The new era of open-wheel racing in the United States took the green flag Saturday night as the XM Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway kicked off the 2008 season.
Last year’s points runner-up Scott Dixon started on pole after posting an average speed of 213.341 miles per hour in the four-lap Indy-style oval qualifying process. Vision Racing teammates Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt IV posted times good enough to start second and third, but would lose those positions due to technical infractions on their cars. This would move calendar-girl and racer Danica Patrick to outside of the front row, putting her in a position to vie for the lead from the start.
Twenty-five cars lined up for the start, as Graham Rahal was on the spotter’s stand with his father Bobby after crashing his only car beyond repair. The pace car pulled off, the field accelerated off of turn four, and Danica got a great run on the outside of Dixon, passing him for the lead as they crossed the starting line. This was for naught, as the start was waved off due to the back half of the field lagging behind.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re in the back half of the field, and don’t make the effort to close up on those in front of you for the start of the race, that’s your problem. Hey you don’t have to tell me that the buffet is open – you snooze, you lose.
After getting the cars under control and in a tidy formation on the backstretch, the green would fly and Dixon was gone. It was at this point that Danica’s race fell apart – well, almost – more on that later. Needless to say I think Patrick was snoozing on the encore presentation of the green, and it showed as she quickly became a speck in the leader's mirrors.
Dixon’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dan Wheldon would start from the rear of the field after spinning and crashing during his qualifying run. It didn’t take long to rectify this and Wheldon was into the teens by the end of the first couple of laps. A Ganassi car starting in the back of the field in Indycar is the equivalent of Tony Stewart or Matt Kenseth rolling off in the high-thirties in a Sprint Cup race. Don’t expect them to stay there for long.
Wheldon, typically more impressive on the track that macking on ESPN pit reporters, would pick his way through traffic and into the top-five before the half-way mark of the two-hundred lap event, and led nine laps before finishing third.
Marco Andretti was the highlight of the race, rolling off fourth, and challenging Dixon early on. Marco wound up leading the most laps with eighty-five, and was in striking distance of Dixon in the final dash to the checkered flag before settling for runner-up.
Though I think it would take special glasses to see, the aforementioned Danica Patrick seemed to have a stealth parachute attached to the back of her Andretti-Green Dallara. Either that or she fell back to the second-five where she seems to feel most comfortable running, and let the big guys go battle it out for the lead. This is nothing against Anna, er, Danica, just the simple fact that my patience is running thin with her lack of ability to stay up front and win a damn race.
I will give her this – whether with Rahal-Letterman Racing or her current team at AGR, she has the most incompetent refueler on pit road. Not once, but twice, that moron couldn’t hit the hole with the rig if he had a shoehorn, or couldn’t pull it out cleanly. Hopefully that isn’t a problem at home, because it winds up screwing the woman at the track, and not in a good way.
The other female in the race, Milka Duno, would find herself in the unfamiliar position of mid-pack, being most of the newcomers to Indycar were behind her. She did manage to lose the car on lap 122 and would spin into Penske driver Ryan Briscoe, who tried to avoid her to the high side. Both cars were taken out of the race. It was an unfortunate incident and Briscoe took it in stride.
I wouldn’t get too comfortable in the Indycar Dallara if I were Briscoe, since Sam Hornish, Jr. may come running home when he figures out that he’s better off in open-wheel than in NASCAR. Briscoe, on the other hand, has been brilliant behind the wheel of Penske’s Porsche Spyder RS in the P2 Class of the American LeMans Series. So he’s got a successful full-time second job should crash-test dummy Sam need his security blanket.
Some of the promising new guys coming in from now-defunct Champ Car had issues as expected. Will Power was the first victim of mechanical failure, which is unfortunate because he is an outstanding race car driver. Hopefully he’ll be better equipped to compete on the road courses.
The same can be said of Hideki Mutoh, the rookie for AGR who assumed Ashley Judd’s husband, a.k.a. 2007 Champion Dario Franchitti’s ride after he bolted for a failing NASCAR career. Mutoh has a background in road-racing, and is a likeable guy. I had the opportunity to speak with him during a test at Texas Motor Speedway last week, and he knows his position as a rookie is to learn. During the first round of pit stops Mutoh was blocked from entering his stall by other cars entering and exiting and I believe he may have hurt the engine in trying to prevent a crash.
Tony Kannan looked strong and was in a position to win late when Ernesto Viso spun in front of him. T.K. looked to go high and then low and clipped Viso’s car with the right-front, knocking it askew. Tony would parade around the track behind the pace car long enough to secure an eighth-place finish, due to other cars being multiple laps down, before being black-flagged and parked with two to go.
In the end Marco couldn’t reel in Dixon, though a few more laps might have made a difference. The finshing order was Dixon, Andretti, Wheldon, Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, and Danica Patrick. Oriol Servia’s 12th-place result was the best run of the drivers merged in from Champ Car.
Next weekend should be a little more telling when the teams trot across Florida to the street circuit at St. Petersburg. If the former Champ Car teams can keep their new rides together, it may show that the merger was worth the wait.
Kudos to ESPN for the new 360-degree HD camera turrets on top of the cars. That view is on par with, if not less annoying than, Fox's "Gopher" cam that is buried in the track.
I really hope Danica finds her way into victory lane this season, and would love to see it at Indy or even better here at Texas. She was the fastest car at the end of last year’s Bombardier Learjet 550k, but was held back by Kannan from challenging eventual winner Hornish. I fear that if she doesn’t win this year, then Danica Patrick will officially become racing’s version of Anna Kournikova.