INDIANAPOLIS – Boy was it a wild weekend in Detroit. Normally, street course racing could be rather redundant. Track position is typically key as we don’t see a lot of fireworks. But, Belle Isle this past weekend was anything but.
Here are some key takeways from the doubleheader weekend.
Wild Weekend For Championship Favorites
“The one that got away.” That’s how most of the NTT IndyCar Series points leaders are saying about this weekend in Detroit. See, we all knew that the Indianapolis 500 and the doubleheader on the streets of Belle Isle would make or break the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship. Indy, awarded double points. Belle Isle, was two straight races paying full points in each.
Essentially, this was a four race span in seven days.
Heading into the Indy 500, the looked like this –
Josef Newgarden 182
Scott Dixon -6
Alexander Rossi -36
Simon Pagenaud -44
Takuma Sato -50
Leaving Belle Isle, it looks like this –
While it looks somewhat similar, it has changed in bunches in between.
Newgarden, was in full control of this points battle before being involved in a crash on Lap 32 when he, James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi were invovled in a three car incident in Turn 3.
Hinchcliffe, had just exited pit lane and was ahead of Newgarden and Rossi. On cold tires, Hinch tried to keep the duo behind him. Rossi, looking inside while Newgarden looked inside himself. Unfortunately, Newgarden and Hinchcliffe ended up in the barriers while Rossi who half spun kept it going and went on to finish fifth.
Newgarden, initially was taken to the infield care center but later rejoined the race 21 laps down. He was frustrated because he knows he could have possibly given it away.
“He cut across the track pretty aggressively but I can’t fault him fully,” Newgarden says of the incident. “I mean we were all trying to do that. It was just a judgmental error on my part. I honestly don’t even know if the lane was even there. I would have passed him but I had to check up in the brakes when he came across Hinchcliffe. I don’t even know the etiquette there. Where’s the etiquette on blending into the racing line? I’m just not even sure. We all got debris on our tires to some degree. It’s not going to be favorable being down there.”
Newgarden and Rossi were heading towards top five finishes at the very least. Heading into the second Dual, Newgarden had four top two finishes in 2019 and a top four in every race minus one. Sunday, was another day he likely would have finished in the top four again.
Instead, he’s credited with a 19th place finish.
What about Rossi. He narrowly kept his No. 27 Honda running and would come away with another top five finish, his fifth in the last six races. But, it also cost him a shot at a win though as he gave up some points on Saturday. He still made up 21 points since the 500.
Simon Pagenaud entered this weekend with the points lead but he leaves 25 points out. That’s because he finished sixth in an uneventful day on Saturday and 17th on a crazy day on Sunday.
Pagenaud, qualified bad on both days. He started 13th and 14th respectively. But, on Sunday it came back to bite him. He was punted on the opening lap from behind by Tony Kanaan which damaged his gear box. His team would have to take his car behind the wall to fix it before rejoining the race 13 laps down. That could have been a championship saving move. He went from finishing 21st to 17th.
While he didn’t lose any ground between Saturday and Sunday with him being 25 points down after both days, he still says this one got away from him too. He had the fastest lap of the race and had a car to contend if he didn’t crash.
Then you have Dixon. He earned his 45th career Indy Car win on Sunday. That come a day after earning his first DNF in newly two years (Texas 2017) when he made a mistake on Lap 24 on Saturday while running third and finished last in 22nd. From last to first in 24 hours.
But, Dixon has had a rough go of it. Leaving the INDYCAR Grand Prix, he had four podiums in the first five races of the season. He was six points out of the lead. Then, in a double points race in the ‘500, he started a career Indy 500 worst 18th and finished just 17th. After that was the last place result on Saturday. He lost 86 points in two races.
But, he gained 40 of them back by a victory on Sunday. That’s because of how Newgarden, Rossi and Pagenaud all left the door open for him.
You also have to count in Takuma Sato too. He leaves Belle Isle 61 down but was heading towards a top six result before having a cut tire on a late race restart.
This two week stretch was huge for the championship and one that will be the reason for who wins the championship in September and who doesn’t.
Indy 500 Hangover Is Real
Simon Pagenaud is happy that the weekend of Belle Isle is behind him. See, the Team Penske driver is mentally drained after a busy week behind him.
Pagenaud, won last Sunday’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 and off he went on a busy week of media tours. He says he barely slept all week which he feels blessed though to be a part of that. But, when the next race is in Detroit and when his team owner is the promoter of the race, the weekend is just as busy as the week he just went though.
So, for Pagenaud to be still within striking distance of the points lead when it was all said and done, he’s happy with that, especially with Texas coming up.
“I will sleep a lot,” said Pagenaud after completing the doubleheader in Belle Isle. “Obviously, I don’t want to sound too disappointed because I won the Indy 500. I want to leave here on a high note and remember I’m very blessed.
