The IZOD IndyCar Series returned to the legendary Milwaukee Mile for the second-consecutive season on Saturday afternoon and delivered one of the more engaging races of the year. A combination of traditional short track action, a dynamic broadcast booth and evolving in-race stories made IndyFest one of the more-discussed races of the season.
Ryan Hunter-Reay back on track
Ryan Hunter-Reay picked up his second-consecutive victory at the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday afternoon in West Allis, Wis.
The race was memorable for the defending IndyCar Series champion on several levels.
It was his first Father's Day weekend as a dad and having his wife (Beccy) and son (Ryden) at the track for the victory was noticeably special. Little Ryden hijacked the broadcast for a second and Hunter-Reay was overwhelmed to win one for the "little guy."
In addition to the holiday, the victory also made him and Andretti Autosport a perfect two-for-two since Andretti Sports Marketing revived and began promoting the Milwaukee IndyCar race. The victory lane was adorned in the DHL colors that are also the core of the Hunter-Reay livery.
But perhaps most importantly, Hunter-Reay has now firmly reestablished himself a legitimate championship contender following his victory, just as he had last season at this same race. We all believed Hunter-Reay would contend after his victory in Alabama but finishes of 24th and 11th temporarily placed that in doubt.
But a podium in the Indianapolis 500 kicked-off a run of four top-10s in five races to confirm that Ryan Hunter-Reay is here to stay.
"In sports, when you get into a momentum, a rhythm, not something you can put a price tag on or finger on, it just happens," Hunter-Reay said. "It kind of saturates the team with this feeling that we can get it done.
"If we perform to our best, to our potential, we can absolutely win races."
That's what happened last year, propelling Hunter-Reay to the season championship. So don't be surprised for a similar result as IndyCar again approaches the summer stretch.
Marco Andretti falls off-track
Not everything was well in the Andretti camp -- at least for Marco Andretti.
The youngest of the Andretti clan was on the pole for IndyFest and had arguably the fastest car for the third-straight oval race in a row but electrical issues derailed his day and much-needed championship momentum.
Andretti paced the field for the first 61 laps before getting passed by eventual winner, Hunter-Reay. Six laps later, a slow fuel stop cost him nearly a full lap on pit lane and things really hit the fan when the electrical issues presented themselves on lap 98.
The car came to a slow stop on the backstretch and had to be towed to the garage area. The team was able to address the issue but could only return Andretti to the field after he had lost 42 laps and even more points to championship leaders Helio Castroneves and Hunter-Reay.
Andretti entered the Texas race weekend tied for the top spot in the standings but two-consecutive disappointing results has dropped him to third and 50 markers behind Castroneves. Andretti is a former winner at Iowa Speedway, the site of next weekend's event, and will need to capitalize on the opportunity before the Series returns to road and street course racing over the course of the next month.
"We came here for a win and had a car to do it," Andretti said. "We fell back after a delay in the pits and then had an electrical issue - I didn't have any idea of what happened at the time. The voltage went straight down and I lost all kinds of power; I couldn't shift, the clutch didn't work. We came back for all the points we could."
Untimely yellow steamrolls Takuma Sato
Once Marco Andretti suffered his mechanical woes, it was Takuma Sato who assumed the role as dominant driver of the afternoon at the Milwaukee Mile. But like Andretti, misfortune would undermine dominance for the AJ Foyt Racing driver.
Sato began the race in 15th and sort of floated in the middle of the pack until a pit stop, on lap 22, allowed his car to come alive.
From that moment onwards, Sato was on a steady charge towards the top spot and took the lead on lap 69. He would pretty much hold that spot for the next 130 laps pitting under green on lap 200. An untimely yellow flag came out on lap 12, trapping Sato a lap down and eliminating his track position and realistic chances to win.
Sato would eventually finish in seventh and moved up to fourth in the standings, 76 points out of he top spot and behind Castroneves, Hunter-Reay and Andretti.
"We thought there was an issue," Sato said of his team's decision to pit on lap 200. "So we decided to pit as soon as our pit window opened and then try to charge back with fresh tires. We were confident we could do it. But then the yellow came out and that was very bad timing for us because it put us behind those who hadn't pitted yet.
"They were able to pit and get ahead of us... had fresher tires too so it was really tough to pass them back."
There has been a lot of discussion amongst IndyCar fans about the current state of the TV package.
With ABC, fans feel as though the broadcasters have lacked energy while calling the race and have also observed that the production value, including sound effects, have been little underwhelming. And while most are satisfied with NBC's treatment of the sport, it remains dreadfully difficult for casual observers to find on the dial.
But Saturday was an optimistic reminder that despite the limitations of the NBC Sports Network, those in charge are fully invested and dedicated to IndyCar.
It was refreshing to have David Hobbs, a Wisconsin-native and Will Buxton on the broadcast crew alongside their Formula 1-mate Leigh Diffey. It was also a subtle message that the network wants IndyCar to be viewed as equal to F1 and that's a good thing.
And with NBC still a rumored player in the upcoming NASCAR TV contract, the association with the Peacock could start to pay increased dividends in just a matter of time.
Milwaukee was a fun race -- onwards to Iowa.