Random Thoughts on Laguna Seca

The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey decided the NTT IndyCar Series championship for the 2022 season, but in some ways – the stage was set a week earlier in Portland. At Portland and at Laguna Seca, Will Power did what he’s been doing all season – and that’s finishing in the Top Five, while his nearest competitors struggled.

Power finished second at last week at Portland and third yesterday at Laguna Seca. We knew going into this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca that if Power finished on the podium in Sunday’s, it didn’t matter what anyone else did – the championship would be his.

Power probably slept a little better Saturday night after qualifying, when two of his closest competitors for the championship failed to reach the second round of qualifying. The biggest qualifying blow went to Josef Newgarden, who brought out a red flag in a bizarre incident in the corkscrew that saw Newgarden’s Hitachi Chevrolet stuck with the nose of his car resting on the racing surface…but not his front wheels.

That red flag ran the clock down so far, that IndyCar had to guarantee one timed lap. At the time of the red flag, Scott Dixon was in the pits, having just received his red alternate tires. He had only the eleventh fastest time, and was looking at the possibility of starting twenty-first. The partial warm-up lap did not allow enough time for his tires to reach adequate temperature. Still, Dixon was able to improve to seventh in the one lap, which put him thirteenth on the starting grid. Newgarden started the race from twenty-fifth

Marcus Ericsson reached the second round, but could manage a starting position no better than ninth. Last weeks, winner, Scott McLaughlin started seventh.

Power did what champions do. Instead of laying back and being conservative in qualifying, he took advantage of his competitors poor to mediocre qualifying efforts and won the pole – thereby adding another point to his points lead on everyone else.

In the race, Power made sure he led the first lap, ensuring that he got the bonus point for leading a lap. Power ended up leading the first fifteen laps, giving it up on his first pit stop. Power knew it was not important that he win the race, just so long as he finished on the podium. That’s exactly what he did.

Josef Newgarden made things interesting. He immediately started carving up through the field, then the only caution of the day, came at an advantageous time for Newgarden. He played his tire strategy perfectly and was the second fastest car on-track, eventually working his was past Power into second.

But as usually happens in the last race of the season, someone not in the championship hunt goes for broke and wins the race to salvage a somewhat disappointing season. That’s exactly what happened yesterday.

Alex Palou was the defending champion all season long, but had not won a race in 2022. He was officially eliminated from the championship last week at Portland, so he had nothing to lose – especially when you consider this was (probably?) the last race in the No. 10 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Palou took the lead for good, except for a pit stop shuffle that saw Newgarden lead for five laps. When the race ended, Palou was the race winner – more than thirty seconds ahead of second-place Newgarden.

As usual in these championship-deciding races, the race winner got a nice pat on the back – but all of the attention deservedly went to Power, who won his second IndyCar championship and his first since 2014.

TV Coverage: After watching practice on Friday evening, I was very concerned about the audio. I mentioned last week that the announcers were hard to hear, while the trackside engine sounds were way too loud. This past Friday at Laguna Seca, it was worse. If you turned up your TV to hear Leigh Diffey or Townsend Bell, the sound of a car going by threatened to blast out your sound system. I am assuming enough people complained (I did) on social media, that they finally realized they had a problem. But Saturday morning’s practice, the issue was gone and never resurfaced for the weekend.

I expressed my feeling toward Marty Snider last week. I won’t go into that diatribe again, but suffice it to say that I was not thrilled when I realized he would be joining Kevin Lee and Dillon Welch in the pits. Let’s just say “less is more”, when it comes to Marty Snider.

I had no issues with the production or commentary from the booth or the pit reporters. I feel like they have done a good job all year, and I think James Hinchcliffe really grew into his role in his rookie season in the booth.

My only comment is that I hope someone buys Hinch and Townsend Bell a Thesaurus for an early Christmas gift, so that they can study it in the offseason. If that happens, they might learn that there are other adjectives in the English language besides “super”.

Historic Pole: It would have been understandable if Will Power took it easy in qualifying on Saturday. Instead, he went out and did what no one has ever been better at – winning the pole.

Power won his fifth pole of the season on Saturday. His celebration was somewhat subdued, because he was so focused on his championship run for Sunday. But had he celebrated in wild fashion, no one would have blamed him. His pole on Saturday was his sixty-eighth of his career and moved him out of the tie for the record he shared with the great Mario Andretti. I was there that afternoon at Gateway three weeks ago, when Power tied Andretti’s mark. He was much more giddy in the media center that evening, than he was this past Saturday when the record was his alone. That shows how much this second championship meant to Power.

It was an extremely classy move when Mario Andretti went out of his way to be one of the first ones to greet Power and congratulate him on that milestone. Likewise, Power was just as gracious to Andretti and acknowledged that he had set the record in a much more dangerous era, when drivers were sometimes fatally injured on pole runs.

