From Detroit to Texas, IndyCar Underdogs Are Having Their Day

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The past week presented us with two fantastic examples of on-track Verizon IndyCar Series talent. We started the week on Sunday with the second race of the Dual in Detroit and ended it on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. The tracks couldn’t be any different – the former a temporary street circuit on a island between the Motor City in Michigan and Windsor, ON in Canada; the latter a mile-and-a-half oval yielding speeds of 215mph+ from IndyCars, and currently in its 20th year of operation.

IMAG2314_1The selection of drivers I chose to focus on for this piece are also very different, representing 5 different countries (France, United States, England, Colombia & Australia) and all taking different paths to get to this point in their IndyCar career. Marco Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais, Ryan Briscoe, and Graham Rahal are all seasoned, each with 7 or more years of experience as full-time IndyCar drivers. Conor Daly and Pippa Mann have not signed for a full season as of yet, but they are fan favorites and continually adding races to their career-start tallies as 2015 rolls along. Gabby Chaves is in his rookie season with a full-season ride as well as leading the Sunoco Rookie of the Year points run, and Jack Hawksworth is in his sophomore year with the Series.

One thing you may notice about all these drivers is that all but one of them pilots a Honda engine. It is no secret that the aero kit introduction this year, has created a division in the field… with Chevrolet reaping the majority of those benefits. Honda has very much been the underdog, which is why I can’t help but note and feel excitement when results like this past Sunday in Detroit show up on the box score. 8 Hondas in the Top 10. EIGHT.

Some people said it was only because Chevy had a bad day. Regardless if you see your glass half empty like those folks, or you see your glass half full, like I do… the fact remains: Honda had a better day than Chevy. You might root for one engine over the other but my only engine preference is competitive. All I ask is that the field run neck-and-neck throughout the season and produce fantastic racing on track. That kind of competition and unpredictability is what we have gotten away from this season (particularly with qualifying) and it’s what we all need to be focused on achieving again, for the sake of our sport if nothing else. Thankfully, it seems that many of the Honda teams are learning how to make up the difference with fuel mileage and strategy and the hope is that by next season, we will be back to the racing and results we were used to the past 3 seasons.

Let’s take a closer look at the past week’s races, noting the “surge of the underdogs”. Two rookies finished in the Top 10 for Detroit Race #2 – Daly in P5 and Chaves in P9. Incredibly impressive for Daly to finish this high in only his 4th IndyCar career start. Oh, and did I mention he also led 13 laps in the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports No. 5 car, while filling in for the recovering James Hinchcliffe? ‘Cause he did. And he plans to pilot the car again next week in Toronto. Chaves, in his rookie year with Bryan Herta Autosport and fresh off the Indy Lights Championship win from 2014, landed in the Top 10 at both races this past week – P9 in Detroit Race #2 and P10 at Texas Motor Speedway. Not too shabby for Gabby. He is showing consistency and his one-car team is getting the hang of what exactly needs to be done to make their Honda competitive in the current state of the field – proof in the fact that Chaves moved up 10 positions during the Firestone 600 from qualifying start to checkered finish.

IMAG1382Ryan Briscoe was the biggest mover of the Firestone 600, gaining 11 spots (P19 to P8) and doing so in a very entertaining fashion. His control of the No. 5 Arrow-sponsored SPM car and ability to ride side-by-side for multiple laps with Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball before running into lapped traffic, was truly something to watch. His piloting prowess is something to be envied and absolutely something that IndyCar teams should want to display on a weekly basis throughout the season. This writer very much hopes to see him back in a DW-12 in 2016. If we could find a way to give full-time rides to drivers like Briscoe and so many of the others mentioned in this article – imagine the fan response, not to mention the obvious increase in field volume and the additional personality and experience that the series as a whole would gain.

IMAG2413_1Bourdais had a strong start to his week with a win in Michigan last Sunday, his first since Toronto in 2014. Bourdais spoke after the Detroit win, on how he still feels like an underdog, even though he’s categorized as a veteran of the sport – this being his 10th season in IndyCar, including Champ Car years. He could barely hold back his happiness post-race, explaining how great it feels when things come together and they get it right like he & his KVSH Racing team did last weekend w the No. 11 Chevrolet. His happiness was contagious and I found myself smiling through most of his celebration and presser.

IMAG2309_1Rahal and Andretti are names that scream IndyCar Racing. The second & third generations of these families are really starting to find their own groove with sport. Rahal has placed the RLL Racing No. 15 Honda on podium three times this season, most recently at Race 2 in Detroit, a week ago today. That finish catapulted him to 4th in points (at the time). Andretti has banked P5 finishes in both races this past week for Andretti Autosport, and a podium finish in the No. 27 to start last weekend in Detroit. Last night, he commented about getting to compete with the big boys now. He was smiling and happy with results but as always, focused on pushing for better.

It was announced between the Detroit and Texas races, that Helio Castroneve’s penalty from the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis was being reduced from 8 points to 3 points, putting Castroneves 4 points ahead of Rahal, who now sits back in 5th. This situation seemed strange to me – to have a post-race review determined after 3 races had already been completed since the infraction. I’m going to look into what, if any, statute of limitations there is in regards to adjustment of points for these instances. It just seemed a tad strange to me, for this leniency to come when it did, changing Championship points standings at the top of the board, and at the midway point of the season. This point in the year is crucial, as it’s when the Championship battle really begins.

Hawksworth is another underdog showing good push to the front of the field lately, managing a P7 finish in Detroit for the No. 41 A.J. Foyt Racing machine – in a race that saw IndyCar superstars Power, Castroneves and Dixon out by contact. Let’s not forget that Hawksworth was punted not once, but twice by rookie, Sage Karam over the course of a few laps. Karam was penalized for both incidents, but coming through them and continuing to pursue the front makes Hawksworth’s Top 10 finish that much more impressive.

IMAG0359Dale Coyne Racing announced their drivers for the Firestone 600 earlier in the week – Tristan Vautier in the No. 19 and Pippa Mann in the No. 18. This was Vautier’s fourth IndyCar start in 2015, the first two coming in preceding weekends at the Indianapolis 500 and the doubleheader in Detroit. He finished Race 2 on Belle Isle with a career-best P4. He was unable to keep that momentum going in Texas however, due to mechanical issues that forced an early retirement. I have a feeling we will be seeing him more often on the IndyCar circuit during the second half of this season. Pippa Mann has gained positions in both races she’s run this year, moving from P25 to P22 for the Indy 500 on a day where the team faced a lot of adversity. She started from P22 yesterday in Fort Worth and gained 5 spots to end the evening in P17. She is showing consistency, solid effort, and advancing results – the hope is to see Mann piloting more often this season as well.

The next Verizon IndyCar Series race will take place on Sunday, June 14th. The Honda Indy Toronto will run on the Streets of Toronto and air live on NBC Sports at 3:00 PM ET. You can also watch live on the NBC Sports Live Extra app from your wireless device by logging into your cable or satellite provider account when prompted. The IndyCar 15 app is available on Android and iOS devices, with additional live camera and audio features accessible if your device is powered by the Verizon Wireless network, the title sponsor of the IndyCar Series.