Race Weekend Central

IndyCar Breakdown: Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston Doubleheader

Carlos Huertas celebrates with an all Colombian podium following the first race in the weekend doubleheader from Houston alongside Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Munoz. Credit: IndyCar LAT
Carlos Huertas celebrates with an all Colombian podium following the first race in the weekend doubleheader from Houston alongside Juan Pablo Montoya and Carlos Munoz.

In A Nutshell: Carlos who? Carlos Huertas, rookie driver for Dale Coyne Racing, rode the team’s strategy to the front and had the fuel to make it work, hanging on through a caution in the closing minutes and an aborted restart with about one lap remaining to claim his first Verizon IndyCar Series win in Race 1 of the double weekend. Huertas started 19th in the race that started under wet conditions, but team owner Dale Coyne opted to play strategy when the race went from a 90 lap event to a timed race of one hour, fifty minutes. Huertas was atop an all Colombian podium with Juan Pablo Montoya in second and Carlos Munoz coming home third. Sebastien Bourdais was fourth while James Hinchcliffe finished fifth.

Race 2 was a completely different game than Race 1, with a rolling start, dry track, and hot temperatures, but the racing proved to be absolutely stellar. Simon Pagenaud ran in the wheeltracks of polesitter Helio Castroneves until finally getting by on a restart at the midpoint. He would set the pace the rest of the way. Pit strategy elevated Pagenaud’s teammate Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth, both rookies, into the top 5 some 20 laps later where they would also stay, finishing second and third, respectively behind Pagenaud. Charlie Kimball came home fourth followed by Sebastien Bourdais rounding out the top 5.

Key Moment: A Will Power spin with 28 minutes remaining in Race 1 brought out a caution that saw the leaders hit pit road while a number of cars playing strategy stayed out. This would prove to be the game changer as the former leaders found themselves mired far back in traffic with a number of cars who could in fact make the distance in front of them. Justin Wilson restarted in the lead, but wasn’t sure if he could make it without some caution help. That didn’t come so he was foced to pit, handing the lead over to teammate Huertas when he pitted. All of the podium drivers were drivers who stayed out and moved to the front during this caution.

For Race 2 winner Simon Pagenaud, his stiffest competition appeared to come from polesitter Helio Castroneves. Getting around Castroneves on the lap 48 restart was most definitely key. He never looked back after that, and his day was certainly cemented when Castroneves was forced out of the event immediately after by contact with Sebastien Bourdais.

Highlight Reel

Race 1

– Race 1 featured a standing start, the first time this was attempted in wet conditions. After the mess at the start of the Indy GP, INDYCAR made some tweaks to the start. First, since debris flies, a fence was erected between the starting grid area and the pit lane. Since the fence doesn’t allow for flag men to be in that area, yellow lights were added there that could be lit if there were any problems on the grid to alert other drivers. INDYCAR was using the FIA distance of 50 feet between each car on the grid, but opted to expand that to 67 feet between cars. And, just to make sure everyone is on the same page, INDYCAR had practice sessions with the field with groups of seven or eight cars where the cars were led around, lined up on the grid, and the entire starting procedure played out. The result? Even in the wet, the start went off without a hitch.

– When I say without a hitch, it’s important to note they had a chance to have another incident. Graham Rahal, who lined up 14th, stalled on the start but fortunately no one ran him over and workers were able to get him restarted and on his way without incident.

– Given that the track was very wet at the start, was it perhaps actually better that they did the standing start? Sure, there is the issue of everyone getting traction to launch in the wet, but visibility had to be better, at least initially. Rolling starts on very wet tracks result in enormous rooster tails that absolutely blind everyone not on the front row.

