Pruett's cooldown lap: Road America

Burke/Motorsport Images

Pruett's cooldown lap: Road America

Insights & Analysis

Pruett's cooldown lap: Road America

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Road America was an absolute blast for all the reasons that make a motor race worth watching. We had raw speed (Josef Newgarden), giant oversteer (Pato O’Ward), crashes and clashes galore (almost everyone, it seemed), and a few interlopers to follow (Kevin Magnussen, Cody Ware), and high drama (Newgarden, Alex Palou) to close the race that made the REV Group Grand Prix one that won’t be easily forgotten.

We’ve covered some topics in the race report and sidebar stories, so here are some other observations to recap the event:

IT’S RAINING MIDWESTERN CARTOON ANVILS

The Road America lap chart shows Josef Newgarden was leading on Lap 53 of 55. A week before, it had Will Power leading on Lap 65 of 70 on Saturday’s Race 1 of the Dual in Detroit doubleheader. Let’s not forget Newgarden was also in the frame for a solid run at Detroit 1 until his wheel fell off at the first pit stop. At Detroit Round 2, Newgarden was shown leading on Lap 67 of 70. In all three instances, Team Penske surrendered those late leads.

Split across the three, Penske’s Newgarden and Power came within 10 combined laps of authoring a trio of victories in 195 laps of competition.

Newgarden led 32 laps at Road America. Power led 32 at Detroit 1. Newgarden led 67 at Detroit 2, for 131 laps of mastery over those 195 from Belle Isle to Road America. And yet, with five laps to go at Detroit 1, three at Detroit 2, and two at Elkhart Lake, crushing losses were visited upon The Captain’s team. Just brutal and undeserved.

Newgarden has led 99 of 195 laps over the last three races, but has no wins to show for it. Levitt/Motorsport Images

WOMEN ENGINEERS CONTINUE TO ROCK

Following the breakthrough wins at Detroit with Marcus Ericsson’s assistant Chip Ganassi race engineer Angela Ashmore and Nicole Rotondo, Ericsson’s Honda Performance Development engine engineer, and another win for Pato O’Ward’s Arrow McLaren SP performance engineer Kate Gundlach, the tally increased at Road America with Alex Palou’s CGR simulation engineer Danielle Shepherd, who has two wins this year and has been an important part of the program for many years.

WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?

Every race has one or more drivers who fell off the radar or went for a long drive throughout the field and weren’t necessarily rewarded for their efforts. At Road America, the first of two to spotlight is A.J. Foyt Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, who must have wondered if he angered some gnomes and evil spirits living in the forest.

Bourdais qualified well in P11, but ended the first lap back in P13, made his first pit stop, and once more, left in the hole, losing five spots with a slow stop. Relegated to P18, the misery wasn’t over as the rear of the car felt weird. In an annual tradition at Road America, a car had its camber shims come loose and the handling went south during the race. This year, that car belonged to Bourdais, who had to pit and have the problem rectified on the left-rear; he’d lose a lap in the process.

To quote the rapper Sticky Fingaz, “But wait, it gets worse.”

Bourdais would get his lap back when Kevin Magnussen caused a caution, but the pits closed as a result of the yellow and the No. 14 Chevy needed fuel. He’d pit for emergency service, get enough fuel to circulate until the pits opened, pitted again to fill the tank, and was duly penalized for the emergency service on a closed pit lane, which sent Bourdais to the back of the field.

All of this happened in the first 37 laps of the race! Restarting in P22, Bourdais would do Bourdais things and haul the No. 14 up to P16 at the finish.

The second spotlight goes to Oliver Askew, who had a weekend of fluctuating fortunes as he was flying inside the top 10 in the first two practice sessions, struggled with handling in qualifying to earn P16, and then went on a crazy journey in the race. Like Bourdais, he lost a ton of positions on pit lane with slow stops, pitting in P15 under yellow on Lap 24 and returning in P20, for example, and with his next stop from P13 under yellow on Lap 36, he took the green in P21 and was sent on an operation to pray for a yellow, then found himself in the lead in the closing laps after everyone else pitted. A caution did arrive on Lap 52, but by that time, he was on fumes and surrendered the lead, resumed in P15, and wound up in P12 at the finish line.

Bourdais did Bourdais things and battled relentlessly, even overcoming being a lap down, to finish 14th. Cantrell/Motorsport Images

POINTS THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’

Leaving the Detroit, this was your top 10:

  1. Pato O’Ward, 299 points
  2. Alex Palou, 298, -1
  3. Scott Dixon, 263, -36
  4. Josef Newgarden, 248, -51
  5. Rinus VeeKay, 243, -56
  6. Simon Pagenaud, 243, -56
  7. Marcus Ericsson, 211, -88
  8. Graham Rahal, 209, -90
  9. Colton Herta, 202, -97
  10. Takuma Sato, 181, -118

Leaving Road America, here’s how good and bad fortunes shuffled the deck:

  1. Alex Palou, 349 points
  2. Pato O’Ward, 321, -28
  3. Scott Dixon, 296, -53
  4. Josef Newgarden, 261, -88
  5. Simon Pagenaud, 255, -94
  6. Rinus VeeKay, 243, -106
  7. Colton Herta, 242, -107
  8. Marcus Ericsson, 239, -110
  9. Graham Rahal, 228, -121
  10. Takuma Sato, 206, -143

Of the major takeaways, the obvious is the change atop the standings with Palou capitalizing on both Newgarden’s DNF and O’Ward’s decent but unremarkable finish of P9.

The biggest trend that took place at Road America was one of championship separation. Yes, Dixon did a marvelous job to climb from P13 to P4 in the race, but he lost 17 points to his teammate on Sunday. Newgarden’s rotten luck did similar damage, taking a reasonable 51-point deficit and punching it out to 88. Pagenaud’s P18 took his manageable gap to the leader and did some damage. It’s here, in P5 in the standings, where the separation trend takes off.

After Detroit, Rinus VeeKay in P5 and Pagenaud in P6 were tied at 56 points back from the lead. In fact, the post-Detroit top six were 50-ish points out of P1, which left a lot of drivers in the championship mix.

After Road America, it’s been cut to the top three for those who are 50-ish points behind the leader. Pagenaud, taking P5 from VeeKay who was sidelined for Road America, kicks off the cluster of drivers who are now at or near 100-plus points back from Palou.

Pagenaud was a huge climber after the Indy 500, in P4 and a modest 47 points back from Palou. Three races later, he’s in a similar place in the standings in P5, but the gap to Palou has doubled to 94.

After Detroit, the top nine drivers were within the 100-point bubble. After Road America, it’s down to the top five as this single race managed to take a highly competitive championship and turn a bunch of haves into have nots. Really, it’s Palou, O’Ward, and Dixon in the same championship zip code and a bunch of other drivers after them who are praying Mid-Ohio delivers enough points to keep them in the title conversation.

If they want to keep their title hopes alive, Newgarden and the rest at 88-plus-back-gang need to start winning or living on the podium with just seven races remaining.

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