Justin Wilson Is Facing A Texas-Sized Challenge
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas – Justin Wilson’s hopes of repeating as winner of the Firestone 550 suffered a serious setback Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, where the Englishman and veteran engineer Bill Pappas suddenly are stuck in 2004.
Dario Franchitti qualified on-pole for the Bombardier Learjet 500k night race here in June of that year at 209.609 mph using an aerodynamic package INDYCAR instituted to dramatically reduce speeds on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval. Nine years later, Wilson struggled to post a two-lap average of 207.807 mph – slowest of the 22 cars participating in Verizon P1 Award time trials and a massive 11.375 mph off the pace set by pole-sitter Will Power of Team Penske at 219.182 mph.
Wilson did establish a TMS record last year by winning the 228-lap/324-miler after starting 17th in the 25-car field – the furthest starting position by an IZOD IndyCar Series race-winner. But the chances of a similar performance appear remote. Friday evening’s final practice didn’t offer much encouragement, as Wilson turned a best lap of 209.602 mph – practically a to-the-digit match to Franchitti’s ’04 pole speed.
“Today wasn’t fully what we were hoping for, but we made a lot of progress and I think we’ve got a solid car for the long run,” said Wilson, ever-optimistic driver of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dallara/Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing. “The new downforce levels and different (Firestone Firehawk) tires are a challenge. They took downforce away, made it harder to drive. I know Firestone has changed the tire slightly. All the teams have to readjust for that.”
A new Firehawk tire specification is being supplied here this weekend, with each entry receiving nine sets (36
total tires) from a total of 1,170 available. The updated spec – based off results from a tire test conducted on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, Calif., in February – features a slightly softer body construction and tread compound on the left side tires to increase grip and a slightly harder right-side tread compound to add durability.
This is where Wilson, Pappas and crew will log extra time on their laptops. “We’re working as hard as we can to have a car that is as strong early in the stint as it is at the end,” Wilson said. “I think this (technical) package continues to put more of the racing in our hands. I think that’s going to make for another good race and hopefully we can be a factor at the finish.”
Recall that Wilson won last year’s event with a little misfortune from Graham Rahal. The second generation driver led 27 laps and appeared poised to earn his second series victory before a slight brush of the Turn 4 wall with two laps to go relegated him to a runnerup result in the No. 38 Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. That opened the door for Wilson’s first win since 2009.
“I remember sitting there at the time with four or five laps to go thinking, ‘OK, I’m getting closer, but I’m only going to get to his rear bumper if I’m lucky,’ ” said Wilson, who has logged five top-10 finishes in the first seven races of 2013. “Then I saw him go wide. Four laps to go, ‘Wow, he’s hit the wall!’ Came out of the corner, ‘No, OK. No, he made it, wow!’ Few laps to go, I thought, ‘OK, he hit the wall.’ It took me by surprise. The track was getting slick. It was so easy to slide up there at the end. When it finally happened, I didn’t really believe it because of how close he’d been running the previous few laps.”
Rahal, now driving for team co-owner/father Bobby at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, hasn’t spent much time beating himself up about the one that got away. “It always will be one that got away from me until I win my next one. Then I won’t think about it,” said Rahal, who will start 19th in the 24-car field in the No. 15 Midas/Big O Tires Dallara/Honda. “There are a lot of cases where I look back and it’s frustrating that you didn’t get to see it through. This is certainly one of them.
“It would have been nice to win and get rid of all the questions of when I’ll win again, and all that sort of thing. But I think it adds fuel to the fire to come back here and do a good job. I’m extremely excited with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan boys. A race win this weekend would certainly help.”
Wilson, who came to the IndyCar Series with a road-racing background that includes a stint in Formula One in 2003, can attest to that.
“It (the win) meant a lot, not only with the recognition but in the confidence,” said Wilson, a 34-year-old native of
Sheffield, England. “That’s the biggest thing, is having the confidence on an oval. I felt like I knew what I was doing, but I still wasn’t classed as an oval driver. I was kind of disregarded. From that point on, I felt I had the confidence to go out there. I knew what I was doing, knew what I was trying to achieve with the car in the race. I think it just gave me that confidence to go out there and attack and believe in myself.
