It was a concern going in to the weekend that Newman Haas Lanigan Racing would have trouble getting Robert Doornbos up to speed on ovals. However, it has been a noticeable trend that road course drivers have an easier time learning ovals than vice versa. On top of that, Doornbos is an accomplished driver with F1 and Champ Car experience.
Shocked would be the word I would use to describe my reaction to Robert’s eventual P2 in qualifying at Kansas City. Granted, Helio and Dario qualified faster than he did, but they cheated and were sent to the rear. Further, Robert showed good pace through the event, but never quite recovered from his own rules infraction when he crossed through his teammates pitbox on exit from his own and hit Graham’s used tire. After being sent to the rear of the field, Robert kept it together and finished 12th. While the result is dissapointing given his early pace in the race, the team has to be elated with his poise on his first oval race.
Graham Rahal also showed good form on the oval. Granted, he has an entire season of oval experience under his belt, but still that should not qualify him to steal pole from the mafia like grasp of the Penske-Ganassi-AGR trifecta. And yet, Graham started from Pole and ran strong all day until Dario couldn’t keep it together behind him. Graham was coming in for his final pit stop, he signaled his intent to pit by dropping below the white line and decelerated later than he normally would have. And still, Dario was freaked out by it and ended up planting his car firmly in the turn 3 wall. Graham had to come in during closed pits after the resultant yellow to take on enough fuel to last until the pits were open and lost four positions during the shuffle.
Typically, Graham and Robert would have had opportunity to try and retake their earlier positions but passing was at a premium in KC due to the high donwforce configuration that everybody was running to battle the crazy winds.
At the end of the day though, Newman Haas Lanigan has to be feeling quite good about their oval improvement in the offseason. If the tire incident and the Dario kerfuffle did not happen, NHL might have been looking at two top five finishes. While the other teams seemed to be showing similar form to last season, NHL may just be on the verge of joining the top tier of the series. Getting things figured out on the 1.5 mile ovals is key to challenging the established order, since there are five of them on the schedule.
Now we move on to Indy where Robert Doornbos will be among the first on track for the Rookie Orientation Program on Monday. But one has to wonder if IMS would be better served sending Milka through that class in Robert’s place.