Full Throttle Recap: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

The first night race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season started out with a domino effect crash.

Mikhail Aleshin was the catalyst, losing grip down low on the track on lap 1, spinning and collecting Sebastien Bourdais and Max Chilton on his way to the outside wall. Marco Andretti’s night was consequently ended when he found himself in the unavoidable mess, along with Graham Rahal who tried to steer clear of the chaos, but missed his small window of opportunity to come out unscathed.

Ultimately, the night ended for Andretti Autosport as badly as it began, with all four of their cars retiring during the event for the second time this season. But more on that later…

Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Box Score

All five Honda drivers from the first lap incident were checked and released from the Phoenix Raceway infield care center, all with clearance to drive. The damage sustained to the cars was enough to prevent any of them from re-entering the Saturday night contest, however.

“Unfortunately, when we got to Turn 1, I felt the rear of the car went, and I couldn’t do anything. I was full lock, and I understood that that was it. I feel sorry for the guys that hit as well, but that’s racing.” – Mikhail Aleshin

Rahal opted to use his unplanned time out of the car to live tweet for the duration of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, much to the enjoyment of IndyCar fans watching their Twitter feeds. Despite repeated requests for Rahal to join the NBC Sports commentators in the booth to offer his valued driver insight, he remained only online. I think this may be foreshadowing of Rahal’s post-driving career. I could see him mic’ed up and calling IndyCar races down the road.

We went back to green after 21 laps of yellow. It took me a few laps to realize we were at a full course yellow instead of a red flag, honestly. I assumed with the amount of debris scattered across the track and the number of cars dsiabled from wall to inside line, that a red flag was warranted.

Apparently there was still enough of a path for the cars to make it around the track safely, so the yellow was deemed sufficient. Personally, I think more should be taken into account when making that call. In an incident where three or more cars are involved, and there is a large debris field created by said incident, why not go to red in order to 1.) allow the crews time for clean-up and guaranteed safety, 2.) allow the tow trucks space to quickly remove the disabled vehicles without concern of interrupting the parading field, and 3.) give the fans and the drivers as much green-flag racing time as possible. Just my opinion.

The race continued without much excitement other than leader and position changes switching up temporarily in the midst of green-flag pit stop cycles, until lap 133 when Alexander Rossi brushed the Turn 4 wall just enough to need to come into the pits but not draw a yellow flag. A quick five laps later though, his teammate Takuma Sato made contact in nearly the same spot with a much harder impact, leaving him stopped on the frontstretch and drawing the second yellow of the night. Those separate wall scrapes were enough to take both Andretti Autosport drivers out of the evening event – with Rossi having damaged the rear suspension of the No. 98 and Sato having caused more significant and noticeable damage to the body of his No. 26 Honda. (He was checked, released, and cleared by infield medical.)

The big scenario of note during this full course caution was the placement of the leading cars at the time the yellow dropped: Pagenaud stayed out as his Team Penske teammates all headed into the pits (end of Lap 137), and just as that decision was made, Sato was sliding down the frontstretch, over the start/finish line and coming to a stop.

The yellow was technically thrown on lap 138 and the math got a little crazy at this point. As best as I can understand, Pagenaud ended up 2 laps ahead of the field in that moment so when the pits opened up under yellow on Lap 141 and the now-leader took four tires and fuel, he came back out at what appears to be the back of the field, but in reality he’s still a lap up on all but four competitors.

When Pagenaud crosses the start/finish line going back to green on Lap 149, it’s only him, his three Team Penske teammates and Ed Carpenter Racing’s JR Hildebrand still on the lead lap. The rest of the night was relatively low-key with another round of green-flag pit stops and some front wing damage to Newgarden’s car after contact with the No. 28 of Ryan Hunter-Reay. That contact took out the latter of the two, ending Andretti’s miserable night in the desert as I mentioned earlier, and left Newgarden’s chances at another podium in the Arizona dust.

The reigning series champion built up as much as a 13.7570 second lead over Power in those remaining laps, finishing the night by parking the glowing No. 1 Menards Chevy in victory lane for the first time in 2017.

Pagenaud’s first oval win was also his 10th career win in IndyCar and the 450th race win for Team Penske. Pagenaud shot to the top of championship points tally as well, as he looks for back-to-back Verizon IndyCar Series Championship seasons. In the first three contests of the year, he finished P2 (St. Pete), P5 (Long Beach), and P3 (Barber).

Will Power ended up second at Phoenix, his best finish of the season thus far. JR Hildebrand started and finished P3 this weekend, his best career start and second podium of his career. This podium being the one he will be more apt to recall fondly. And let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

The next two rounds of races are at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis kicking off the month of May – a race where Pagenaud has found victory twice, most recently being last year. And then of course the iconic Indianapolis 500 which will always carry a serious intimidation factor, no matter the driver experience. This year, Pagenaud goes into it with something he’s never had before… the confidence that he can dominate on an oval track. Mindset has a lot to do with driver success on the infamous yard of bricks. That and, who “she” has picked to be her newest victor of course.

Will Pagenaud be able to carry the momentum from Phoenix into the Month of May? I have no idea. But, I can not wait to watch the entire field battle it out on that hallowed ground in Speedway, Indiana. I’ll see you there!

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Photo credit: Richard Dowdy & Chris Jones / IndyCar