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Drivers happy for Phoenix return, but seek better package in future

AVONDALE, Ariz. - Compared to my other and current hometown of Milwaukee, my first hometown of Phoenix had its return event tonight - and unlike Milwaukee, the question after Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix wasn’t whether the race would return but how different it would be in 2017.

Drivers weren’t thrilled with the racing product though; a number of drivers opined on how it could be better next year. Passing was made more difficult with the high downforce configuration and there wasn’t enough tire fall off from Firestone, which were durable as ever even though a couple drivers sustained punctures.

“I think we can definitely make a better show,” race winner Scott Dixon said in the post-race press conference. “You know, it’s tough coming back here, yes, we’ve run some test days here, but it’s very hard to make changes when you don’t really know how it’s going to play out in the race.

“I think tonight was maybe a little bit conservative on some sides, and I think that the question is can we make it a better show, and absolutely. I think next year when we come back, it’s going to be bigger and better and in the right direction.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan were about the only two drivers to have made key passing maneuvers. Hunter-Reay vaulted from 12th to seventh in the first two corners and ran as high as third; Kanaan came from a lapped 11th place up to fourth in the final 55 laps to the finish. Hunter-Reay ended 10th after a late mistake when he got loose trying to pass Max Chilton.

But they were the exceptions, not the norm, on this day.

“It was about what I expected. But we need to come back here and next time, we need better racing,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports.

“I think we need to make this place, to where it is a bit more opened up. We need it where the mechanical balance comes out in the car, where the mechanical handling comes out, where you have tire degradation, and where you have guys moving around. This was just not what we needed.”

Added Kanaan, “I don’t think anyone passed more cars than I did. But it was more difficult. For some reason we couldn’t work out the second groove. It’s always tough when you only have one race line. I found some, though! Thank goodness we could do it. It wasn’t as good as I’ve had in Phoenix before.”

Simon Pagenaud and Will Power moved from 10th and ninth on the grid to second and third by the finish, primarily via pit work from their Team Penske crews.

“It was exactly as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” Pagenaud said. “It was a great race, very, very difficult to follow people, very difficult to get your balance right on the car, but we started with a lot of oversteer, struggled a little bit the first two stints, were having a lot of tire degradation. We adjusted really well in the race, but then we caught a yellow at the wrong time when pit lane when the yellow came out, so went a lap down, but fortunately my guys were just fantastic in the pits.”

Added Power, “Honestly the guys in the pits were awesome. It was so difficult to pass, we just sat there and saved fuel and kept catching those yellows. They were going long, and kind of saving the tires a bit, too. Just that last start made a mistake.”

Juan Pablo Montoya was less than thrilled after finishing ninth, in what was still a good recovery drive despite a puncture. He and former teammate Jimmy Vasser, now a team co-owner for KVSH Racing, were talking with INDYCAR’s Bill Pappas - Montoya’s former race engineer - post-race about how difficult the racing conditions were on Saturday night.

“It was more about saving tires than anything else,” Montoya told NBC Sports. “We knew it’d be hard to pass. It is what it is.

“My concern, to be honest with you, is that I don’t decide what goes on the cars. They gave us a package and we made the most of it. I feel we had the car to win the race. Just couldn’t use it. Every time you pushed, you’d have a problem with the tires.”

Rookies Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi both drove great races and while Chilton ended seventh, Rossi ended an unrepresentative 14th. They didn’t have a reference point as it was their oval debuts; nonetheless, their thoughts mirrored the veterans in terms of how tough it was to race.

“It was difficult. But the last stint was easier with new tires,” Chilton told NBC Sports. “TK made it look easy. But it wasn’t that easy! I was just happy to get the result. I never did a lap flat, today. I was literally just fuel saving.”

Rossi added, “It was very hard to pass. Restarts were the only opportunity. It was hard to find another line.”

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