The Frontstretch: IndyCar Round Table: Just What Kind Of Season Is 2013? by Frontstretch Staff -- Tuesday June 25, 2013

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IndyCar Round Table: Just What Kind Of Season Is 2013?

Frontstretch Staff · Tuesday June 25, 2013


Welcome to the IndyCar Round Table! Several times throughout the season, your favorite writers will get together to discuss the latest IndyCar news, rumors and so much more!

This Week’s Participants:
Toni Montgomery (Frontstretch IndyCar Editor)
Matt Stallknecht (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer/Five Burning Questions)
Huston Ladner (Frontstretch IndyCar Writer/Happiness Is)

Michael Andretti credits the success of his team to the teamwork between the four cars. Four cars worth of information from every race and every test. Can anyone beat that given that no one else has that advantage?

Andretti Autosport has cultivated a strong team dynamic between drivers like James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Matt: I certainly don’t think so. Penske is starting to hurt for sponsorship and won’t be expanding anytime soon. Meanwhile Ganassi has been unable to make any headway with more than three cars. Andretti is the only organization that has the four-car thing truly figured out.
Huston: Well, it’s not like Penske and Ganassi have never been strong. And it’s hard to know what has those two teams off their usual standards, but certainly, the more data, the better. The more the engineers have to work with, the more they can come up with smart decisions.
Toni: I find it an interesting dynamic because sometimes we’ve seen four teams be the tipping point where it’s too many for the resources of the team and the operation suffers. But it is worth maybe noting that Penske and Ganassi have each scaled back by one full-time car and they are not doing quite as well as normal. Especially Ganassi, but I think most of their problems lie elsewhere.
Huston: I wondered if your meta-question was actually: What’s wrong with Ganassi?
Toni: Well it really was about Andretti but it’s hard to talk about their success without addressing Ganassi’s problems.
Huston: Good call. Andretti is just on it this year. They’ve got four good drivers, they’re hitting their set ups, and their pit crews also seem to be doing their part.
Matt: One has to wonder if the recent rise in performance on Ganassi’s NASCAR side has anything to do with the struggles on the IndyCar side.
Toni: Now that’s a really interesting thought, Matt.
Matt: It’s probably just a coincidence, but it does seem odd doesn’t it?
Huston: Avoiding the Ganassi topic for just one more second, the most interesting thing about Andretti is that all of the drivers are doing well — usually with a four-car team there’s one that’s off the pace.
Matt: Andretti is also the richest team in the sport sponsor-wise right now. That helps immensely.
Toni: I noticed the same thing, Huston. Four cars has always seemed to be that magic number to me. Indy cars or stock cars. It just seems like that fourth car, it’s so hard to have them all doing well, and when you do have them all doing well, the whole team just seems unstoppable. Roush and Hendrick have done it. But it’s really difficult. So it seems having a successful four car team can bring great rewards, if you can pull it off.
Matt: You gotta have the money available to make all four cars work in concert with one another. Andretti has the money right now and it’s showing.
Huston: As for Ganassi, it looks like it’s probably a throw-away year for Franchitti and Kimball now.
Toni: Dixon is hanging on by his fingernails. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s had anything remotely resembling a good year. He’s had the best year of anyone on his team but that’s not saying much.
Huston: Yeah, I continue to marvel at Dixon’s position in the standings. He just keeps clawing away there.
Matt: Dixon is the best driver on that team right now and I would say he is outperforming his equipment. Franchitti is past his prime at this point in my opinion.
Huston: Wow, a year and a half removed from a championship…going for the kill, eh Matt?
Matt: It happens fast Huston. Look at Jeff Burton on the NASCAR side. One year he’s a top Chase contender and the next year he can’t even buy a top 5. Franchitti is far from being uncompetitive but it’s looking as though he’s lost his edge.
Huston: Something that has not been discussed, but may be a factor, is what influence his divorce has had on him.
Toni: Franchitti has had a lot of personal change in his life over the last year. It might be a distraction.
Matt: My guess is that it took a toll on him. His results before and after the divorce look like those of two different drivers.
Toni: I think his head is just not in the game right now, not where it needs to be. But it doesn’t mean he’s done. Drivers sort these things out and refocus.
Huston: Exactly.

For the last few years the biggest fan complaint has been that it’s all Penske and Ganassi but that is not the case this year, however does it really help anything that we’ve really just switched out one power team for another and now it’s all Andretti?

