There were two extremes over the weekend, and a pair of distinctive differences between IndyCar and NASCAR with a bottom line that’s always hard to explain.
At Iowa, 283 of the 300 laps in the Iowa Corn 300 were run under green at 170mph in a race that featured some of the closest, hardest racing you will ever see on an oval.
At Daytona, 46 of the 168 laps were run under caution in a race that featured eight cautions for crashes, a red flag and saw 20 of the 40 starters eliminated in crashes in a typical restrictor-plate demolition derby.
James Hinchcliffe started 11th and charged to the front to overhaul Josef Newgarden and score his first victory of 2018.
Erik Jones started 29th, survived all the calamity and found his way around defending Cup champ Martin Truex Jr to earn his first win in NASCAR’s premier series.
IndyCar finished under caution because it didn’t have enough time to clean up the field of debris from the lap 294 altercation between Ed Carpenter and Takuma Sato, give the wave-around to lapped cars and go back to racing.
NASCAR used two overtime sessions to secure a green-flag finish and took 45 minutes to run the final 10 laps.
The IndyCar race at Iowa drew 452,000 viewers on NBCSN last Sunday afternoon.
Over four million people watched NASCAR on NBC last Saturday night as it easily captured the evening’s ratings.
For people that enjoy pure racing, Iowa was tough to beat. There were two grooves (and sometimes three) on the 7/8ths-mile bullring, and thanks to the combination of cars that got a handle on the track, cars that went off and tire wear, it was non-stop action.
IndyCar recorded 955 on-track passes; the two for the lead – Josef Newgarden on Will Power and Hinch on JoNew – paling in comparison to the multitude of overtaking from positions 2-12 all afternoon. There were 234 passes for position.
Early on it was Zach Veach, Takuma Sato and Spencer Pigot chewing through traffic like PacMan while Robert Wickens started seventh, fell back to 11th, charged back to second and had a sure podium before an ill-timed pit stop and wound up fifth.
Hinch got up to fifth pretty quick, missed on his chassis changes during his second stop, got worse and loose after his third stop, and then came roaring back to life after going back to hisoriginal setup. He was 13 seconds behind Newgarden at one point before starting his attack. When he cut the deficit to three seconds it was obvious he was handling traffic much better than JoNew, and after he swept into the lead on lap 256 it was all over.
As impressive as The Mayor was in winning for the first time in 2018, the rest of his competition also deserve high marks for their professionalism. There was no push-to-pass, no drafting, no Hanford device and no pack racing – just 22 drivers diving, dicing and dueling for 90 minutes.
On a track with two big bumps in Turn 2, 3, 600 pounds less downforce than a year ago and constant traffic in play, the IndyCar boys kept it close but clean under tricky conditions.
Sure, there were constant close calls, with one driver coming off the high line and another drifting up from the low groove, or side-by-side action sweeping into a corner with the low man pushing up, but other than Veach brushing the wall and bending a tow link and Carpenter snagging Sato with his front wing, it was good and green for most of an hour and 47 minutes.
It’s the second-straight exhibition of excellent, hard driving, following on from a caution-free Road America race where top three finished five seconds apart on a four-mile road course.
You always expect a few accidents at Iowa, and with the cars twitching around in practice and qualifying, that certainly was the pre-race consensus.
“We had that conversation before the race, and what did we think the caution frequency was going to be,” said Hinch afterwards. “And it’s so funny, because we’ve seen it – in practice – if you just went on how the car felt in practice, you’d be like, ‘yeah, there’s going to be tons of cautions. Guys are going to be crashing all over the place because these things are really hard to drive right now.
“But what happens when tires start falling off [is] guys really start taking care of themselves and each other a whole lot more. You don’t have as much confidence to throw it down the inside and make a stupid move. We thought it was either going to be a crash-fest or a pretty clean race, and obviously it was the latter. Glad to see that – it’s better for the fans.”
Of course, that depends on your perspective. Watch a NASCAR crash as it’s developing, and look at all the people cheering as cars are crashing and slithering and tumbling along – before they ever know if the drivers are OK. The catchphrase and marketing tool for Daytona and Talladega is “The Big One,” and it’s almost a downer for these “fans” if there’s not a big pileup.
I always feel empathy for NASCAR’s real racers because plate races are part of their playbook, but you can tell when they’re interviewed that they know it’s not real racing and more of a joyless exercise; just waiting for the wreck.
What Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson did the week before at Chicago was hard racing with some bumping and grinding, but totally acceptable because it was for the win on the last lap between two of the best. Obviously, you can’t drive like that in an open-wheel car on an oval, and Sunday showed that drivers don’t have to crash into each other or be spectacular to put on a damn good show. And I imagine that’s all going to change this weekend at Toronto and we’ll probably have lots of contact, but that’s expected when 230mph racecars are penned into a concrete pillbox.
Iowa was probably the best race of the year – and obviously we all have our opinions on what constitutes “good racing.” But only one fit that description last weekend, and despite all the folks who tuned in, it wasn’t in Florida.