IndyCar: Iowa Corn Indy 300 recap

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The .875-mile oval that is Iowa Speedway is a “bull ring” in every sense of the word and produces classic short oval racing for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Every race features a near-perfect combination of car setup, driver bravery and skill – notably as they work through lapped traffic – and strategy that often produces one of the best races of the year.

And Sunday’s Iowa Corn Indy 300 was no different. All told, there were nearly 1,000 on-track passes, a number of drivers charging forward after starting from the back, and (somehow) only two caution periods to break up the seemingly non-stop action in the 300-lap race.

And in the end, IndyCar got its seventh different winner of the 2018 season, and somewhat of an upset one at that, while a couple of heavy hitters were left scratching their heads afterward.

A look at big stories to emerge from Iowa is below.

Just How did Hinch Pull That Off…?

James Hinchcliffe celebrates winning Sunday’s Iowa Corn Indy 300. Photo: IndyCar

For all intents and purposes, Sunday’s Iowa Corn Indy 300 looked like Josef Newgarden’s to lose. He led 229 laps, may have lapped the field if not for a Lap 140 caution when Zach Veach brushed the wall, and appeared to almost be on cruise control through the first two-thirds of the race.

So, just how did Hinchcliffe overpower Newgarden in the final stint?

Keen observers would have noticed Hinchcliffe’s prowess in the opening laps. Starting 11th, Hinch had powered all the way up to fifth by Lap 20, took third on Lap 38 – passing Simon Pagenaud in the process – then got around Will Power for second on Lap 41.

However, his charge to the front stalled after the first stops and he couldn’t gain ground on Newgarden. Hinchcliffe explained that this was down to a setup change on their first pit stop.

“So in the first stint, the car was really good. We just made a tiny change to try and dial in a little more understeer. It was pretty free in that first stint. We overshot it and had way too much understeer in the second stint,” he detailed.

As such, he and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda team tried reversing the change on their next stop, but went too far the other way – he even lost a spot to Takuma Sato after a scary moment in which the car snapped loose, something that nearly sent him into panic mode.

“(The second stint) was when I was starting to panic a little bit because we still had about 30 laps left in the stint and I was maxed right on the weight jacker, max on the front bar. It was kind of dire straits for a bit. We were surprised how far the balance went for a relatively small change,” he explained.

In the end, he and the team managed to dial the handling back in by going back to the settings they had in the opening stint, and doing so made the car come back to life in the final 100 laps.

“I just said, ‘Hey, look, the first stint was the best stint; let’s go back to whatever we did there,’ and that’s what we did, and the thing just came alive. We were able to run both lanes, and that’s really what helps you when you come up on lap traffic, and it’s all about lap traffic at a short track like this,” Hinch detailed.

Hinchcliffe hung with Newgarden when they were by themselves – he kept the gap between one and two seconds consistently – and used lapped traffic to his advantage to make the race-winning pass with 45 laps to go.

The win is Hinchcliffe’s first of the year and comes as he and the team are still rebounding after failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in May. He acknowledged that their misstep there will remain a topic of conversation until next year’s Indy 500, but also asserted that the team has been running strongly since then.

“Even if the conversation dies for the next little while, as soon as (May 1, 2018) comes around, it’s going to come back up. Yeah, for sure. But days like this, and honestly weekends like we’ve had – I think Road America was actually one of our best races of the entire year, and ninth place doesn’t look like that, but if you were on the inside and saw what happened and how we performed on Sunday, I think you’d be pretty impressed. It was a really good performance from everybody. Same kind of thing in Texas. We’ve just been on a bit of a roll,” Hinchcliffe revealed.

The late yellow certainly helped Hinchcliffe and SPM seal the victory, but rest assured, they flat out earned this one on merit well before the final caution.

The win vaults Hinch back into the top 10 of the championship – he sits eighth, 24 points behind Graham Rahal for seventh.

Dixon’s Day at Iowa Both Lucky and Unlucky

Scott Dixon endured a difficult day at Iowa Speedway, but remains the points leader. Photo: IndyCar

It’s rare to see Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing be a complete non-factor during a race, but that’s exactly what happened at Iowa on Sunday.

