NASCAR Race Weekend Central

On the Reds: Late Finish Hides Dull IndyCar Product in Barber

The Verizon IndyCar Series lucked out with an incredible finish to the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but the series still has significant improvements to make to the on-track product as the season marches on.

Continuing a depressing trend to open the season, the current aerokit led to an underwhelming race on Sunday. Save for a few drivers with stellar machines, drivers throughout the field struggled to pass inferior machines at Barber Motorsports Park.

The result was high-speed parade, one that provided a few good highlights, but gave little to occupy the long stretches of time between them.

Race winner Simon Pagenaud had one of the most dominant cars on the circuit Sunday, one good enough to stretch his lead out to over three seconds at one point. It should come as a surprise, then that Pagenaud struggled to pass rookie Conor Daly, who was running 20th at the time, for multiple laps around the Birmingham, Alabama circuit. Pagenaud’s struggles allowed teammate Will Power to close to his bumper for a time, but Power, too proved unable to get close enough to make a move.

The issues with lapped traffic persisted after Pagenaud finally found a way in front of Daly, allowing Graham Rahal to close on Pagenaud’s No. 22 Chevrolet and make the controversial move for the lead that set up the dramatic finish.

The same passing woes that allowed Rahal to catch Pagenaud worked to his advantage again laps later after Rahal tore the front wing off of his machine. The Honda driver managed to hold on to a second-place result despite running four seconds off-pace, as a train of competitors followed just behind him, unable to complete a pass in time.

The issue on Sunday wasn’t with Barber, but a continuing trend of poor racing stretching back to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

In that race, much as he was at Barber, Daly was near-impossible to pass despite driving for the underfunded Dale Coyne Racing. Daly held the lead for 15 laps before finally succumbing to Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart. Even after he lost the lead, Daly remained in the top three until a slow pit stop trapped him back in the field.

The issues continued in IndyCar’s return to Phoenix International Raceway, when difficulty passing led to just two lead changes, the lowest total in 11 INDYCAR-sanctioned events at the facility, in Scott Dixon‘s dominant win.

The issues then came into play again in Long Beach, when passing difficulties led both Dixon and Pagenaud to short-pit to pass Helio Castroneves. The way the drivers came out – Pagenaud leading Dixon and Castroneves a distant third – was the same order they would finish in.

(Photo: Brett Kelley / IndyCar)
Hopefully the Greatest Spectacle in Racing isn’t just another dud. The series may not recover if it is. (Photo: Brett Kelley / IndyCar)

Passing struggles are nothing uncommon for IndyCar, specifically on road and street circuits, but they could pose a major issue as the series heads to arguably its biggest month since becoming IndyCar in 1996, the Month of May for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade.

IndyCar’s been making modest gains in viewership and support over the previous few seasons, but nothing comes close to the amount of hype generated for the 100th Indy 500. The race is the biggest in IndyCar, if not all of America. They don’t call it “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for nothing.

However, if the race is a dud, it could also be the last great event the series puts on.

With what looks like their first sellout since 1995, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to garner a lot of attention over the month to come, from the opening Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis through qualifications, Miller Lite Carb Day and the Indy 500.

Going into the season, there was overwhelming optimism for the event, and for good reason. While 2015 had a slew of issues, the on-track product was largely considered great, especially at Indianapolis and Auto Club Speedway.

After four less-than-stellar races to open the season, however, there’s cause for concern in the IndyCar paddock.

Everyone wants the 100th edition of the Month of May to be special, with great racing and a celebration of a Indianapolis’ incredible history. However, if the races aren’t exciting, if passing continues to be an issue, then the track and series could be in for a difficult future the following weekend at Detroit and beyond.

After all, selling the 100th race is easy. It’s the 101st year and beyond that’s a challenge.

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