– Did he or didn’t he? Marco Andretti got spun early and had to pit for tires. The result was that he rejoined the race right in front of leader Takuma Sato, on the tail end of the lead lap. Sato had a four second lead over second place James Hinchcliffe, Andretti’s teammate. Andretti obviously held Sato up, even ignoring the move over flag for a time, but the team defended the action saying they were one of the fastest cars on the track and were trying to stay on the lead lap. And yet Sato’s four second lead over Andretti’s teammate also went away. Incidentally, INDYCAR did black flag Andretti for not responding to the move over flag soon enough, but the damage was done for Sato and his lead was gone. Team manager Larry Foyt noted that the loss of the cushion allowed Hinchcliffe, who had better position on pit road, to beat Sato out of the pits when the two stopped. When the caution came out shortly after, it lined Sato up in second, where he had to contend with the rookie Aleshin, which resulted in the end of his race. On the other hand, fault could be debated for the Aleshin incident.

Marco Andretti was penalized before Sunday afternoon's race for not obeying the flagstand during Saturday's event.
Marco Andretti was penalized before Sunday afternoon’s race for not obeying the flagstand during Saturday’s event.

– Whether it was a team move or not, INDYCAR was not impressed with Andretti’s failure to heed the blue flag. Andretti was fined $2,500 and placed on probation for three races, beginning with Race 2 of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. Andretti Autosport was also fined $2,500.

-Does race control see the television broadcast? I ask this because in the last couple of minutes when they were announcing they were going back to green for the finish, the television cameras repeatedly showed a large piece of debris in one of the corners. As far as that goes, the corner workers also saw it—did they not call that in to someone?

Race 2

– Polesitter Helio Castroneves led all the early laps until Simon Pagenaud got by on the first restart of the race. Then Castroneves seemed to have the exact same accident with Sebastien Bourdais that Takuma Sato had with Mikhal Aleshin the day before, with the same result, ending his day. Bourdais, however, was on the lead lap and it was a move for position.

– From hero to zero, Saturday’s winner Carlos Huertas was in the pits just three laps in with mechanical issues that put him behind the wall on Sunday.

– Points leader Will Power gets lucky twice. Second place Castroneves got caught back in the pack on Saturday, minimizing the dent into the points lead when Power had a rotten day. On Sunday, Power broke the suspension two laps from the end and limped home but again got away with it because Castroneves was already out.

– Sebastien Bourdais broke his front wing in the incident with Castroneves but did not want to pit and give up track position in order to fix it. When the team made their regular pit stop, they still didn’t fix it because they couldn’t afford to give up the time. So did Bourdais limp to the finish? Hardly. He was still making moves and passing cars, while doing it with less downforce than anyone else. Impressive.

– As a wrap up on both days, out of six possible podium finishing positions, four of them were occupied by rookies, with race winner Carlos Huertas and third place Carlos Munoz on Saturday and then second place Mikhail Aleshin and third place Jack Hawksworth on Sunday.

– Strike a blow for the small teams! Saturday’s winner was representing Dale Coyne Racing, while Sunday’s entire podium represented two more small operations, Schmidt Peterson with the 1-2 and Bryan Herta Autosport in third. Yes, the majority of the trophies do seem to go the way of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti, but the rules are such that in the IndyCar Series, the little guys can still make a statement too.

Notable Driver: Takuma Sato gets the shoutout in Race 1. Sato’s day did not have a happy ending after contact with rookie Mikhail Aleshin on the 33rd lap, but before that, A.J. Foyt’s driver had some stellar moments, including a bold three-wide dash up the middle on the start, several lovely moves through traffic, a brilliant pass of early leader Simon Pagenaud, and a strong run out front himself that made it appear for a time that he would be the man to beat on Saturday.

Jack Hawksworth gets the nod for Race 2. While fellow rookie Aleshin also had a nice finish, he got there thanks to team strategy and essentially had a nice quiet run to the checkers. Hawksworth spent much of that time under fierce attack from Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball and somehow doggedly managed to hold off both of them. Initially it appeared this effort would net him a nice fourth-place result, but when Power had his mishap and fell out of third, Hawksworth found himself on the podium. Apparently the rookie doesn’t care who you are or who you drive for. He put on a terrific show. It’s also worth noting that Hawksworth started the day dead last, qualifying 23rd.

