Phoenix Race Review: Single Handed


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J.R. Hildebrand gave fans someone to root for other than those paradoxical Penskes in a flawed though mildly entertaining show in the desert.


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Simon Pagenaud and the Penskes prevailed going away as the first oval and night race of the year looked like 2016 in microcosm. Thankfully there were other stories, or rather a single other story, on NBCSN. If we heard about it once, we heard it a thousand times. Hildebrand‘s comeback race from a broken hand at Long Beach – requiring “a plate and eight screws” as Paul Tracy read from a card – saw him finish an impressive third. It was Ed Carpenter Racing‘s best result in some time and a remarkable feat by the team’s shorthanded newcomer.

We couldn’t help but think of the sound of one hand clapping during the race, as the crowd looked sparse on television and the Saturday night time slot is challenging for ratings to begin with. After seeing the start though, maybe that’s not all bad.


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The race began embarrassingly with a first lap caution as Mikhail Aleshin lost it and spun in turn two collecting Marco, Rahal, Chilton and Bourdais – Hondas all. Townsend “WHOOO!” Bell had earlier called Aleshin “a little bit of a squirrel out there,” proving prescient. PT piled on with talk of race stewards’ scrutiny of the Russkie even before the back handed incident.


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Caught up in the fracas, points leader Bourdais was out before he’d even begun, finishing nineteenth and failing to turn a lap. Of the wreck Mikhail simply said “that’s racing,” although he did apologize later on Twitter. It was the third first lap caution of the young year and Helio‘s pacing of the field coming to green was yet again suspect.


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In fact the forty nine time pole sitter also jumped the restart on lap 21, which was wisely waved off. Once racing in anger finally resumed, the field strung out in an attempt to arrive safely at the first pit stops. Power led the other Penskes and James Hinchcliffe in the top five until Scott Dixon was able to get around him. Hinch got scary high behind Dixon during non-stop coverage, but was able to avoid the wall and pass his fellow Honda driver once full screen resumed. It seemed as though the Hondas were racing with one hand tied behind their backs all night.


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Hard luck Conor Daly languished in the pits with gearbox issues while on track J.R. battled and got by Hinch for fifth place. He was impressive throughout the weekend and recall, he did it all single handedly. After starting dead last, J.R.’s owner/teammate gained fourteen positions – the most of the race – to finish seventh. It was only Carpenter’s fourth finish in his last dozen races. Hildebrand’s handy job wasn’t finished either, as Newkid suffered front wing damage and was greedily gobbled up by the one armed bandit in short order.


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In characteristic fashion Takuma “most crashes per win” Sato walled it on lap 138, this time while everyone except Pags was in pits, including crucially J.R. The timing of the race’s second caution handed the Frenchman the upper hand, as he inherited the lead after pitting under yellow. PT called it a “confused” running order, as previously pitted cars lost a lap while Pags gained one. IndyCar’s left handed closed pit rule definitely needs some rethinking.

At least fans were treated to a thrilling restart with a hundred to go, though the Penskes pounced as Josef made good use of his new nose. Townsend “Ohhhh!” Bell pointed out the exciting passing happening around the track, while Rahal – now turned Twitter commentator – agreed about the “mid pack” action. It was a fight amongst the Chevys though, as Graham rightly noted that the Hondas “don’t have pace” to keep up on the short oval. Such Chevy dominance could be a huge bit of foreshadowing for May.


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Final pits stops around lap 202 saw few changes, with the Penskes and Hildebrand remaining out front. In another humiliating blow to Andretti Autosport, Ryan Hunter-Reay brushed the wall breaking his right rear tow link and joining his teammates in their second four car DNF of the year. “It was way too complicated down here today, behind the steering wheel,” Ryan admitted. Newgarden had earlier contacted Hunter-Reay, necessitating yet another new front wing for the Tennessean.


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There were only four cars remaining on the lead lap at the end with Hildebrand running third, benefiting from Newkid’s encounter with RHR. When the booth begins rooting for a yellow to make the ending more exciting, you know it’s another sorry, strung out affair at Phoenix. Pags beat “Mad” Will Power and J.R. to the line handily, winning by nine seconds and leading the final hundred and fifteen laps. The points lead passed from one Frenchman to another – the defending series champ – in seemingly underhanded manner.


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Post Race Quotes –

Will Power: “I don’t understand why they blue flag for the leader but they don’t for the second place car. It kinda ruined the race. . . . I think they should do like NASCAR where they reorder everyone, ’cause it just turns into a boring race.”

J.R.: “It’s a little sore. . . .  Happy to break up the Penske sandwich.”

Pags: “Those were the longest fifty laps of my life!”


7 thoughts on “Phoenix Race Review: Single Handed

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