Holy Houston… What a Weekend!

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A first time pole winner. A first time race winner. A rookie race winner. A double rookie podium – twice. An all Colombian podium for the first time in series history. A 40th career pole for a driver. Three first time podium finishers.

Those are pretty awesome highlights for a race series season. Oh no wait… those were the highlights from one weekend in the Verizon IndyCar Series! That weekend was this past weekend in Texas. The series raced in the presence of the Astrodome with a title almost as long as that list of highlights: The Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston by the Greater Houston Honda Dealers. The doubleheader certainly left us all out of breath & sweaty with racing hearts and veins coursing with adrenaline! Or was that just me in my non-air-conditioned living room in the 90 degree Cleveland, Ohio heat? Hmmm…

Regardless of how you enjoyed the race weekend – in person or at home – I know for certain that you enjoyed it. You had to! It was simply phenomenal. The variety of this series’ drivers (experience, talent, country of origin), the intensity of the ever-changing field positions (during qualifying and race time), the drama with which the passes and crashes occurred, the strategy from green to checkered that came into play unpredictably, and the joy of the victors on both evenings was just too much to NOT fall in love over and over. It’s also worth noting that there are only 4 full-time rookies in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season and they have now all had podium-finishes by their tenth career start. THIS… this is racing. This series is the best form of racing out there right now and I doubt many with an educated approach to the sport could find legitimate grounds to argue that.

I debated for quite a while on how, exactly, I wanted to organize this piece. I decided the best way would be to do a mini-profile on each of the “stand-out” drivers from the weekend in Houston. Now, granted, you and I may have different lists of who was a stand-out, but I think this breakdown will appease most IndyCar fans and readers.

Simon Pagenaud

20140511_162543He started and ended the doubleheader in Houston, from P1. Gaining his first Verizon P1 Award in his IndyCar career, Simon started the first race of the weekend by leading the pack to the green flag. Unfortunately Saturday did not end as well as it had started for Pagenaud, leading only the first four laps of the race and then getting caught up in a collision when Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing, #9) went into the Turn 9 wall, ricocheting off and tagging Pagenaud as he careened across the straight to take out teammate Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing, #83) before making contact with the inside wall and coming to a stop. Thankfully the tag from Dixon was not day-ending for Pagenaud and he went on to finish the race, finishing as the last car still running in the field in P16, 6 laps back from the leader.

Pagenaud needed to turn the page, refocus and get ready to dominate on Sunday. And boy, did he ever. Pagenaud was in Group B for the qualifying sessions on Sunday morning and it seemed at one point that we would have a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports front row for Race 2! Unfortunately, this was not meant to be as Helio Castroneves beat him out and earned his 40th career IndyCar Series pole position. It seemed that Pagenaud was determined to obtain that P1 & P2 combination with teammate Mikhail Aleshin however; the two drivers achieved this at the end of the race on Sunday, arguably more important than starting it in that order. Pagenaud and Helio were the only drivers to lead the field throughout the day, each twice and ultimately ending with Pagenaud atop the podium.

Mikhail Aleshin

20140510_151902Right next to Pagenaud on the podium on Sunday, was his SPM teammate and the Verizon IndyCar Series’ first-ever Russian driver, Mikhail Aleshin. Aleshin had three career-firsts on Sunday: best starting position (P2) and best career finish (P2) – the latter also giving him his first career podium. He was also one of 4 rookies to make up the 6 podium winners this weekend. The Russian-born driver has proven to the series, his fellow drivers, and the fans that he is not afraid to make his mark. He has shown consistency in the first ten races this season, finishing 7th or better four times. He has also proven, as recently as Race 1 on Saturday in Houston that he is willing to “go for it” when he sees an opportunity presented. The moment I am referring to is when he & Takuma Sato (AJ Foyt Racing, #14) made contact with one another and then with the wall in Turn 6.

Now, this was a hot topic of discussion on Twitter, and one that I asked for opinions on from fans. The thread had dozens of responses which you can see here, but the general consensus was this: the sport is called racing, and in racing the faster cars prevail. So, if you come up on someone going slower than you, it only makes sense that you go around that car. Simple enough. From what I saw in live time and then in watching the replays, I came to the conclusion that Aleshin had a faster car than Sato and was taking the outside line to get around him. Sato attempted a block but it was done too late as Aleshin was already next to him. The contact that followed ended up with both of them in the wall and their race days being brought to an abrupt close. Obviously, with any accident, there are a slew of varying opinions, and this one is mine. Aleshin’s comments afterward seemed to back up the scenario that to me, seemed obvious on the screen:

I was trying to gain my lap and I was actually a bit surprised. I was faster than Takuma at this point and I wasn’t even a full lap down so I just needed to get my lap. It was just a strange situation because he was in the inside then I took the outside lane and then he closed the outside as well.

