Monday, May 25, 2015

A few day-after thoughts

A few thoughts now, a day after Juan Pablo Montoya took a big slug of milk and 250,000 wrung-out people slumped away toward the Greatest Spectacle in Waiting For Hours For Traffic
 To Move, and the clock started toward the 100th Indianapolis 500:

1. The 99th 500 was the best show since the 98th 500.

It hardly gets better than that duel for the ages between Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay last year, with all that going down to the grass to pass business and Hunter-Reay winning by the second closest margin in 500 history. But yesterday damn near topped it.

Thirteen laps to run and it was a fistfight again, this time a three-way heavyweight bout among three of the biggest names in the game. There were five lead changes in those last 13 laps, three in the last eight laps, and Montoya made the last one, proving once again that if it comes down to mano-a-mano, you take him every time.

The finish was the fourth closest in history, and if Castroneves/Hunter-Reay evoked the legendary 1960  duel between Jim Rathman and Rodger Ward,  Montoya/Power/Dixon evoked Catsroneves/Hunter-Reay. Beautiful stuff.

2. The Wright Brothers were not in evidence.

Which is to say, no one got airborne or did any Mary Lou Retton somersaults, despite a bunch of people shaking hands with the Speedway's greedy wall and spraying carbon fiber kibble all over God's little speedfreak acre.

This was good.

Sure, all that flipping and unguided flight undoubtedly ramped up national interest in the race. It is  an unfortunate truism that we are a society programmed to slow down for car wrecks, and so all those spectacular crashes were the best thing that could have happened for the 500, in the sense that, except for James Hinchcliffe, they were entirely bloodless. And so for a week, guilt-free, race organizers could bask in the rare glow of knocking NASCAR onto the back page. NASCAR? What's that?

But the truth is no one wanted to see the 500 itself turn into a horror show, and it didn't. Instead, it was what it bills itself to be and, on this day, could call itself with no hint of irony: The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Call it vindication for both the event and the much-maligned new body configurations.

"I thought the racing today was great," said Graham Rahal, who finished fifth. "Frankly, I was worried today on how it would feel. It was a tough day. Maybe I did one lap flat all day. It's definitely tricky, but I think the racing here in recent years has been phenomenal. You saw guys  become patient till the last little bit, 16 to go, everybody was going to hang it all out.

"Honestly, there were laps that went by that I don't even remember them. Pushing so hard, having oversteer moments. You just got to go for it."

That's exactly how it should be, Power maintained.

"At the end of the day, I think you should be lifting at every oval because that makes you a better over driver," he said. "It should be about the driver, not just a fast car. I liked the fact today that it was hard. One of the hardest days I've had running the track here. It was rarely flat. Rarely were you wide open. Only at the end when you were leading were you wide open.

"That's how oval racing should be."

Can't argue with the results.

3. The Chevies are heavy.

If it was a hard day for everyone, and gratifying at the same time, it continued to be a hard year for Honda.

The Chevies are clearly better right now. They just are.

This isn't a few years ago, when Lotus brought a hurriedly thrown-together program that was comically uncompetitive. But the Hondas are obviously lagging right now. The top four finishers Sunday, and nine of the top 11, were Chevies. And Rahal, again the standard-bearer for Honda, didn't sugarcoat the fact that they had nothing for the Bowties.

"We weren't going to outrun a Chevy on horsepower or speed. We needed to be as flat as we could be," he said. "The Chevy was just in a league of its own fortunately on horsepower. I was happy we were as close to Chuck (Charlie Kimball) and (Scott) Dixon at the end as we were. I thought there was no hope.

"I mean, look, I really do have the absolute most confidence in Honda and HPD. Obviously we've got to find some horsepower. On the road course, the street course, we've got to find a little more driveability. But at the end of the day, everybody's working as hard as they can."

4. Simon Pagenaud deserved better.

For much of the day, Roger Penske's fourth guy was No. 1.

He led eight times for 35 laps, second only to Scott Dixon, who led 11 times for 84 laps. But he got into the back of Dixon on a restart with 30 laps to run and dinged a wing, and that dropped him to the back of the field. He managed to climb back up to 10th in the last 15 laps with a car that was the strongest outside of Dixon's most of the day.

"To be honest with you, Simon had the best car today. I couldn't believe how good he was," Montoya said later.

"I thought Simon did a terrific job. I think it would have been something if he was up there because I think he had the car to run up with Will (Power) and certainly Juan (Montoya) there at the end,"  Penske concurred.

And Penske president Tim Cindric?

"I felt terrible for him after the race," Cindric said. "I went up to him and he said 'That's the best car I ever had in my life.' You could see the fact he went all the way to the back, drove back to 10th with 15 laps to go, you don't do that here very easily."

"I think it shows how strong he was. I think it shows there's a lot more to come from him."

5. The great what-if

Almost as soon as the checkers dipped over the nose of Juan Pablo Montoya's car Sunday afternoon, the parlor game was in session.

Question: How many Indianapolis 500 victories would Montoya have right now if he hadn't been seduced (and then abandoned) by NASCAR?

My guess: He'd be the fourth four-time winner by this time, joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

He has, after all, raced in three 500s and won two of them (2000 and 2015). And he finished fifth in the other one (2014). The man is simply one of the best open-wheel racers on the planet, which reduces his bedazzlement by NASCAR's bright lights (and big-money opportunities) to one of those classic what-the-hell-was-he-thinking moments.

Or, if you're one of his competitors, to one of those thank-God-he-went-to-NASCAR moments.

"Any idea what Juan would have done with his resume if he stuck around here?" someone asked the runnersup Sunday afternoon.

 "Obviously he would have been pretty successful," Power said.

"Thankfully he didn't," Kimball chimed in.

Biggest compliment Montoya got all day.


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