When IndyCar rolled into Long Pond, Penn. for Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway, Marco Andretti looked unbeatable. In fact, all of Andretti Autosport looked unbeatable as the series took to track for the first time in 24 years. The company’s namesake led the way, topping the speed charts in practice and winning the pole. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe followed suit as all three Andretti cars qualified on the front row.
But for Marco Andretti, Pocono is more than just the newest addition to the IndyCar schedule; it’s his home track. Andretti hails from Nazareth, Penn. less than an hour from the tricky triangle, and he took the saying “home track advantage” to heart.
Once the green flag dropped, Andretti took control. Passing proved to be difficult, which gave Andretti an even bigger advantage, and several drivers found themselves with ill-handling cars at the start. Hinchcliffe, a favorite to contend for the win after a dominating performance at Iowa Speedway a few weeks ago, didn’t even make it through the first turn when he simply lost control of his car and slammed into the wall.
Regardless, Andretti was clearly the class of the field. He lead 88 of 160 laps, and when he did give up the lead, it was usually during green flag pit stops. Even a few subpar stops from the 25 crew didn’t hinder Andretti for long. With a car riding on rails, Pocono was his race to lose.
Then fuel mileage came into play.
As teams prepared to make their final stops, Andretti got the call from the pits: save fuel. The driver’s understandable frustration swelled into unbridled fury when he was told just how much he needed to save. His opportunity to win vanished instantly.
Andretti is in the thick of the championship hunt, so the crew decided to play it safe to ensure they didn’t lose valuable points.
But taking risks can reap great rewards, and the 25 team should have gambled on Sunday. Andretti had to conserve fuel after his last stop to make it to the end. However, with such a dominant car, he could have built up a large lead by running hard, and even though he would have had to pit with a few laps to go, he likely would have still ended up in the top five. Instead, he had to slow down and watch cars pass him before crossing the finish line for a dismal tenth place finish.
Compounding Andretti’s misery is the fact that Hunter-Reay, who’s second in the point standings, limped to a 20th place finish after Takuma Sato rear-ended the 1 car on pit road early on. Current point leader Hélio Castroneves finished eighth. Being conservative kept Andretti on pace with Castroneves for the championship. Rolling the dice could have closed the gap significantly.
Fuel mileage is a brutal strategy to endure, and it’s nearly impossible to get right. Not winning at Pocono stings, but Andretti is having a stellar season. He’s consistent, runs well at every type of track, and has contended for the win more than once. Victory lane may have eluded him thus far, but Andretti will find it before 2013 is over.