With the first Verizon IndyCar Series race at the Phoenix International Raceway since 2005 now in the books, three things have become clear after the series' debut oval in 2016: Honda still has some work to do, Ryan Hunter-Reay remains at the top of his game and nobody should underestimate Max Chilton on ovals.
Going into 2016, many Honda-supplied drivers adopted a wait-and-see approach when it came to their engine and aero kit package. While many hoped the indications in preseason testing that pointed to Chevrolet holding a bit of an upper hand wouldn't be the case, they also seemed resigned to the fact that they may not be able to match their rivals' package in the early races.
Although it was difficult to draw concrete conclusions after the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg on March 13, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix provided more evidence that Chevrolet looks to have the upper hand. After the best a Honda-powered car could do in qualifying April 1 was Marco Andretti's 11th place on the starting grid in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data/Snapple entry, the April 2 race showed that the early going in 2016 may belong to Chevy.
When all was said and done at the PIR, only two Honda cars – Graham Rahal's No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in fifth and the No. 28 DHL Honda of Hunter-Reay in 10th – cracked Chevy's dominance. Only four Hondas finished on the lead lap. With no Honda driver leading a lap in Phoenix, its cars have been at the front of the field for only 18 of 360 laps completed in 2016, with all of those coming in St Pete.
Honda's bright spot for the second consecutive race was Hunter-Reay, who continues to drive the wheels off his Andretti Autosport machine and kept his car in or near the top five for most of the race. Yes, he was helped by some bad luck for the Penske team that saw two of its drivers pit suffer flat tires while leading, but there's no avoiding the fact that the fire rages on inside 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
Hunter-Reay's lightning start at PIR saw him gain five spots off the grid and then stay in touch with the leaders early before the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner raised the Honda banner as high as third against a wave of Chevy-powered rivals. After getting shuffled out of the top 10 just before a caution flew, he adeptly blasted his car up the inside to avoid an accordion effect at the front on a Lap 152 restart and powered himself back into the top five.
Hunter-Reay could have finished much higher than 10th had he not been caught out by a yellow flag one lap after his final stop for fuel and tires on Lap 195. That bad luck shuffled him back on the final restart with 40 laps to go and his hard work gaining spots early in the last stint went for naught when he brushed the wall while chasing Chilton for seventh late in the race. Hunter-Reay ended the race in 10th.
“Just had a heck of a time out there. Some of the best starts I've ever had, some of the best restarts I've ever had, and to come away from it with 10th is a pretty dejecting result,” Hunter-Reay said. “We should have finished second tonight.”
An honorable mention on the Honda side goes to Rahal, who continued his run of excellent drives that goes back to 2015 when he was often the class of his engine supplier's stable.
For his part, No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driver Chilton proved that the Formula One ex-patriot is no shrinking violet. He battled tooth-and-nail all night, including a spirited fight with Hunter-Reay and Rahal during the middle portion of the race. Although Phoenix was his Verizon IndyCar Series oval debut, he certainly didn't look out of place going wheel-to-wheel with hugely experienced veterans on a tricky short track.
The British rookie, who started 35 races for F1's Manor team in 2014 and 2015, qualified eighth and stayed near the top of the leaderboard throughout the race. As the night wore on, he continued challenge for a top-5 finish, slotting into fifth when the race restarted with 40 laps to go.
Chilton kept his Ganassi car in the mix, but was caught up in the marbles while fighting off teammate Tony Kanaan's No. 10 GE LED Chevy with 30 laps left, a mistake that cost him two spots. Nevertheless, his seventh-place finish moved him into 10th in points after two races.
“I think this was an amazing result for me,” said Chilton. “We were able to move forward and stay up near the front of the pack for most of the race. I think I was even in the top five for a while, but got caught in some traffic and got shuffled back a bit. I’m really pleased with the result considering this is my first oval race in the series."