After botched pass attempt, is it worth asking if Long Beach gets to Ryan Hunter-Reay?

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Leaving the track last night after the Verizon IndyCar Series’ second race of the 2014 season, it hit me – Ryan Hunter-Reay’s passing attempt on Josef Newgarden Sunday wasn’t just a typical passing attempt.

It was part of a pattern that sees one of the series’ most complete drivers opt to make, to me at least, an out-of-body type decision when it comes to this race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Many regard Will Power as the out-and-out fastest driver and Scott Dixon as the most complete driver in the field, but it’s hard not to include the 2012 series champion in the discussion for either of those two categories.

When it comes to Long Beach in particular, move RHR ahead of Dixon and infinitesimally close to Power in that Q rating. On the streets of Southern California, since he switched to Andretti Autosport, Hunter-Reay always enters as one of the favorites.

The record in the last four years at Long Beach prior to Sunday: started second, and won in 2010. In 2011: started second, retired (P23) due to a gearbox issue. 2012: started 13th (qualified third but had a 10-spot grid penalty for an engine change) and ended sixth (time penalty added for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato after ending third on the road). Last year: started second, retired (P24) due to contact and a rare unforced error.

The 2010 win though was a career-defining moment for RHR. He’d been through a seriously rough stretch throughout 2009, needing to complete two last-minute deals just to race and on a personal note, losing his mom due to colon cancer. It was a win that helped solidify his future at Andretti Autosport, with the win turning a six-race deal into a full-season one.

Yet on-track, in this race since that 2010 win, I’ve seen a burning desire from RHR more than at almost any other track – save for maybe Milwaukee, where he’s won the last two years – to not only be the best, but possibly attempt things outside his comfort zone.

And that occasionally leads to trouble. Unnecessary trouble, at that.

Take the 2012 incident between he and Sato, for instance. It was the last lap, in a battle for third, where Hunter-Reay charged down the inside of the left-handed Turn 6 and made contact with the-then Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver. There wasn’t much room for the maneuver, as Sato left enough room but not enough for a reasonable side-by-side attempt to where RHR could successfully pass.

That’s the art of defensive driving; if RHR backs off there, he gets fourth place points and a reasonable chunk to take into the next race. Instead, he went for it, made contact, and got docked several positions. Ultimately it was a net 7 point loss, but considering Hunter-Reay only won the 2012 title by 3 points, those were crucial.

Last year, he came into Long Beach as defending series champion. But in the race, trying to extend the gap, he over-stepped his boundaries and made a mistake when he nosed into the Turn 8 wall. He owned it, though, and that was a good sign.

Flash back now to yesterday. Hunter-Reay dominates most of the first half from pole, and pretty much would have the race in the bag after the second round of pit stops. He approaches Newgarden entering Turn 4; at best, an overtake will only happen if it’s a leader approaching lapped traffic, not an actual lead pass attempt.

RHR had options. He could have held back and opted to wait until either of Turn 6, where his move on Sato failed to work two years earlier; Turn 8, where he made the unforced error in 2013; or Turn 9, the second consecutive 90-degree right hander at the end of the Seaside Way back straight where passing frequently occurs.

In any of those three spots, Newgarden’s cold tires would still not have been completely up to temperature, and Hunter-Reay could have afforded a simple, standard type maneuver with likely, no consequences. And the race lead.

Instead, he opted to channel his Ayrton Senna and go for a gap that he thought existed – even though it was pretty much Newgarden’s corner – and admitted as much in his post-race interview.

The end result was a completely unnecessary accident that took him and his teammate out and pissed off his team boss and race strategist. It ended the races of the guy whose team had beat the Andretti squad on pit stops thanks to pitting a lap later, and a handful of others who had nowhere to go in the fracas.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is a champion, a gentleman, a philanthropist and one of IndyCar’s all-around best drivers. But that doesn’t provide him an out-clause after making one of the least champion-worthy moves I’ve seen in a long time.

And maybe because it occurred at Long Beach, it was destined to occur anyway.

INDYCAR Preview – KOHLER Grand Prix

Photo: IndyCar
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One of the great road courses in the United States, Road America, plays host to the next round of the Verizon IndyCar Series – the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday June 24, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

A staple of IndyCar between 1982 and 2007, IndyCar returned to Road America amidst great fanfare in 2016. And the two visits since its return have not disappointed.

