by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
The Verizon IndyCar Series got exactly what they needed out of this past weekend in Southern California following a caution-fest at St. Petersburg, and a disastrous rain-drenched debut in New Orleans.
The 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach ran in ideal weather conditions and was relatively light on caution flags, drama, and carnage. While the pass for the lead was actually made on pit road, we saw some strong, aggressive, but clean, racing throughout the field.
At the end of the day, it was Scott Dixon and the #9 Target crew celebrating in victory lane. In a season where many pundits are ready to concede the title to Team Penske, Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing let it be known in no uncertain terms that they are not going to roll over and play dead.
For Dixon, it was an incredibly satisfying win. The three-time champion has many accomplishments on his resume, but a win at Long Beach has eluded him until this weekend. After the race, Dixon echoed his thoughts on the win, and what this particular event means to the Series.
“It’s always been a race I’ve wanted to win, but I think that’s similar to a lot of the ones you go to. This one is definitely a standout just because of the history and the prominence.” said Dixon. “Long Beach is still one of our great races. Today, even yesterday in qualifying, the grandstands were packed. It’s hard to get from the media center to the trucks. There’s so many people. That’s what IndyCar racing needs. It was just a fantastic weekend. Hopefully we can build on other races to a similar level to what everybody has done here with the Grand Prix.”
Dixon’s win on Sunday, the 36th of his career, puts him fifth on the all-time winners list surpassing the legendary Bobby Unser. He also was vaulted from fifteenth in the points standings up to fourth, putting him in solid contention for the championship.
Dixon was joined on the podium by Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. Simon Pagenaud came home fourth followed by Tony Kanaan.
Starting from the pole, Helio Castroneves led at the drop of the green. The start itself was a bit messy. The cars were not formed properly into the usual tidy rows of two, but the starter still waved the green flag much to my surprise.
This caught a few drivers off-guard, including Andretti Autosport driver, Ryan-Hunter-Reay. Starting fourth, Hunter-Reay immediately lost a position to Josef Newgarden. Over the radio, Hunter-Reay complained that he got ‘hosed’ at the start.
Scott Dixon was also able to make quick work from his third place grid position taking the second spot from Juan Pablo Montoya in the first corner.
From there, Castroneves and Dixon were able to pull away from the field until the first caution waved on lap three. Gabby Chaves, in the BHA Racing car, made contact with the wall, depositing a portion of his Honda front wing onto the racing surface.
We saw this same scenario at St. Pete, and I quietly hoped that this wouldn’t be the norm for the day. Happily, this would turn out to be the only caution on the day, and the fans were treated to green flag racing for the rest of the day, right down to the checkers.
On lap 29, the leaders came in for scheduled pit stops. Helio Castroneves was held up for just under a second as Tony Kanaan was entering the pit stall just forward of Castroneves’. That small moment of hesitation was all Dixon needed to throw down a blazing out-lap and grab the lead. From there, he never looked back, relinquishing the lead only through pit stop cycles, eventually taking the checkered with a margin of victory of 2.222 seconds.
While Dixon and Castroneves gained some real estate on the field, the battle from third through sixth was frenetic. In the closing laps, Simon Pagenaud was essentially taken to school by Juan Pablo Montoya as he tried again and again to find a way around his much more experienced teammate.
In stark contrast to many of the more technical drivers who strive to hit every lap exactly the same, Montoya possesses this unique ability to change his line every lap, and not lose speed.
This makes him one of the hardest drivers to pass, whether he’s driving an IndyCar, a stock car, an F-1 machine or his riding lawnmower in the back yard. Montoya is indeed one of the greats, no doubt.
As Pagenaud stayed right on Montoya’s rear diffuser, frantically looking for a way around, the cars of Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais, and Josef Newgarden were able to close up on them, resulting in a nose-to-tail train of cars down to the wire.
While none of those drivers were actually able to pull off a pass for position, it was indeed thrilling to watch.
Pagenaud, the newest member of Team Penske, didn’t seem too awful disappointed with his fourth place finish, and chalked it up to a learning experience.
“I’m really happy, was a great fight with Juan Pablo and Helio.” said Pagenaud. “It’s not tougher with teammates, it’s just the nature of who it is. It’s Juan Pablo and Helio, so they don’t give you much room, that’s for sure. I’m starting to understand what I can and cannot do with my teammates, and obviously it’s pretty open. It was good fun, fair racing.”
And good, fun, fair racing is exactly what the Verizon IndyCar Series needs to propel forward. A few more great races like we saw this weekend, and perhaps, we can put the scars of NOLA and St. Pete behind.
Up next on the schedule is another popular event, that being the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. The purpose-built natural terrain road course on the outskirts of Birmingham is a favorite of both drivers and fans.
Television coverage begins at 3:00 pm EST, Sunday, April 26th on NBC-SN. You can also keep up to date with all of the IndyCar news throughout the entire weekend with the IndyCar 15 app provided by Verizon Wireless.