I’ve covered a lot of 500-mile Indy car races in my time, and from start to finish, I thought the 2017 Pocono 500 stacked up with the best of them.
It looked like the INDYCAR competition department got the balance between power, downforce and mechanical grip just right, creating close and compelling racing. There was plenty of passing, but it wasn’t artificial passing like the old CART series had in superspeedway races using the Handford Device. Nor was it the kind of dangerous pack racing that has created such dissention among oval racing fans.
Hopefully it was as good in person as it was on television. The NBC Sports broadcast was excellent, and so was the racing.
In fact, it was about as good a 500-mile Indy car race as you could ever hope for. It was clean, with just two crashes, three total cautions and an average speed of 183.737 mph. At two hours, 43 minutes, IndyCar’s 500-miler took less time to complete than both of this year’s NASCAR’s 400-mile races at Pocono, which ran 2:48 and 2:50.
We didn’t see the kind of overt fuel saving that sometimes makes 500-mile races tedious; Scott Dixon led a lot of laps and ran shorter stints, but he never got upside down on the mileage number he needed to make. And yes, there was a bit of luck involved in winner Will Power regaining the lead lap on the wave-around rule. But once Team Penske got Power back in contention, he drove masterfully down the stretch to hold off his teammate Josef Newgarden in an exciting finish.
“I’m spent,” Power said in the Victory Circle interview. “That was a seriously dramatic day, but a lot of fun.”
Power’s recovery from a broken front wing and a damaged rear bumper made for a great story, and the IndyCar Series also features a tight championship battle, with eight drivers still in contention, five within 42 points of leader Newgarden.
Newgarden fought hard for the lead but wisely opted to consolidate second place and keep the points lead. Behind him, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Dixon and Tony Kanaan all put themselves in position to claim the win, and Ryan Hunter-Reay turned in a gritty drive to finish eighth after starting from the back due to a qualifying crash.
Anyone who believes the cars were too easy to drive at Pocono should watch Hunter-Reay’s crash – not to mention additional pre-race wrecks involving Helio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter – and give the matter a second thought. Pocono certainly lived up to its “Tricky Triangle” moniker and once again showed it’s a fantastic venue for Indy car racing.
It was Power’s second consecutive Pocono 500 win and his 32nd career Indy car race victory, moving him ahead of Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy on the all-time list.
“Once I got my lap back, I was like, ‘All right, it’s game on! I can definitely get back up there,’” Power related. “I was thinking like top five, but when I was pumping out like 217 [mph] laps, I’m like, okay, we’re going to make some serious hay here.
“Yeah, the guys did a fantastic job in the pits, having to do all that and still be able to go ahead and win the race,” he added. “Never give up in an IndyCar race, particularly on an oval in a 500-mile race.”
Newgarden eliminated Power’s 4-second lead, but some crafty weaving by the Australian kept the championship leader from making a pass for the lead.
“Everyone was hauling butt at the end there,” Newgarden said. “They were flat out, they were going as fast as they could and there was no fuel saving. It got harder to pass people because the speed got turned up quite a bit.
“It was nerve wracking from my side,” he continued. “I was really on the edge of my seat and not enjoying the looseness from the car.”
Defending series champion Pagenaud rapidly reeled in the leaders in the closing stages and believes he could have won if the race was five laps longer.
“Actually I had a lot of fun,” Pagenaud said. “I thought it was great racing.
“I haven’t seen the race yet, but I thought that this package, for us as drivers, I felt like this was driving – a lot of driving, very much on the edge, though you can’t really see it on TV. But you really had to work your tools in the car – the bars, the weight jacker and adjust the wings. You have to be thinking about what you need to go faster. I think that’s what a driver’s skills should be like, so I enjoyed it.”
Unless Honda somehow springs a surprise, look for more Team Penske domination next weekend on the Gateway Motorsports Park oval. That makes the upcoming September 3 race at Watkins Glen even more critical for Dixon, 18 points behind series leader Newgarden and the only interloper in the top five of the standings among the quartet of Penske drivers. Then, of course, we have the double-points finale at Sonoma Raceway to wrap up a championship that doesn’t need any such gimmicks.
A bunch of people out there believe the IndyCar Series championship should be decided on an oval, and based on what we saw Sunday, I wonder if the INDYCAR should entertain the notion of Pocono hosting the finale somewhere down the line. Maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds.