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What We Learned At Long Beach

There was plenty to talk about both before and after the 38th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The Chevy engine changes and subsequent penalties. Will Power’s charge from midfield to victory for the second race in a row. The continued slow start to four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti’s season. The latest Rahal/Andretti skirmish. Amazing performances from Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

Yes, the Long Beach Grand Prix had it all – and that’s not even beginning to take into account the superb weekend weather and resultant people-watching.

Here’s a breakdown of the post-Long Beach talking points:

Pole position? Will don’t need no stinking pole position – Two weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park, Will Power didn’t think he could win the Honda Indy Alabama Grand Prix from ninth place.

Power’s task Sunday at Long Beach was even more daunting. He lined up 12th, 10 places lower than he had qualified thanks to a 10-place grid penalty shared by all the competitors using Chevrolet engines.

IndyCar Series rules stipulate a minimum of 1,850 miles between engine rebuilds or changes. After James Hinchcliffe’s Chevy blew last week in testing at Infineon Raceway, Ilmor and Chevrolet engineers believed there was a 20 percent chance that any of the other Chevy engines could let go during the Long Beach weekend.

Taking a calculated risk – and citing the integrity of the Long Beach event – all eleven Chevy engines were replaced prior to the first practice at Long Beach. And the Bowtie brigade had a 100-percent reliability record during the 85-lap race.

But there was the small matter of that 10-place grid penalty to overcome. Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe set a new track record for the current Long Beach configuration, yet lined up 11th due to the penalty.

Power, who was second fastest in qualifying, gridded up alongside on the sixth row. But their races diverged early, when Briscoe and the third Penske entry of Helio Castroneves were committed to a three-stop strategy during one of several early full-course cautions.

Strategist Tim Cindric put Power on a two-stop strategy, and that ultimately proved victorious – by less than a second over the three-stopping Pagenaud.

The two-stop plan meant that Power had to stretch his final fuel load over 31 laps instead of the typical 28. All while holding off Pagenaud, who had the pedal to the metal.

Pagenaud gave up a 20-second lead when he pitted on Lap 70 of 85. He rejoined 12 seconds behind in third place behind Power and Takuma Sato, who was also on a fuel-saving, two-stop strategy.

Pagenaud chewed up the 12-second deficit, passing Sato for second with four laps to go, but never got within striking distance of Power.

“I love it - that was one of my best wins,” said Power. “At the end I was very aware of Simon’s strategy, especially after he passed Sato, and of the gap and the fuel that I needed to get to the end. We saved enough fuel to be able to push for the last two laps, so I felt we were pretty safe.  A couple of back markers was the only thing that really concerned me. 

“But apart from that it was just running as hard as I possibly could, getting a good lap time with high fuel mileage, and that was the key to the race.”

Looks deceive for Franchitti – As the only Honda driver among five Chevys in the Firestone Fast Six, Dario Franchitti inherited pole position for the Long Beach Grand Prix. But the four-time IndyCar Series champion went backwards fast in the race as he struggled with handling issues in his Target Ganassi Racing DW12/Honda.

Franchitti was unofficially fastest in the recent test session at Infineon Raceway, and he made it into the Firestone Fast Six for the first time in 2012.

But after a Friday rainout wiped out the Ganassi team’s plans to hone their street course setup, that inherited pole position and a sweet piece of memorabilia turned out to be the highlights of Dario’s Long Beach weekend.

“Terrible,” he assessed. “We still have some work to do with the car. I think we know what we have to do with it, we just couldn’t do it this weekend with the lack of track time. We’re all right for the first five laps and then we start to struggle with the balance.”

Franchitti dropped from first to fifth in the first dozen laps. Then the problems compounded. A slow restart due to a turbo boost glitch. A clash with fast qualifier Ryan Briscoe. And finally an engine that called it quits, resulting in a 15th place finish.

After three consecutive series chamnpionships, Franchitti lies 13th in the IndyCar standings after three races.

“We had pretty much everything go wrong today,” he said. “So off to the next one.”

Long Beach star performers – Rookie Josef Newgarden was the star of Long Beach qualifying, hustling the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing entry to the seventh best time. That translated into a front row starting spot after five Chevrolet-powered drivers ahead of Newgarden were assessed 10-place grid penalties due to engine changes.

On Saturday, Franchitti praised Newgarden and said he didn’t have any concerns about having a 21-year old making his third Indycar Series start alongside on the front row.

On Sunday, it was a different story after the two front row cars lightly touched exiting Turn 1, sending Newgarden into a tire wall and out of the race.

“I felt like I got alongside him, I gave him the inside lane and I just got touched there on the exit and went right into the wall,” Newgarden said.

“I thought I had a good run on him and a good jump on him, so it’s one of the those tough breaks.”

Franchitti was clearly ahead as the cars accelerated away from the green flag, but Newgarden caught up and eased past on the outside entering the 90-degree left-hand Turn 1.

Franchitti appeared to try to give the rookie room, but the Target car’s right front wing appeared to nudge the left rear safety bimper of Newgarden’s car, sending the #67 DW12/Honda skidding into the tire barrier on the outside of the turn.

“He was a little optimistic there,” Franchitti said. “I went in where I thought was fairly deep and he just kept coming. I hate for those guys – they did such a good job this weekend. It’s a small team and he’s obviously driving very, very well.

“But he was going for glory there.”

Pagenaud and Schmidt are the real deal – If you haven’t figured it out by now, Simon Pagenaud can drive. He’s finished sixth or better in all three IndyCar Series races in 2012, capped by a career-best second place result in the Long Beach Grand Prix.

The 27-year old Frenchman started fourth and led 26 laps. He came up just 0.86 second short of claiming his first IndyCar Series victory, and it took all of the ability of 17-time race winner and the Team Penske empire to do it.

“We’re a one car operation and we don’t have as much data as Penske or Ganassi, but I’m glad we’re giving them a run for their money,” said Pagenaud. “The fact that we’re a one car team is actually not a bad thing because they’re very focused on just my car and very focused on my feedback. So everything I’m asking, I get it.”

Pagenaud ranks third in the IndyCar Series standings behind Penske teammates Power and Helio Castroneves.

Rahal vs. Andretti, V2.0 – Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal were fairly bitter rivals back in the day, fighting for the CART-sanctioned Indy car championship almost every year between 1986-92.

Now their sons are carrying on the family legacies, and the occasional bitterness of the ‘80s and ‘90s was renewed Sunday at Long Beach when Marco Andretti was pitched into an aerial accident after being launched over Graham Rahal’s car.

The second – or in the case of Andretti, third – generation stars were running midpack after a restart when things went wrong. Rahal got hung up behind his teammate Cahrlie Kimball, and when he tried to defend his position from Andretti, it was already too late.

Marco’s Andretti Autosport car shaved through the rear safety bumpers of Rahal’s Ganassi Racing entry and peeled off the rear wing as it was pitched up into the air. It never actually flipped before coming to  a safe landing without injury to its driver. Rahal drove around to the pits with the rear wing dragging along behind his car.

The pair of twenty-somethings soon engaged in 21st century warfare – via Twitter.

“There’s one thing blocking, and another thing chopping,” Andretti fumed in a television interview. “That was chopping.”

“He wasn’t going to make the corner no matter what,” retorted Rahal, prompting Andretti to Tweet: “For those who thought I was not making the corner. You can go sit in one.”

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What We Learned At Long Beach
What We Learned At Long Beach
The Chevy engine changes and subsequent penalties. Will Power’s charge from midfield to victory for the second race in a row. The continued slow start to four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti’s season. The latest Rahal/Andretti skirmish. Amazing performances from Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.
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