“I’m just working and trying to win races. I’ve always been of the philosophy that winning races is what I’m about. If that builds my reputation, then that’s what it does. I wouldn’t say I go racing for the fame. But it’s nice.”
The Firestone 550 is set to take the green flag at 8:40 p.m. (EDT), with ABC’s live coverage beginning at 8:30 p.m.
Despite going winless so far in 2013, Helio Castroneves of Team Penske and Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport are tied for the championship lead after seven of 19 races with 206 points.
Asked if he thought he could secure his first IndyCar Series driver’s title without winning a race, Castroneves said that is not in team-owner Roger Penske’s big-picture plan. “The goal is to win the championship,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 AAA Insurance Dallara/Chevrolet. “You want to win a race. As soon as Indy was over, like probably 30 or 45-minutes after the race, he (Penske) looked at me and said, ‘OK, now –championship.’ I said, ‘OK boss. That’s what we’re going to do.’^”
Castroneves and teammate Will Power are not alone on the winless list. Target Chip Ganassi Racing superstars Dario Franchitti, a four-time series champion, and teammate/two-time series champ Scott Dixon also have failed to visit Victory Lane this season. Castroneves isn’t sensing much sympathy among his open-wheel rivals, or fans, for “The Captain.”
“It’s the type of underdog scenario,” Castroneves said. “Everybody always cheers for the underdog, wants to make sure they beat the teams and the people that always been up there. It’s OK – 50 percent are going to love Roger, 50 percent are going to hate (him). That’s the way of racing.”
Takuma Sato’s Lone Star State debut for team-owner A.J. Foyt Jr. ended in frustration during qualifying, when a balky gearbox sidelined the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara/Honda. Sato, who scored his first IndyCar Series win on the Streets of Long Beach on April 21, will start 23rd in the 24-car field.
“We had a pretty big problem in the gearbox which took quite a bit of time to repair,” said Larry Foyt, managing director of Foyt Racing and A.J.’s son. “We actually quit practice early to get back to the garage and start on it. We got it completed but I guess we were two minutes too late trying to get over the tech line. The guys worked hard and did the best they could, but INDYCAR said we couldn’t qualify because we missed our tech time. It’s a shame because qualifying hadn’t started and I was hoping we could get out there.”
The 2013 seat at A.J. Foyt Racing became available last year after Mike Conway declined to participate in the season-ender on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, Calif., in September. A Foyt Racing spokesperson said Conway, a road-racing specialist, parted ways with Foyt on amicable terms.
Conway has made three street-course starts this season for Dale Coyne Racing, highlighted by a victory in Race 1 of the series’ first doubleheader weekend around the Raceway at Belle Isle Park in Detroit last Saturday. Conway followed that with a third-place result in Race 2 on Sunday.
Fellow-Brit and part-time Coyne teammate Justin Wilson admitted the adjustment to ovals is an acquired taste for Europeans. “The 1.5-mile ovals, when we’re flat-out running on the white line, I wouldn’t say it put me off because I still enjoyed the racing,” Wilson said. “But it was frustrating, really frustrating, especially when you’re doing everything you can, someone drives by you. It’s like being on the highway and someone has a more expensive car, blows by you in the fast lane. ‘Hang on a minute, what am I supposed to do?’ That’s what it was like. I’ve had times where I think, ‘This is miserable.’ I’ve had times when I think, ‘This is the best race ever because I’m driving by everyone.’
“I get what Mike did. I saw a couple comments, people were calling him a coward, whatever. Well, kind of the opposite. He’s pretty brave to do what he did, have that confidence in himself to say, ‘No, this is just not for me.’ That’s something I totally respect. I know he’s not afraid of driving a race car at the limit because he showed that again last weekend. Some of the stuff he was doing inside the car, that’s not a guy afraid of hitting walls. It’s a guy that knows what he wants to do.”
Team-owner Michael Andretti says 2013 Indianapolis 500 runnerup and Rookie of the Year Carlos Munoz could see more IndyCar Series seat time with Andretti Autosport this season.
“We are working on it. We don’t have anything yet. There is a possibility maybe to do one or two more races near the end of the year with him,” Mikey said of his Colombian protege. “We would love to be able to do it. As you see, we think he’s a great talent. He also has to focus on his (Firestone) Indy Lights championship, too, that we’re trying to win with him.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.comNo Comment