PRUETT: Notes from Iowa

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PRUETT: Notes from Iowa

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Notes from Iowa


And in a flash, we’re one race away from the halfway point of the 2020 season. Sitting here at the 42.8-percent point in the championship, and with a few weeks of downtime until the season resumes at Mid-Ohio, it’s time to spot a few more trends.

Six races down, and two teams have shared all the wins. And no surprise, those two – Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske – are members of IndyCar’s longstanding ‘Big 3’ club. The genuine surprise comes in the absence of the third member, Andretti Autosport, and how distant they’ve been from waging a serious threat to CGR and Penske.

Andretti’s top driver in the championship, Colton Herta, is seventh in the standings, 104 points behind Scott Dixon. Leaving Road America, he was second, 54 points adrift. Across its six entries (including its technical alliance with Meyer Shank Racing’s entry for Jack Harvey), the extended Andretti family has earned a single podium from 36 opportunities, which is downright bizarre.

Alexander Rossi’s strong third at Road America 2 was important for the team, but who would have predicted Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Herta would be winless from Texas through Iowa, and RHR and Herta would have zero podiums?

The team has also been besieged by a year’s worth of misfortune in the opening six rounds, which is worth noting when assessing their results. But it’s also evident CGR and Penske have found more pace to open the championship, and if Andretti has designs on leapfrogging its Big 3 compatriots, an immense month of August will be required at Mid-Ohio, the Indy 500, and Gateway.

Picking up on another first-half development, we wrote earlier this year how Chevrolet would need more than Penske on the podium to help recapture the Manufacturers’ title, and thanks to the recent rise of Arrow McLaren SP, the Bowtie has a new and valuable contributor on the books. In 2019, Penske was responsible for 16 of Chevy’s 18 top three finishes; so far in 2020, the streaking AMSP has two of Chevy’s nine, with Pato O’Ward’s second-place at Road America 2 and Oliver Askew’s third at Iowa 1 coming right as the series heads into its break. Assuming their current form holds, O’Ward and Askew will have more podiums to offer, if not an outright win, before the season’s done.

The last trend to note, which should start to relax until we hit a busy patch again in mid-September, has been the fatigue many crew members have dealt with while executing one-day races and doubleheaders.

Often set in searing ambient conditions, the use of masks to combat the spread of COVID-19, along with wearing multiple layers of thick fireproof suits and helmets, led to significant fatigue for some as five races were executed in a 15-day span. Minus the extreme heat, it’s likely the physical toll would have been reduced, but nonetheless, weary minds and muscles were a definite contributor to the ongoing pit stop issues on display.

The sacrifices made by crew members to make IndyCar’s compressed schedule work deserves ongoing praise from the series, its team owners, and all those who’ve been entertained since the season got under way at Texas on June 6. The September swing from Portland to Laguna Seca’s doubleheader is the next quick-turn moment on the current calendar, but if the recent rumors are true, we’ll have to wait and see if the series decides to limit its travel beyond the greater Midwest (and Florida to close the year) by taking the Oregon-California trip off the schedule.

Pit crews won’t have much in the way of free time after Iowa to recharge – not with cars to repair, a road course race to prepare for, and superspeedway cars to ready for the Indy 500. Throw in the need for some teams to try and find their missing speed, or to turn terrible seasons around before August arrives, and rest will be in short supply as they get ready for the most important month of IndyCar’s year.

Other thoughts:

  • We got a rare glimpse of Angry Josef Newgarden after the first Iowa race. Frustrated by a lack of execution, among other things, his post-race venting session on NBCSN foretold what was coming in the second race. Finding a way to keep that fiery mindset intact during the break would be wise; when the champ is hellbent on winning, there’s not much the opposition can do to stop the Tennessean.
  • Not only was Conor Daly’s pole for Carlin Racing in Round 1 a huge milestone for the team, thedi Hoosier must have made history with the achievement.  First pole earned by a driver with a ginger beard, right?

Angry Josef was nowhere to be seen after the second race. Image by Cantrell/LAT

  • Scott Dixon entered Iowa with a 54-point lead over Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud. Despite Penske’s dominance of the event where Pagenaud won on Friday and finished fourth on Saturday, Dixon shadowed the Frenchman, taking home finishes of second and fifth. All the effort resulted in a loss of five points, with Dixon holding 49 markers over Pagenaud entering his favorite race at Mid-Ohio, aka, The Scott Dixon Motor Racing Circuit.
  • On the ongoing spate of pit stop glitches, issues changing right-rear tires has been one of few consistent problems across many teams. Nothing has changed with wheels, nuts, or guns since 2019, so it’s simply a byproduct of most teams having little or no time to practice as a complete unit at the shop. With most teams continuing to work in limited numbers, and in shifts, assembling every person involved with changing tires, refueling, working the fuel rig, handing or removing tires, etc., has not been an option. And with the rapid-fire pacing the race weekends, an excess of free time to hit pit lane and make up for lost practice has also been a challenge. It explains why the incredible men and women who perform IndyCar’s balletic pit stops have looked so out of sync.
  • A friendly reminder that coming off an unstable and disruptive 2019 season, 2018 Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward has been inside the top four in points for the last three races for AMSP. Yet another sign of how this year intends to defy all predictions and expectations.
  • Marco Andretti is, without a doubt, one of the nicest and most caring people to have graced the IndyCar paddock. It makes it hard, then, to reconcile how and why misfortune is his most enduring teammate. Somehow, from six races, Andretti has three 22nd-place finishes, which feels like a statistical impossibility. Another was produced at Round 1 after a clutch line fried itself. An unencumbered run to 10th at Iowa 2 – his first top 10 of 2020 – must have felt like a win. Sadly, he’s still last in points among the full-time drivers.
  • Andretti’s teammate Zach Veach needed a strong Iowa to get his season back on track. A clutch failure and fire ended Race 1. (Seriously, how many fires has this kid experienced in 2.5 years? More than the rest of the field, combined, in five years?) A swing and a miss on setup had Veach starting 22nd and finishing 20th in Round 2, and altogether, five races of 14th or worse has the Ohioan sitting 19th in points. If anybody knows of an exorcist who makes house calls, the Andretti team has a bunch of cars and drivers ready and waiting.
  • So, that thing where Herta was doing nothing crazy, gathering valuable points, and looking to start making a push at Iowa? To quote Ron Burgundy, “Boy, that escalated quickly… I mean, that really got out of hand fast.” He fell from second to seventh in points after a pair of 19th-place results.