IndyCar competition in Toronto is a chess match at 108 mph

Sometimes even the best of intentions don’t go as planned. I’m sure you’ve all been there. Plans are set, your motivation is there, and then something happens. Like unconsciousness. That’s a thing that happens, right?

Ha. Yeah, I don’t sleep too much as it is – no secret there. Last night my body decided I was overdue and I totally fell asleep with my laptop. I wish I could tell you that was a rare occurrence in my life, but I won’t lie to you guys.

Similarly, the guys in the Firestone Fast 6 had good intentions of earning the pole position yesterday, and they all had the speed and cars under them, but only Josef Newgarden (No. 1 Chevy, Team Penske) was able to do it, and at the last possible second as well! Checkered flag was flying, everyone had one last chance to cross that timing line before Pit-in, and Josef was the last of the cars on track. We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting qualifiying session.

All three segments were thrilling. The wet conditions of Round 1 for both groups gave us some parity and we saw Conor Daly (No. 88 Chevy, Harding Racing), Jordan King (No. 20 Chevy, Ed Carpenter Racing), and Matheus Leist (No. 4 Chevy, AJ Foyt Racing) advance to the next round, a refreshing change of pace and a welcome difference if you were reading fan response online. The mostly dry conditions for Round 2 helped determine familiar faces in the Fast 6 and set a new track record thanks to Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda, Ganassi Racing) with a 58.554 lap. (It’s worth noting that all 6 drivers advancing to the final round beat Pagenaud’s standing record from last year.) Round 3 created more unpredictability, with all cars starting out on Firestone reds despite the heavier sprinkles that race control reported. Just as we thought the sky might really open up, it did the exact opposite. As the track dried, Newgarden found the same racing line as his competitors and realized that his strategy was actually going to play out exactly as he had hoped. I think it’s important for fans to hear Newgarden’s entire thought process throughout that Fast 6 segment, so here it is in its entirety:  

“I was on the limit. I thought I had made — I actually made the call in the Fast Six, which I don’t like doing. Normally I leave it to Tim and the team. I say, ‘hey, you guys make the high-level decision on what you want to do as far as when you go out, what tires you run’, and I think there was some concern of not going out early immediately because it was spitting rain and we didn’t know if that was going to intensify or if it was going to get better.

To me I thought we already got the Fast Six. We’re already up front, so I thought we might as well take a risk, and I think for us to get the pole, especially with Scott having new tires still, the only way we were going to do that is if we had the minimum amount of laps on our tires, and essentially we just needed to go out two laps later and just run at the end. I thought the track was going to get quicker. Halfway through the Fast Six, I regretted that decision immediately because it was raining. It was actually starting to come down then, and I’m like, oh, man, we made a bad call, we should have been out here early, and in those final two laps it just started cleaning up, and you could just see the braking was getting better, the concrete was getting better, and in that final lap it was really coming alive, and I thought, okay, this is the lap we have to push on, and I pushed as hard as I could in that final lap. I braked as deep as I could in Turn 3, and we kept it clean, and it was enough for pole. It was very thrilling from my side. It was a fun session to try and do something like that.

I was sweating in the car, like this is amazing. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but it was fun to drive, very, very fun to drive.”

Despite folks outside racing thinking that operating a car of this magnitude is easy and unimpressive, Newgarden’s breakdown of what happens over the course of just a few minutes shows how many decisions go into every lap and every turn. The amount of information thrown at these teams, the comparisons they are making, the tally they are keeping on rival teams such as which set of tires those drivers are currently on, proves that Indy car racing is more a game of chess than anything else. Thinking 3 steps ahead, anticipating your competitors’ moves, being mindful of everyone’s strengths and the pieces they are in control of at any given moment.

With the level of competition being what it is in this series, it’s not as easy as it once was to earn a pole, to earn a win. Especially when multiple teams and drivers have ‘a car that could do it’. I mean look at the comments from the rest of the Fast 6 from yesterday:

“Very disappointing. I thought we had a car to fight for pole, especially after this morning, so row three is not great.” – Alexander Rossi (No. 27 Napa AutoParts Honda, Andretti Autosport)

“Yeah, a little pissed at myself to be honest. I think we were on a really big lap there on the last one there and messed it up pretty good in 5 and had to abort. Frustrating, I think the crew and the team, the car has been really good, but personally just didn’t put it together.” – Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

“We were P2, and then I don’t know what happened. Just at the end there, just couldn’t find the grip. The concrete patches were really slick and didn’t put a lap together.” – Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda, Andretti Autosport)

“I just made a mistake in 5, just flipped and went almost to the wall, so was really pissed off. Had a really good lap going, and yeah, I guess similar to Scott, just really annoying when that happens, but it was just a variable grip with the sprinkles. Yeah, had the car to do it but didn’t.” – Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevy, Team Penske)

As you can see, a whole bunch of unhappy Verizon IndyCar Series drivers. I love seeing this passion. The disappointment they feel in themselves when they among the fastest cars in the field? It’s almost as if Ricky Bobby’s dad was right… “If you’re not first, you’re last.” A poet he was.

Speaking of Talladega Nights, Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 DXC Technology Chevy, Team Penske) was the only one of the panel not totally devastated by the results of qualifying on Saturday,

“Well, I’ve had worse days, so this is nice. I mean, it’s obviously great for Team Penske because we’ve been struggling a bit on the street course package, and we’re showing this weekend the improvement brought to the team, so really glad to see all three of us in the Fast Six. The car was great, honestly, and the session was a lot of fun. Those are my favorite conditions when it changes, and you really have to adapt and take chances, and it was a lot of fun. The track is really, really awesome to drive with this package and these cars. Could I have done better? For sure, I think we could both do better, but pretty satisfied with third and being with my teammate over here.”

I always appreciate a look to the bright side. The track improvements and repaving was actually the one thing that all Fast 6 drivers agreed on. In fact, it’s changed Rossi’s mind entirely about Toronto – going from one of his least favorite courses to drive to his most favorite street circuit. That’s a heck of a compliment and speaks to the work that the Green Savoree group has done in the past year. Kudos to them and to Canada as a whole, I kinda like it up here. And I have to encourage anyone reading this to come up for a visit, preferably on Honda Indy Toronto weekend.

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Photo credit: Matt Fraver / IndyCar