29 May 2011

Dan Wheldon Appropriate Winner for End of IndyCar Spec Era

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrated its 100th birthday in grand fashion on Sunday, but the cake came with trick candles, it would appear. An American was poised to win the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500. On Memorial Day weekend. While driving a car sponsored by the National Guard. But in the most dramatic ending in the 95 runnings of the 500, IMS changed her mind at the last minute, making a two-time winner of Dan Wheldon.
Dan Wheldon, who was let go by Panther Racing in the offseason, ran in the top five for most of the day, but seemed destined for another podium finish as the field cycled through late pit stops. Instead, IMS handed him a lifeline, as rookie JR Hildberand was bitten by Turn 4 on the last lap while leading in his No. 4 National Guard car, making Wheldon, in a one-off entry for Bryan Herta Autosport, a two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500.
In the spec era of IndyCar racing, Wheldon collected his second Borg-Warner Trophy, making him the third driver in the last 11 years to capture at least two, bookending his rise as an up-comer in 2005 with Andretti-Green Racing to his one-off, last lap pass in a Bryan Herta Autosport entry this year.
It was only the second last lap pass in the venerable history of the race and the second since 2006, when the last American won at Indianapolis, Sam Hornish, Jr. This time, it was an Englishman who was the beneficiary of an American's mistake, as Wheldon came around Hildebrand on the exit of Turn 4 after the rookie found the wall while coming around the car of Charlie Kimball.
Not wanting to slow behind Kimball and allow Wheldon to close on him, Hildebrand instead tried to get around Kimball in Turn 4, subsequently getting up the turn and into the marbles, sucking up him into the wall. The right side of his car heavily damaged, Hildebrand was still able to cross the finish line in second, but Wheldon was able to get by before the yellow waved, sending the 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner to Victory Circle for the second time in his career.
Asked what he saw when he passed the wrecked No. 4, Wheldon said,
My emotions, I didn't have any. Right up until the point that I passed JR, I didn't. I was so focused. It was one of those races where it was so competitive that you had to be on your game. And the wind seemed to be getting under the front of my car. If I wasn't on the same line every time at turn three, I would have to lift. I was catching bears, I wasn't focused on what was going on in front. I had the run on her through Turn 3 and 4, then pulled out.
When I saw him crash, I mean, I knew it wasn't serious. As soon as I knew it was not serious, there was a little smile on my face, I will say. From that point, it was just making sure that I didn't do anything silly. Then I think I got on the radio and started crying.
I'm not normally that emotional. But having been through what we've been through, being able to deliver this for everybody is certainly very gratifying. Proud of everybody. In terms of what it will do for the future, it will make me a happier person on the beach. In terms of more races, you'll have to ask these guys.

The tub crashed by Hildebrand was the same run by Wheldon in 2009, when the veteran took Panther Racing to its second straight runner-up effort in the 500. Wheldon would finish second again in 2010 before departing the team; with his win, Wheldon matches Bill Holland for the best three-year run in Indianapolis 500 history.
For Hildebrand, the mental scars will likely run deep. Marco Andretti still agonizes over his defeat from 2006 when suffered the only other last-lap pass in 500 history, but the driver from northern California should have plenty of other opportunities to justify  his 'Captain America' moniker.
Giving his post-mortem just after being released from the IMS Medical Center, Hildebrand commented:
I knew we were really tight on fuel coming to the end, and the spotters were in my ear saying, 'The guys are coming and they're coming hard. We had to conserve a little fuel and the tires were coming to the end of their stint. I was hanging a little on to get the thing around.
I made a judgment call catching up on the 83 (Charlie Kimball) and I thought I don't really want to slow down behind him and pull out on the straightaway, and I've been able to make this move on the outside before and so I went to the high side and because it was at the end of the stint I got up in the marbles and that was it.
I'm OK, but this is not really about me at this point. You always show up to try to win. My disappointment is for the team and for National Guard as a sponsor. It's one of the those things, as a driver, you never really know what you're going to expect. We knew we had a fast race car. We knew if the race came to us, we may be in a position to sort of finish top three, top five.
Still, this will nag Hildebrand and Panther Racing as one that got away. With the Dallara chassis likely in its final year, the Indianapolis 500 saw parity throughout the grid, with one-off and part-time entries able to run as capably as traditional powers Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Over the last few years, Panther had shown itself capable of running with those teams at Indianapolis, and was in position to finally get over the hump in the final year of the chassis. Instead, Wheldon stole the show, becoming the first winner since 1987 to take the Borg-Warner Trophy after not running any of the year's races prior to the 500.
In his IndyCar career, Wheldon traditionally ran with the upper echelon teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series, breaking in with Andretti Autosport at the height of its power and then moving over to Target Chip Ganassi Racing before heading to Panther Racing. It was while running with Andretti that Wheldon was teammates with Bryan Herta, who would field Wheldon in his one-off bid this year. The Englishman captured the 2005 Indianapolis 500, grabbing the lead from Danica Patrick late in the race, but would largely serve as a footnote in the recap of the race, as Patrick catapulted to national fame instead.
His teammate-turned-owner was reflective on the friendship built between the two several years ago:
When Dan came to Andretti, or actually when I came to Andretti, Dan was already there. But he was the kid, the rook. I actually came in, kind of the old guy, the experienced guy. Then we had T.K., obviously, Dario came back after he'd been hurt. It became kind of the Four Musketeers.
We had a lot of fun together on and off the track. We had an opportunity, the four of us got together for dinner about a week ago. Literally we laughed till our sides hurt just reminiscing about those times.
So there was a bond that formed between the four of us during those years that will never change. It wasn't the reason that I brought Dan to the team or asked him to drive for us, not because he's my buddy. It's because he's, flat out, the best guy there is around this place. That is the reason we hired Dan Wheldon.
Our friendship is our friendship, and that will never change. But, obviously, this has been another bonding experience. It serves to bring us closer.
Someday when we're old guys laying on the beach, we can still talk about this.