Quotes and Tweets:

“After the restart I knew I was faster than the guys in front of me. I was attacking Takuma on the exit of Turn 5 because I had a strong run from the exit of Turn 4. He moved to the inside first, so I thought that he was going to leave me space on the outside. But when I went to the outside, he went that direction. I had nowhere to go.” Mikhail Aleshin about the Race 1 incident with Takuma Sato.

“The good thing about a doubleheader is that we get another shot. I think we have a really fast car so I’m excited for that. The team has a good package ready for tomorrow, we just have to try to make it a better day. Everyone at SFHR is doing a great job so hopefully we can have a much better result in Race 2.” Josef Newgarden, who dropped out of Race 1 due to damage suffered when he clipped a puddle and slid into the wall, the same thing that happened to Luca Filippi and Scott Dixon.

“The kid has been getting better all year and he showed a lot today. He’s been very steady and fast, and he performs. We used a good strategy to get him to the front, and when he got there he knew what to do.” Dale Coyne, team owner for Carlos Huertas.

“The races are so long, you always have a chance to win if you do the right things at the right time. Today was really tough. I was really struggling on the wet. I had no pace in the first half of the race. But I reminded myself just to stay calm and do what you have to do and I did that. The team called it perfectly with the fuel, and it’s a great day.” Carlos Huertas

“I’m really happy for the whole team. It’s our first podium for the Integrity Energee Drink team this year. We’ve come so close to a result like this so many times with great qualifying runs but it just hasn’t happened so today, I’m really proud of everyone here at Bryan Herta Autosport. They did a fantastic job and thoroughly deserved it. This one goes to them and I’m just really happy.” Jack Hawksworth.

“This is a great day for the whole team, really. Jack executed really well on the track. There were some difficult times at the end of the race when he had pick-up on the tires and he was having to defend. He was able to hold position and that was the key. Then when [Will] Power had his problem, he took advantage and put us on the podium.” Bryan Herta, co-owner of the car driven by Jack Hawksworth.

“It’s definitely an amazing day for all the team. I think it’s an amazing day to be one and two, and especially for us because we were working on this very, very hard. As I said, we are learning every day, every time we’re on the track, every lap and every corner, and here is a result. We are one of the fastest cars on the track, and I think we did an amazing job today. The whole team did an amazing job in every case.” Mikhail Aleshin.

“Mikhail, he’s a funny guy actually because I’m Latin France as you know, and Mikhail is Russian, so my emotions are a bit like Helio, it goes up and down. His emotion is more like a dead line basically. I’ve got to tell you, I’m learning from that. He’s able to recover from, like, for example what happened to him yesterday was bad luck, and he recovers just quickly from events, and he’s able to get back in a car and just be fast like he was this morning in qualifying. There’s no setbacks with him. He just goes forward all the time, and I think as a rookie, the first time in the U.S., he’s doing tremendous.” Simon Pagenaud, teammate to Mikhail Aleshin.

What’s Next:

Cue Ed Carpenter because it’s back to the ovals again. Next week, with NASCAR running on Saturday night again, the Verizon IndyCar Series gets to be the star of the Independence Day holiday weekend Sunday as they race at Pocono Raceway. The race airs at noon Eastern on NBC Sports Network. Scott Dixon is the defending winner, kicking off a summer stretch that culminated in his third series championship in 2013. Can Dixon defend his race win and fire up his season again or will someone else master the Tricky Triangle?

About the author

A writer for Frontstretch since 2002, and editor since 2006, Toni heads up the NHRA coverage for the site. She’s responsible for post-race coverage in the weekly Pace Laps multi-series round-up along with the weekly Nitro Shots column featuring news and features from the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. An award-winning former writer for the Presbyterian Church, Toni works in web design and freelances with writing in North Carolina.

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Hugely entertaining weekend, and I’m not a fan of street courses. Nice to see some different faces in contention this weekend. And I must give a shout-out to Steve Matchett on NBCSN – so fun to listen to. Wish he could do every race!

Steve B.

I agree with Denise, bring Matchett in the booth for all races. PT and him made an excellent color team.

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