Pruett's cooldown lap: Laguna Seca

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Pruett's cooldown lap: Laguna Seca

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Pruett's cooldown lap: Laguna Seca

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Sadness is starting to creep in as the final IndyCar race of the year has arrived. It’s been so damn amazing so far, from the first lap of the season when Josef Newgarden – a guy who doesn’t make big mistakes – pooped the bed and wiped a bunch of drivers out of the opening race, to Romain Grosjean turning the close of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix into a nail-biting thriller.

Alex Palou has come from nowhere to find himself on the cusp of his first championship; Pato O’Ward’s singlehandedly hauled Arrow McLaren SP into title contention; Marcus Ericsson silenced his critics with a pair of wins and a string of top fives; Rinus VeeKay joined the ranks of IndyCar race winners; and we have a trio of rookies in Scott McLaughlin, Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson who’ve given us fascinating story arcs to follow.

Throw in 100 other elements to the season that are worth remembering or debating, and 2021 won’t be easily forgotten. It’s also been a tough year with too many losses, which is why I have mixed emotions about the finish line that’s coming Sunday afternoon in Long Beach.

In one sense, I want the great racing and drama to continue, and then there’s the lingering weariness and shadows cast by the deaths of Robin Miller, Bobby Unser, Bob Jenkins, and other family members who make me think turning the page and taking some time to heal before 2022 arrives just might be what we need.

On to Long Beach we go.

AN OPPORTUNITY MISSED

The only negative that comes to mind from Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix was the lost opportunity to see a home state reckoning between front-row starters Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi. A showdown between the Californians was the gift I’d hoped for; with a clear track at their disposal, who would win the internecine contest? Moreover, would Rossi rein in the young upstart and quash the notion that he’s 1B to Herta’s 1A?

Sadly, the fast and loud Andretti forum didn’t make it past lap 2.

Herta’s taken command of Andretti Autosport’s fortunes since his arrival via the Harding Steinbrenner Racing alliance in 2019, and in the head-to-head contest between himself and Rossi that’s emerged, Herta’s leading in the win column 5-2. Move the stats to 2020-2021, when Herta was elevated to the big Andretti team, and he’s 3-0 against the entire full-time squad.

Third in the championship last year, and sixth entering his home race this weekend, Herta’s also been the clear leader in points standings. And yet, with some horrendously terrible luck over the last two seasons, and the odd error like Sunday’s spin while trying to pass Herta, it feels like there’s a score to settle between Andretti’s two fastest drivers. Subtract a couple of the cartoon anvils that struck Rossi, and there’s no doubt he’d have a few more wins and stronger finishing positions in the championship.

The Herta/Rossi battle was good while it lasted. Unfortunately, it only lasted about two minutes. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

But would those alternate realities have moved him ahead of Herta? It’s impossible to say, which is why Monterey’s front-row face-off had the potential to answer whether the internal pecking order should be reconsidered.

Keep in mind how Rossi ran second in the 2018 championship and followed it with third in 2019; his seven wins since joining the series in 2016 can’t be overlooked. Nor can Herta’s five since arriving in 2019.

If we’re fortunate, a beautiful afternoon spent under the Southern California sun will give us some answers on who’s truly in charge before Romain Grosjean arrives and makes it a three-way battle for Andretti supremacy in 2022.

WHERE’S STOFFEL?

We laughed as we crossed paths Sunday before the race. By chance, I ran across former McLaren Formula 1 driver and current Mercedes Formula E pilot Stoffel Vandoorne at least five times over the weekend in the Laguna Seca paddock.

In town to experience his first IndyCar event, the Belgian wasted no time in taking meetings with seemingly every team in the series. Our first encounter was on Friday inside the Chip Ganassi Racing haulers on his way to meet with the boss, and next, it was while I was stepping out of McLaren’s groovy 1970s motor home – the ‘Condor’ – and he was headed in to meet with Zak Brown. Afterwards, it was while standing yards away as he met with Ed Carpenter, and later, it was moments after connecting with Bobby Rahal.

Vandoorne is also known to have been on Juncos Hollinger Racing’s radar while it was considering its options prior to Callum Ilott’s signing.

He’s obligated to Mercedes for one more year, which made the Laguna Seca trip more of a relationship-building exercise than one where he was searching for a seat in 2022. Considering his vast talent and experience, the 29-year-old could find himself in high IndyCar demand as teams like Arrow McLaren SP search for another driver and other teams contemplate changes within their ranks when we get to 2023.

MISC

* Will Power’s race took a quick turn for the worse when he pitted early to rectify a problem with the No. 12 Team Penske Chevy. Turns out the direct injection control unit stopped controlling his engine’s direct fuel injection system, and with a rapid change to a new DI box, the misfire was resolved and he was on his way, albeit two laps down.

Luck was not on Power’s side. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

* Sad news over the weekend that Indy 500 and midwestern racing photographer Russ Lake died. Russ was one of the beloved old-timers who you’d swear was there to shoot Jesus during his Rookie Orientation Program. A warm man, with wonderful stories to share from long gone eras, he will be missed.

* Strange close to the season with the Ed Carpenter Racing team. VeeKay had that Indy road course win and a P2 in Detroit before getting hurt. Since his return, it’s been finishes between 16th and 24th and a slide down to 11th in the championship over the last six races. On the flipside, teammate Conor Daly has risen to lead the ECR duo home in each of the six rounds, but those have ranged from 11th to 16th. VeeKay had six top 10 finishes before the cycling crash as ECR was on a charge, but the front-running mojo has been elusive for both drivers in the second half of the championship. While Daly’s push to lead the team has been an interesting wrinkle during VeeKay’s breakout season, the team’s best performances seem distant. A strong outing in Long Beach would be a welcome reversal of recent fortunes for the scrappy team and its young stars.

* Colton Herta, please stop reducing Monterey’s squirrel and rabbit population.

* Graham Rahal: another mid-pack qualifying result, and another impassioned drive to claim a quality finish. He’s become one of the best game-day performers in the series when there’s a poor or unrewarding qualifying position to overcome.

* With Grosjean as the high achiever in third, it was also great to see the sister Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan entry with Ed Jones come home not too far behind in 10th.

* Scott McLaughlin’s starting to look like he’s getting a hang of this IndyCar thing. P12 isn’t something to go crazy over, but the rookie finished between Ryan Hunter-Reay and countryman Scott Dixon in another example of what he’s capable of delivering while learning a new style of car and racing.

* It’s another busy week, so let’s close on something positive and future-minded: Talk about a huge swing in the Indy Lights championship. Andretti’s Kyle Kirkwood put on an absolute clinic in Monterey, taking both wins and control of the standings over HMD/GRG’s David Malukas. These two friends and rivals have given us 2021’s version of Pato O’Ward vs Colton Herta, and Oliver Askew vs Rinus VeeKay. Back and forth, trading wins, with the duo demonstrating they are more than ready for IndyCar.

Kirkwood’s created some separation with one race weekend left, but Malukas is certainly capable of fighting back and coming out on top with the title. If we’re lucky, their battles will continue for the next decade or two in IndyCar.

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