Early Start Time: I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. All week long, the IndyCar website had the race broadcast starting at 3:00 pm EDT on Sunday, with a 3:30 pm EDT green flag. On Friday afternoon, I saw a post that the start times had been moved up. The new times saw the TV broadcast starting at the odd time of 2:40 pm EDT, and the green flag at 3:20 pm EDT.

While that’s only a difference of twenty minutes and ten minutes respectively, I saw a lot of grumbling on social media about the early start times.

On one hand, I understand why people were ticked. They had gone online earlier in the week to get the times, and they planned their TV viewing around the posted schedule accordingly. If I had planned on skipping the pre-race and turning on just as the green flag waved, I would not be happy to tune in and see the race was already seven or eight laps in.

On the other hand, I found out about it. Why couldn’t everyone else? I didn’t find out through any secret, behind-the-scenes media channels; I saw it on Twitter. I realize that some swear vehemently against ever opening up a social media account, but sometimes it keeps you well informed of any changes. Here locally, the quickest way to find out about snow-related school closings is to follow the school system’s Twitter account. No one says you have to ever have to post anything, nor do you have to follow obnoxious idiots. The main reason I have Twitter is to check for the latest news. If you want to keep up with the latest offseason moves, I would recommend getting on Twitter. You’ll be in the know on everything IndyCar related.

What a Shame: I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical when Ricardo Juncos announced a new version of his race team would be racing fulltime in 2022, with a driver I had never heard of. But Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) with Callum Ilott driving has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the season. They capped off their strong season by starting on the front row on Sunday, right next to Will Power.

Ilott had a good showing early on, and even led a lap after Will Power pitted from the lead. But on Lap 38, Ilott’s day and season came to a premature end when his engine let go in Turn Two as he was leaving the pits. It was a sad ending to a promising day.

On Wednesday, JHR announced they would be adding a second car for 2023. This team has suddenly gained a lot of credibility in the year since they announced their new partnership. Let’s just say I’m no longer skeptical.

The Planned Yellow: Speaking of Ilott’s caution on Sunday, it was the only caution of the day. I thought Ilott was sitting in a precarious position, but once again – Race Control played loosely with the rules. With Ilott sitting in harm’s way, IndyCar once again chose to let him sit there without throwing the caution flag when his car came to a stop, thereby giving everyone a chance to pit.

I understand IndyCar’s logic, but I don’t agree with it. IndyCar doesn’t want someone’s race ruined by an ill-timed yellow. I get that, but those are the breaks. Sometimes a caution falls and a team and their fans cheer. Other times, they cringe. It’s just the nature of how things happen. Rather than deciding who is safely out of the way and who is not, IndyCar should throw the yellow when the incident first arises  it’s the only fair and consistent way to do it.

Teams build strategies around the possibility of an ill-timed yellow. Sometimes, they come in a lap or two early, to make sure they aren’t caught out by a caution coming out at the wrong time. I don’t see that it is IndyCar’s job to jump in and try to mitigate the effects of a yellow. If a driver plays it safe and pits before they absolutely have to, this new practice of IndyCar penalizes that driver and rewards the driver that didn’t plan for a possible caution.

It’s a shame that some drivers have their races ruined by an eraant yellow, but so be it. It has been a part of racing as long as I’ve been following the sport. Race Control has effectively removed one of the wild cards that was always out there, during races that were not that exciting. Now when you see a driver running away with a race, like Palou did yesterday – you hope for a yellow to shake up the field and spice things up. With this new policy, it won’t happen.

The Points System: The fact the Marcus Ericsson was even in the running for the championship on the final weekend is strictly due to the double-points awarded in the Indianapolis 500. I’ve complained before about double-points, so this will not shock anyone now – but not only did Ericsson have an over-inflated points total this summer, the same double-points system did a double-whammy on Scott Dixon’s season. That mistake on pit lane, not only cost Dixon his second Indianapolis 500 win, but it was also a seventy-five point swing in the points. That’s worse than had he chosen to just sit out a normal non-double-points race.

My top-offseason hope is that Roger Penske does away with double-points for the 500 or any other race. Every race should be weighted equally, in my opinion.

Drive of the Day: Basically this came down to two drivers – Alex Palou and Josef Newgarden. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a driver run off and hide from the rest of the field, like Alex Palou did on Sunday. But as I mentioned earlier, Palou really had nothing to lose. He was just out there having fun, with no real consequences if things suddenly went terribly wrong.

Conversely, Josef Newgarden was facing tons of pressure – trying to win a championship while starting in the back of the field. Granted, his starting position was self-inflicted – but he could have just as easily said “Forget it”. Instead, he moved methodically through the field from twenty-fifth to finish second. He didn’t win the race or the championship, but he did win the Oilpressure.com Drive of the Day.

