The most difficult part of this whole “brain dump” exercise is trying to identify a pattern for forming coherent thoughts, and in some ways it’s made easier by having two races on a weekend. For instance, this could be a post about Scott Dixon’s win in the first race in Detroit and his magnificent career. But that career isn’t nearly done yet, so we’ll table that post for another day.
This could be a post about pace car mishaps like the one in the second race in Detroit. That would be fun, but honestly I’m trying not to be mean to anyone. Especially people who aren’t professional drivers. Besides, it’s a $100,000 Corvette, not a Ferrari Enzo.
This could be a post elaborating on how both race winners this weekend were two 37-year-olds. In fact, counting Will Power’s sweep of both races at IMS in May, the last four races have been won by a 37-year-old, so maybe your humble host could wax pathetic about that observation.
SPOILER: this is not that post.
(Look, we can celebrate the elder members of the Indycar community, but it’s not like 37 is some kind of magic number. This more a case of three very good drivers – and a case could be made easily that two of them are bona fide Legends of the Sport – who just happen to have been born within a year of each other. We may very well note their collective prowess as 38-year-olds in 2019.)
No, what struck me most this weekend was that we discovered Alexander Rossi’s weakness. For a guy who has been “the show” (a phrase many, including your humble host, have used to describe his superlative overtake game) on ovals and been at or near the front on nearly every other race, there is still a possibility he might not win the championship. And at this point, it’s largely because he isn’t playing the long game.
Rewind the memory to the final race of last year, when Josef Newgarden was leading teammate Simon Pagenaud by a handful of points. Pagenaud knew he needed a victory, so he drove the wheels off the car at Sonoma. Newgarden, who had just won two straight races, had a car that could compete but was advised repeatedly to stay in 2nd place behind Pagenaud in order to assure himself of the championship. Josef followed orders, yada yada yada, he’s now the defending champion.
To be sure, after that Sonoma race Newgarden spoke of how difficult it was to hold back and let Pagenaud go on to victory, because racers want to race for the win. But I’m sure he’s not feeling too broken up about that particular race these days since it was clearly the right move.
Contrast that with Rossi, who after a solid podium finish on Saturday was leading much of the second race at Belle Isle by a ridiculous margin of double-digit seconds. However, late in the race Ryan Hunter-Reay found a little something extra and was turning laps 1-2 seconds faster than Rossi, quickly chasing him and everyone else down. Rossi could clearly see his teammate had the better car, and yet he tried some cute late-braking techniques in an attempt hold off Hunter-Reay. Sure, they worked once or twice. But the third time Rossi tried the maneuver he shredded one of his front tires, forcing him to pit and fall out of the Top 10.
Mind you, at this point there were 10 laps to go, so Rossi was going to have to try this move at least 10 more times to try to win. In other words, Hunter-Reay passing him was 99% inevitable. And more importantly, Rossi was still well ahead of Will Power and Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, his nearest competitors in the championship standings.
But the championship was not what Rossi was thinking about. No, he was more concerned with trying to hold on to the win as if this race were going to determine the championship. I hope for his sake he wasn’t correct in that assessment, because had he accepted 2nd place by racing less defensively he would still be leading the standings.
And right now that’s the difference between Rossi and Newgarden. Actually, it’s the difference between Rossi and anyone who’s recently won the Indycar series championship. Sometimes you lose the battle to win the war.
And sometimes you win the battle and go for a swim.
Honorable mentions this week:
Will Power, who’s podium finish on Sunday saved Chevrolet for total embarrassment in their own backyard. (Which begs the question: was the Corvette “totaled”?
Ed Jones, who finished 6th and 3rd in the dual races in Detroit. Steady Ed.
Oriol Servia, for being ready to serve as the backup pace car driver. Or race car driver if anyone needs that. He’s the super sub of the series.
Final Lap: Speaking of Pagenaud, he’s stuck in 10th place in the championship standings while his teammates Power and Newgarden are 1st and 5th respectively. At some point we stop calling Pagenaud’s performances bad luck, right? I mean, maybe he isn’t figuring out how to work with the reduced downforce of the new body kit.