Jack Hawksworth

SAM_4056Making up the third portion of the podium on Sunday, was Bryan Herta Autosport rookie, Jack Hawksworth. The unlikely podium victor was only such because of his starting position – P23… out of 23 qualifiers. This story is exactly the kind we are referring to when we (as Verizon IndyCar Series journalists and fans) say that this series is unpredictable in the absolute best way. Many racing series may non-chalantly say that it’s anyone’s race, but in IndyCar, we actually mean it! Hawksworth slowly and steadily made his way through the field, nearly unnoticed until all of a sudden he became a worthy contender for Juan Pablo Montoya (Team Penske, #2) at the front of the pack, forcing everyone to take note of him and his talented handling of that BHA Honda.

One of Hawksworth’s sponsors, the Collection Auto Group, is based right here in my hometown of Cleveland. I featured their partnership during the Cleveland Auto Show season and still very much support their work with Bryan Herta Autosport, Hawksworth and the connection to the Verizon IndyCar Series in general. I hope that this sponsorship will prove beneficial to both sides and will continue beyond the 2014 season – I mean, it only seems fitting that Collection, with its high standard of quality product and service are partnered with a series, team and driver who all hold themselves to the same standards of quality in racing – performance-wise, professionally and personally.

Speaking of high standards, Hawksworth achieved his career-best IndyCar finish on Saturday, with a P6 finish. However that record only stood for the young driver for about 24 hours, when he landed on that P3 spot on the podium on Sunday! Quite a weekend to write home about for the Brit!

Carlos Huertas

20140517_093253Let’s continue with the International appeal of the Verizon IndyCar Series and of the weekend in Houston specifically, by taking a look at the podium of Saturday’s Race 1. For the first time in IndyCar Series history, the podium was swept by 3 Colombian drivers! Carlos Huertas, driving the #18 for Dale Coyne Racing, kept a low profile during the very intense and accident-prone race, effortlessly maintaining his ride & keeping out of trouble on the track. On Lap 58, the opportunity for Huertas to advance to the front was presented in the form of a full course yellow, when Team Penske driver Will Power found himself in the tire barrier with his #12 Chevy. The pits opened up for the field on the next lap and the majority of the leaders entered. Huertas stayed out however, as did his Dale Coyne teammate, Justin Wilson in the #19. They paraded for 3 laps before going back to green on Lap 62. The Dale Coyne duo stayed at the front of the pack, showing their speed and prowess for leading an IndyCar field. It looked like Dale Coyne Racing would go 1-2 on the podium that day, but it was not meant to be, as Wilson had to enter the pits for fuel & tires on Lap 74, just 6 laps short of the checkered flag. This move left his Colombian-born teammate to take the lead.

It is worth noting that from Lap 60 through Lap 72, all four Colombian IndyCar drivers (Huertas, Juan Pablo Montoya [Team Penske, #2], Carlos Munoz [Andretti Autosport, #34] and Sebastian Saavedra [KV Racing, #17]) were in the Top 6!

Huertas held onto the lead for those last 6 laps and through one more yellow… or two, if you consider the waved off restart where Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, #15) made contact with the back of Tony Kanaan (Target Chip Ganassi Racing, #10) a kinda-green-moment-in-time. Huertas ultimately won under yellow and while it was not the fight to the finish everyone loves, it was an historic win and a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender win! He is the first of the 2014 Rookie Class to record a win this season. Something tells me, he will not be the only one to do so.

After all, we still have two months of racing left to do…

The kick off for those last two months of Verizon IndyCar Series racing will be this weekend in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. The field of 22 drivers will try their luck at the Tricky Triangle this Sunday, July 6th. If you are in the area (or in the mood for a summer road trip with a destination of awesome), make sure you come enjoy the gorgeous Fourth of July holiday weekend with all of us! The forecast shows partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid to upper-70’s for the short 2-day race weekend. All the information on tickets, parking and events can be found at Pocono Raceway’s website.

If you can’t join the fun in person, there are a variety of other ways to enjoy the race weekend and still be a part of the conversation!

1.)    Make sure you tune in to NBC Sports from 12 Noon – 4 pm EST on Sunday, for full live coverage of the Pocono IndyCar 500 Fueled By Sunoco.

2.)    If that seems like too much of a wait, don’t forget that you can now live stream practice and qualifying by going to the Verizon IndyCar Series Race Control site and logging in through your digital TV provider.

3.)    The NBC Sports Live Extra App is also available on iOS, Android & Windows Operating devices. This App provides live streaming (login required), highlight videos and past event features.

4.)    And last but not certainly not least, stay in the loop with everything IndyCar by downloading the IndyCar 14 App with your iOS or Android device, brought to you exclusively from Verizon Wireless & powered by their 4G LTE network.

Make sure you check out the latest Verizon Wireless & IndyCar promotion, #DrivingTechnology:

See that? No excuses to miss out on the race, whether you are at home or on the go! Personally, I will be on the go – covering the event live from Pocono Raceway. So make sure you are following my feeds on Twitter and Facebook for at-the-track perspective and a personalized close-up view of the second jewel in the IndyCar Triple Crown: 500 miles, double the points, and all the glory… let’s go racing.