Indianapolis 500

Wilson and Coyne’s fifth highlights otherwise tough Indy 500 for Honda

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Fittingly, a dogged effort from one of IndyCar’s grittiest drivers put a positive finish on what had been a frustrating month of May for Honda at Indianapolis 500.

Justin Wilson rebounded from a day where he fell as far back as 26th to finish fifth for the plucky Dale Coyne Racing team, in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America/Sonny’s BBQ Honda. The top Honda finisher on the day recorded his third top-10 finish in his last four ‘500 starts, and also posted the race’s fastest lap (226.940 mph on lap 185).

Wilson was one of only three Hondas that ended the race in the top 10, and for a majority of the day, only one or two Hondas made it in. Wilson’s comeback came after his team, led by engineer Bill Pappas, reverted the setup back to what had been working earlier in the week.

“We put it back to where it was, honestly,” said Wilson. “We had blistered the right rear tire at one point. I maxed out all my tools to stop it from getting too loose. We were doing 212s just hanging on! But after that, the car was quick, and we caught up to the pack.”

The drive was all the more remarkable given the uninterrupted stretch of green flag running from lap 61 to 193. Wilson was 24th on lap 110, 16th by lap 150, and 10th by lap 175.

His pair of female teammates showed well enough; Ana Beatriz drove a trouble-free race for her best ever 500 result, from 29th to 15th, while Pippa Mann was caught up in a bottleneck effect on a restart and made slight contact with the Turn 4 wall. Mann ran as high as second during an off-sequence pit strategy and was comfortable with her car in the laps she did have on track.

Beyond the Coyne fairytale, it was a month to forget for Honda. Simon Pagenaud and Charlie Kimball drove good races to end eighth and ninth, but that was all the manufacturer could muster.

Alex Tagliani and Scott Dixon had been the strongest Hondas throughout the race, but Tagliani brushed the Turn 1 wall on lap 168, damaging his suspension and ending his chances, while Dixon ran between ninth and 15th all day, ending just 14th. Dixon’s Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe were surprisingly non-factors.

A.J. Foyt’s pair was rarely a factor; Takuma Sato’s spun interrupted his race, while rookie Conor Daly made it home without incident.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had insult added to injury to end its miserable month – both of its cars were fined for a blend line violation, James Jakes got a second penalty for a pit safety infraction, and Graham Rahal crashed on lap 194, which set up the eventual final restart.

Pagenaud’s Schmidt teammates couldn’t really show their full hand; Tristan Vautier ran smoothly but quietly to 16th while Katherine Legge’s early charge was stunted by Beatriz sliding up the road at the exit of Turn 2, which caused suspension damage.

Lastly, Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing had something happen to his car in the first stint, and he was never able to recover the lost laps.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.