Thursday, September 29, 2011

Indycar Season & Rookie Titles to the Wire

Indycar season points leader Will Power
One hundred six points. Two drivers. Eleven points. Three teammates. Two races. That's Indycar by the numbers right now with the last two races of the season looming, the first of which is at Kentucky Speedway this weekend. I'll be there shooting for American Motor Journal, blogging and sending out Twitter updates beginning Saturday morning.

Dario Franchitti
Will Power currently has an 11 point lead over Dario Franchitti for the season IZOD Indycar championship with two oval track races wrapping up the 2011 season. Only 106 points remain available in total for the top contenders to fight over, and Dario's teammate Scott Dixon is still mathematically in the title chase 59 points behind Power but if he finishes more than 53 points behind after Kentucky, he will be eliminated from championship contention. Two drivers will duke it out and three teammates could be factors:  Dario with Dixon, and Power with Ryan Briscoe (who appears to be fighting for his 2012 ride) and Helio Castroneves (who won at Kentucky last season). Everyone knows Power's strong suit is road racing, but he has gotten clean sweeps on points four different times this season while narrowly missing a fifth, while Dario has only gotten max points once with one close call of 52 points. These precious bonus points for pole and leading the most laps could well turn the tide for this year's Indycar champion. You can bet Dario and Target Chip Ganassi Racing will do everything they can to get Dario to the top step of the podium, take all 53 points available and keep Power behind him.

The Mayor of Hinchtown

JR Hildebrand
Dan Wheldon
Two other drivers are also in a tight battle these final two races, albeit for Rookie of the Year. If my pre-season pick James Hinchcliff had not missed the season opener at St. Petersburg, the rookie points battle would probably be a dead heat, as J. R. Hildebrand has earned 284 points this season to Hinchtown's 270.

Add to the mix the fact that Dan Wheldon is racing at Kentucky this weekend for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in place of Alex Tagliani in order to prepare for the finale at Las Vegas where he has a chance to win $5 million, this Indycar weekend should be a real treat for fans of the series. Indycar races at Kentucky Speedway are always hotly contested with a photo finish a distinct possibility, ala Ed Carpenter's thrilling run two years ago when he lost by a nose to Ryan Briscoe. I hate to see Tagliani sit out a race when he is on the verge of a top 10 finish in season points, but Schmidt is teaming up with Wheldon's bunch at Bryan Herta Autosport to have the best chance possible in Vegas where Danny will start shotgun on the field and have his work cut out for him. While I can't make it to Vegas, that should be one heckuva show to behold, and I know this weekend will set the stage for real fireworks two weeks later. Hopefully, some of the acrimony that has generated controversy for Indycars this season has dissipated and everyone can get down to some serious racing this weekend. Helio and Power  have earned hefty fines lately for their words or actions and while that helps generate headlines, it doesn't mean a thing once they give the command to start engines at the racetrack. 

Kyle Busch in action at Atlanta Labor Day weekend
With the Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday night and Indy Lights Sunday afternoon prior to the Indycar race, the stage will be well set by the time the green flag flies. And can anyone stop Kyle Busch in trucks this year? I'll be anxious  to see how he handles this weekend or if he decides to run Kentucky or concentrate on Sprint Cup at Dover. I hope he makes it to Sparta! KyB was fast at Atlanta but got snookered by Ron Hornaday's fuel mileage gamble so who knows how this weekend's race will turn out. I'm hoping it's full of action and that the sparks fly from the first lap to the last.

One final note, and it's a sad one. Two time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. has reportedly run afoul of the law back home in New Mexico and has alcohol and dangerous driving charges pending against him. Indycar fans know of Jr.'s struggles with alcohol through the years and Indycar has suspended him indefinitely from race control and other duties associated with the series. I hate to hear it as Little Al has always been one of my favorite drivers and you would be hard pressed to find a more approachable guy in Indycar racing. His battle is with an insidious foe and I wish him Godspeed and that he gets back on the path of recovery before something really horrific happens. These charges are serious enough but thank God no one was hurt. This time.

Will Power at speed in 2010 at Kentucky Speedway
Dario Franchitti at Mid Ohio in 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dalziel Holds off Pruett to Win Mid Ohio Rolex Series Finale

Ryan Dalziel was the Mid Ohio race winner for Ford
Ryan Dalziel held off repeated challenges from Scott Pruett's Ganassi Telmex team and Alex Gurney of Gainsco to win the season finale at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course today. Pruett and teammate Memo Rojas merely had to start the race to take the prototype season crown but they pressed hard the entire race length and nearly pulled out the win. Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty finished third after starting on pole. After being were passed early by Ricky Taylor of SunTrust Racing (who later dropped out with mechanical problems), Gurney and Fogarty were in contention all day long in a race that was marred by numerous cautions for spins and incidents. The sun finally shone on Mid Ohio late this afternoon and the Brumos Racing Team was especially pleased to see that as their 4th place finish in GT was enough to clinch the season crown for the class. After starting at the back, Brumos drivers Leh Keen and Andrew Davis manhandled their Porsche all day to get back to the front. The Mustang of Stevenson Motorsports driven by Robin Liddell and Ronnie Bremer took the GT class win on the day over the Speedsource Mazda of Emil Assentato and Jeff Segal. There were lots of happy teams and crew members along pit road after the race and I'm sure there will be some celebrations this evening. Here's a quick slide show of some of today's frantic racing action at Mid Ohio.


