Pocono IndyCar 500: Records Broken & a Polesitter Victory

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The Fourth of July holiday weekend in Long Pond, PA was a record-breaking one. In the qualifying session alone, the fastest single-lap record was broken 8 times, before the Verizon P1 Award winner, Juan Pablo Montoya sealed it as his for at least another year. Speed is always a factor in the sport of racing (she said with the tone of Captain Obvious), but it played a big role this past weekend as the Pocono IndyCar 500 fueld by Sunoco turned out to be the fastest 500-mile race in IndyCar history. Let’s take a look back at how we got there…

I covered the first practice session and a portion of the second practice already, but I want to take a closer look at the second session. It seemed relatively uneventful, but proved to have a lasting impact on the weekend and the race line-up itself. 29 minutes into the Saturday afternoon practice, the #98 Honda of Jack Hawksworth made contact with the Turn 1 wall after an apparent understeer issue (this wouldn’t be the first time we hear about an understeer issue ending badly over the weekend). Initially, Hawksworth was assisted out of the car, checked & released by the infield care center. At this time he was cleared to drive. He spoke to the media after the incident, explaining:

“It happened very quickly and just snapped. I went in there quickly and it hit the wall. I’m fine. Just a little bit sore.”

20140705_134712As it turns out, he began to feel ill later in the day and was transported to the local hospital – Lehigh Valley Health Network – in nearby Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Bryan Herta Autosport driver was just coming out of his best career-finish race. He placed P3 on the podium for Race 2 of the Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston last weekend and was looking to ride that wave around Pocono Raceway. Unfortunately, as it turned out, he suffered a myocardial contusion in that practice session and was admitted to the hospital for observation. Obviously, he was no longer cleared to drive and had to withdraw from competing in the Pocono IndyCar 500 fueled by Sunoco. Since the weekend practices were over, there was not enough time to find a substitute driver for the #98, either – a tough blow for the team and Hawksworth, who went into the weekend second in the Rookie of the Year points battle. We received word after the conclusion of Sunday’s race that Hawksworth was discharged from the hospital and would undergo another evaluation on Tuesday, to determine his clearance or lack thereof. Thankfully, the news release read in a positive fashion:

“INDYCAR announced today that Verizon IndyCar Series driver Jack Hawksworth has been cleared by INDYCAR medical director Dr. Michael Olinger to compete July 11-12 in the Iowa Corn Indy 300 presented by DEKALB at Iowa Speedway.”

Hawksworth will look to pick up in Iowa, where he left off in Houston, with a fast car and the determination to come out victorious for the #98 Energee crew and if I may give a shout-out, for the Cleveland-based Collection Auto Group, who also proudly sponsor the Bryan Herta Autosport driver!

20140706_123451In the same way that Hawksworth’s incident in practice brought the only yellow in the session, Graham Rahal’s incident forced the only yellow during the race itself. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver of the #15 National Guard Honda actually had quite an impressive save, losing the car to the infamous understeer (the same issue Hawksworth mentioned) in Turn 2, spinning around 540 degrees and nearly saving the car from contact with the SAFER Barrier. Rahal stated that the car, “just snapped.” The damage to the back of his DW-12 was nothing extreme, but the incident was enough to take him out of contention. Strangely, Rahal made comments about the understeer after Saturday’s qualifying session, “The car had too much understeer and just wouldn’t turn.”

Rahal and Hawksworth seem to have both had similar issues with their cars over the Pocono weekends. Unfortunately, with both teams operating with only one-car, there is no information to share with teammates and this could leave them at a disadvantage. However, both teams have won IndyCar Series races in the past, including both having clinched an Indianapolis 500 victory – Bryan Herta Autosport with the late Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Rahal Letterman Racing with Buddy Rice in 2004. So even though there may be rumblings about how, why and who smaller one-car teams should merge with or who they should be adding to their roster… they are obviously doing something right. Sometimes less is more and I love rooting for the supposed “underdog” – their triumphs are that much more vindicating!

20140706_123758Speaking of vindication, what could be more rewarding than earning the IndyCar Triple Crown? Even earning one jewel in the piece is an honor and achievement worth mentioning when highlighting your career-bests. As the Indianapolis 500 winner of the season, Hunter-Reay was the contender for this elusive title in 2014. Unfortunately, that dream was extinguished shortly into the race, when a suspension issue was found during a pitstop on Lap 28. The #28 DHL Honda Crew got the car back into the garage to make necessary repairs and Hunter-Reay was back on track relatively soon, but still 18 laps down. Due to lack of yellows for the duration of the race (minus the one 6-lap caution towards race end), Hunter-Reay wasn’t able to make up any of those laps and ended 19 laps back from the leader by the time the checkered flag waved. He finished in P18, of the 18 cars still racing to the finish line.

This setback for the #28 did not bring down the entire Andretti Autosport team however. In fact, the Colombian rookie Carlos Munoz, who landed on the podium the weekend before in Houston for the first race in the doubleheader, found himself in Victory Circle yet again! He finished P3, extending his lead for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contest by 77 points. His front row start in Pocono was the first front row start for him since the Indianapolis 500 in 2013. That Indy 500 was not only his first experience in an IndyCar, but he also finished where he started – P2. This rookie has always been impressive to watch and he’s continuing to prove his relevance and consistency in this, his first full season with the Verizon IndyCar Series.

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The Colombian fan support at Pocono was pretty cool to see. With this being the first year that the series has 4 Colombian drivers, and the fact that they have all had spotlight moments this season (Wins, Podiums, and  Verizon P1 Awards), they are putting on quite a show for fans and media alike. Another impressive show was the record for both single qualifying laps being broken in addition to the cumulative speed record. Polesitter, Juan Pablo Montoya ended up with those records, taking them from Marco Andretti in the #25 Snapple Honda for Andretti Autosport, who had set the record at last year’s race in Pocono.

Montoya spoke on all of this after the Qualifying session on Saturday, saying:

“Am I back? Well, I’m getting there. I feel like I’m getting there every week. We keep working harder and keep finding speed and more results. So it’s exciting. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

He wasn’t kidding. The driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevy ended up being the first Verizon IndyCar Series driver of the 2014 season to win a race from the pole position. No easy feat, given the high level of talent and competition in this year’s field. This was Montoya’s first win in IndyCar in 14 years. Montoya is one of the most experienced drivers currently racing in the series, given his time spent in both Formula 1 and NASCAR.

Thank you for following along on Twitter and Facebook this past weekend while I brought you news, updates and pictures from the Pocono IndyCar 500 fueled by Sunoco. I will be in Iowa this weekend, June 11-12, bringing you all the latest from the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway in Newton, IA. All my updates, tweets, and photos will be courtesy of the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro on the Verizon Wireless network – I hope you enjoy everything I share and then keep an eye out for a full #TrackTech review out in a couple weeks.