“You see the popularity go up and more interesting all around. It’s busy. It’s obviously a very busy weekend for Team Penske with all the sponsors that we have to take care of which is a good thing which is also a double edge sword because that’s the most tired that I’ve ever been in a race weekend.”
Simon Pagenaud at Belle Isle this weekend – INDYCAR Media Site
Pagenaud joked that he’s done the 24 Hours of LeMans in the past and that a race like that is grueling too, but nothing pares to what he just went through over the last seven days.
It’s not like he’s off compared to past Indy 500 race winners either. It’s hard to win two straight Indy Car races, let alone the ‘500 and the week after. Last year, Will Power finished seventh and second respectively here following his ‘500 triumph. In 2017, Takuma Sato was eighth and fourth respectively. In 2016, Alexander Rossi was 10th and 12th himself.
This weekend, Pagenaud finished sixth on Saturday but only 17th on Sunday. It was a day that Pagenaud felt got away from him. See, he only qualified 13th and 14th respectively in the two days but Sunday caught up to him. He was punted by Tony Kanaan from behind on the opening lap. That forced his car to be stuck in gear which didn’t allow for him to continue on until his crew was able to repair his No. 22 Chevrolet behind the wall.
Pagenaud, would return 13 laps down but his day was basically done.
“I was right behind Will (Power) and we were hit in the back,” said Pagenaud. “We had a sensor so it was stuck in gear. We had to wait for the car to come back and the guys did a great job of fixing it which gained us six points which should help us in the end.”
Pagenaud takes solace though because his car was strong. He notes that the fastest lap of the race was run by him after his car was repaired. Plus, his teammate Josef Newgarden crashed and Alexander Rossi didn’t win.
While that’s good, it also shows that it was a day that Pagenaud says was a missed opportunity.
“We had the fastest lap of the race by a half of a second,” Pagenaud continued. “The car was really, really good. It’s a bit of a shame we didn’t get to battle in the race because I think we had a good car today. It would have been a huge day for points. But, at the end of the day, I think we got pretty lucky today. Rossi didn’t score too much so for the both of us, it’s pretty good.
“It’s a shame for the both of us. It’s a shame for Team Penske. Glad (Alexander) Rossi didn’t score too much.
“It’s a missed opportunity, lets just be honest. You only get so many opportunities. Most teams would have given up. We never give up with Team Penske. To make up six points, I think we should be grateful. It’s not so much about Josef (Newgarden) not finishing up there, it’s more (Alexander) Rossi not winning or scoring as many points.”
For the future races, Pagenaud has a good outlook. Next is Texas a place to where Pagenaud finished third in 2017 and second last year. Trends say he will win on Saturday. Plus, he just won the last superspeedway race last Sunday.
Then, for the final street circuit of the year next month at Toronto, Pagenaud says they found some good data on Sunday for that.
“I think Texas is going to be really good for us. We’ve always been strong. It’s one of my favorite ovals. It’s really good for Toronto. I think we got some valuable data. We were always just a session behind all weekend but we found it in the end.”
Honda Still Shines In Chevy’s Backyard
Chevy may have stole a win on Saturday in Belle Isle, but it was the Honda’s who stole the show again this weekend. With Scott Dixon’s triumph in race No. 2 on Sunday, Honda has now won five of the last six in Chevy’s backyard.
Plus, when you factor in that Roger Penske runs the show in Belle Isle, for him to have won just once at his own track since 2017, well that’s eye opening.
But, look at what Honda did overall.
They led 84 of the 113 combined laps run this weekend. That’s 74-percent. They took four of the six podium spots to go along with nine of the top 10 finishing positions on Sunday and seven of the top nine on Saturday.
The win was Honda’s fourth of the season and 13th since Belle Isle last year. That’s 13 wins in the last 19 Indy Car races. Compare that to having won just two of the first six races in 2018, that’s a dominant stretch.
The Race That Almost Didn’t Happen
Track officials annuals talk about the race weekend in a presser following race No. 2. They told us Sunday’s race actually nearly didn’t happen. They had to replace so much in one corner, that they were five minutes from the command and the turn wasn’t done yet. It happened so quickly, that they purposely didn’t let the drivers go through there on the parade to salute the fans after driver intros so TV cameras wouldn’t catch what they were doing.
See, after a TransAm crash earlier in the afternoon, the barriers and fencing was damaged. It all had to be replaced. The track workers did just that which allowed the Indy Car race to happen like nothing ever was done.
Crowd Slightly Down But Weather Is To Blame
The overall attendance for the race weekend was slightly down this year compared to last but that’s because of the storms that came through on Saturday. The attendance was obviously down due to that. But, Sunday’s was trending up which is why track officials estimate around 95k on the island for the race weekend this year. That’s about 10k less than 2018.
If the weather cooperated on Saturday, then they think they would have been flat or slightly above.