The Frontstretch: IndyCar Recap: Belle Isle Doubleheader by Matt Stallknecht -- Monday June 3, 2013

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IndyCar Recap: Belle Isle Doubleheader

Matt Stallknecht · Monday June 3, 2013

 

Mike Conway made believers out of everyone Saturday in Belle Isle, taking an underfunded ride he didn’t have one week ago to a shocking victory at the road course.

In A Nutshell: Belle Isle was the site of the first doubleheader weekend of the season, and underdogs ruled the roost. In Race 1, oft-maligned English racer Mike Conway utterly dominated, starting from the pole position and delivering a shock win for the underfunded Dale Coyne Racing outfit. Race 2 was more competitive, with Conway leading the most laps, but this time, it was another underdog by the name of Simon Pagenaud who came away victorious. Pagenaud cruised to the checkers with a five-second victory over another surprise, James Jakes, thus putting a period on a topsy-turvy weekend in which the sport’s bottom dwellers rose to the top of the leaderboard while favorites struggled.

Key Moment: In Race 1, the key moment occurred on lap 45, when Mike Conway retook the lead from then-leader Ryan Hunter-Reay after a series of varying pit strategies jumbled the field. Conway never looked back after re-inheriting the top spot. In Race 2, the key moment came late, as Simon Pagenaud moved into the lead on lap 58, replacing James Jakes during a round of pit stops. Pagenaud drove his guts out from that point on, holding off charges from Jakes and Conway en route to delivering his maiden victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Highlight Reel: – AJ Allmendinger’s string of bad luck continued in Belle Isle. On the opening lap of Race 1, he got too aggressive trying to pass Scott Dixon and sailed over Dixon’s rear wing and into the wall, landing him a last-place finish. His nightmare continued in Race 2 as another lap 1 incident relegated him to yet another finish in the rear. NASCAR at Pocono can’t come soon enough?

- Takuma Sato had a similarly nightmarish weekend. His car stalled midway through Race 1; then, he wrecked in Race 2. In what has been a dream season thus far for Sato and team owner AJ Foyt, this weekend was something of a bump in the road. It will be interesting to see how the team handles such adversity going forward; they’ve gone from points leaders to sixth place in just a few short weeks.

- Race 1 was exceptionally clean and largely uncompetitive. Mike Conway clearly had a leg up on the field and only needed to sweat out a few early yellows before delivering a 20-second victory for Dale Coyne Racing. How surprising was that performance? It was just the second race all season for a man most well-known for tearing his car into a million pieces during the final laps at Indianapolis a few years back.

- For as uneventful as Race 1 was, Race 2 had far more drama. Six cautions flew in the first 36 laps, many of which ruined the races of a number of top-flight drivers. One of the largest accidents of the season broke out on Lap 28 of Race 2, with a total of 11 cars involved when all was said and done. The wreck effectively ended the day for contenders such as James Hinchcliffe and Will Power, both drivers who have seen their seasons take a turn for the worse over the past few weeks.

Simon Pagenaud was all pumped up after scoring the first IndyCar victory of his career in Belle Isle’s race number two.

- When we look back at this weekend at the end of the season, it will undoubtedly be remembered for the performance of the underfunded teams. The winner of Race 1, Mike Conway, did not even have a ride one week ago, yet somehow managed to develop enough chemistry over the course of the week to deliver two podium finishes once the weekend came to a close. James Jakes, who battled for the win in both races, probably had the finest runs of his entire INDYCAR career, and certainly proved to many that he belongs in this sport long-term. And of course, there’s Simon Pagenaud, whose win in Race 2 was the first of his entire career. Cherish this one, folks; we likely won’t see a weekend where this many underdogs overachieve for the rest of the season.

- It seems as though Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s season is pretty much shot at this point. On a weekend in which the team needed to perform, they largely underachieved (Scott Dixon delivered a best finish of fourth for the organization in both races), and were completely overshadowed by their rival Honda teams. Is it too late for this group to find some magic? Dixon has gritted his way to a respectable fourth in the series standings, so he remains on the fringes of the title hunt if things start to click again. But there is really no excuse for the poor performance of a team that has as much as three times the budget of many others in the sport.

- Speaking of the points, Marco Andretti and Helio Castroneves ended the weekend
tied atop the series standings. Neither driver had a particularly noteworthy weekend, but they each did enough to stay afloat. Look for both to threaten for the win next weekend at Texas.

- After a tumultuous week that saw Panther Racing release struggling driver JR Hildebrand (a story that will continue to build over the coming weeks), the team struggled once more with replacement driver Ryan Briscoe in the seat. Briscoe delivered underwhelming finishes of 13th and 21st, not exactly the kind of results the team wanted to see as it tries to validate the rationale behind giving Hildebrand the boot.

- Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a mention to our reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, Tony Kanaan. If we learned anything about he and his KV Racing team this weekend, it’s that their road/street program is not nearly as solid as its oval program. Kanaan slogged to finishes of 12th and 13th in the two Belle Isle events, not exactly the results the team was looking for after experiencing the highest of highs just one week prior.

Mike Conway wasn’t the only underdog who shined at Belle Isle. James Jakes (pictured) was also strong across both races, part of a long list of “bottom feeders” who reveled in slaying open-wheel’s Goliaths.

Notable Driver: Mike Conway. What a story. Conway has ridden the proverbial roller coaster for the entirety of his IZOD IndyCar Series career, slogging through injuries, sponsorship difficulties, hard wrecks, and bad equipment. He’s had some success here and there (his win at Long Beach in 2011 being a career highlight up until this weekend), but overall, it’s been a journey defined by disappointment. That changed this Saturday. After this weekend, no one will question Conway’s obvious talent, and one can only hope we see more of the affable Englishman going forward.

Quotes and Tweets:
“(Our strategy) was keep pushing, get a gap, and the strategy worked out perfectly at the end. I wanted to stay out and do more laps.” – Mike Conway on his road to victory in Race 1
“Want to go to Toronto?” – Dale Coyne’s future race seat offer to Mike Conway after Conway’s win
“It’s unbelievable. I don’t know how we did it. It’s a great feeling. I hope of more to come. I started karting when I was 8, so it’s been 21 years of hard work to finally win an IndyCar race. (Race 1) was the toughest race of my life (in Race 1 on June 1 when he started eighth but finished 12th) and my engineers improved everything. The car was just super fast (in race 2) and strategy was awesome. Every restart, we just went forward.” – Simon Pagenaud after his win in Race 2
“He was driving on a mission; he wanted this really bad.” – Sam Schmidt, Simon Pagenaud’s team owner
“Three Hondas on the podium in Detroit again. They’ve really worked their butts off since Indy and we’re proud of them. The car was just magical today.” – James Jakes on his podium finish in Race 2
“Tough weekend for kvracing but we will bounce back. Fim de semana complicado aqui em Detroit. Bora pra próxima.” – Tony Kanaan (Twitter: TonyKanaan) on his disappointing weekend

What’s Next: We’re back to the ovals this upcoming weekend as IndyCar continues its summer stretch. Texas Motor Speedway will be the site of the next event, the Firestone 550k, a race which never fails to provide lots of fireworks and uber high speeds. Coverage for the event will kick off on ABC this Saturday night, June 8th on ABC at 8:30 PM EST. Sirius/XM Radio Channel 211 will also provide live radio coverage.

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Steve K
06/04/2013 12:15 AM
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Ganassi’s season is shot? Can Frontstretch find someone intelligent to write about IndyCar?