Starting sixth, Dixon never was able to work his way forward – he got balked battling with Alexander Rossi in the opening stint and struggled with handling woes – and was outside of the top 10 by the end of the first round of pit stops.

From there, Dixon was never back in the top 10 on merit. And in the final stint, the team mistakenly got his front tires switched around – the right-front was placed on the left side, and the left-front was placed on the right side – which forced on extra stop in the final laps.

It meant that Dixon languished in 12th at the end, four laps off the lead, an unheard of result for possibly the best driver and team combination in IndyCar.

“We kind of got stuck behind (Alexander) Rossi on the first stint and his pace kind of backed us up,” Dixon explained post-race. “Each time we changed lanes with the (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda), his spotter must have been telling him where we were going, and he kind of just kept putting the block on. That’s how it goes sometimes. That’s racing and it’s no one’s fault. The big problem for us was the tire issue toward the end, having the fronts on backward. That really put us in the hole and we should have finished better than we did.”

The result opened the door for championship rivals to gain big ground on Dixon, but it’s here that Dixon’s unlucky day actually turned a little lucky for him.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (45 points behind Dixon entering Sunday’s race) ran in the top five early on, but battled radio problems that prevented him from communicating with his Andretti Autosport No. 28 DHL Honda team. He faded in the second half, and ended up 19th after suspension problems surfaced in the back of the car.

Alexander Rossi (tied with Hunter-Reay entering Sunday) ran in the top 10 in the opening stint, but stalled in the pits on his first pit stop, losing valuable time in the process.

Rossi never got back up near the front from there, but did salvage a ninth-place finish at the end.

And Josef Newgarden (who was fourth, 50 points behind Dixon entering Sunday) was poised to make a big dent in Dixon’s lead. Alas, losing the lead to Hinchcliffe and then pitting under the late yellow dropped him to fourth, and the race never got back going again to give him a chance to get back to the lead. Newgarden ended up finishing fourth.

In all, Dixon managed to keep the championship lead, and didn’t lose much ground. He leads Newgarden by 33 points, with Rossi 41 back in third, and Hunter-Reay 52 points back in fourth. Will Power, who finished sixth, sits fifth in the standings, 53 points out of the lead.

Misc.

  • The top three (Hinchcliffe, Spencer Pigot, and Takuma Sato) all scored much-needed and popular results. It’s always refreshing to see new faces grace the podium – this is Hinch’s first win of the year, and the first podiums of the year for Pigot and Sato (also the first podium of Pigot’s career) – and these results could easily springboard them into more in the final six races of the season.
  • Short ovals can often bite you if you miss the setup even slightly, and a few big names were bitten badly by setup bugs on Sunday. Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan, past Iowa winners, are the most prominent names on that list, finishing 16th (Andretti) and 17th (Kanaan). Zachary Claman De Melo, who ran well at the Indy 500 and at Texas Motor Speedway, languished in 19th. And Harding Racing retired the No. 88 Chevrolet of Gabby Chaves after 99 laps due to handling issues – its Chaves’ first DNF since Pocono Raceway in 2015. It doesn’t take much for a setup to go the wrong way on a short oval, and setup woes bit several drivers on Sunday.
  • Zach Veach continues to show strong pace, but the results don’t show the progress. On Sunday, for example, he charged up to seventh after starting 14th, and continued inside the top 10 even after a brief fire due to a fuel spill on his first stop. Alas, a brush with the wall on lap 140 ended his chances of a strong finish, but he gets better with every race, and his day in the sun may be coming.
  • Graham Rahal quietly ended up seventh, overcoming handling issues of his own during the first half of the race. Take away his crash from Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit, and Rahal might be the most consistent driver this year – outside of that day in Detroit, his worst finish is ninth (at ISM Raceway and the INDYCAR Grand Prix), but a lack of wins and podiums (he finished second at St. Petersburg, his only podium of 2018), leave him seventh in the championship, 107 points out of the lead. That gap puts any championship hopes in serious doubt as the series heads to its final six races.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now heads to Toronto next weekend for the Honda Indy Toronto (July 15, 3:00 p.m., NBCSN).

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SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”