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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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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”