After two months on road courses, the IZOD IndyCar Series has returned to the all-left-turn circuits on this beautiful day at Chicagoland Speedway.
Under unusually perfect conditions, the morning practice had very predictable results with Team Penske drivers Ryan Briscoe and Will Power ending up first and third on the speed chart and Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon slotting in between them. Following the top three, though, came the entire squadron from Andretti Autosport with Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Tony Kanaan finishing in positions four through seven. It was certainly a welcome relief to see the Chrome-Nose Crew run strong. Rounding out the top ten were Castroneves (8th), Viso (9th), and Franchitti (10th). Other impressive runs were turned in Alex Lloyd, Vitor Meira, and Bertrand Baguette, who were all within the top 15.
In qualifying, Briscoe and Power ended in the same positions as they did in practice — first and third. Beyond those two, things got quirky. Most surprising was that Scott Dixon qualified in 15th position. TCGR Manager of Racing Operations, Barry Wanser, said they weren’t sure what the problem was during the run, but whatever it was seems to have fixed itself as Dixon ran competitively again in final practice.
Marco Andretti was able to back up his practice time with a very fine fifth-place qualifying effort. Next to Andretti in row 3 will be Newman/Haas driver Graham Rahal. Graham had a fantastic race here last year, battling for the win in the final few laps before eventually being shuffled back to fifth place at the checkered. Newman/Haas has obviously taken big steps forward in their oval program as Hideki Mutoh also qualified in the top 10.
Ed Carpenter turned in an amazing 11th-place qualifying effort. Ed white-walled his #20 Fuzzy’s Vodka machine on his first lap of practice and never got a proper lap in, meaning that his first laps at speed were on the clock. The Vision/Panther racing crew did a great job of preparing the car, and Ed obviously feels comfortable on this track. Speaking of the Vision/Panther relationship, we were informed today that the car Ed is driving is a Vision Racing car, the sponsor is a Vision Racing sponsor, but the pit crew comes from the Panther stable.
The final practice a two- and three-wide pack-racing extravaganza that showed we might be in for a race tomorrow night very similar to what we saw last year. Drivers were able to run three-wide without much difficulty. Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon were running most consistently in the top line and seemed to be able to maintain good speed. Last year, we saw an issue where Ed Carpenter got stuck behind cars going three-wide for about five laps. If Marco or Dixon is in a similar position with a fast car, it won’t be a surprise to see one of them try to make this track four lanes wide. Both seem comfortable that high and able to run quickly there.
Danica and Marco backed up their early practice times by running third and fourth respectively in the final session. Danica pitted immediately after turning that lap and removed another half-turn of front wing, so she was obviously feeling very comfortable with her car.
A strong run was also turned in by Mario Moraes, rounding out the top five in final practice. Mario posted a career best third-place finish here last year, and if he can finish the race, he should be competitive at race’s end tomorrow night.
The surprise of the final session was seeing Helio Castroneves only able to climb to 20th position. In his defense, Helio spent most of the session at the front of a massive cluster of cars, so everyone else in the field was probably drafting off of him. Nonetheless, everyone likely expected Helio to be much higher on the speed chart. Don’t expect him to tumble too quickly from his fourth-place starting spot tomorrow, though.
Those fans hoping to see the five women entered this weekend turn in strong performances are probably not pleased after today’s festivities. Other than Danica Patrick’s strong run in both practice sessions, the other four ladies are struggling to find speed. In the final practice, Sarah Fisher was the best of the group but only able to get as high as 23rd of 29 drivers on track. The rest came in at positions 24 (Beatriz), 27 (Duno), and 28 (de Silvestro). If they aren’t able to stay in the draft early in the race, it could be a long night for those drivers.
Another driver looking at a long night is Davey Hamilton. This is Davey’s first race at a 1.5-mile oval since his horrific accident at Texas in 2001. He had hoped to return to Texas this year but had those plans nixed when both he and Rafa Matos crashed in the Indianapolis 500. Here’s hoping that his HP de Ferran Dragon team is about to make some changes overnight and find a bit of speed for Davey.
Away from the track, one of the big stories here this weekend is the rumor that there is unanimous dissention among the IndyCar team owners regarding the 2012 ICONIC Committee chassis selection. These rumors were fueled by Robin Miller’s article on SpeedTV.com claiming that nearly all of the owners in the paddock were ready to unite against the selection of the committee. From what More Front Wing has learned, this assertion an over-the-top exaggeration of the owners’ true position. Two owners that More Front Wing spoke with today, Keith Wiggins and Dale Coyne, said that while there is concern among the owners about what little information they have received, there is no unified front against the selection and the owners are nowhere near being in a position to revolt against the Series. Both said that they are eager to receive more details from the IICS and Dallara and that having Tony Cotman lead this program is a positive step. Speaking to officials from two other teams indicated similar sentiments. We will continue to seek out more opinions throughout the weekend, but our expectation is that we will hear similar feedback from other team owners.
The other issue the Series is facing this weekend is whether Chicagoland Speedway will return to the 2011 IndyCar schedule, and all indications are that it will not. It is an absolute abomination that this race will likely be dropped as it has consistently produced some of the best racing in the country. Of course, this is another effect of the rapidly souring relationship between the Series and ISC, but where the fault lies doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that this race, which is consistently a fan favorite, may no longer take place.
As for this year’s running, there is little to indicate that Chicagoland Speedway is giving much effort to making it a success. Chicagoland is my home track, and before even arriving on the grounds this weekend I noted that there was very little promotion throughout the area. Radio ads, if they existed at all, were few and far between — I never heard a single one, but track officials claim they were actually on the air. Here at the track, promotion is little better. While driving into the infield, fans and participants are greeted by a NASCAR Sprint Cup billboard. In the trackside media center, the Sprint Cup Lifelock.com 400 backdrop was in place for most of the day – seven weeks removed from the event. In fact, if it wasn’t for those funny-looking cars with wings that ran on the track a couple of times, I wouldn’t even have realized that the IndyCars were here this weekend. It really is a shame (and that’s being kind) that this track won’t return to the schedule, especially when it was originally build as a collaborative effort between ISC and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation. Yes, that’s right — IMS built this track, and now the IZOD IndyCar Series isn’t welcome. Chew on that for a bit.
With that, I’ll call it a day. Tomorrow’s weather is expected to be a carbon copy of today’s, so weather will be no issue. The green flag is set to fall at 6:50 PM local time, so don’t expect this to be a true night race. It will definitely start under daylight conditions but should run its second half under the lights. We can look forward to a hair-raising race to end IndyCar’s tenure here at Chicagoland Speedway.
More Front Wing will be back tomorrow with more news and views from the track, this time in double as Steph arrives on the scene. Be sure to follow us both here and on Twitter at @MoreFrontWing (yes, we’ll both be tweeting from the same account!) — don’t miss a moment of the action from Chicagoland!