium finishers were running in the Top-Ten at that point. That’s what makes tactical races so intriguing.

I realize not everyone agrees with me. When I watch baseball I am much more entranced with a good pitcher’s duel than I am a home-run derby. I would much prefer to watch a good old-fashioned National League chess game between the managers, than a 10-0 slugfest. I realize I am in the minority on that. I am also much more drawn into a 7-3 football game, than I am like the 38-13 drubbing the Titans suffered yesterday. That game was over five minutes in, but I digress…

When you look at how things changed after IndyCar sorted through the order and some fast cars from Qualifying were shuffled to the back, this is where the teams with the savvy strategists got their money’s worth. When Palou and Dixon were sent to the back of the field to restart in seventeenth and eighteenth respectively, most casual fans would assume that their day was done and there was no way either of them could pass that may cars on a road course. That’s when it became game-on for the race strategists. As I said, I’m not smart enough to know exactly what they did and why they did it, but for one of those drivers to win the race and the other to end up on the podium was not luck. It was the skill of those up on the pit stand calling the shots.

Was yesterday’s race as thrilling as the finish to the 1997 Portland race that saw Mark Blundell barely beat Gil de Ferran and Raul Boesel in a virtual dead-heat at the line? Probably not, but I still found it engrossing to watch it all unfold in front of me.

You would think that Scott Dixon would have been thrilled to finish third and keep his championship hopes alive. You would also think the same thing about Josef Newgarden, who finished fifth after starting eighteenth. But they both lost ground to Palou, who won the pole and the race – and the points that go with each.

The biggest loser in the points was Pato O’Ward, who came into the weekend as the points leader and was ten points ahead of Palou. O’Ward left Portland twenty-five points behind Palou, after a disappointing fourteenth-place finish.

It was an eventful race that saw a reshuffling at the top of the points battle. This is looking more and more like an Alex Palou championship, as he won his third race of the season – more than anyone else this season. All of his realistic competitors lost ground to Palou yesterday. There are still two races to go, both on tracks he’s never raced on – but that applied to Portland, and all he did there was win the pole and the race. Anything can still happen at Laguna Seca and Long Beach, but signs are pointing to a second-year driver coming away with the 2021 IndyCar championship.

TV Coverage: Altogether, I thought the NBC crew did a good job. As I said earlier, Townsend Bell has a very good grasp on how the race strategists do their jobs – much more than I do. He showed this strength yesterday, by repeatedly telling what each team should do on when to pit. The teams that followed his thinking, wound up on the podium.

As much as I like Paul Tracy and his race analysis, he can sometimes be just oblivious to things. On one of the Saturday Peacock broadcasts, he made the comment that the two Meyer Shank Racing cars of Jack Harvey and Helio Castroneves we identical to each other and it was almost impossible to tell them apart. They are complete opposites, with reversed paint schemes. Helio has pink sidepods with black over the tub of the car, while Harvey’s car has black sidepods with black over the tub. I don’t think it could be any easier to tell two pink and black cars apart.

During yesterday’s broadcast, Leigh Diffey remarked how Graham Rahal’s all-red Total-sponsored car was sort of a throw-back to Bobby Rahal’s all-red Budweiser car of the late eighties. About two minutes later, PT made the exact same observation and explained the red Budweiser car again – as if he wasn’t even in the booth when Diffey had just said it. I was embarrassed for him.

I was glad to see someone we are all familiar with get to get a ride in the two-seater at the start of the race. Pit-reporter Kelli Stavast was chosen to ride with Mario Andretti as the two-seater paced the field. You could see the look of genuine awe on her face, as they left the pits and went through the chicane. We viewers were happy for her as she showed authentic appreciation for the moment.

On a down note, I would have liked to have seen a little more time given to the loss of Robin Miller. They showed photos of the work-stationed assigned to him in the Portland Media Center, complete with the type of junk food he was famous for eating, as Leigh Diffey uttered a few kind words. But for such an iconic motorsports figure for half a century, I expected a segment, well…like Robin Miller did for Bob Jenkins, Bobby Unser and the countless other legends that were lost over the years. I’ve heard better tributes for longtime network camera operators for NFL games who just passed away, that we’ve never heard of. Robin Miller deserved better than that, even though he probably wouldn’t want any fuss made over him. His fans did, though.

Bad Blood? Although it has not been officially confirmed, most believe that Romain Grosjean will be driving the No. 28 Andretti Autosport car, that has been occupied by Ryan Hunter-Reay for more than a decade. If we know it, you can be sure that Hunter-Reay knows it. When Grosjean made an attempt to pass Hunter-Reay on Lap 25 and even got in front of him, Hunter-Reay just allowed his car to drift over to the left and push Grosjean off into the grass – even though they were not battling for position.

Most likely, Hunter-Reay will find an open seat for next season. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Ed Jones is let go from Coyne and that Hunter-Reay gets that ride. Will Hunter-Reay be OK with Jones running him off the track in a classless vengeful move next year? Probably not.

