Monday Crew Chief: Phoenix
There’s a reason that Josef Newgarden and Team Penske won the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
Team general manager Tim Cindric is a supreme race strategist, and Newgarden is willing to go the extra mile to get to the top. Using a similar tact to his triumph last fall at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis, the Tennessean willingly gave up the race lead with 15 laps to go to have fresh rubber for the end. Dropping to fourth-place on the final restart with eight to run, the current No. 1 plate holder eventually caught and passed Robert Wickens on Lap 245 of 250 to secure another winner’s circle visit at Saturday’s Phoenix Grand Prix.
For the junior Canadian member of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports squad, a runner-up finish represents a second-straight heartbreak at first glance for Robert Wickens but in reality, it really should not.
Entering the 2018 campaign after an extended stay in the German DTM Touring Car Championship and with little to no expectations, the No. 6 Lucas Oil Honda pilot has more or less been the top performer on track in the first two career IndyCar efforts. If you go back in time, only perhaps has Nigel Mansell in 1993 made as strong an impact in such an immediate timeframe as a series Rookie of the Year candidate.
Other than maybe taking the wrong move on the final caution flag by staying out, as opposed to electing for new tires as Newgarden and others chose, Schmidt Peterson’s “maple leaf duo” of Wickens and James Hinchcliffe have proven the most capable at both St. Petersburg, Florida and in Phoenix. Despite slipping to second and sixth at the checkered flag Saturday, both chauffeurs have to be among the pre-race favorites looking to the Grand Prix of Long Beach in six days time.
The outputs achieved have certainly been unexpected, but are a welcome return to the head of the line for Sam Schmidt, who continues to overcome the obstacles in the years following a paralyzing crash at Orlando, Florida in the year 2000. The experience gained through success in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Audi has served as a solid springboard for head engineer Leena Gade’s first foray into the high-speed world of IndyCar competition. Likewise, Piers Phillips has put both entries in positions to grab the top step on the podium.
SPM and Penske were not the only winners from Phoenix, however. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi overcame a loss of lap, a wall brush, and pit road penalties to take third-place at Phoenix, good enough to place him only behind Newgarden on the current points table. Ryan Hunter-Reay also enjoyed a solid run from flag-to-flag to take fifth, while Marco Andretti (12th) and Zach Veach (16th) each salvaged mid-pack returns after iffy showings in qualifications.
Chip Ganassi Racing featured a mixed bag of fortunes at ISM Raceway. Coming from 17th at the start, four-time series title-holder Scott Dixon used consistent ground gained from his PNC Bank pit crew to snatch fourth on Lap 250. While Saturday night’s voyage was not an attention-grabber, it follows a pattern the Iceman has called upon for years – the ability to turn a nothing scenario, into something to salvage precious championship points. CGR teammate Ed Jones appeared destined to join the New Zealander in the top-half of the order, but a late-race accident relegated him to the tail of the field.
The final full-course caution aided others in the final queue, including a pair of Chevrolets that like Penske have struggled for outright performance against a stronger option from Honda. Ed Carpenter came home seventh on Saturday, extending the momentum gained from a Firestone Fast Six effort at St. Petersburg by road course ace Jordan King, who re-takes the controls at Long Beach. Tony Kanaan also used his veteran savvy late at ISM Raceway, riding a fresh set of Firestones to sneak into eighth at the climax, continuing a noticeable upward swing for A.J. Foyt Racing.
With Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal claiming a quiet ninth-place result, there were others who claimed the short straw at the Phoenix Grand Prix. Although Team Penske got the gold with Josef Newgarden, they have also garnered the shaft concerning Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. After qualifying second on Friday, the Frenchman was victimized on the pit lane and yellow flag sequence, settling for tenth. The Australian led at the midway point, but then made contact with the outer barriers and suffered another of the early setbacks that have plagued him since his championship season in 2015.
The biggest losers in Phoenix Saturday of course, had to be Dale Coyne Racing. For a team that had placed no higher than 11th in any of their attempts in the desert southwest since the old CART days of the late 1980s, 2018 appeared set to represent the breakthrough. Team leader Sebastien Bourdais earned the Verizon P1 Award on Friday and in his IndyCar debut, Pietro Fittipaldi managed to start in the top half of the grid. Sadly, the first caution period would make the opportunities for success disappear. The grandson of two-time World Driving Champion Emerson Fittipaldi found the SAFER barrier in turn one, while the former Champ Car World Series titlist would strike one of his tire-changers during the first round of pit stops, dropping the No. 18 Honda from first to 12th. The situation increased in pain after a drive-through penalty was assessed after the race resumed under green for the incident.
With Josef Newgarden holding a five-point cushion on Alexander Rossi and a further two markers over Bourdais, who overcame the adversity to salvage 13th at the finish, the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to its premier street racing test at Long Beach, California.
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