All in All: Laguna Seca is not the most scintillating of tracks to decide a championship. Whoever leads the championship heading into the weekend has the advantage. They don’t have to be spectacular, they just need to not do anything stupid.

But I understand why IndyCar wants to wrap up the season there. It is a picturesque setting that sponsors will like, and it features a series of turns that all pure racing fans can appreciate. The track offers no surprises, and all drivers know that going in. They need to do what they can in the races leading up to Laguna Seca, knowing that whoever is leading the points going in, stands a good chance of winning the championship.

Having said that; Josef Newgarden proved that you can pass at Laguna Seca. He put on a clinic on how to carve your way through the field. He almost pulled off the win, but he nor no one else was going to catch Alex Palou – not on Sunday.

Overall, I thought Sunday’s race was very interesting. It featured passing, strategy and the entertainment of watching Newgarden go through the field.

I also thought that Will Power deserved this championship. His newfound consistency served him well from St. Petersburg to Laguna Seca. You could tell after the race that he was soaking it all in and he seemed to enjoy every moment of this very special weekend for him. Setting the pole record and winning a second IndyCar championship is not a bad way to spend the weekend.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Laguna Seca”

  1. Regarding the TV coverage, the thing that drove me up the wall is that (as usual) the announcers do not seem to understand what is going on at a season-ending race. Yesterday, for example, for much of the race, they were absolutely fixated on whether Newgarden would be able to finish ahead of Power, when that actually had very little bearing on who would win the championship. For the last third of the race or so—i.e., after the point where Palou had locked up the two bonus points for leading the most laps—if Newgarden had finished second, Power would have won the championship simply by finishing 11th or higher, whereas if Newgarden had been able to catch Palou and win the race, Power would have needed to finish fifth or better to win the title. Therefore, Newgarden needed to catch Palou, and his strategy towards the end of the race was based on the need to try to catch Palou, not just to finish ahead of Power. Similarly, as long as Newgarden was 25 seconds ahead of Palou, it didn’t matter whether Power slipped a place or two.

    But, apart from a brief mention by Leigh Diffey that Russ Thompson had passed him a note saying that Power just needed to finish in the top five to win the title (which seemed to be forgotten as soon as it was spoken), neither he nor Townsend Bell recognized any of this. This isn’t a new complaint, as it seems to happen every year. In the past, PT was the one voice in the booth who could be counted upon to inject some understanding of this into the commentary, and while he generally did a solid job this year and was willing to disagree with Bell when necessary, Hinch didn’t jump into the breach here.

    As for double points at Indy, I continue to maintain that it’s appropriate to award double points for the Indy 500 because it is simply more important. Doing a poor job on a test should hurt your grade more than doing a poor job on a quiz. In any case, it had very little impact on this year’s title chase since Ericsson was the only one of the five contenders who were still mathematically alive entering this weekend who did well at the 500.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    That performance by Newgarden was something else! I would have preferred he take the title, but it is nice to see Power get another one after so many got away from him in the early 2010s.

    Tire strategy and drivers finding speed using some strange lines made this one of the most action-filled Laguna Seca races I can remember.

    I don’t feel qualified enough to say that race control was foolish to wait on everyone to pit before dealing with Illot, but his position at pit exit did seem precarious. I just hope the series doesn’t get burned one of these days trying to be fair an let everyone pit before they throw the yellow.

  3. Get rid of the double points for the 500. Yes, give the winner a few extra, ten or twenty but not double and no extra for places, second down.

    I like race controls new yellow flag policy. Makes a lotn of sense and stops the ridiculous lottery which lessers INDYCAR as a series.

    Still think Newgarden should be champion for winning 5 races and not 1.

    Lots of off season work needed by numerous teams ( Andretti, shank, RLL ) to get close to the Penske, Ganassi level of competitiveness.

    If Palou leaves Ganassi who replaces him? They look weak compared to Penske I feel with Dixon and Ericsson. Dixon just has not qualified well this year. I hope it’s a one off and that next year he will be back to normal but my gut says no. Ericsson is a great guy but not quite at the level of Newgarden of Scot M.

  4. NBC always trys to blame their sound difficulties on our tv sets not being tuned correctly. It’s funny I don’t have that problem when watching other sporting events.

  5. On one of Simona’s pit stops the crew put on three black tires and one red. I don’t understand how a professional team can make that kind of mistake. She had to come back in the next lap so they could change tires the right way. They also botched two pit stops at Mid-Ohio. Some critics have said Simona hasn’t done a very good job this year, but it’s like she’s racing with one hand tied behind her back.

  6. I saw it on Twitter. I realize that some swear vehemently against ever opening up a social media account, but sometimes it keeps you well informed of any changes.
    here is the latest change:

    “Twitter leadership is misleading the public, lawmakers, regulators and even its own board of directors,” Peiter Zatko testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “The company’s cybersecurity failures make it vulnerable to exploitation, causing real harm to real people.”


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