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Friday, August 19, 2011
New Hampshire ending embarrassing

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The unsatisfactory ending to Sunday's Izod IndyCar Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a story that's not going away.

To recap, IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart (in conjunction with observers Al Unser Jr. and Tony Cotman) ordered a restart on a wet track, after the cars had been circulating behind the pace car for 11 laps, in the hopes that the rain would stop and the race could be completed. The green flag was waved; Oriol Servia and Scott Dixon quickly passed leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, but almost immediately Danica Patrick spun approaching the start/finish line and triggered a multicar accident that brought out the caution and ultimately the red flag.

Although 220 of the 225 laps had been completed, Barnhart made the decision to call the race complete, with the results determined as of Lap 215 -- the last lap completed prior to the disastrous restart. That left Hunter-Reay the winner over Servia and Dixon. It also meant Patrick and the other drivers involved in the wreck -- in particular, Team Penske's Will Power -- caught a huge lucky break because they were elevated in the finishing order to the positions in which they were running prior to the accident.

Days later, the fallout continues. Newman/Haas Racing (Servia's team) and Target Ganassi Racing (Dixon's) immediately protested the results; IndyCar announced Tuesday that a panel, selected by Barnhart, will hear the protest Aug. 23.

The panel members are NHMS executive vice president and general manager Jerry Gappens, USAC chairman of the board Jeff Stoops and former USAC CEO Rollie Helming.

Barnhart, who also is IndyCar's president of competition and operations, stated: "Given my role in Race Control, I feel that it is in everyone's best interest to have an independent panel hear the protests. I believe a panel will help maintain a fair hearing."

Many observers within and outside the IndyCar Series paddock would suggest that a truly independent panel should be convened to determine whether Barnhart should be allowed to keep his job.

Brian Barnhart
Brian Barnhart said he had a difficult call to make at New Hampshire.

According to IndyCar's 2011 media guide, "As INDYCAR's chief race day official, Barnhart has earned a reputation of being a stern but fair official, earning the respect of drivers, team members and owners."

The integrity of Barnhart's stewardship of the IndyCar Series has been constantly questioned for a decade or more, and the calls for his scalp from drivers, team members and owners have grown louder than ever.

Graphic evidence of the paddock's disdain for Barnhart was provided by Power, who directed a double-fisted middle-finger salute to IndyCar Race Control in the immediate aftermath of the ill-fated restart.

Power was furious that the race had been restarted in conditions he -- and just about everyone else at NHMS not named Brian Barnhart -- considered unacceptable.

"What are those guys up there doing?" Power fumed. "Little Al raced, and he'd never race in those conditions. To me, it was disgraceful.

"But there's no use," he added. "[Barnhart] makes such bad calls all the time. This has got to be it. They cannot have the guy running the show, because that was a decision that put a lot of drivers in danger and you saw how many people crashed on the front straight. Shame on him. I just can't believe they make decisions like that."

Power's outburst was a mere sideshow to what inevitably will turn into a protracted and potentially unsatisfactory resolution to the question of who actually won the race.

Although the Newman/Haas and Ganassi teams' protests will be heard, most observers predict IndyCar will treat the situation like it handled the confusing finish to the 2002 Indianapolis 500. On that occasion, Paul Tracy appeared to pass Helio Castroneves for the lead on the 198th lap, just seconds before an accident elsewhere on the track brought out the caution flag. Castroneves was ruled the leader at the time of the incident and was named the winner of the race.

Tracy's team owner, Barry Green, went to great personal expense to compile video evidence proving that Tracy had completed the pass before the yellow flew. But IndyCar rejected his argument and said the result was not actually eligible for protest. In other words, Green's time, money and effort went for naught.

Newman/Haas is protesting because it believes Servia was the rightful winner Sunday.

"I actually won the race," Servia said. "They went green, and I was leading when the yellow came. They even called it in Race Control -- 'Car 2 is the leader.' I've just never seen before them reversing an order like that.

"The rules are not confusing," he added. "It's the enforcement of them sometimes."

Ganassi's reasons for protesting are more complicated, but they all involve championship implications. Dixon currently is third in the IndyCar Series standings, 26 points behind Power and 73 points behind his teammate, Dario Franchitti.

If the New Zealander is moved up to second place from third, that's a five-point swing in his favor. In addition, if the race results are altered to reflect the order after the full 220 laps that were completed, Power will drop at least 10 positions from the fifth place he was running in at the time of the accident. That could cost him at least 18 points and significantly affect his title hopes.

Dropping Power back in the New Hampshire race standings also would obviously benefit Franchitti, who dominated the first half of the event but was crashed out on a restart by Takuma Sato.

"I just don't understand what Race Control is thinking," Dixon said Sunday. "This isn't 'make things up as you go' racing. It's IndyCar racing with rules. But today I don't even know why we have a rulebook, because it makes no sense. We're not racing dirt cars; we're not racing USAC. We don't go back to a previous restart. We don't count pace laps. When has that ever happened in IndyCar racing? Never in my 10 years.

"Oriol won, and I finished second," he added. "Ryan didn't go. We went past the restart cone. You snooze, you lose. If you don't go, it's free game. And he didn't go."

LOUDON
Oriol Servia, left, and Scott Dixon, right, are still trying to figure out how they "finished" behind Ryan Hunter-Reay at New Hampshire.

After the race, Barnhart admitted he made a mistake by ordering the restart. But he shifted blame to almost every member of his staff up to and including Pace Car driver Johnny Rutherford.

Virtually every driver in the field complained over his or her radio that the track was too wet for a restart, yet Barnhart said he never heard that. He said it was the responsibility of team personnel in the pits to report the driver feedback to IndyCar pit observers, who then would forward the information to Race Control.

It's disingenuous to suggest IndyCar does not monitor driver radio chatter. In fact, Barnhart has been known to get on the radio to directly admonish drivers to stop racing each other so hard.

"We were frankly running out of laps," Barnhart said. "If you spent a lot of time trying to switch radio channels and talk to a bunch of people, you're counting laps in a hurry. We've got a pace car out there, we have track safety [workers], we've got observers, and we trust and count on them. They made the decision that they thought was in the best interest as well.

"I fully support them, and I'll make those decisions in the future based on their input, because that's all I have up in Race Control," he continued. "There's a thousand times they've made these calls, and they're right 99.9 percent of the time. That was just a tough situation out there at the end of the race today."

Not everyone was up in arms about the results of the race. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hunter-Reay's teammate Marco Andretti came to his defense.

"I know there's a protest from Newman/Haas and Ganassi, but the way I look at it is that Ryan was the leader under yellow," Andretti wrote in a column for RACER.com. "At the green, the second-placed guy cannot cross the start/finish line first, otherwise it's a non-start and everyone has to go around again. Simple as that."

Frankly, Gappens was thrilled with the post-race furor.

"As a promoter, I love the controversy," he remarked. "I like the storyline changes, the drama, the entertainment. There are a lot of people talking about this race right now through social media, and there are a lot going to be watching the highlights on the news.

"I had to laugh with Will Power giving double fingers. Will Power had a passion about what he's doing, and this is how he makes his livelihood. I don't criticize him. I just saw a picture of it, and I'd like to put it on our ticket brochure for next year. That summarizes it just looking at it."

On Tuesday, Gappens will help decide who won a race and, potentially, who might or might not win the IndyCar Series championship.

Perhaps he and everyone else -- up to and including INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard -- should be more concerned about determining whether Brian Barnhart is qualified to make such decisions after he put the IndyCar Series in an unacceptably embarrassing position.

Again.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.