Well, that was a doubleheader filled with more drama than most would have anticipated. Before we get to the variety of talking points that emerged, let’s open with unexpected quality of Friday’s race versus the comparatively subdued Harvest Grand Prix closer on Saturday.
The difference in entertainment between Round 1’s 85-lapper and Round 2’s 75-lap race was remarkable, and we can credit the extra 10 laps on Friday for the all the wonderful passing. Thanks to the intersection between fuel-stint length, tire degradation, and a wide array of pit stop options presented by the 85 laps, teams had a huge range of scenarios to play with in Round 1. Some stopped early, some went long, and the results gave us a field full of drivers who were rarely on the same strategy at the same time.
Think of it like pulling onto the highway and having one car going slowly in the fast lane, another charging in the middle lane, and the slow lane being empty. For those of us who view such things as passing opportunities, the varying speeds of the cars surrounding us makes for a fun commute as creative overtaking takes place.
Round 2, with its shortened race length designed to accommodate NBC’s tight broadcast window, all but stripped the strategic creativity from the contest, and with most drivers pitting within one or two laps of each other, the quality of the racing was nothing like Round 1’s offering. It was the dreaded scenario of merging onto the highway to find the cars in every lane are doing the same approximate speed, having few options to cut left and right to weave your way forward, and being locked into a boring drive where passing rarely presents itself as an option.
Like the NBC broadcast window, IndyCar will always have external constraints placed on the lengths for most races. But the difference in 10 silly laps on the IMS road course served as a reminder of how crucial race length – and the freedoms or restrictions the lengths place on strategy and fun – can be to the quality of its product.
In standalone stories, we’ve covered the championship points situation, Will Power’s recent rise, the fortunes of the three returning veterans, the $1 million Leaders Circle race, and more, leaving us to close the Harvest GP with miscellaneous thoughts from the 12th and 13th races of the 14-race IndyCar season:
* I’m reminded of the 2015 IndyCar season with how the championship is shaping up leading into the final race. Five years ago, Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya won the opening round, took the lead in the standings and held it for the entire year, only to have a surging Scott Dixon come out ahead at the last race to score his fourth title.
With Dixon taking the opening three races in 2020, we’re facing an identical situation where the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has led the entire way, Penske’s Josef Newgarden continues to erode Dixon’s lead as we head towards the October 25 showdown in St. Petersburg, and the momentum has shifted in the challenger’s direction. With Montoya and Dixon, the two ended up tied on points, so the championship was settled by which driver had more wins, which fell in Dixon’s favor by 3-2. In both regards today, Dixon leads Newgarden by 32 points, and in the win column 4-3. The last parallel of interest is how Dixon trailed Montoya by 47 points entering Sonoma in 2015. It was a double-points race, which certainly helped his cause, but if we cut that number in half to make it fit with the Oct. 25 single-points finale, we’re talking about a 23.5-point deficit. Newgarden’s 32-point shortage means he’ll have to create greater separation between himself and Dixon, but like we saw five years ago – when the CGR driver went into the championship closer holding third in the standings behind Graham Rahal – there’s a slim, but real chance the title could change hands.
* The difficulties of turning up for occasional road racing events and being competitive was illustrated by Sage Karam and the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team. The 2014 Indy Lights champion qualified 21st for Round 1 and finished 23rd in the 25-car field. Round 2 was no less of a challenge as he qualified 22nd and placed 24th. Rather than point to any specific shortcoming within DRR for what occurred, I’d put the outcomes down to the brutal level of competitiveness put forth by the full-time teams. The days where part-time teams could turn up and have half a chance at a decent result seem to be at an end. If there’s a desire, and a budget to support such a thing, forging a technical alliance with a full-time Chevy-powered rival might be the smartest route to consider.
* Airing Round 1 on the USA Network offered a few laughs between the action. Based on the advertiser rotation, it was rather obvious that those who might be inclined to consume a televised automobile race were not the expected audience. Instead of the familiar car and motor oil ads, we had Revitalift anti-aging and anti-wrinkle skincare products; Elvive Dream Lengths restoring shampoo; Nature’s Bounty Hair, Skin, and Nails Chewables; and other goodies that might have missed the target demographic that tuned in.
* MR INVISIBLE, Round 1: Simon Pagenaud. Alexander Rossi has finally returned to form as his team’s speed has been rediscovered, and finds himself just six points behind Pagenaud in the championship. It’s as if the racing gods decided the first half of Rossi’s season would be absolute trash, and once he’d reached his tolerance for misery, the tragedy would be transferred to Pagenaud. Like Mid-Ohio Round 1, Pagenaud was an afterthought on Friday at IMS, coming home 16th as Power claimed sixth and Newgarden took the win. He’d improve to 10th on Saturday, but once again, his presence was rarely felt as Newgarden finished fourth and Power won. Just as we’re trying to figure out why Dixon is lacking for speed of late, the same has been true – for a longer duration – with Pagenaud whose pace has been fleeting since the Indy 500. The performance gap between Penske’s two leading performers and Pagenaud makes no sense.