IndyCar field brings ‘pack race’ term back to vernacular at Texas

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Infrequently since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis (IR-12 in technical terms per INDYCAR) ahead of the 2012 IndyCar Series season, have the words “pack racing” been thrown around.

With a significant reduction in the number of 1.5-mile race tracks left on the schedule – just Texas Motor Speedway stands alone as the remaining 1.5-miler on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar – and the combination of an older track and a significant tire falloff occurring over the course of a stint, the ingredients for a pack race have not been thrown around.

But in what was the closest element of a “pack race” in recent years, the combination of a repaved Texas track that was grippier than normal and the fact the new Firestone tires brought this weekend didn’t fall off as much as they had in the past over the course of the stint brought the “pack race” term back to the vernacular. Once blistering started occurring on some cars though, the decision was made to implement in-race competition cautions on safety grounds after 30 lap segments of green flag running.

Drivers ran close all night with the second groove coming into play after all, as first shown by Tristan Vautier and then by others over the course of the 248-lap Rainguard Water Sealers 600 race. Attempts at three-wide running didn’t work; Mikhail Aleshin was on the high side when James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan collided and Josef Newgarden’s attempt at running the highest line later in the race also ended in the wall.

A number of crashes followed, with the nine-car accident on Lap 152 serving as the most intense moment of the race. Fortunately there were no broken bones or airborne cars, but there were a lot of frustrated drivers and heavy repair bills that came out of Saturday night’s race.

Race winner Will Power said he’d told the series in advance that a pack race was possible based on the new conditions for this Texas race.

“I mean, I sold the series, next to Jay Frye, this will be an absolute pack race. I didn’t say whether it was good or bad, I absolutely knew it would be a pack race,” Power said in the post-race press conference. There was no doubt in my mind. Anyone who didn’t — I mean, the first time we ran here, I said, yeah, this will be a pack race. Yeah.

“I like tire degradation so at least you can work on the car. It’s fine to do that for the first half of the stint, you know, 10 laps, but I think there needs to be a bit of falloff to create some separation because it gets — you know, when we’re doing it every week, people got good at it, and need to give some respect and understood it.

“I mean, when you’re leading, it’s the easiest night. Until you’re leading, the last 10 laps or six, you’re driving around wide open. The tire never fell off. And I always said that, like the easiest day of your life if you lead a pack race. The easiest day of your life.”

Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud said he’d also called it where the second groove would come in, when speaking to USA Today sports reporter Brant James.

“After qually I actually talked to Brant James and we talked about how the race was going to play and exactly what I thought was going to happen,” Pagenaud said. “We were able to run second lane on a dusty track already, so I thought it was good fun.

“I thought it was good racing. Yes, it was some pack racing. You didn’t have to pedal the car all that much. You still had to chase it with the setup, but you couldn’t get away with a good car. That’s the only disappointing part, but I thought for the fans it was a great show.

“Now it’s our responsibility as drivers to respect the others and not unplug the brain completely at times. It’s our responsibility to know that someone on your side — not to crash into them. To me that’s where I would leave it at. That’s the bottom line.”

Kanaan, who was in the eye of the storm from the competitors, said IndyCar should race at Texas but shouldn’t be racing the way they all did on Saturday.

“I think it’s pretty obvious we can’t. I mean, what you have — five cars finished the race, six cars?” he said. “I mean, plus in our type of cars, we can’t do that. That’s my opinion. I mean, I know people will agree and people will disagree with me, but it was a new track. They did a great job — this track, back in the days, with the rain that we got two days ago we probably wouldn’t even be racing here today, so great job that they changed the layout and actually I thought it was going to be different.

“It was our first race back because of the construction we didn’t really have a lot of time to test here. Yeah, man, this is my opinion. I don’t think we should be doing this the way it is. We should be coming to Texas. The fans are great. This track is awesome. But I think we should change the format a little bit. How, I don’t know, we’ve got to figure it out.”

Detroit double winner Graham Rahal, who finished fourth, added,  “It was a crazy night with a lot of guys taking a lot of chances. After Indy and after this race, drivers need to have to take a deep breath and realize that this is dangerous stuff. I’m glad that our car doesn’t have a ding on it.”

Those were among the lucky ones who escaped Texas unscathed but for the 16 other drivers caught up in incidents – 15 accidents and one mechanical (the luckless Charlie Kimball, who retired early with an oil leak from his first career pole) – the words weren’t minced.

“Tony (Kanaan) has more experience in this kind of pack racing than anybody,” Hinchcliffe said. “I went wheel-to-wheel with him last year for the win and nine times out of 10 would do that all day long, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t playing very nice today and wrecked a lot of good equipment. It turned into way more of a pack race than we’ve had here in a long time, which unfortunately, leads to situations like this.”

“I thought we could make it three lanes up there,” said Aleshin, who was three-wide and got collected following contact between Hinchcliffe and Kanaan in that Lap 152 pileup. “I didn’t understand what was going on, because I gave space to them, but something was going on with James and Kanaan. In the end, you know, what we have is two great cars that ended up in the wall and that’s just dumb. It’s stupid and I’m very disappointed in regards to the shape of the team this weekend.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was also in the pileup, added, “There were guys making too many moves out there late into the corner. I will save my opinion for after I look at it. I came down, there were cars spinning and sparks everywhere. I went for the apron, I kind of high-sided a bit, and I was just a passenger from there. There was no where to go. You can’t jump all over the brakes from these cars once you are doing 220mph into the corner, there’s not a whole lot of places to go.”

Ed Carpenter said, “It was a wild night. We overcame a lot of adversity. First the spin – I was hoping for a spin and win! – and then got caught up in that big one. But there’s no quit in Ed Carpenter Racing. As many cars as were crashed out, we figured we’d patch it back up and salvage some points. You collect points all year long and you never know what a night like tonight might do at the end of the year for the entrant championship standings for both the No. 20 and the No. 21.”

Conor Daly, who finished a season-best seventh for AJ Foyt Racing, summed it up: “That was crazy. I think the biggest thing tonight is that I learned a lot. That was the first time ever on an oval that I raced side-by-side or that close to anyone. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) we’re never like that and last year I didn’t make it through much of the race.”

The Verizon IndyCar Series has a needed week off next weekend after five consecutive on-track weekends (three at Indianapolis, Detroit doubleheader and Texas), although Andretti Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing, and perhaps one other team, are scheduled to test Wednesday at Road America. For all teams, the thrash to rebuild cars begins once they get home after an expensive night under the lights.

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

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