When cautions fly in IndyCar make things interesting. Photo: IndyCar

Will closed pits and bad caution timing shift IndyCar’s title tilt?

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – One of the things that is outside a strategist’s control is when the yellows fall in a Verizon IndyCar Series road or street course race, such as today’s Honda Indy 200 (3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

Depending on when they do, particularly around a pit stop cycle, it can either make or break your race – and potentially your season.

The question is, do you pit right when a pit window opens, which avoids the potential of getting caught out? Or do you opt to stretch your luck, pit later, and potentially catch a caution at the wrong time?

Toronto’s race two weeks ago, the Honda Indy Toronto, was the latest example over recent years where closing the pits for a yellow flag drastically shook up the order.

The previously dominant trio of polesitter Simon Pagenaud, front-row starter Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves, who’d vaulted to the lead after a perfect start, were caught out when Tony Kanaan nosed into the tire barriers in Turn 1 and they hadn’t visited the pit lane yet.

It was Josef Newgarden who was the beneficiary of that, the Team Penske driver having followed his strategist Tim Cindric’s call to pit just prior to the yellow flag, as Cindric had done for Will Power last year in the same race. Newgarden promptly won his second race this year from there.

Off-sequence strategies and cautions have adjusted how Mid-Ohio has fallen the last couple years. What looked like a fight between Newgarden and his predecessor in the No. 2 Team Penske car, Juan Pablo Montoya, in 2015 went away as Sage Karam spun and Rahal promptly leapfrogged to the win. Karam’s spin was not without its controversy, though.

Newgarden, Rossi and Hinchcliffe moved to the fore in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

As the Verizon IndyCar Series heads into the final five races of the season with the top four within 23 points and the top seven within 72 – these the seven likely realistic title contenders of Scott Dixon, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Newgarden, Will Power, Rahal and Takuma Sato – how the yellows fall in the three remaining road course races will be fascinating to watch.

Newgarden explained the conundrum drivers find themselves in depending on cautions, but they’re not in nearly as tight a spot as strategists.

“I mean, it depends on where you qualify, right? I think that changes your strategy. Maybe that helps you or hurts you,” Newgarden explained. “I think in Toronto, it was probably a blessing qualifying seventh because, you know, our strategy was to come in early. We just happened to catch a yellow at the right point. I still think we had good potential without it. But that always just makes your day a lot easier.

“So I don’t know. I don’t think there’s really a good recipe for it. You either get lucky on the right days or you don’t. You qualify first up here, it is always good to qualify on the pole. Maybe you just catch a bad yellow. Qualifying 10th was right thing that day. But I have no idea how you guard against it.”

Rahal was particularly frustrated by the caution timing in Toronto. Team owner and father Bobby spoke out against IndyCar’s current rules about how the pits close when a full course caution flies.

“You’re right, we’ve been on both ends of it,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We benefited at Mid-Ohio (in 2015) by ducking in and then gratuitously a yellow showed up. We were fourth or fifth, sixth, and then ended up first.

“But Toronto was frustrating for sure. Really the top three cars in the field frankly, were handsomely ahead of the fourth place car. It was the wrong place, the wrong time and very frustrating. Fate plays such a role, or bad luck, or however you want to describe it.”

Carpenter with Spencer Pigot. Photo: IndyCar

Ed Carpenter can speak to both the driver and owner perspectives. The man atop Ed Carpenter Racing is a driver on the ovals, but on the box for the road and street course races.

“I think it’s the best possible situation for what we have now,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “A lot of times the variety gets taken out of play for the other teams if the pits were closed. Sometimes guys benefit in spite of their own personal preferences!”

Mike Hull, Scott Dixon’s longtime race strategist, has been on both sides of the divide as well.

“I think we worry about it at every road track,” Hull said. “We keep knocking on the door for INDYCAR to maybe adapt a system where they don’t trap the leader on the race track; they did that for a while with the previous Race Director and he did a good job of that. INDYCAR has proven it can be done; it’s something they need to look at. It’s a conversation we’ve had; I think it needs to go past the conversation stage.”

So will this be something INDYCAR examines, or is it just a case of teams just missing the window to pit when they can? Rahal and Newgarden outlined what they would like to see for the way forward.

Bobby and Graham Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m in the process of trying to come up with some ideas, and Jay (Frye) and Brian (Barnhart) are all ears on that,” Rahal said. “One thing is, I’ve never been a fan of is the closed pits. Certainly when I drove, we never had closed pits.