Entering the 2011 IZOD IndyCar season, Wheldon was relegated to a footnote once again. Failing to land a ride after being released by Panther Racing, Wheldon took the next available opportunity, reaching an agreement with Herta to drive the No. 98 William Raast car in the 500 and looking for additional opportunities to run the car throughout the season.
When it appeared that Wheldon would run Indianapolis only, he signed up to serve as a color commentator for future IZOD IndyCar Series races this summer, but his win could change all that. Several one-off drivers were clear that the easiest way to gain a full-time ride was simply to win the Indianapolis 500. Now that theory will be put to the test, as the IZOD IndyCar Series must market the winner of its biggest race. 
For most of the sunny Sunday, series officials could not be expected to be preparing to market Wheldon. The Target Chip Ganassi cars of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon dominated the day, alternating the lead and ultimately splitting strategies to seemingly ensure that one would enter Victory Circle. Fueling on Lap 164, Franchitti attempted to stretch his fuel to the end but came up a lap short, costing him a chance at his third 500 crown. Dixon lead early but was victimized by a couple of slow stops, but still was sitting in the best position as the race wound to a close.
Out front of a group of cars that pitted around Lap 180 - including Wheldon, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan - it looked as is Dixon would inherit the lead should Franchitti, Hilderand or Bertrand Baguette need fuel. Instead, Dixon was forced to converse fuel late, as he did not receive enough on his final stop. The mistake capped an eventful week for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the pits, as Franchitti and Dixon were both underfueled on their qualifying runs last week.
While Dixon was forced to save fuel, Wheldon powered through the group, passing both Kanaan and Rahal for position, allowing himself to apply pressure on Hildebrand in the final lap. Following the race, Wheldon commented:
On the radio with 20 to go, they said: 'Listen, this is the deal. Some people are going to try to make it on fuel. You're one of the guys that can make it to the end. But you've got to go and you have to make sure you get everything out of the car that you possibly can.'
So I said to myself at that point, I'm going to move the weight jacker every lap to optimize every single corner, adjust the roll bars to be able to just maximize everything. I didn't have a problem. I was able to catch traffic perfectly without having to lift. They said that there was one person that potentially could make it, I believe. So that made me even more hungry. I started pressing the overtake that Honda brought to the series.
On that last lap I was trying to deal with bears between Turns 3 and 4. In the corner of my eye, I saw him hit the fence. I just carried on by. As Bryan says, you have to make it to the bricks with a car that can go forward with all four wheels. At that point, I knew it was mine.
And when Hildebrand got into the marbles on the final corner of the final lap, Wheldon took his lone lead of the day, capping an era in which he mastered the Dallara chassis at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