Will Power held off a hard-charging Tony Kanaan to win in 2016, while Graham Rahal survived a thrilling battle for third to round out the podium. And last year, Scott Dixon made an outstanding outside pass on Josef Newgarden in Turn 1 to take the lead on a late-race restart, and he held on to win from there – it was also his only victory of 2017.

And if the previous road and street courses are any indication, Sunday’s race could be another thriller on the 4.048-mile road course.

Major talking points ahead of the KOHLER Grand Prix are below.

The Rise of Dixon

Scott Dixon celebrates victory in the DXC Technology 600. Photo: IndyCar

The 2018 IndyCar season is beginning look a lot like a Scott Dixon year.

After a somewhat slow start to his season, Dixon caught fire in the month of May. He finished second at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, then third at the Indianapolis 500.

He followed that up with a ferocious first two weeks of June, winning Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and finishing fourth in Race 2. He followed that up by dominating the second half of the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway to take his second win of the season, and his second in three races.

That stretch has put Dixon into the championship lead for the first time this season. And he is also the defending winner of the KOHLER Grand Prix, after passing then leader Josef Newgarden on a late-race restart, so he likely enters the weekend as the favorite.

“Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another,” Dixon explained. “While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

Dixon won’t go nearly as far as to talk anything championship-related at the moment, but a fifth championship is most certainly possible.

Road America Could Become Very Tire-some

Tire strategy will likely be at the forefront in Road America. Photo: IndyCar

The primary “black” and alternate “red” Firestone tires have created genuinely intriguing racing in recent weeks.

The difference in grip levels between them saw Will Power and Robert Wickens engage in a fantastic and tactical mid-race duel at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, and it created a lot of drama across both races in Belle Isle, culminating in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s charge to victory in Race 2.

And last year’s KOHLER Grand Prix ultimately came down to tire strategy. The aforementioned Dixon passed Newgarden because he was on the alternate “red” tires, while Newgarden was on the primary “blacks” – Newgarden also took the lead earlier in the race using the same tactic, getting onto reds when other leaders were on blacks, which helped him pass Helio Castroneves for the lead.

It’s within reason to think this weekend at Road America will be more of the same.

Newgarden’s Season Slipping Away?

Josef Newgarden. Photo: IndyCar

Josef Newgarden entered the month of May on a hot streak, having won two of the opening four races to lead the championship as the series headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The wheels have metaphorically come off a bit since then. He finished 11th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix after spinning late in the race, eighth at the Indy 500, ninth and 15th in Detroit, and 13th at Texas Motor Speedway.

That stretch has dropped him from the championship lead to fifth in the standings, 68 points off Dixon for the title lead.

If he is to get himself back into title contention, he’ll need to get back on the podium this weekend. And fortunately for Newgarden, the Road America circuit ranks at the top of his personal favorites.

“I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love?” Newgarden asserted. “These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay is quietly beginning to put together a title-contending year. Outside of a 20th at Long Beach, and 18th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Hunter-Reay’s worst finish is fifth (three times), and he three podiums to his name, including his Detroit Race 2 victory. He sits 49 points behind Dixon, well within striking distance. This is about the time of the year when he started his title run back in 2012, which culminated in a series championship for him, and 2018 could be headed in that direction.
  • Graham Rahal sits sixth in the standings, 107 points back. His crash in Detroit Race 1 undoubtedly hurt his title chances, but he has been incredibly consistent outside of that, finishing inside the Top 10 at every other race. However, he’ll need some victories later in the year if he is to put himself back in the title picture.
  • Juncos Racing returns to the grid, with Alfonso Celis making his IndyCar debut. A standout and race winner in World Series Formula V8 3.5, he previously raced with Juncos in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Barber Motorsports Park, where he finished seventh and eighth.

The Final Word…

From Robert Wickens, who made his IndyCar debut in Friday practice last year at Road America – he subbed for Mikhail Aleshin, who was delayed in arriving at Road America following the 24 Hours of Le Mans:

“I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 22
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15-4:15 p.m. (4:15-5:15 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 23
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5:30 p.m. same-day delay)

Sunday, June 24
11:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on-air
12:05 p.m. (1:05 p.m. ET) – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s Top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Will Power
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Ed Jones
8. Graham Rahal
9. Max Chilton
10. Mikhail Aleshin

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Scott Dixon
6. Graham Rahal

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