Matt: I’ve always held Andretti within the same breath as Penske and Ganassi.
Toni: For the immediate, fans aren’t complaining. But in the longer term, you would think they would come to the same realization eventually. Yeah but I don’t think everyone else did Matt. Although you are right—if you look back at the last ten years or so, the championships Penske and Ganassi didn’t win were won by Andretti.
Matt: All of the Andretti drivers are likeable and marketable so I don’t foresee any issues if they keep winning.
Huston: I’ve kind of seen the three as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers…they’re stalwarts at this point. But to answer the question, I think that as long as guys like Sato and Carpenter are able to push through and find the podium or steal a win, then things are OK. The problem is that there aren’t enough quality teams like those two. Watching Rahal and Andretti go wheel to wheel was great, but for some reason, I knew that Rahal wouldn’t keep that position. That team still has some work to do.
Matt: This sport has very clear tiers. In most years, Andretti/Penske/Ganassi are in their own first tier, and usually Andretti is on the fringe of that group, this year being a major exception. Tier 2 is probably teams like KV Racing, Rahal, AJ Foyt Racing, and Schmidt. Then you have the bottom tier of teams like Dragon and Panther.
Huston: I think I can concur with that, though Tier 2 and Tier 3 have interchangeable teams depending on the year.
Matt: Agreed.
Toni: I think the tier thing is true of most racing series. I think the difference this year so far has been that more of those tier two and three guys are actually breaking through and emerging as contenders from week to week. But I do think for some reason people just don’t always see the Andretti team as quite on the same level as Penske and Ganassi. As far as marketable drivers, Hinch has it in spades, but I don’t know as much about the other three. As much as the series has been pushing RHR as the American champion, and he’s a great guy—has he really gained a following? Marco is an Andretti but sometimes that’s not a help—Andretti’s have certain traits not all fans like.
Matt: Marco Andretti is undoubtedly the most marketable driver in the series. It’s not even remotely close.
Huston: Well, Andretti is a brand name.
Matt: He is the only driver who has any reach with the mainstream sports world. Hardcore fans may not love Marco, but there is absolutely no doubt that he is the most marketable driver for the casual mainstream crowd, which is the obvious target when you’re discussing marketability.
Toni: Marco has the Andretti name, but Marco also has a reputation for whining.
Huston: And crashing.
Toni: He may be familiar to the mainstream world not invested in IndyCar, but he’s not so near and dear to a lot of the fans who are already interested in the sport.
Matt: But it doesn’t matter what the hardcore people think of him in this scenario Toni. They don’t need to be marketed to really. When Marco does well, the sport does well, because he is the only driver who can make any sort of dent in the mainstream sports fabric. And let’s not kid ourselves here, Marco might not be universally loved but he still has one of the three or four biggest fan bases in the series.
Huston: Hard to argue with that. But characters like Helio and Hinch-town bring a different element. The key is finding personalities in the guys in the second tier.
Toni: I think they have lots of great personalities-the key is in actually putting them out there for the world to see.
Matt: The more Andretti teams win, the better off the sport will be. And I don’t think the fans would mind seeing Andretti topple the Penske/Ganassi stranglehold for the time being.
Toni: So it’s the same old, same old, only different, but that’s OK because we like it better this way?
Huston: Something like that anyway.
Toni: I think for as long as fans feel that way it’s good—because they are not complaining and that’s always a good thing.
Matt: Andretti’s team has a more diverse set of personalities that stand to do more for the sport’s well being.

Let’s talk about the actual racing now. We’ve talked in the past about how INDYCAR needs to really use those ovals to draw in new fans because they are some of the most exciting racing, and more palatable than say a street course. But we’ve seen some less than stellar oval racing this season and oddly some great street course runs this year. What has changed to make that the case and can they really appeal to new fans if that continues?

Huston: Interesting. I’m going to have to ask the question: what is good racing?
Matt: Hmmm, that’s a tough question. I personally thought Iowa and Milwaukee were both fine races, the only issues with those races was that the cautions never fell quite right to set up more “drama” over the course of the race. Iowa had some insane racing through the field, just not enough cautions to tighten things up, which isn’t a big deal really. Not every race can be a classic.
Huston: Right with you Matt. I thought Iowa, other than the fact that it was on during the NASCAR race, was quite good. Lots of side-by-side racing, even if Hinchcliffe did his best to try and embarass the field.
Matt: Texas on the other hand….the package they brought that week was broken. If anything that race proved that more forethought can go a long way in putting a good product on the track.
Huston: The speeds they ran at Iowa also made it compelling. So I’m not going to assert that the street/road races have been that much better or worse. I’m pretty sure that Barber didn’t leave much of a mark on me. Matt, you know what I thought Texas did? I thought it showed that tracks a mile and under are the way to go. Get everyone in a tighter space, which Milwaukee and Iowa did, and then you’ll see better racing.
Toni: See now I feel like some of the best racing we’ve seen in the last month happened at Belle Isle—both races. Texas was broken, I agree on that one. Milwaukee was good—some interesting strategy going on, a winner that didn’t spend all day yarding the field.
Matt: The street racing I felt was heavily overrated this year. The Brazil finish was cool but that sort of thing could have happened any year with any package. Street racing is what it is for the most part, you can do little things to improve it but unless you have the acquired taste you probably won’t like it. Oval racing is very malleable and is easier to make into a widely consumable product.
Huston: I had a different impression from Belle Isle. I thought the first race was decent, but because there are so few places to pass it didn’t lend itself to good racing. And the second Belle race was a wreckfest that took out too many good cars to be enjoyable.
Matt: The street races have been more interesting due to their winners and some of the odd circumstances that occurred in those races. The actual racing product wasn’t terribly different from 2012, which wasn’t terribly good on its own.
Toni: I don’t know, maybe Matt’s right. Maybe I just liked Belle Isle because it was all about fresh faces.
Huston: Nothing wrong with that.
Matt: Toni, I think that’s the main reason why many have remembered those races so fondly.
Toni: So essentially, see question two, right?
Matt: I think that would be fair to say.
Huston: Possibly. The real interesting aspect comes with Pocono. Will the racing be any good there or will the cars get soooo strung out that it will be a bore?
Toni: Huston is getting ahead of us. That’s the next question.
Matt: The oval races have had much better actual “racing” then the street circuits have provided. The street circuits simply have benefitted from well timed cautions and surprise winners.
Huston: Yeah, I’m going to say that I think the oval racing has been a bit better as well.