28 May 2011

Previewing and Picking the 2011 Indianapolis 500

The 2011 Indianapolis 500 features the closest field in the 100-year history of the race, with a scant 3.5 miles per hour separating the pole winner Alex Tagliani from the last qualifier, Ana Beatriz. With several part-time and one-off entries up front, and traditional contenders back in the field, the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 shapes up to be a memorable one.
With the forecast for the 500 seemingly getting warmer every day, one only has to look back to last year to get a feel for what cars will go through on race day. E.J. Viso gave a description of what last year was like on Thursday, saying, 
Whenever it’s hotter, things get degraded faster. The tires go off way faster; if the track is cool and you have an understeer that is building up in a period of five laps, whenever it is hot it is going to build up in two to three laps at the most, so everything starts happening faster. Whenever the conditions are hot, you need to be even more aware and more receptive to the changes you are doing to your car.
We have tools inside the car that we can work with to make the car better – the front and rear bar, the weight jacker, we can change tire pressures in every pit stop, we can change downforce levels as well. So it’s all up to us to know how we’re gonna configure the car for the race.
Thus, we turn to see who had the right configuration in 2010. The easy answer is Dario Franchitti. All Franchitti did last year was dominate the race, leading 155 laps and hanging on late to capture his second Borg-Warner Trophy. As easy as it would be to pick Franchitti again, listening to James Hinchcliffe yesterday, he put Franchitti's win into perspective:
And watching Dario do what he did last year was awesome. It's very rarely that you have a day where everything is so hooked up that you have a day like he did, and he had it on the best Sunday all year to have it, and it was master class watching him do that race.
Asking Franchitti to repeat that performance, and to become the seventh driver with three wins in 500 history, may be asking just a bit too much.
Thus, I turn to Franchitti's teammate, Scott Dixon. Dixon has been quick all month and paced the field during Carb Day practice. Even Franchitti has recognized Dixon's effort during the month, equating it to his own performance in 2010:
Dixie looks strong. He's going to be tough. We're pretty strong, but just like the month I had last year, he (Dixon) has been on a rail all month.
With that in mind, I see Dixon seizing control of the race from the start. Taking the green flag in the middle of Row 2, with two relatively inexperienced drivers at Indianapolis, I think Dixon can take the lead into Turn 1 and pace the field in the opening stint. While Tagliani and Oriol Servia may be more conservative at the start, Row 2 will be pressing them early, as Townsend Bell, Will Power and Dan Wheldon will all be looking to get to the front and try and stay ahead of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars.
The modus operandi of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing cars has been to pair up during the race and run in tandem, and it will lie on Franchitti to weave his way through the field from the outside of Row 3 to partner with Dixon. It could take a stint for the defending champion to work his way up, but the Target cars are clearly the ones to beat on Sunday. Working to gain control of the race, the Target cars will finish 1-2, with the New Zealander joining the Scot as a two-time winner at Indianapolis.
The biggest issue entering Sunday may be the introduction of double-file restarts following a yellow. Drivers are adamantly opposed to them, voicing their concerns during Friday's drivers' meeting. Series officials, while sympathetic, insisted that they would continue, agreeing to several modifications to reduce speed during the start of the race and on the restarts to help keep the field in order. On Thursday, Hinchcliffe thought the restarts would go relatively smooth, until the end of the race:
I’ve never done single-file restarts here, so it’s tough for me to give too much of an opinion. You speak to the more experienced guys and they certainly have some concerns, and when you hear those concerns, they certainly have some validity. I think it’s a very difficult place to pull it off because of the nature of the race track in that it’s very much a one groove track. It’s not Texas, it’s not Kentucky, it’s not these 1.5-mile tracks where we run side-by-side, lap after lap, where it’s not an issue.
This track is very narrow at 220 mph, and you cannot run side-by-side. It felt so big at first (in Indy Lights), and it becomes very narrow at those speeds. At the end of the day, I don’t think we have a hope in Hades of getting them taken away, so I think everybody needs to accept that they’re happening and drivers need to respect the situation that we’re in and respect that it’s a very dangerous proposition and that you have to be there at the end to win. Short of a restart 10 laps from the end, if you’re going for a kamikaze pass, it’s probably not going to work out too well for you.
I think everyone understands how long this race is and patience is the theme of the event. If you ask all the experienced drivers from all the way back to Rutherford up to Dario, they all told me the same thing: “You’ve got to be patient, don’t force the issue, let the race come to you.” But I mean with 10 laps to go in the Indy 500, eventually that runs out, you run out of time.
So if there’s a late restart, it is going to be manic.
Those late restarts could prove crucial, as drivers should be able to pick up positions a little easier if the formation holds. Among the drivers who could use the double-file restart to their advantage would be Tony Kanaan, who is known for his aggressiveness on restarts. Power and Castroneves are also two of the drivers who could benefit from the field being closer, though Power is adamantly against the double-file restarts.
While Dixon and Franchitti will be able to hold the field off behind them on the restarts, I think Bell, in the one-off entry for Sam Schmidt Motorsports will continue to show why he deserves a full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series, finishing third. Power will be one of a few cars that is capable of challenging the Target machines, but without Ryan Briscoe or Helio Castroneves to help him work traffic, he will take a career-best finish at Indianapolis instead.
On the 50th anniversary of his owner's first win at Indianapolis, Vitor Meira will deliver the best finish of the decade for A.J. Foyt Racing. Behind Meira will be Castroneves, who will have to wait another year to go for his fourth Borg-Warner Trophy. The sentimental favorite at IMS, Ed Carpenter will be in seventh. Tony Kanaan, who may rank directly behind Carpenter as a fan favorite, will lead a few laps after going off sequence with a pit stop, but will finish eighth.
JR Hildebrand will capture Rookie of the Year honors, finishing just ahead of the driver who used to occupy his seat at Panther Racing, Dan Wheldon.
As for Danica Patrick, who could be making her final start in the Indianapolis 500 as a full-time member of the IZOD IndyCar Series, I just don't see her being a factor at the front of the field. While Andretti Autosport has typically outperformed their qualifying effort, starting 25th, I just see it being too much for her to overcome given the overall strength of the field.
2011 Indianapolis 500 Projected Finishing Order:
1. Scott Dixon
2. Dario Franchitti
3. Townsend Bell
4. Will Power
5. Vitor Meira
6. Helio Castroneves
7. Tony Kanaan
8. Ed Carpenter
9. JR Hildebrand
10. Dan Wheldon
11. Alex Tagliani
12. Justin Wilson
13. Graham Rahal
14. Danica Patrick
15. Paul Tracy
16. James Hinchcliffe
17. Oriol Servia
18. Simona De Silvestro
19. Charlie Kimball
20. Takuma Sato
21. Buddy Rice
22. Tomas Scheckter
23. Bertrand Baguette
24. John Andretti
25. Ryan Hunter-Reay
26. Ryan Briscoe
27. Marco Andretti
28. Alex Lloyd
29. Jay Howard
30. Pippa Mann
31. Davey Hamilton
32. Ana Beatriz
33. Pippa Mann

