Close-quarters racing at Texas loved by some, not by others

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Depending on whom you ask, Texas Motor Speedway creates the most exciting Verizon IndyCar Series racing or the most dangerous.

In reality, it's probably somewhere in between.

As expected, Saturday's Rainguard Water Sealers 600 served up heart-stopping, seat-of-the-pants racing action with the drivers often inches apart at 220 mph, something that can be frightening and exhilarating at the same time for everyone involved.

“It was absolute mayhem — a crapshoot whether you got through it,” said Marco Andretti, driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda who ended the night in sixth place.

“The good Lord was looking after us probably about 50 times tonight. It was pretty crazy. It was a survival type day.”

Pack racing has long been a discussion point in INDYCAR because racing open-wheel cars inches apart risks big accidents with potentially bigger consequences. It took on greater significance after a similar situation in Las Vegas took the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon in 2011. It may have also been in the minds of fans and drivers following Scott Dixon's airborne ride in a spectacular accident in last month's Indianapolis 500.

While Andretti felt a higher power watching over his shoulder, reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud simply thought the race was “a lot of fun.”

“It was very much pack racing, so we were trying to get away from the pack, which we did for quite a while,” said the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet driver who placed third Saturday.

“It got a little crazy at the end. I tell you, it is just incredible how close we can race against each other.”

With fans' and team owners' nails taking a beating as they watched the drivers work in close quarters, things came to a head on Lap 152 when Tony Kanaan (No. 10 NTT Data Honda) squeezed James Hinchcliffe (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) into teammate Mikhail Aleshin's No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in Turn 3. The contact set off a chain reaction which involved nine cars — six retired on the spot — and caused a red-flag stoppage to clean up cars and debris. Fortunately, only feelings were hurt.

Kanaan later apologized for the move, but not before Hinchcliffe offered the zinger of the year so far. When told that Kanaan’s car owner, Chip Ganassi, blamed Hinchcliffe’s aggressive driving for the crash, Hinchcliffe responded curtly: “That's adorable.”

Unconfirmed reports have “That’s adorable” T-shirts already in production.

In the end, only nine of 22 cars were running at the checkered flag, with 12 dropping out due to “contact” on the official box score.

How the action would unfold Saturday night was uncertain heading into the race on the high-banked oval. Texas Motor Speedway was completely repaved in the offseason, which typically results in higher grip and speeds at a track. Yet the high line around much of the track – particularly in Turns 1 and 2 that were re-profiled to lower the banking and widen the surface – remained slick and many drivers were unsure if a second racing line would develop there. Tristan Vautier showed from the early laps that it could and did develop.

On top of that, the added stress of the new surface caused some teams to blister right-front tires throughout the weekend. With only two days to test in April to develop a tire specification for race weekend, Firestone monitored the situation closely and, in collaboration with INDYCAR, the last third of the race ran with a maximum of 30 green-flag laps before a competition caution was called to have all competitors change tires.

While Graham Rahal (No. 15 Mi-Jack / Bobby Rahal Automotive Honda) avoided all the carnage to finish fourth, he also cautioned that it may be time to re-evaluate.

"It was a crazy night with a lot of guys taking a lot of chances,” Rahal said.

“After Indy and after this race, drivers need to have to take a deep breath and realize that this is dangerous stuff.”

Alonso to INDYCAR in 2018?

Formula One driver Fernando Alonso opened the door to trying a full Verizon IndyCar Series campaign during the NBCSN telecast after phoning in from Montreal where he raced in the Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday.

Alonso skipped last month's F1 Monaco Grand Prix to try his hand in the Indianapolis 500 and led 29 laps before finishing 24th, retiring with engine problems with 21 laps left.

When asked if he'd consider a move to Indy car racing if he didn't find an attractive F1deal for 2018, the two-time world champion said he would consider it.

“I'm very open to anything,” Alonso said. “I'm more ready to do F1 and try to find the best car possible out there. I would look at different options but, yes, the Indy 500 would be the first priority for the triple crown, but full-season another time, why not?”

Alonso's Indianapolis 500 run was also a focus thousands of miles from Texas Motor Speedway as he spoke in the Thursday press conference in Montreal before the Canadian Grand Prix. He insisted that the four laps on the limit in Indy 500 qualifying was the start of an “amazing experience.”

“I had to learn many things from zero, so it was definitely a good way to stop this year in Formula One for a couple of weeks and start from zero in something and learn from the beginning,” he said.

“I wanted to try to be competitive in a completely new car, new series. It was just you know a new thing for me but I felt competitive, I felt good in qualifying, I was leading the biggest race in the world for a while, so I'm really, really happy.” 

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