The month of June marks a change of pace as the IZOD IndyCar Series visits three consecutive ovals (Texas, Milwaukee, and Iowa). This stretch presents an interesting opportunity to several drivers who have struggled to garner competitive results this season.
While oval racing is equally as unpredictable as road and street course racing, the strategic elements tend to be more straightforward. On an oval, a pit stop will lose a driver at least one lap (perhaps as much as two, depending on the track’s size). That takes early fuel stops under the green flag almost entirely out of the question, all but negating alternate fuel strategies. Essentially, whenever there’s a caution, most everyone on the lead lap will pit.
This simpler, more “straight-forward” strategic makes it somewhat easier to score a result if you have been quick all weekend. Thus far, a number of drivers have illustrated they have the pace to run up front and contend for wins, but strategic blunders and sheer bad luck have seen them fall short. This stretch of ovals offers them a chance to right proverbial ship.
Rahal entered this season as a potential dark horse for the series championship. And, the season started off with promise. After a poor 12th-place showing at St. Pete, Rahal rebounded to finish fourth at Barber Motorsports Park. But, subsequent finishes of 24th, 16th, 13th, and 19th have dropped him to 15th in the standings.
A second in Texas shows he could definitely be coming back strong in 2012.
Though he didn’t always have the results to show it in 2011, Rahal can be a major force on ovals (he ran in the top ten in both Texas races last year before a mechanical issue dropped him out of the second race) and finished second at Milwaukee. Plus, he had arguably the fastest car all weekend at Loudon before an error in qualifying and first-lap contact with Mike Conway left him empty-handed. If Rahal and the Service Central team can shake the mistakes and bad luck, they should run very well in the coming weeks.
Viso is probably the most improved driver this year, having become much more consistent and far less accident-prone. However, at 16th in points, the Venezuelan driver doesn’t have much to show for it. And, his race pace has at times seemed slightly erratic. After qualifying fifth in Detroit, Viso held up much of the field prior to his first pit stop, sliding his car all over the place and nearly crashing on a couple of occasion. When the first stops cycled through, he found himself 18th, which is where he would finish in the abbreviated event.
Viso has improved immensely this season. However, he needs to start getting results for his efforts. He has run well on ovals in the past (he finished third at Iowa in 2010) and has the potential to do more of the same this year. However, a 19th in Texas isn't helping his cause.
I predicted right on this one!
When Wilson rejoined Bill Pappas at Dale Coyne Racing, many felt it might lead to a return to glory (the combination won at Watkins Glen in 2009). After a 10th place at St. Petersburg, another 10th at Long Beach (after leading much of the early portion of the race), and a seventh at Indianapolis, they appeared to be on track. However, a 19th at Barber Motorsports Park and a 22nd at Detroit offset their strong performances, had left him 16th in the standings.
But Wilson remains one of the strongest drivers going. And, while he is known more for his road racing prowess, Wilson can certainly be solid, if not an outright contender, on ovals. His win and impressive drive in Texas definitely showed that he could make it as a oval master!
No driver has had a more disappointing season than Andretti. After entering 2012 expecting to build on last year’s success and regularly contend for wins, Andretti’s best finish has been 11th (Barber and Detroit) and he hasn’t been much of a factor at all, aside from Indianapolis.
Andretti usually runs well at the summer oval races, so we all expect him to get back on track (17th in Texas didn't bode well). He’ll need to turn his luck around and rebound from a disastrous race at Indianapolis (in which he dominated early on but faltered in the second half of race, with his radio conversations hardly putting him in a positive light).
The rookie with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has been very fast all year, but has yet to secure a race result reflective of his pace. Whether it was a somewhat over-exuberant pass attempt on Dario Franchitti at Long Beach or a mechanical failure at Indianapolis, something has always prevented last year’s Firestone Indy Lights champion from finishing the deal.
In Texas it was more bad luck. Engine problems prior to the race and a Rookie mistake in the pits. As a Firestone Indy Lights driver, he ran very strong on all the ovals last year. He's learning a lot and it appears only a matter of time before he’s able to start accumulating finishes that reflect how well he has driven thus far.
Last year’s Kentucky victor has upped his game on the road and street circuits, but ovals are supposed to be his bread and butter. This stretch should be his best chance to shine with his newly formed team, given the next oval won’t come until September (Auto Club Speedway).
His mid-pack finish (and unhappy demeanor) in Texas is perplexing. Given that Carpenter was close to pulling off an upset at the Indy 500 before spinning, don’t be surprised if his name pops up near the top of the leader board at some point in the next two weeks.