27 May 2011

Moving Through the Indianapolis 500 Field: 1-11

Four former winners and four part-time or one-off drivers are in the first 11 spots in the field, presenting an interesting mix that is sure to make the start of the Indianapolis 500 quite interesting. With the 500 just over 48 hours away, it is time to look at the front of the field.
1. No. 77 - Alex Tagliani
Tagliani and his owner, Sam Schmidt, have already given the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one of the best story lines of the month by qualifying on the pole. The pole has been the best starting position to win the 500 from, as 21 winners have started on the pole, including four in today's spec car era.
Schmidt has routinely been fast at Indianapolis with his entries. Tagliani started fifth last year, but was never a major factor in the race, finishing 10th. Already the best driver-owner story since Bobby Rahal and Jim Trueman in 1986, it would be appropriate for Schmidt and Tagliani to enter Victory Lane 25 years later.
2. No. 9 - Scott Dixon
The first of the four winners in the top 11, Dixon had just enough fuel to post the provisional pole speed before Tagliani knocked him off. Characteristically quick at Indianapolis, Dixon has not finished worse than sixth in any of the last five years at Indianapolis. 
With Target Chip Ganassi Racing having seemed to figure out Indianapolis, Dixon figures to be a major factor in the race. He and teammate Dario Franchitti should enter the race as favorites, though it should be noted that Dixon could not get to the front in the heat of last year's 500. Quiet and quick all month, expect the Kiwi to be among the contenders at the end.
3. No. 2 - Oriol Servia
Another surprise on the front row, Servia sat on the provisional pole until the last two drivers of the Fast Nine knocked him off. After missing last year's 500, Servia brings a promising sponsor in Telemundo to the front row at Indianapolis. 
Servia's (and his teammate James Hinchcliffe's) qualifying effort seems to reinforce the notion that Newman/Haas Racing is a team on the comeback. In each of the last two years, Newman/Haas had qualified well, only to be disappointed on race day, finishing 28th a year ago due to handling with Hideki Mutoh. Despite leading 791 laps in 28 previous entries at Indianapolis, Newman/Haas Racing has never entered Victory Lane.
4. No. 99 - Townsend Bell
The quickest of the one-off entries in the field, Bell has performed well in recent years at Indianapolis, taking fourth in 2009 and having a chance at a similar result last year before a blocking penalty relegated him to 16th. Running with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Bell has a legitimate chance for a career-best finish.
One of the IZOD IndyCar Series' most outspoken drivers, Bell has strong feelings on the need to bring back speed at IMS, and he is not shy about saying he has to win on Sunday to get a full-time ride for the rest of the year. However, Bell says there is no added pressure on him to perform. Look for the Herbalife car to run near the front for most of the race.
5. No. 12 - Will Power
The lone Team Penske car in the top 11, Indianapolis is the first track this year on which Power did not claim the pole. Leading his first laps at IMS last year, Power appears primed for his first victory on an oval.
The one aspect of the race that concerns Power is the double-file restart, for which he made clear his disdain during Media Day. If Power is up front, look for him to always choose the inside lane, and should he wind up on the outside, look for him to take the first chance to duck low.
6. No. 98 - Dan Wheldon
The 2005 Indianapolis 500 champion, Wheldon has a chance to match Bill Holland for the best three-year run at the 500. After consecutive second-place finishes, all Wheldon has to do is win the 500 in a one-off entry for Bryan Herta Autosport. 
Wheldon clearly is comfortable at IMS, recording five top five finishes at IMS in his eight career starts. Given his knack for finding the front during the 500, the creamsicle No. 98 figures to be in the mix throughout the race.
7. No. 44 - Buddy Rice
The 2003 500 winner returns to Indianapolis after a two-year absence. Running with Panther Racing, who has finished second in each of the last three 500s, Rice should have the chance to get to the front and stay near the front throughout.
However, no driver has missed a 500 (or more) and come back to win in their return to IMS in the rear-engine era. In an odd twist, Rice has only completed 200 laps once in five starts at Indianapolis, coming in his last race here in 2008.
8. No. 67 - Ed Carpenter
One of two local products in the 500, Ed Carpenter and his Sarah Fisher Racing team will be the sentimental favorites on Sunday. Starting eighth for the second straight year, Carpenter will look for the breaks he did not get last year, when he had to pit while the pits were closed, playing a part in his 17th-place finish.
Last year's result seems like an outlier for the Butler University product, as fifth and eighth-place results in the previous two years gave one the impression that Carpenter was figuring out his home track. Carpenter alluded to it yesterday, but after seeing his alma mater finish as the NCAA Basketball runners-up in each of the last two years, he would like to replicate the effort, only bettering the result.
9. No. 10 - Dario Franchitti
Franchitti would likely be on the front row, but a rare mistake from his Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew resulted in Franchitti running out of fuel prior to his fourth qualifying lap. In turn, Franchitti put on a rare show of public anger, storming down pit road following the mishap.
After a near-perfect run at IMS last year, Franchitti was easily fast at IMS this month, which made the mistake that much more surprising. Franchitti has a chance to make history on Sunday - a third win puts him in the company of Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Helio Castroneves. Back-to-back victories would make the Scotsman the sixth driver to achieve the feat in 500 history.
10. No. 5 - Takuma Sato
Sato was surprisingly quick on Pole Day, nearly reaching the Fast Nine before settling on the inside of Row 4. Throughout the month, the Tokyo native has raised money and awareness for the earthquake and tsunami victims of Japan, with schools throughout the Indianapolis area chipping in.
In his second start at Indianapolis, it will be interesting to see Sato's strategy on Sunday. Last year, starting 31st, Sato took his time, quietly picking up 11 spots by mainly avoiding attrition on his way to a 20th-place finish. This year, Sato has the option to bide his time or press the issue and try and move to the front as quickly as possible.
11. No. 14 - Vitor Meira
It has been 12 years since A.J. Foyt went to Victory Lane as an owner and on the 50th anniversary of Foyt's first 500 win, Meira represents Foyt's best chance at returning since Kenny Brack brought Foyt there in 1999. Meira's qualifying effort in the middle of Row 4 represents the best by a Foyt team since Eliseo Salazar started third in 2000.
Always a fan favorite, Meira is a two-time runner up at Indianapolis. The last two years, however, have not been kind to Meira at IMS, as he broke his back in 2009 and finished 27th last year due to contact. Foyt has had just one top 10 in the last five years (Darren Manning, 9th, 2008), so if Meira can avoid trouble, he figures to tally a top 10 for Foyt.