Cursed: My race predictions have always been bad. Since starting this site in 2009, I’ve been predicting race winners in every Friday race preview going into every race weekend. Altogether, that totals up to about 200 race predictions. In that time, I believe I’ve successfully predicted four winners – most notably, picking Tony Kanaan to win the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

This season things have gone from picking drivers that don’t win, to picking race winners who crash out. In the three August IndyCar races, I picked Josef Newgarden to win at Nashville. He had a bad weekend in his hometown and was very lucky to finish tenth. At the IMS road course the next weekend, I predicted Scott Dixon to win. He finished seventeenth, doing irreparable damage to his championship hopes. At Gateway, I went with Dixon again, and he crashed out of the race.

This weekend, I said that Romain Grosjean would win at Portland. It was his worst weekend of the season. He started twenty-first, got caught up in the opening-lap melee and finished twenty-second. My apologies to the Grosjean family.

Jimmie Love: There was a lot of love for Jimmie Johnson coming from the NBC booth this weekend, but I thought it was justified. Johnson tightened the gap between himself and the leader of the first practice, to the point it was respectable. Although he finished twentieth (out of twenty-seven cars), he finished on the lead lap and successfully mixed it up with several veteran drivers in the race.

I’m thinking the NBC booth was trying to counter all of the unexplained hate out there for the seven-time NASCAR champion. They probably changed no one’s mind, but if you look at his times, Johnson is definitely improving. I am hopeful he will run the full season next year.

Drive of the Day: Due to the first-lap chaos, several drivers that were buried deep in the field, suddenly found themselves in the Top-Ten. Still. They had to work to stay there. Several drivers found themselves with strong finishes after starting poorly; while others found themselves reshuffled to the back after the start, only to find themselves back near the front when the race was over.

Jack Harvey was one who benefited from the reshuffle after the crazy start. After starting twentieth, he was suddenly tenth on the restart. Harvey finished fourth. Alex Palou started on the pole, but was sent back to seventeenth on the restart. Palou won the race. He and Scott Dixon almost tied for Drive of the Day honors. But that prestigious honor goes to Josef Newgarden, who had a dismal qualifying effort and started eighteenth. After the order was reshuffled after the wild start, he only moved up to sixteenth. But Newgarden stayed with it and earned a respectable fifth-place finish and the Drive of the Day.

All in All: If you like edge-of-your-seat excitement with a lead change on every lap, yesterday’s race was probably not for you. But if you enjoy watching all the different team strategies play out during a race, yesterday’s Grand Prix of Portland was your kind of race. Well beyond the halfway point, I had no clue who was going to win. With so many cars that were capable of winning, that made for an enjoyable afternoon of TV race-watching.

The points battle was half the story yesterday. With two races to go, it appears to be Alex Palou’s championship to lose. But anything can happen over the next two races. It’s going to be an interesting two weeks.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Portland”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I wish Rahal’s strategy had not had to face some inopportune caution flags, but such is the nature of racing. Still, it would have been nice to erase some memories of his bone-headed move from 2019 with a win or podium.

    Very impressed with Harvey’s drive. Palou is earning the Dixon comparisons that some are giving him, but he should also probably fear Newgarden here at the last two races. I would like to start a prize fund that pays out to the whole field only when a Portland start goes off without incident…

  2. Talon De Brea Says:

    The rows are so tightly bunched in starts on road and street courses that I’m surprised when there ISN’T mayhem …

    • Shyam Cherupalla Says:

      They should switch to standing starts, the gap between car rows, are not consistent due to rolling nature and dynamic changes in gaps of cars in rolling starts

  3. RHR may have pushed Grosjean off into the grass, but Grosjean was already 15 laps behind and RHR was pushing to make up time on the out lap. Can we really blame him for the aggressive move?

  4. Mmmmm.

    The inevitable first lap crash ( it’s getting boring when these guys are supposedly the best ) maybe time to reprofile the corner. Is Portland really such an amazing facility ?
    The extremely long yellow ( again )
    Palou , Dixon, Rossi, Bourdais etc all being put to the back (really, why? )
    Closed pits under yellows …This is called a motor race but it’s a motor racing lottery.
    Then it’s a fuel save when we want to see racing.
    Dixon & Palou running around behind Ilott and Kellett lap after lap.
    After drivers said it must have been awesome to watch the race on tv. I thought it looked amateur and bit of a joke.
    The one redeeming feature was that the right guy won.

    Other things that did not impress.

    The Honda Civic course car. Is that really the best the Honda/ the Series can do.

    The fact that from lap 60 minimum the broadcast was showing the first ten only with championship points table below for at least two laps before changing for a few laps and then back to the top ten with below the series lead. This was also a joke. Nobody was overtaking so the championship was not changing and by doing that you could not see if O’Ward was in 14th and catching or where. Not thought through.

    Duffy seems to think who ever was leading would win and always talks about non race issue to be inclusive or whatever but frankly I want to hear about the race and not people having babies bless them I’m sure. That’s for a pre or post race show.

    Oh and Jimmy Johnson doing better. Same old same old.

    Rant over ! I love Indycar and feel let down.

  5. I agree with you George that NBC dropped the ball with the very short mention of Robin’s death and the memorial in the pressroom at Portland. I left a comment today with my dismay about what I felt was a their slight under the race results story at NBCSN.com. It never was posted.

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