LONG BEACH, Calif – The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach went off without a hitch. It was another phenomenal Verizon IndyCar Series race. But, a few key things stand out as we head back east.
Rossi Is The Championship Favorite
Since last July, Alexander Rossi has finished outside the top six just once. That’s right, in his last nine INDYCAR starts, Rossi has two victories and eight top six finishes including a dominating performance Sunday in Long Beach.
In 2018, he has finishes of third, third and first respectively. He’s 22 points clear of second place in the standings right now, heading towards two natural road courses, his best circuits, the Indy 500, arguably his best race, then two more street courses, like a track he just won at.
Will Power says Rossi is the guy they’re all going to be chasing this year. I agree.
Honda The Manufacturer Favorite
After three races, one thing is clear, the championship goes through Honda. That’s a change of pace over the last several years in the aerokit era. Through three races, Honda drivers have led 71-percent of the overall laps. In the first race, they had the entire top six of the finishing order. The last two races, they had five of the top six.
This is their title to lose.
We’re three races in, and we’ve had three different winners (Sebastien Bourdais, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi) by three different teams (Dale Coyne Racing, Team Penske, Andretti Autosport).
Six of the 10 teams have already led a lap in 2018 and even that is close.
SPM have led a combined 133 laps, most in the series. Penske has led 122, with DCR and Andretti leading 94 and 84 laps respectively. Next best is Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing with seven.
Those top four are close.
On Sunday, seven different teams were represented in the top 10 of the finishing order.
It should remain like that all season.
Chip Ganassi Racing Quiet, But Could Be a Force When Wakened
Through three races, Ganassi has zero laps led. They have one podium, that came on Sunday in Long Beach by Ed Jones. But, it’s not like they’re too far off. Scott Dixon finished sixth and fourth respectively in the first two races and was well on his way to a podium finish before getting caught out on the final pit sequence.
Ed Jones finished eighth in St. Pete and third in Long Beach. He was running second with 21 laps to go at Phoenix then crashed. What happens if he doesn’t wreck? He has three top eight finishes to start the year off.
What happens when, and I do mean when, Ganassi hits their stride? They’re close.
Championship Salvaging Day By Hinchcliffe In Long Beach
It’s been a good start to the season for James Hinchcliffe. He finished fifth in St. Pete and sixth in Phoenix. On Sunday in Long Beach, he just didn’t have it. That’s okay though. He still finished ninth. It’s days like today to why he said can win a championship.
It’s no secret, AJ Foyt Racing has been the bottom team in the series the last few years. That’s why they’re on their fifth and sixth different drivers over the last three years. Mix that with a new engineering department, and the team is rebuilding.
So far, it’s working.
Tony Kanaan was brought in to make them better. They weren’t necessarily supposed to end their five year long winless drought, where they were supposed to just be a top 10 contender. After three races, Kanaan’s worst finish is 11th. He has two top 10’s heading to Barber.
Rookie Matheus Leist even is getting better and harnessing his speed now.
Times are brighter now.
6 Different Teams, 7 Different Winners In Last 7 Years at Long Beach
Since 2013, we’ve seen a different team led by a different driver win the Long Beach Grand Prix. That’s surprising in that this is the second most prestigious race on the circuit. AJ Foyt Racing won in 2013 with Takuma Sato. Then, in 2014, Ed Carpenter Racing won with Mike Conway. In 2015, it was Chip Ganassi Racing’s turn with Scott Dixon. In 2016, it was Team Penske and Simon Pagenaud. Last year, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and James Hinchcliffe. On Sunday, Andretti Autosport and Alexander Rossi.
If that continues, Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing is likely up next with Graham Rahal in 2019.
Pagenaud Off To Worst Career Start, Rahal His Best
Pagenaud needs to quickly pick up the pieces and get back on track. Literally. This is his worst start to a season ever. Last year for example, he had five straight top five finishes to start 2017 off with. He’d have eight in his first 10 tries.
In his 2016 championship winning season, Pagenaud had five straight top two finishes to start the year off. In 2015, he had two top five in his first four starts, while in 2014, he had four straight top five finishes to start the year off too.
13th, 10th and 24th place finishes respectively. That has him 15th in the points standings heading to Barber next weekend. He’s 82 points out already.
Last year, he completed 100-percent of the laps in the entire season. The last time he didn’t finish a race on the lead lap?
Pocono in 2016.
Pagenaud is certainly frustrated.
From 2014 though 2017, in 12 races (1st 3 races in each season), Pagenaud had eight top five finishes. He has zero in that same time frame in 2018.
Rahal brought his No. 15 Honda home fifth for his third straight top 10 finish in as many tries to start the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season off. That’s his best start to any season of his career.
For example, it took him until June to get three top 10 finishes last year. It wasn’t until Indy in 2015 and again in 2016 that he’d get three top 10 finishes in the season.
You get the point.
Rahal, told me before this weekend’s race around the 1.968-mile scenic street circuit that he was taking this season more seriously than ever before. He felt like 2018 was going to potentially be a banner year for them.
So far, he’s right.
Rahal, sits third in the standings, just 33 points out, heading to Barber, a track that among his best on the schedule. He has a chance to do something special here.
Also, Rahal told me that they’re going to also do their best at remaining calm and not making wholesale changes so quickly. There’s never more proof than this weekend at that.
Rahal, improved in every session. He went from 11th to eighth to sixth in all three practice sessions. He’d improve in qualifying too and started fifth.
In the race, he finished third.