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Author: Mark W. Theisen
April 19th 2015 -      WEST BEND, WISCONSIN APRIL 19, 2015:    Races two and three of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar season were about as different as night and day with James Hinchcliffe using pit strategy as a means to win the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana in Avondale, Louisiana on April 12th while Scott Dixon used sheer power to capture the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach this afternoon in Long Beach, California.

    The Avondale race was marred by rain and accidents resulting in just 22 of the races 47 laps run under green flag racing conditions while this afternoons Toyota Grand Prix was interrupted by just one caution for four laps in a race that came down to a second lost during the final pit stop of the race.

     Hinchcliffe won for the fourth time in his IndyCar career at Avondale but this time it was for a new team in 2015.  Hinchcliffe came over to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports from Andretti Autosports and gave his new team its fifth series win in a race that was dictated by a gutsy pit stop call on lap 33.

     Hinchcliffe made, what turned out to be his only pit stop on lap 13, and parlayed that and the fact that cautions played right into the team’s hand when only three more green flag laps could be recorded from lap 33, when the bulk of the leaders made pit stops and he was ordered to stay on the track picking up the lead position, until the end.  The race ended after 47 laps due to the 1-hour, 45 minute time limit for the television broadcast.

      The win was the first for a Honda powered car this year after being beaten in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida and coming on the heels of the Chevrolet teams receiving point penalties for engine repairs that were made following St. Petersburg. A Chevrolet official blamed valve springs for a mass repair of all their engines following the opening race and as Verizon IndyCar rules require a point penalty for engine repairs or changes prior to the allowable date/time for such repairs to be made.  The IndyCar teams receive an allocation of four engines for the season and must adhere to a time/mileage specification before any changes can be made.  To do so early resulted in appoints penalty for 11 of the twelve Chevrolet teams that made repairs to their engines in order to avoid further problems right down the road.

     “I feel badly that we didn’t have more green-flag laps for the fans and everyone here” said Hinchcliffe in victory land at Avondale.  “But on the other hand, those guys (his crew) called an awesome race and I’m glad it worked out.  When we first decided to stay out, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t be funny if we could make this a one-Stopper?’ and it turned out we did it.”

     Helio Castroneves finished second, his second consecutive top-five finish of the young season.  “The track conditions were really difficult because there were areas where there was a stream of water on the rack and it was very difficult for to keep the cars on the track there,” said Castroneves.  “I want to thank all the fans here today and hopefully the series will return here again.  This was just an unfortunate set of circumstances that we had to deal with today.”

     James Jakes, Hinchcliffe’s teammate, came home in third to earn his second career podium finish. Simona de Silvestro, driving her second race for the Andretti team finished fourth while Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top five.  Montoya, who won at St. Petersburg, retained his series point lead over Castroneves by 10 points. Both Castroneves and Montoya drive Chevrolet powered Dallara chassis for Team Penske.

     The race began with a wet track, but the first 15 laps were run caution free and the real problems began when teams switched from the rain tires to the slicks it was then that numerous on-track incidents forced six full-course cautions that slowed the rest of the race.

      Despite the weather related problems IndyCar CEO Mark Miles expressed his pleasure with how the facility has upgraded itself from a club course to an IndyCar track and foresees the event as building into a destination event for the series in the future.

     Dixon, who started out 2015 in very unlike Dixon fashion, with a 15th and 11th place showing in the first two event came to Long Beach with the knowledge that he has not faired all that well on the streets of Long Beach in the past.  In fact he had just one top-five finish in his previous eight starts but after qualifying third in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara he was much more optimistic and after roaring past Montoya, who qualified second, on lap 2 the quest to change his luck at Long Beach was underway.

     Pole winner Helio Castroneves stood in his way and the talented Brazilian driver paced the first 29 laps of the race before making his first pit stop.  He was held in the pits for a brief second to avoid contact with Dixon’s teammate Tony Kanaan, who was coming into his pit box, at the time of his exit.

     After the exchange of pit stops that saw Jack Hawksworth lead three laps it was Dixon in front and with the dirty air of cars in front not affecting his car as those right behind he was able to maintain his lead until the second and final round of pit stops began on lap 53.  Castroneves stayed out two laps longer while Dixon made his stop and then his Team Penske crew did their magic with a flawless stop that put his back on the truck six-tenths of a second behind Dixon but that was a lead that Castroneves could not surmount the rest of the distance.

     Sebastien Bourdais was able to lead one lap during the pit stop sequence but at the end it was Dixon winning for the 36th time in his IndyCar career by 2.2221 seconds over Castroneves with Montoya coming home in third followed by Simon Pagenaud and Kanaan.  All five drivers were in Chevrolet powered cars as was sixth place finishing Bourdais.  Josef Newgarden was the highest finishing Honda driver with his seventh place finish.

     The win was 98th IndyCar victory for team owner Chip Ganassi and broke up what would have been a podium sweep for Team
Penske as Pagenaud also drives for the team.  The lone Penske driver who did not have a good weekend was defending series champion, Will Power, who qualified poorly at 18th and finished 20th.

     “This is huge,” said Dixon.  “I love the event, but as far as coming here and doing well, it hadn’t been on that list.  That pit stop exchange definitely helped us get to the lead but the car was fast and all we had to do was maintain that lead.”

     “That pit stop call was the right one,” said Castroneves.  “It was perfect.  It was better to be safe than sorry, at the end of the day second place is not that bad.”

     And that second place finish help propel Castroneves to be within three points of series leader, Montoya as the series moves to Barber Motorsport Park in Alabama next Sunday for its third race in as many weeks.  Kanaan sits in third in the standings while Dixon moved into fourth with Hinchcliffe rounding out the top five.

     23 cars made the grid at Long Beach, while 24 were at Avondale.  The missing car at Long Bach was that of de Silvestro.  Sebastian Saavedra drove the AFS Chip Ganassi car for Sage Karam this weekend while Conor Daly filled in at the last minute for an injured Rocky Moran Jr. in one of Dale Coyne’s entries.

It is beginning to look and more like there will actually be a “bump” in qualifiying for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 as 34 cars looks entirely possible after being a “dream” just a few weeks ago.
Much still has to be done behind the scenes to bring all the cars to the track but here is what we are looking at right now;
Team Penske:           Power, Montoya, Castroneves & Pagenaud
Ganassi:                     Dixon, Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Karam and Saavedra
KV Racing:                 Bourdais, Stefano Coletti
CFH:                           Newgarden, Ed Carpenter & JR Hildebrand
Lazier Partners:       Buddy Lazier
Dryer & Reinbold:  Townsend Bell
KVSH:                        Bryan Clauson
Andretti:                    Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, de Silvestro & Justin Wilson
Schmidt Peterson:   Hinchcliffe, Jakes & a third car
Foyt:                           Takuma Sato and Hawksworth
Dale Coyne:              Francesco Dracone, Carlos Huertas, & 3rd car (perhaps Pippa Mann)
Rahal, Letterman:    Graham Rahal & Oriol Servia
Bryan Herta:              Gabby Chaves & Jay Howard
Contract and signatures are needed at Coyne and KVSH to make this all happen but it is looking more and more like a full filed plus for the 500.  The first on=track day is an open test on May 3rd, then the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is reshaped for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course May 9th and then back to the oval configuration for full practice commencing on May 11th.
It is getting close now.