Carpenter’s Circus Under the Stars

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You guys okay? You sure?

Alright. I’m just checking. This is the first weekend without any IndyCar track action in a month and a half and I don’t want any of you suffering through withdrawal by yourself. I promise you… you are not alone. I am here. Sam is here. And I assure you that your entire #indyfamily, whether you’ve met them in person, interacted with them on Twitter, or heck… even those you don’t know exist yet… they, we, are all in pain with you.

A tad dramatic? Perhaps. But hey, this is the Verizon IndyCar Series we are talking about and those that “get it”… totally understand the perspective.

Let’s take a look back at the most recent race, the Firestone 600, last weekend in Fort Worth, TX at the Texas Motor Speedway… appropriately nicknamed The Asphalt Circus. If TMS was a big top tent last Saturday, then Ed Carpenter was the ringmaster. There were shining moments for others throughout the entire evening but Ed really commanded the crowd to close the evening and produced one heck of a show for the fans both around the oval and watching from home. While I don’t think it was one of the most exciting races of the 2014 season, it was a memorable one and there were some really great moments. Let’s relive them, shall we?

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Every great circus must start off with a BANG. Usually someone is shot out of a cannon for this portion of the show, but in the Verizon IndyCar Series version, an Andretti was safely ejected from his DW-12, almost in a carefully choreographed movement, while the racecar produced huge flames! The flaming car produced gasps from the fans and then a collective sigh of relief upon the confirmation that Marco was safe and sound, albeit disappointed. His personal website gives a great synopsis of the evening, complete with tweets from fans and media, including yours truly. Make sure you check it out! Marco was certainly not looking to be the first “act” of the evening however… I think he was hoping to be the encore.

Nearing the halfway point, the lead had changed multiple times but Team Penske driver Will Power gained very impressive strides and led the majority. Races aren’t won based on who leads the most laps though, they’re based on who leads the last lap – so it was still anyone’s race based on all the shuffling that was occurring throughout the field. Pit stops, fuel strategy and differing rates of tire degradation all came into account at Texas Motor Speedway. The aero kits that were made available to teams for this track also changed downforce, creating another element to the competition and making the racing that evening “a lot of fun”, as stated by multiple Verizon IndyCar Series drivers.

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I mentioned all the shuffling that occurred through the field – most of it was incident free but one of those shuffles ended up creating quite a spotlight in the middle of the circus. Justin Wilson, in the No. 19 for Dale Coyne Racing found himself tangled up with KV Racing’s No. 11, driven by Sebastien Bourdais. Contact was made between the two in Turn 4 on Lap 121, drawing the second of three yellow flags that night. Now, if you get “tangled up” at a Texas Rodeo, there is a clown to help you find your way out of the mess. Obviously, this is not your typical rodeo – this one was abruptly stopped by the SAFER barrier. The accident took both drivers out of the race but thankfully after they were evaluated by the infield medical center professionals, they were released and cleared to drive.

SAM_3610“I got a good run, a lot of steam on Sebastien and as I was approaching he started to block but my run was so big, it was too much of a block too late. I popped inside but he kept coming until I was out of road and I ended up with two wheels on the apron on turn in and that is never going to work. It is a disappointing end to the day because we had a half decent car, maybe not quick enough for Will [Power] but definitely good enough to be up there fighting inside the top 10 and get a decent result. We were just getting stronger as the night went on…”

Once everything was cleaned up on track from the Wilson/Bourdais accident, the horsepower on track was back in a full gallup. In the final half of the Asphalt Circus, we saw the lead change between Power, his Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, and the Fuzzy’s Vodka No. 20 owner & driver, Ed Carpenter. Power received a drive-through penalty for violating pit speed amidst all these lead changes – this was his fourth pit speed violation in five races and Power is all too aware of his repetitive mistake:

“Really disappointed I did that again… got to stop doing that. It’s ruining our chances of winning,” adding, “I’m just going too hard. Like I said, I just go for race wins. I’m not looking at points. I just enjoy racing and you do it for fun and try to get the most out of it, but those mistakes are just not good enough at this level.  I’ve got to stop it. I’ve got to just take it a bit easier.”

Although the penalty may have kept him from the victory, it did not keep Power off the podium. This was his 5th podium in the 8 races that have been run so far in 2014. Two of those podium finishes were wins – The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the first race of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit. As for the current evening in Texas, the ultimate victor was Fuzzy’s Vodka driver, Ed Carpenter in the No. 20 Chevy. This was only Carpenter’s second race of the season and couldn’t have been more different than the outcome of his first. That one was a DNF at the Indianapolis 500 after starting from pole for the second year in row but retiring due a racing incident with Andretti Autosport driver, James Hinchcliffe. Indianapolis was still very fresh in Carpenter’s mind, but I have a feeling this victory will help him move on from it. In the post-race presser he stated:

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It’s just good to bounce back. Nothing really totally makes up for a missed opportunity at the speedway (Indianapolis Motor Speedway), but at the same time it always feels good to win, especially at a place like this. I’ve enjoyed coming to this racetrack for a long time… This is a big win for us.”

The end of the Asphalt Circus gave us a ringmaster wearing a cowboy hat in the middle of a ring that we refer to as Victory Circle. He shot off two six-shooters and smiled at the crowd who had just witnessed one heck of an ending. The ending included the last yellow – which was eerily similar to the first yellow – a car with flames out the back and the driver being instructed to get out of the vehicle pronto.

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That driver was Takuma Sato in the No. 14 ABC Supply Honda for AJ Foyt Racing, explaining later that with the temperature drop through the evening, balance was shifting and even though they made good gains through the field, they were struggling to hold on and were unable to make it to the end. Such a shame for the team, but they are getting geared up for the doubleheader in Foyt’s hometown of Houston at the end of the month. Will we see Sato with another pole position at the upcoming race weekend? How about his first win of the season?

It’s impossible to know if Sato will find that in Houston, but we know for sure that Carpenter found HIS first win of the season in Fort Worth last weekend. And as with all entertaining shows, the curtain call was seemingly unscripted and unrehearsed, with passion overflowing for many different reasons. Montoya questioned whether Carpenter jumped the restart with 2 laps to go to the checkered flag; Power beat himself up about the penalty he drew, insinuating that it may have cost him another victory; Carpenter seemed genuinely happy with his win and started to let go of the angst he’d been carrying about the results at the 500.

Whatever emotions were evoked that night in Texas, the drivers seemed to wear them on the sleeves of their firesuits – something I tend to love about them. They are incredibly talented professionals but they are also perfectionists at their craft and above all, they are simply human when it comes to their reactions and their analyzation of not only their opponents work, but their own as well. I admire those characteristics in the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers – I think they are a key component to the high quality of the series all around and are a necessity in order to continue striving for bigger & better things as the series progresses from one season to the next. Never settling is the name of the game and if there’s one thing these drivers avoid, it’s settling for the conventional.

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