The series takes a much deserved off week this week, but then we head to Pocono, a new event on the schedule. NASCAR fans often dump on this track as being boring because of long green runs and strung out fields. Yet it’s always pointed out how similar Pocono is to Indy, where the IndyCar Series has been having fantastic racing. So what should we expect from Indy cars at Pocono?

Will Pocono see the same kind of great racing we saw at Indy earlier this season?

Toni:Interesting dilemma, isn’t it?
Huston: Ugh, it pains me to make this remark, but for all of my interest in watching this race, I can just feel that it’s going to get strung out and might become a bit of a snoozer.
Toni: Will Pocono be Pocono or will Pocono be Indy? Here’s where my head is—I am looking forward to it eagerly, thinking with the similarities to Indy that it could be a very exciting and competitive event. BUT I’m a little gun shy after Texas, and also knowing what NASCAR does there, that I’m getting myself all geared up and I’ll be disappointed by a strung out snoozer.
Matt: You should expect an utterly fantastic race. Unlike NASCAR, IndyCar is actually well-suited to Pocono. Pocono has just enough banking to allow these cars to maintain a high level of speed without having to lift much, and it’s still smooth enough to eliminate excessive handling concerns. That means you will see the field stay packed together somewhat, and the draft will be huge. Expect to see lots of passing, but with a slightly higher premium on handling due to the unique layout of the track compared to Indy.
Huston: I love your enthusiasm and optimism, Matt.
Toni: I do too. And I’m really hoping Matt is right.
Huston: I’m going to watch with the jaded perspective, so that if the race turns out to be a good one I’ll be stoked.
Toni: Maybe I’ll go with guarded enthusiasm.
Matt: Put simply, it will be a faster version of Indianapolis, but the leader won’t be quite as much of a sitting duck because Pocono naturally is more handling oriented than Indianapolis is. The difference in racing between the two tracks will be subtle but important.
Huston: I’ll agree with that. All comes down to how close everyone is on their set-ups.
Toni: I’ve been seeing a lot of excited chatter on the track’s Facebook page about people wanting to go. I hope it translates into a crowd on race day.
Huston:Here’s a funny question to that…What constitutes a good crowd for IndyCar at that facility?
Matt: Yikes….maybe 30,000? It won’t look good on TV, I can tell you that much.
Toni: No, because the place holds like 100,000.
Huston: Right. I mean, they didn’t pack Milwaukee, and there were some empty seats in Iowa.
Toni: It’s the old great crowd looks lost in the cavernous grandstand thing.
Huston: I’d hope that they can draw in maybe 40,000. That would be a pretty good turnout.
Matt: 30-40,000 would be a big deal.
Toni: My guess is the track will be very happy with 30-40,000. One good thing—they don’t have to run it up against NASCAR on TV at least.
Matt: That’s a HUGE plus Toni. One of the biggest and most mainstream friendly races of the year will be up against virtually no competition. Big opportunity for INDYCAR.
Huston: It’s on ABC, so no one can complain about not being able to get it on cable/satellite either.
Toni: So this is the big opportunity they missed out on with Texas coming around one more time essentially. It’s not prime time, but still.
Matt: It could feasibly pull a 1.1-1.3 Nielsen, which would be a major win for INDYCAR. Here’s hoping for the best.
Toni: Agreed—I hope this time they get a great event and capitalize on the opportunity to the highest degree.
Huston: Fingers crossed, that’s my final thought.
Matt: Expect a wild and pass-happy race. And that’s not me being overly optimistic, that’s just me being realistic.
Toni: Here’s to that as a great thought to wrap it up!

Connect with Toni!

Contact Toni Montgomery

Connect with Huston!

Contact Huston Ladner

Connect with Matt!

Contact Matt Stallknecht

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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Bad Wolf
06/26/2013 02:30 AM

James Hinchcliffe wins his 3rd race of the season in the “Go Daddy” Indycar. Amazing what a driver change can do.