You might recall that last year your humble host ended up in Victory Lane with my wonderful family, hanging with our friend-for-a-day, Simon Pagenaud. And although the 2018 version of the Phoenix race didn’t have quite the storybook tale for us personally, there was definitely more excitement for the all fans to enjoy compared to last year.
The Show – Since Sam Hornish Jr left the Indycar series (then the IRL), we’ve seen just two American champions: Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Josef Newgarden last year. And while we have been told to watch the likes of Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, JR Hildebrand, Sage Karam, Conor Daly, and probably others I have forgotten, it certainly looks like the next American ready to claim a championship is not on that list. It’s Alexander Rossi.
Try these numbers on for size: Since Toronto of last year Rossi has finished on the podium in 5 of the last 8 races. In just two races this year he has been a factor at the end in both. And for this race in Phoenix he completed 53 passes.
Let that sink in. 53 of the 279 overtakes in the race were completed Rossi. I don’t know how often a single driver accounts for around 20% of the race action, but it can’t be all that common.
From our seat in the stands near the first turn we definitely could see Rossi being the driver to watch, as seemingly every other lap he was passing someone. Of course, he was a lap or more down for most of the race due to a mistake on his first pit stop, but when faced with trying to hang out on a single-groove track or drive like hell he chose the latter.
As a fan I am certainly thankful that he did.
The Story – Robert Wickens caught all of us by surprise in St Pete with his pole-winning qualification and his dominant race run. Rookies just don’t come into the series and dominate their first race like he did.
And they also don’t compete for the lead for most of their second race, and they certainly don’t on their first race on a short oval. WHO IS THIS GUY? WHY AM I TYPING ALL CAPS? WHAT IN THE NAME OF JIMMY CLARK GOING ON?
“Calm down, it’s still early” – The Spotter
The sample size is just two races, but understand that Wickens has led 113 of 360 laps so far. This is not just a Rookie of the Year performance; this is the work of a bona fide championship contender. The February version of me can’t believe I am typing those words but there they are.
The scary thing for other drivers must be that Wickens is still learning the car. He said as much after the race, that his goal was just to finish the oval and that he hasn’t learned the finer points of tools like the weight jacker. He said he was just trying to drive a smart race line. In the understatement of the year, Wickens exclaimed “I feel like I’m setting the bar a little bit high for myself”.
The Moment – The recent races at the single groove ISM Raceway in Phoenix have not translated well to the modern racing crowd, which is to say if you go two minutes without a pass then everyone is calling it a parade. Personally, I wait about five minutes before calling parade, but that’s just me.
And yet there are still some folks like your humble host showing up for this race. And the while a new car, new tire compounds, and this Tire Dragon thing factored into an improved performance, there were long stretches of racing Saturday night that featured few passes by drivers not named Rossi.
But after Ed Jones brought out the final caution, the fans in attendance were on their feet for the restart with seven laps to go. Rossi, James Hichcliffe, and Wickens all stayed out while everyone else loaded up with fresh Firestones. On the restart Newgarden, in fourth, inhaled Rossi and Hinch before the second turn, but Wickens proved to be more difficult to overtake.
After three unsuccessful laps Newgarden finally got a solid run and took the outside line in the first turn, bringing much of the crowd to their feet. Newgarden held on and went around Wickens the long way, and soon was on his way to Victory Lane.
I don’t know if a single moment can save an event, but that late drama did leave a lot of smiles on the faces of fans as we left the stands. And if Indycar and ISM Raceway decide to reunite again in 2019 that move would be great to feature in ads.
And in the least ironic coincidence in the history of sports blogging, those were your podium finishers.
Honorable mentions include:
Ed Jones, who not only put himself in position for a 2nd place finish but also with his late crash may have started a chain of events that could save Indycar in Phoenix. Track President Bryan Sperber might buy Ed something nice. Like some Dallara parts.
Scott Dixon, who did Scott Dixon things. After qualifying 17th (file that under more things I can’t believe I’m typing) Dixon unspectacularly worked his way up to 4th. His multiple Indycar championships are peppered with races such as this.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, for boldly going where no man dares to go on restarts at this one-groove track. If there were skills competition for short oval restarts RHR would be legendary.
Conor Daly, who didn’t have a ride this weekend but was perhaps the most visible driver at the track. He was challenging fans to beat him on a racing sim, giving commentary to a group from Indycar Nation in the stands during a practice session, and chatting with fans in the paddock all weekend.
Final Lap: I’m really really glad Matheus Leist didn’t accidentally murder a track official.