Gurney & Fogarty Lead Gainsco Team to Mid Ohio Rolex Pole

Alex Gurney & Jon Fogarty will lead the Rolex Series Field today from P1
The final warmup session for today's Rolex Series Race is now complete and the 31 car field is making final preparations for this afternoon's 2 hour 45 minute season ending race at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course. Teams went at it with a vengeance yesterday in qualifying and the intensity you'd like to see in a final race is certainly there. The 23 prototype of Mark Blundell had a spin in the keyhole yesterday while the GT Porsche of Brumos Racing with Lee Keen had to thrash to make today's warmup after turning zero laps in qualifying when an undisclosed problem kept them off the track. It is cool and overcast here today but the forecast has warmer temperatures and sunshine for later today.

Before the Rolex Series race, the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge will race and boasts a field of 71 cars in the GS and ST classes. That should be a sight to behold when the green flag drops and I am anxious to see how they get through the distance without a plethora of caution laps. The beauty of a race weekend at Mid Ohio will unfold in its glory today as cars hit the track at 8:00 a.m. and track action won't conclude until close to 6 p.m. this evening after the main Rolex Series event. Until later, here's a few pix from this morning's warmup and a slideshow from DP and GT qualifying yesterday.

Brumos Racing has its work cut out for them today at Mid Ohio starting at the rear of the field
Actor Patrick Dempsey will compete in GT

Scott Pruett had his game face on before final warmup

Suntrust ace Ricky Taylor gets ready for final warmup session

Friday, September 16, 2011

Gainsco team takes Mid Ohio Rolex Series Pole

Alex Gurney & Jon Fogarty set quick time for tomorrow's Rolex Series race at Mid Ohio
Here's a quick slide show from today's track activity at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rolex Series Title Decisions at Mid Ohio - Indycars in Japan on Motegi Road Course

Scott Pruett Leads Ganassi Racing to another Rolex Series Title
It's hard to believe that it has been six weeks since we were at Mid Ohio Sports Car Course for the Indycar and American LeMans Series weekend. Yet tomorrow I will be heading back there again to shoot the final race of the 2011 Rolex Series where season champions will be determined. Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas have all but clinched the Daytona Protoype class title and essentially just need to get to the green flag to clinch for Chip Ganassi's sports car team. The production based class title will be fought out to the checkered flags Saturday afternoon as the Rolex Series takes on the rolling Mid Ohio circuit on a fall date for the first time in years, departing from its traditional late June weekend to cap its season at one of the best natural terrain tracks in America. 

It's even harder to believe that my racing season is winding down, just as race series begin to crown their season champions - the Rolex Series being the first to do so this year. After this weekend at Mid Ohio, I have assignments for the Indycar event at Kentucky Speedway and NASCAR at Talladega, both of which could have significant impact on those series season championships. This is the first year I have even shot more NASCAR races than Indycars and it's been a wild ride in many ways, beginning back in February when I drove solo to work the Daytona 500 for Associated Press (AP). So much has happened since then and the hits just  keep on coming.

Since I was at Mid Ohio in August, I have found it difficult to get time to write. First I had two racing photographer friends pass away within a few days of one another and attending their visitations really effected me more than I had thought. Then came the Atlanta road trip for AP for the Labor Day weekend NASCAR event which went great until rains came Sunday night and caused us to miss the Sprint Cup race which got postponed to the following Tuesday. In and around all of that, I had a high school football game to shoot at Lucas Oil Stadium, my education courses at Marian University started up again and I got a new job which started the day after we got back from Atlanta. No rest for the wicked as they say...

Meanwhile in Indycar, controversy and intense competition have ruled news about the series. Will Power had his by now infamous meltdown at New Hampshire when his double bird salute was caught on live television after an erroneous late race restart got everyone's emotions running hot. He then proceeded to dominate at Sonoma and the inaugural Baltimore and slice Dario Franchitti's huge points lead to a mere five points as the teams all head to the road course at Motegi in Japan this weekend. Power has been masterful on road and street circuits so another strong finish this weekend will put even more pressure on Dario with just two races remaining after Japan. Unfortunately for Power, the last two races are on ovals (Kentucky and Las Vegas) which have not been his strongsuit historically and his only oval track win was garnered in controversial fashion at Texas this past June when the lineup draw favored him and put Dario at a disadvantage.

Add to this mix the fact that Danica has finally confirmed her departure to NASCAR next season even as she returns to the site of her only Indycar win (albeit on the now earthquake damaged oval at Motegi). Indycar has also announced that Dan Wheldon now gets a shot at the $5 million at Las Vegas in addition to spearheading testing of the 2012 Dallara Honda package. In NASCAR, the Chase field has been set and the final ten race sprint gets underway this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. So there's plenty of news in all the major American racing series and I'm looking forward to doing my part from Mid Ohio this weekend. Stay tuned for photos and commentary, both here, on my Twitter feed @alleygroup and through postings on American Motor Journal's developing website. See you in the Keyhole, the esses, the Carousel or somewhere around Lexington, Ohio this weekend