LEXINGTON, Ohio – A look through the field of 22 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that started Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course revealed only six of them – Mikhail Aleshin, Max Chilton, Conor Daly, RC Enerson, Spencer Pigot and Jack Hawksworth – are yet to win an IndyCar race.
And when you consider Chilton, Daly, Pigot and Enerson are all rookies, and Enerson was making his series debut Sunday, it speaks volumes of the depth of competition that only Aleshin and Hawksworth – who were part of the 2014 IndyCar rookie class – are in their second and third year and haven’t won yet.
Aleshin very nearly snapped that streak today in his 30th career start, with the driver known as the “Mad Russian” delivering arguably one of his best drives yet in the series and losing out on a first career victory after leading the most laps.
Perhaps ironically, how he lost it was tied to the fate of another driver who two years ago at this race, lost his would-be first career win in the Mid-Ohio pit lane – Josef Newgarden.
In a nutshell, Aleshin started 10th and pitted for his first stop in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda before the first caution flew a few laps later when Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon collided at the Keyhole.
That left the top 13 drivers in a “well, now we need to pit under yellow” situation and springboarded Aleshin – who was 14th at the time – up to fourth, and net lead once the trio of Juan Pablo Montoya, Marco Andretti and Max Chilton pitted as they’d stayed out once the caution flew.
But once Aleshin got out front, he stayed there. He led from Laps 26 to 40, then recycled back to the lead on Lap 45 once the second round of stops was complete.
Difference was, he had the pair of Team Penske teammates, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, now breathing down his neck as they’d made up middle ground since being caught out by the first yellow. But Aleshin was pushing hard, and driving fast – and his gap was well north of 10 seconds to the lead.
And then, it was Aleshin’s turn to have the race come undone – much like Newgarden had happen to him on his final scheduled pit stop here two years ago, also in a Honda, then driving for the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team.
Once Jack Hawksworth ran off course at Turn 1 and into the tire barriers, that brought out the second full-course caution of the race and presented a nightmare scenario: a full field pit sequence on the notoriously tight Mid-Ohio pit lane.
And, that’s it when it all went away for Aleshin. Coming in from the lead on Lap 63, Aleshin made it into his pit box. But upon exiting, he had a double hit – Team Penske crew member Vance Walker was hit after Aleshin collided with the entering, you guessed it, Newgarden in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Poor Newgarden had seemingly been a piñata during the race anyway, having had his left rear wheel guard hit for the second race running by a Team Penske driver, then having this.
INDYCAR did release this medical update during the race: Medical update from Dr. Michael Olinger, INDYCAR Medical Director: Team Penske crew member Vance Welker, the chief mechanic and outside front tire changer for 2-Montoya, has been checked and released from the infield care center.
Aleshin, who would then be assessed two penalties – one a pit safety infraction to restart at the back, and the second for hitting personnel a drive-through penalty – fell out of the lead and down to an eventual 17th place finish.
Ever the statesman though, and mincing no words, Aleshin spoke first to NBCSN’s Robin Miller and then a group of reporters after the race.
“Well you know sometimes I can hold myself, yes,” Aleshin told Miller. “To be fair, that was a racing incident. I understand why it happened. It was a very nervous moment for everybody, we were leading the race and everybody was coming to the pits.
“There were a lot of people coming at the same time. We were little bit overstressed. We got into Newgarden. That’s life and that’s racing.
“It’s a good thing that we were leading the race, comfortable. I was saving tires, saving fuel, at the same time pulling away from Penske cars which was a good feeling. We had a really good pace. That’s really, really good progress to where we started the weekend. We started dead last and qualified P10 and led most of the race. We made some mistakes, but we’ll kick some ass next time.”
Aleshin expanded to the assembled reporters:
“It felt great to lead the race, we got really lucky with the strategy at one point but then I was thinking that we were going to have trouble with speed but we didn’t have any trouble and I was pulling away from the guys and at the same time I was saving fuel, so everything was perfect, you know? I wasn’t pushing like crazy, I was saving fuel, I was saving tires, and I was pulling away from them. It would be a win for sure, an easy win.
“I think it was pretty obvious. They released me and I had a collision. It’s just unlucky. … We started like from nowhere this weekend, then were coming up higher and higher. … The car was just phenomenally impressive. We can be up there, you know. The next time, we’ll be a little more lucky in the pits and we’ll be fine. Anyway, I was happy to lead the race.”
The funny thing is, Aleshin came fifth at Iowa and sixth in Toronto – both of which were decent results – and today was the day we’ll go down remembering when he finished 17th because like Newgarden, who’s now won three races in IndyCar, Aleshin is high on that “next first-time winner” list.
Newgarden, who’d also been caught up in the pit incident, finished 10th after a tough afternoon.
He’d put together an incredible drive and the fact he pulled out what he did against the Team Penske drivers, building that gap in the middle stint, was remarkable.
As for teammate James Hinchcliffe? It’s funny but today he was the overshadowed one, with the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda able to use strategy to his benefit and end fifth after starting ninth. It follows nicely from his third place finish in Toronto two weeks ago.