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DiZinno: Phoenix thoughts, musings, observations

A couple days have passed since the Verizon IndyCar Series’ latest trip to the Desert, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix from Phoenix International Raceway. Here’s a few thoughts that follow:

  • Simon Pagenaud is three-quarters of the way to entering that perfect all-around, complete echelon of driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series that so few drivers officially master. With his first short oval victory in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, Pagenaud now has wins at permanent road courses, street courses and short ovals, leaving only superspeedways as his last type of track to conquer. Pagenaud’s ability to fuel save helped get him the track position he needed in a race where passing was always going to be difficult and an ill-timed caution that caught out the rest of the lead lap cars all but paved the way for the victory. It was an authoritative victory that will stand out in his career much the same as Will Power’s determined wins on the Fontana and Milwaukee ovals do for him. Only Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay among full-time active drivers have both a series championship and an Indianapolis 500 victory on their resume; it’s a club Power and Pagenaud will seek to enter this month.
  • Perhaps more important than JR Hildebrand’s comeback was how excellent of an effort it was by his race engineer, Justin Taylor, to have the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet riding on rails in his first ever oval race as an engineer, finishing third. The ex-Audi LMP1 engineer helped ensure the Ed Carpenter Racing entry rolled off the truck as good as it was in the Phoenix test in February, and they never missed a beat all weekend. The fact Hildebrand could pass, too, also spoke volumes of the race setup and selected downforce levels. Said Hildebrand, “Justin’s been awesome, man. To come into this whole thing and not know the car, we’re at a whole bunch of tracks that he’s not seen. Certainly the oval aspect of it, it’s a lot to get used to. It feels great for me and for I think on behalf of him and the team and some of the new guys that we’ve got to just be able to pull it out here. We knew we had speed here. It’s different to execute in the race in a way that you can stick it on the podium. I think it’s definitely the start of good things to come for us. Hopefully we can get on a little bit of a roll heading into the thick of the season.”
  • These two stories were about the only positive ones on a rough night. With Phoenix’s race position now after Long Beach and Barber this year, this was also the last chance for IndyCar to showcase itself heading into the month of May. There’s something to be said for the last pre-May race before Indianapolis leaving a good mark on the overall season and a follow-the-leader procession with limited passing was not the best showcase. This stands out more because there are so few genuinely forgettable or bad IndyCar races anymore, particularly since the Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced, to where the ones that are rough stick out like a sore thumb.
  • The first-lap accident occurred almost out of desperation. Knowing passing was going to be difficult with the same power/downforce levels as in 2016, despite two tests at the track since, the initial start and restarts were always going to be the best – and perhaps only – good passing opportunities at the track. While the race got away without a major incident last year, Aleshin’s spin and the subsequent aftermath left a major impact on this year’s race before it ever really got going.
  • Mikhail Aleshin is batting 4-for-4 this year, but in a bad way. The “Mad Russian” sustained his fourth incident in as many races, and this time the consequences were direr – and financially unhealthy – for the four other competitors caught up in the Turn 1, Lap 1 accident. Aleshin is talented but his aggression has now affected a full seven drivers just this year – Hildebrand, who was in his first race back from a broken hand, along with Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now the four drivers caught up Saturday in Max Chilton, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais. Charlie Kimball got a lot of grief for his two first lap incidents to kick off 2017, but Aleshin must calm down as the year progresses – for both his own sake and the rest of the field’s.
  • “Bad luck Conor” persists. For a while, Conor Daly was rolling. Using his favorite line on social media, he was flying through the field like a “herd of turtles.” Sadly, after getting up as high as second while running longer on the fuel stint, his gearbox then decided to become one on a pit stop. The result cost him 70-plus laps and resigned him to 14th. After the race he told NBC Sports, “The car was fantastic and so good on the long run. We’re making a lot of progress but it doesn’t show. It’s just about information – we’re taking a lot of steps and we’re learning.”
  • Andretti Autosport’s weird results run. Andretti Autosport has the quirkiest start to 2017. Four finishes in the top-11 in St. Petersburg followed by four DNFs in Long Beach, then three top-13 results in Barber followed by four more DNFs in Phoenix. That’s a run of form that is just simply bizarre to have endured, and figures to shift as the calendar flips to May.
  • Two points tiers are starting to emerge after four races. Just 41 points (159 to 118) separate points leader Pagenaud from sixth-placed Castroneves. Then after a 27-point gap, there’s just 34 points (91 to 57) that cover seventh-placed Will Power to 20th-placed Daly. Power has gone from a three-way tie for 17th to seventh in just two races and seems poised to keep moving up the ladder, while some decently big names – notably Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Rahal, Andretti and Alexander Rossi – are in that second tier looking to make moves in May.
  • Other notes… Helio Castroneves has to feel like opportunities to win keep slipping away. It doesn’t seem real how many lost chances have occurred for him. The usually ebullient Brazilian was despondent by his standards after finishing in fourth place on Saturday…. Nice to see both Ed Carpenter and Charlie Kimball have clean, trouble-free runs to seventh and eighth. Carpenter’s No. 20 team bounced back from a fuel leak on Friday for his first finish in the top-10 since Iowa in 2015, while Kimball had his first top-10 since ending ninth at Sonoma in last year’s season finale.

Today sees a full-day, important Gateway test as the last running before teams set up for the month of May at Indianapolis.

The artist formerly known as the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, now the INDYCAR Grand Prix, on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is next up for the series on Saturday, May 13.

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