If the IZOD IndyCar Series bids adieu to the Kentucky Speedway, it went out on a high note as a sensational race played out on the 1.5 mile oval yesterday afternoon. In a thrilling conclusion, Sarah Fisher Racing’s Ed Carpenter nipped Dario Franchitti to the line by a mere 0.0098 seconds, earning his first INDYCAR victory in 113 starts. It was also the first victory for Sarah Fisher Racing, whose previous high mark was a ninth place finish in 2010 with Graham Rahal behind the wheel.
The race was full of twists and turns, and mistakes throughout the day kept the finish constantly in flux. Verizon Team Penske driver Will Power led the first stint of the race but was involved in a pit road incident with Ana Beatriz on his first stop and was never able to fully recover. Interestingly, Team Penske president Tim Cindric said the team could not simply swap out a new sidepod for the damaged one because pieces that come from Dallara are not interchangeable. This is news to me and is certainly a surprise. I wonder if by “not interchangeable” Cindric actually meant “not interchangeable to Penske standards.”
After the Power/Beatriz issue, a long green-flag stint followed with several somewhat surprising guys running up front. Rookie Wade Cunningham ran solidly in the top 10 for a good chunk of the day and showed that he really knows how to wheel one of these cars. It was fantastic to see Wade finally get the break that he has waited so long for and really take advantage of it with a solid performance all weekend long.
Also running up front for most of the race was Newman/Haas rookie James Hinchcliffe. James’s only other 1.5-mile experience in INDYCARs was at Texas this year, and the results were disappointing. It was great to see him bounce back and prove that he’s got the skills to be a long-time contender in the Series.
Fellow rookie JR Hildebrand also ran strong for much for the first 150 laps before his pit road incident eliminated him from competition. JR ran nose-to-nose with Dario Franchitti early on and actually led the race on lap 49. Through the middle portion of the day, JR battled with Ed Carpenter for many, many laps. At one point in the race, both Hildebrand and Carpenter’s teams were complaining to Race Control about the other driver crowding and pushing them around. Race Control essentially told them to figure it out on their own. Hildebrand now trails Hinchcliffe by six points in the Rookie of the Year chase heading into the season finale in two weeks.
Several pit road incidents created scary situations. The first was caused when Simona de Silvestro experienced clutch problems upon exiting her pit. Her overheating clutch somehow caused her car to suddenly snap around right into the chief mechanic for EJ Viso’s car. During the ensuing caution period, two more incidents wreaked more havoc on pit lane. JR Hildebrand entered his pits too hot and skidded into his left rear tire changer, who sustained a lower left leg injury. At nearly the same time, Marco Andretti won the Bone-headed Move of the Race award when he exited his pit stall and ran directly into Alex Lloyd, who was trying to enter his own pit. Rumor is that Marco was read the riot act by his father when he got out of the car, and deservedly so.
The big story of the day, though, and possibly of the entire 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season, was that of Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing. This team, built from the ground up by Sarah and her husband Andy O’Gara, has been doing everything right since being formed in 2008. By focusing the core of their efforts on building a competitive oval package, SFR set out to prove their top-9 qualifying effort at Indianapolis this year was no fluke and now has become the first non Penske, Ganassi, or Andretti team to win on an 1.5-mile oval since Scott Sharp won at Kentucky in 2005. The crowd reaction was truly a sight to behold. From my vantage point on pit road at the start/finish line, I could hear the roar of the crowd even over my headphones and scanner and the engines going by at speed. This win may go down as the most popular of the INDYCAR sanctioned era. It was great to hear so many drivers and teams afterwards offering their congratulations to Ed and the team. It’s one thing for the Penske and Ganassi teams to get beaten but quite another for them to get beaten by a team like Sarah Fisher Racing in an all-out, no fuel saving, mano-a-mano fight to the finish. We’ve heard for years that the 1.5-mile ovals are nothing but an exercise in engineering and that the teams with the most money will always be the fastest. Days like today prove that nothing in auto racing is certain.
On a less positive note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the abysmal crowd that showed up for the race on Sunday. I’m sure there is a list of excuses a mile long, but the fact is that only about 15,000 people were in attendance for one of the best oval races in years. Yes, it was cold (though I still managed to get quite a sunburn on my face), and yes, the NFL was in full swing. But all indications I’ve seen are that Kentucky Speedway did very little to get the word out to the masses. On my drive between the track and my hotel in Florence (which is a southern suburb of Cincinnati), I never saw a single shred of promotion, nor did I hear one ad on any of the several different radio stations I listened to. Given that the date for the Kentucky race has bounced around in the INDYCAR schedule quite a bit these last several years, failing to promote the event is a critical failure. Even the hotels didn’t all know what was going on. At one hotel I stopped at looking for a room on Saturday night, I was told by the front-desk worker, “We’re all sold out. I think maybe there is a race this weekend at the track.” Gee, you think? It is sad that Kentucky Speedway will likely not be on the schedule next year unless a major title sponsor is quickly secured. I know some fans and drivers don’t get excited about this type of racing, but people who weren’t on the edges of their seats yesterday just aren’t going to be INDYCAR fans. Perhaps INDYCAR doesn’t need seven 1.5-mile ovals anymore, but to have only the one at Texas Motor Speedway remaining next year would be a real shame.
With that, I’ll wrap up another great weekend at the track. Thanks again to everyone who followed along here and on Twitter throughout the weekend. The kind words you passed along were greatly appreciated! For the Las Vegas race in two weeks, I’ll pass the baton over to Bash Beard, who will drive us home and put a bow on another great season for us. Be sure to stay tuned to MFW this week for the podcast as we wrap up Kentucky and begin looking forward to the season finale.