“Number one, it makes for a more dangerous situation when people run in when everyone comes in. I wonder in this case if the Kanaan situation had been a local yellow, and it should have been to my mind, the leaders could get in and get out. I get it when stuff is scattered all over the place and maybe you need it then. I didn’t think the TK incident merited a full-course yellow. But, it doesn’t matter what I thought!

“By not closing the pits, that solves that situation. In the end, that’s the guys who weren’t competitive initially, who are struggling on tires, they’re the ones who benefit. That moved them to the front.

“I want to propose the idea – that in all cases, they don’t close the pits anymore (when a full course caution comes out). It creates a lot of issues and risks you don’t need. We’ll see. It’s a real matter of more using the local yellow. And if someone violates that by speeding through a yellow area, say they’re black flagged or something like that. We saw that at Detroit lost the pole, with Castroneves, and that was in qualifying. I think the local yellows should be used much more often than they are. The pits shouldn’t be closed in any situation.”

And from the driver’s standpoint?

“It’s definitely been an interesting topic,” Newgarden said. “I think definitely in the past, I’ve always preferred having the yellows because it gives you an opportunity if you’re not strong one weekend. I think definitely when I suffered more inconsistently from track to track with performance, it was nice to be able to rely on potential yellows to help you.

“Now it feels like this year we’re more consistently just fast everywhere, so you don’t really want them. I think there’s a different opinion whether you’re at the front or back of the grid.

“It would be cool if we could go back to open pit scenario somehow. The rules are what they are right now.

“How you safeguard against them, I don’t think you can. You’re either lucky or you’re not.”

PWC confirms 2018 season finale at Watkins Glen

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Pirelli World Challenge will end its 2018 season at Watkins Glen International, the series confirmed Friday.

The exciting finale will feature traditional 50-minute sprints for GT and GTS classes and 40-minute features for Touring Car classes.

The last PWC event at Watkins Glen was held in 2010 with sports car greats Ron Fellows (GT) and Peter Cunningham (GTS) winning the top two events and Robert Stout claiming the Touring Car race. The Pirelli World Challenge series premiered at Watkins Glen International in 1992 and has featured eight PWC years (1992, 1996-1998, 2007-2010) at the famed New York road racing facility.

“We couldn’t be more excited to welcome Pirelli World Challenge competitors, officials, leadership, and fans to Watkins Glen International in 2018,” said Michael Printup, Watkins Glen International President. “This series features fantastic wheel-to-wheel racing across a wide spectrum of sportscar classes and our fans are in for a treat on Labor Day weekend next year.”

In addition to the Watkins Glen season finale, the Pirelli World Challenge also announced its race lineup for 2018 with the GT/GTA/GT Cup divisions again being split into five GT Sprint (50 minutes) and five GT SprintX (60 minutes, two drivers) races. The GTS events, featuring GT4 machinery, will remain nine-weekends with a total of 18 50-minute Sprint rounds while Touring Car divisions will contest 40-minute Sprints in the class’ 12-race, six-weekend campaign.

The GT Sprint championships will be contested in the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif., as well as at the permanent road circuits of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Road America and Watkins Glen. The GT SprintX championship will be campaigned at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), VIRginia International Raceway, Lime Rock Park, Portland International Raceway and Utah Motorsports Campus.

Details on the 2018 race regulations for GT Sprint and GT SprintX events will be announced in the near future, including the new pit stop requirements and other amendments to competition rules.

Featuring the GT3 and GT4 categories, the second annual SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge California 8 Hours is set to return to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Oct. 26-28.

2018 Pirelli World Challenge Schedule

Date, Track (Classes)

March 9-11, Streets of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Fla. (GT Sprint and GTS)
March 23-25, Circuit Of The Americas (COTA), Austin, Texas (GT SprintX, GTS and Touring Car)
April 13-15, Streets of Long Beach Long Beach, Calif. (GT Sprint)
April 28-30, VIRginia International Raceway Alton, Va., (GT SprintX, GTS and Touring Car)
May 18-20, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park Bowmanville, Ont., CAN, (GT Sprint and GTS)
May 25-26 -28, Lime Rock Park Lakeville, Conn., (GT SprintX, GTS and Touring Car)
June 22-24 Road America Elkhart Lake, Wis., (GT Sprint and GTS)
July 13-15, Portland International Raceway Portland, Ore., (GT SprintX, GTS and Touring Car)
August 10-12, Utah Motorsports Campus Grantsville, Utah, (GT SprintX, GTS and Touring Car)
Aug. 31-Sept. 1-2 Watkins Glen International Watkins Glen, N.Y., (GT Sprint, GTS and Touring Car)

Special Event

SRO Intercontinental GT Challenge, California 8 Hours
October 26-28, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Salinas, Calif.