Roger Diez: Memorial Day weekend racing was must-see
Sunday’s three races were a microcosm of just about every aspect of motorsport. Monaco was typical of both the tight street course and the domination of one team. Tire management and strategic driving were the keys to Lewis Hamilton’ victory. The Indianapolis 500 was the most exciting race at the 2.5-mile oval in recent years, going down to the final lap. Simon Pagenaud became the first pole sitter to win since 2009, scoring Team Penske’s 18th Indy 500 victory. And the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Coca-Cola 600 was proof of the endurance and fitness required of today’s professional racing drivers.
On a dreary, rain-threatening day, with red caps worn by many in honor of recently deceased champion Niki Lauda, Hamilton started from pole alongside teammate Valtteri Bottas. A pit stop on lap 11 to change to medium tires almost proved Hamilton’s undoing, as those behind him chose the hard compound intending to go to the end with those tires. Hamilton and the team then had to abandon their two-stop strategy and try to keep the tires alive past their designed life. Hounded by the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, Hamilton put in a brilliant drive, using the tight confines of the track and Mercedes’ superior power to keep the young Dutchman at bay while managing his rapidly deteriorating tires. The margin of victory was 0.2 second. Hamilton was surely inspired by the memory of his friend and mentor, Lauda.
The Indy 500 was as good as it gets, with few cautions and 11 different leaders. The lead swapping between Pagenaud’s Chevy-powered car and Alexander Rossi’s Honda-powered mount over the final 10 laps was breathtaking. Pagenaud reached the yard of bricks just 0.22 seconds ahead of Rossi. Most of the race’s miscues, including Rossi’s fueling problems, took place in the pits. With the win, Pagenaud completed a near-perfect month of May, winning the pole for the 500 and the Grand Prix of Indy besides. And then there was the $2,669,539 check for the win, his share of the total $13,090,53 total purse. Rossi’s second place garnered $759,179, and the least any driver took home from the race was $200,305, which made that second day of qualifying so important. This weekend is the NTT IndyCar series’ doubleheader on Detroit’s Belle Isle street/road course, with Race 1 today and Race 2 Sunday.
The Coke 600 at Charlotte also had a close finish in a race marred by 16 cautions. Martin Truex Jr., despite blowing a right front tire and hitting the wall in the race’s first of four stages, brought his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota home first. Despite a slow start to the season, Truex has won three of the last five points races. He is now tied with teammate Kyle Busch and Penske Ford driver Brad Keselowski for season wins. Joey Logano finished second, just 0.33 seconds back. His Penske teammates, Keselowski and Ryan Blaney both had late-race trouble. Blaney ended up 13th, while Keselowski was 19th, two laps behind. All-Star winner Kyle Larson was impressive, using the high groove to rocket by multiple cars on restarts – until he triggered the “big one,” taking himself and several others out of contention.
This weekend both the Xfinity and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series race on Pocono’s tricky triangle, NASCAR’s first of two visits to the track this season. Truex and Kyle Busch won at Pocono last season, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch the year before, and Kurt Busch and Chris Buescher in 2016. Truex also won in 2015, and Jimmie Johnson posted the last of his three victories in 2013. Kurt Busch is the only other active driver with three Pocono wins.