Man oh man am I ever disappointed, a single caution in 228 laps of single file, follow the leader racing. Texas Motor Speedway is supposed to be the toughest track the series visits. Survival is more luck than skill, and unlike Indianapolis, experience is not necessarily a must. Thought the ability to keep your foot in it, no matter what the nose is pointed at, and being able to keep your eyes open for the whole 24 second lap are things experience can bring, young insanity is often very helpful here as well.
On Friday night, in quite a jovial mood after watching a stellar qualifying session, I was excited about what the next evening had in store, two sprint races at TMS, what more could you want on a beautiful Saturday night? When the checkers fell for race one, I kept getting the sense of being cheated, like there was something missing about the night up to this point so far. Only a single caution throughout all 114 laps of race one, six lead changes, five drivers, and almost no side by side racing that I have greedily become accustomed to at high banked 1.5 mile tracks. Race two was not much better, a true sprint race, as not a single caution lap was run during the second 114 lap race and eight lead changes between six drivers.
The weekend did not end with the competitive races that qualifying had led us to believe it could be. Tagliani takes his second poll in as many attempts, proving that he and Sam Schmidt deserve just as much as anyone to be in the series. SSM has really been on fire this year; they just can’t pull it off during the races when it matters most. I have heard that their qualifying prowess is due to Sam Schmidt’s long relationship with Chip Ganassi’s team. When SSM/CGR would team up and do one off rides for the 500, it seems that Sam was able to look into Chip’s playbook and take some setup information for himself. This has been proven in qualifying this year; his team just does not have the knowledge base to keep up with a changing track throughout the night. With new chassis’ coming next year, SSM could be a heavy hitter.
The evening was dominated by the aptly named death star teams, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Penske Racing each taking a win on the night. At these types of high banked, 1.5 mile tracks, engineering muscle really shine through as a race flat out at Texas is more of an exercise for the aerodynamicist and mechanics than it is a test of the driver’s ability. This is an unfortunate fact that was made clear at the start of race two when crowd favorite Tony Kanaan lucked out in the blind starting draw, picking P1 to start the fight from. No sooner than TK realized he was in the lead, the red cars blew past him and he was staring at dark hazard lights all night long, instead of running out front like he would have wanted to do.
Am I upset at the red car domination? In a word, yes. There was, unfortunately, more than just that to be upset about. During the first race, drivers were clearly taking it easy. No one wanted to get knocked out early and have to rely on a backup car for number two. Once the field got settled after the starts and restart, there was not much jockeying going on at the front of the pack. It was more or less a follow the leader affair for most of the evening, and if your car could drive the bottom all night long, you were going to be very hard to pass. The starting position blind draw did not work out as organizers had hoped. It was INDYCAR’s, Ganassi’s, and TMS’ worst fear coming true, the two championship contenders were starting at opposite ends of the field due to not team error or a qualifying gaff, but by lottery and the Target boys will not let us forget that.
The night was not all doom and gloom. I do enjoy seeing the occasional oval go caution free. We as pure fans, bench racers, and tech-heads get to see who has pure and raw speed. In an oval race devoid of yellows, there is no room for error. A single pit mistake, if only for a few seconds, spells end to your night immediately. There is no fighting back when you’re a lap or two down and lap times are 25 seconds long. This would have been a wonderful format to see it in, but we were robbed of Texas style racing. I thought for sure the first one was going caution free so all the teams would come out shooting for race two… but not to be. Will power also got the monkey off his back by capturing an elusive oval win. I don’t think he will continue this trend of success as the tracks get shorter and driver skill is brought back into the equation.
The television coverage was…um… better than ABC’s broadcast of the 500, but not by much. My roommate made the comment during qualifying that he doesn’t think that Bob Jenkins knows what he is talking about. I tend to agree but respect his place in history, although Bob has a voice tied to recent seasons of open wheel racing, he may be a bit too far removed and losing his flair. Dan Wheldon was OK; I am not a huge fan of having current drivers in the booth. Dan did a good job, It’s just drivers can be a bit omnipotent and long winded. He kept it to a minimum and did well for himself; I just have really come to enjoy Wally Dallenbach Jr. and his presence in the booth.
All and all the race was not awful. By Texas standards it was a boring parade only fit to catch some early Saturday night sleep to. Post May, the correct power order has been restored and we should see Dario and Will duke it out for the rest of the season. I hope the new car can deliver a more consistent on track product year to year. There seems to be no location that can hold a similar style of racing event after event and I feel it’s because of the current car and its quirky attitude. With everyone surviving Texas in one piece and the points not too eschewed by the double format, the series looks ahead to the famed Milwaukee Mile and the return to short track racing that separate the contenders from the wannabes.