Dario Franchitti showed everybody this weekend that a season in Nascar did not dull his abilities on the street courses. On the tight streets of Long Beach, he displayed his dominance by putting up more passes than anyone else. It certainly didn’t hurt matters that Dario’s two pitstops occurred just moments before full course yellows, allowing him to take the lead and comfortably stay there.
But the stories coming out of Long Beach this weekend don’t stop with the top step of the podium. Take your pick. Helio returns to the IndyCar series after being acquitted on tax evasion charges. Will Power steps aside to let the returning Castroneves reclaim his #3 car. Paul Tracy announces he will be running Indy with KV Racing Technologies. Dale Coyne secures full season sponsorship for Justin Wilson. Or how about the first IndyCar race on Shoreline Drive.
The Grand Prix of Long Beach had lost a little of its sparkle in the last few years of the open wheel split. It had got so bad that one year SPEED channel noted that more people attended the race in person than watched it on TV. As CART and then CCWS folded, trackside attendance had been suffering as well. While full attendance numbers are not in yet, GPLB actually added seating capacity this year in the face of much higher demand for tickets. While attendance isn’t expected to top their records from the 90’s, it is expected to be a significant increase over the last few years.
As for the race itself, well, lets not kid ourselves, it is always a procession with little passing. When comparing the actual race with the previous street course race at St. Petersburg, Long Beach will always come out looking more like the inflated characters we see on Thanksgiving Morning. Long Beach typically draws more attendance on Saturday due to the street party atmosphere, concerts and King Taco concessions than they do on Sunday for the main event.
On Friday, Roger Penske posted some last minute driver changes and added the Verizon #12 car to the entry list in preparation for the arrival of IndyCar racing’s favorite son, Helio Castroneves. The infectiously happy Brazilian erupted into the paddock on Saturday morning with joyful hugs all around. IndyCar officials allowed Helio to drive in both of the morning practice sessions to make up for lost time since he had not been in a car for 6 months. Helio got the car up to speed and went on to qualify 8th. At the end of the fast 12 qualifying session, Helio made hard contact when he swapped ends and backed his car into the wall. He was cleared to run for today’s event, but he still woke up sore and concerned about his conditioning this morning. But those fears were alleviated by Helio bringing the car home in 7th place. Not bad for a guy who has been listening to lawyers for the last 6 months.
While most of the paddock was happy for Helio’s return to action, Will Power had mixed feelings. Will stepped aside from the number 3 car after Friday practice and started Saturday with the #12 Verizon car freshly unloaded from the hauler. Further, he also got a new crew comprised of Roger’s Grand Am guys. But instead of allowing himself to be defeated by his circumstances, Will made the most of his situation and put his new car on pole. At the start of today’s race, the team had troubles getting the communications and telemetry set up correctly and Will spent most of the day flying blind. But again, despite the circumstances, Will crossed the checkers in second.
At present, Roger has announced that Power will drive the #12 for him at Indy as well, but Will is making a strong case for showing up at Kansas. At present, Will stands in second place behind Dario Franchitti in the points. Roger has stated that Kansas is out of the question since his Grand Am staff will be busy with their own race next weekend, but who knows how persuasive today’s performance has been.
Rounding out the podium was Tony Kanaan for Andretti Green. Tony qualified 11th on Saturday which turned out to be an abysmal day for AGR with Mutoh, Andretti and Patrick qualifying 17th, 19th and 22nd respectively. But Tony spearheaded the AGR Sunday efforts which netted them with three top tens. Going into the last round of pit stops, it looked like Danica was looking at a possible win based on pit and fuel strategy that got her off sequence but a full course yellow right before she was about to pit negated her advantage. All said, a very solid day for AGR, given how poorly they qualified.
And now it is on to Kansas next weekend. Open Paddock will be attending this coming weekend’s events so keep your eyes on our website throughout the weekend for updates from the track.