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IndyCar Qualifying Creates More Puzzles

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, Sep 14, 2012

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

1-Will_Power_Verizon_Chrevrolet_No_12 (EVC_Studios)
Will Power and his Verizon-Chevrolet No. 12 (EVC|Studios

Will Power and his Verizon-Chevrolet No. 12 (EVC|Studios By Brian Kennedy Izod IndyCar qualifying on Friday afternoon in Fontana for the MAVTV 500 settled exactly nothing between Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and that’s precisely what should have happened. At least from the point of view of fans who want the season’s championship to go down to the last possible minute. As we detailed in a prior story, Power, an Aussie, is 17 points ahead of American Hunter-Reay going into the final race. The easiest way to describe the scenario that would make Power champ is to say that if he’s second or first, he wins no matter what his rival does. On the other side, Hunter-Reay must finish sixth or better to have any shot at the championship, and even then, he must count on Power to finish sixteen points behind him. This not counting the possibility of either driver gaining two bonus points, which goes to whoever leads the most laps. Friday’s practice and qualifying, while they should have provided some insights as to what might happen in Saturday’s race, left fans with little to go on. However, they did produce some interesting insights into the drivers’ respective ways of dealing with the pressure of this championship fight. Midday Friday, during practice, Power had turned a couple of incredibly sluggish laps. At the period’s second caution, about half an hour in, he was third from last on the speed chart. By the end of that session, he was third for a while and then fourth after lingering in positions 8-10 for much of the last fifteen minutes. The speeds these guys were turning were around 217.5 mph. That means that they’re driving 2 miles in about 34 seconds. Yeah, it’s fast. During the qualifying session, which took place between 2:15-3:45, each car ran an out lap and one warm-up, then two that counted, with the cumulative time putting them in grid order. The pole went to Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay, despite his expertise on ovals, was not fast. When he ran, the MRN radio commentators, whose voiceover was used at the track, said they thought he’d be mid-pack. He ended up 17th of 26 cars, and two of them posted no time. Meanwhile, Power, who is far better on road and street circuits, bombed around the 2-mile D-shaped oval in blistering heat at a blistering pace, turning everyone’s expectations of how each would do in qualifying upside down. Just to set the record straight on the weather, it was 100 degrees when qualifying started, 104 at the peak heat of the day. The humidity was 11%, however, so you can pull out your clichés about “dry heat.” The only to describe it was oppressive. But that’s not to say that qualifying wasn’t fun. In fact, the scattered few who witnessed it from the Autoclub Speedway’s massive grandstand saw guys (and women) fly past the starter’s stand taking the green, then duck low before shooting high up the track to ride the wall going through turn one. They dipped to mid-track between 1 and 2 and then came out of 2 high again. Down the back straightaway, past mountains, palm trees, and commuter and freight trains passing in the background, they came shooting through 3 and 4 up near the wall again, and past the starter’s stand for another lap. This, plus the smell of ethanol and tire rubber, is what makes racing so great live, and impossible to really translate to TV. But back to Mr. Power. He ended 3rd on the grid, with an average two-lap speed of 215.940 mph. Hunter-Reay’s speed was 212.733. That’s good for a gap between them of about half a second per lap, and it separates them by 14 spots on the starting grid. Now, one complicating factor for Saturday is that each driver has changed an engine this weekend, resulting in a ten-spot penalty on the starting grid. That means that Hunter-Reay, as he said it during post-qualifying comments, will be starting “somewhere else,” as in so far back he’s almost not in the same race as Power. But he followed that up by saying that “it’s a 500-mile race,” meaning that in the end, qualifying has little to do with what might happen during the evening. In fact, 14 of the crews have put in new engines for the weekend, which means that lots of grid shuffling will go on. If you favor Hunter-Reay’s point of view, then, the start means little, and things will take shape as the evening wears on.

Ryan Hunter-Reay\'s Andretti Autosport DHL-sponsored No. 28 (IZOD IndyCar Series photo/LAT USA)

Post-qualifying, the two title combatants were brought to the press room to explain themselves, and what was most impressing (not impressive, I mean, impactful) was that Power seems, honestly, lost. Stay with me here. Power has big eyes. You can’t help but notice it when you talk to him. On this afternoon, while Hunter-Reay was talking, he just stared, those orbs kind of glassing over as he looked in front of him, like he was somewhere else. It was not out of any disrespect to the rival sitting right off his left shoulder. It was like he was trying to see the future, or see the end of this frustrating and possibly fruitless quest for an IndyCar title. He’s been in the same position, leading, going into the last race each of the last three years. He hasn’t won one yet. He answered questions, but without the spiritedness of Hunter-Reay. This could be put down to culture, or character. Maybe Power’s just the more quiet of the two. But that stare . . . . It just seems like he’s troubled about the spot he’s in. On the other hand, after some banter which had them both saying they hated the other (in jest), Power came up with the shocker of the afternoon. “Thing is, I don’t have to beat him. I actually don’t have to beat him,” he said. It wasn’t the words themselves, but what they convey. It’s that he’s been thinking things through, weighing approaches. Hunter-Reay, and maybe this is where culture really comes in, knows he has to win to give himself the best chance at the title, and like the take-charge American, he’s willing to say that that’s what he’d like to do. Boldly. Power knows that there are a bunch of other scenarios, as cited above, in which he can win the title without even coming in before his rival for the checker, let alone taking the checkered flag before anyone else. So he’s willing to play a little chess if it comes to that, take the gentle approach, if you like. Thing is, as everyone who watches long oval races (Indy, NASCAR) knows, hanging out in mid-pack is nothing but a recipe for disaster. The two approaches that work are Tony Stewart’s, which is to hang at the back and charge late, after all the trouble’s over. And Dario Franchitti’s, which is to run off and hide at the front, out where whatever trouble is stirred up behind you has no bearing on your race. If Power is trying to split the difference between the two and finish tenth while Hunter-Reay finishes fifth, he’s likely to be mired in the muck when someone else’s grip goes away, or another driver’s brain has a momentary fade, and that driver spins into the wall. Both drivers also said, and this might be the best analysis of all, that there’s no way to predict Saturday’s track based on Friday’s qualifying. The race will be mostly at night, when things are a lot cooler. Late Friday practice was, for both, going to be the time they got some idea on what sort of grip might be available for the race. Power commented on that: “It’s constantly changing—I’m hoping to finish tonight saying we’re OK.” He added, “Maybe the track will grip up in the last hour” of what is likely to be a three-hour affair Saturday. (A lap takes about 34 seconds. There are 250 of them, at green pace. Pit stops take more time, and yellows yet more. So count on the race being at least that long.) Two factors thus emerged as key in the post-qualifying press conference: setup is as yet undetermined, and racing events are beyond the control of either title contender. So the boldest prediction of all on what’s going to happen is that you’re just going to have to watch to see what will happen. Get this: these drivers are both brave and crazy, and when 26 of them are out there Saturday, it’s going to make you want to SCREAM! when they go by to take the green. So get there. The racing starts on TV at 4:30, but the green flag should wave around 5:50. Before that, you can beat the heat by hanging in the fan areas, which have shops, food, things for kids to do, etc. Oh, and Indy Lights has its own season finale, which runs at 3pm for 50 laps. Honestly, what could you possibly have to do that’s better or more important than this? Please follow me on twitter @growinguphockey Read Brian Kennedy's The Dream Race: The IndyCar point chase in Fontana Read Brian Kennedy's Culture Club: When does car culture equal IndyCar culture? For more information about Auto Club Speedway events, go to For more information about the 2012 Izod IndyCar schedule, click here

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