IndyCar — The pain of second place

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Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz finished second at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, but he wasn’t exactly happy about it. Quite the opposite, in fact; he was in tears of anguish after the checkered flag that as the race was coming to a close he felt was surely going to fly first for him. It was his fourth top-five finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and his second runner-up finish in the 500. Carlos isn’t the only driver to suffer heart-crushing second-best finishes, though. He’s in good company with the likes of Rick Mears and Tom Sneva.

Carlos Munoz’s record at Indianapolis

Carlos Munoz, in his short time at Indianapolis, has been very successful. His first trip around the 2.5-mile brickyard was in 2013 in the Indy Lights series where he finished fourth in the most dramatic race in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Munoz crossed the line four-wide along with Peter Dempsey (winner), Gabby Chaves (P2), and Sage Karam (P3) to come in fourth after leading at the beginning of the final lap.

That same year, he raced in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race for Andretti Autosport, the same team he was with in Indy Lights, and came in second as a rookie. In 2014, he followed up his strong rookie performance with a fourth place finish in the 500, and this year he came in second again. By most people’s standards, Munoz has had a very successful career at Indianapolis thus far. Everyone’s standards except Munoz’s, that is.

Famous second place finishes at Indianapolis

1977, 1978, & 1980 — Tom “The Gas Man” Sneva

Tom Sneva using his helmet to hold the 200 silver dollars that was his reward for breaking the 200 mph barrier  during qualifications for the 1997 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
Tom Sneva using his helmet to hold the 200 silver dollars that was his reward for breaking the 200 mph barrier during qualifications for the 1997 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
Sneva received his nickname primarily for his Texaco Star sponsorship of the 1983 Cosworth-powered March 83C that he drove to victory at Indianapolis. That win, though, came after thrice being the runner up in the 500 Mile Race. In spite of his being the first person to maintain an average lap speed in excess of 200 mph at the Speedway and starting from pole in 1977, Sneva would end up a distant second to AJ Foyt as the Texan claimed his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, the first person to ever do so.

In 1978, Sneva set the pole speed again, this time with all four of his qualifying laps exceeding 200 mph, setting yet another new speed record at the Brickyard. During the final laps of the race, Sneva found himself in third much like the previous year. Again, in similar fashion to 1977, the leader, Danny Ongais suffered an engine failure allowing Al Unser, Sr. to take over the lead with Sneva in a distant second. This time, there was hope for Sneva as Unser damaged his front wing during his final pit stop. Sneva was able to close the gap to a mere eight seconds, the second closest finish at the time, but still was the runner-up and not the one drinking the milk.

The following year, Sneva crashed in Turn 4, but in 1980, he was back and in proper form. He qualified mid-field, but a practice crash meant that he had to switch to his back-up chassis and start in last place. Throughout the race, Sneva kept moving up through the field. In the final laps of the race, Sneva had finally worked his way up to second place, albeit a distant one to Rick Mears. Johnny Rutherford was in third behind Sneva and pitted under green while, Sneva and Mears took their final service under the yellow brought out by AJ Foyt’s car failing in Turn 3. The pit strategy worked in favor of Rutherford who maintained a comfortable lead over Sneva who had overtaken Mears. Once again the bridesmaid, Sneva bemoaned his fate with his now famous post-race quote, “The car was good but it looks like no matter how good I am or how good the car is, I will always just be finishing second.” Well, that held only until 1983 when the bridesmaid curse would be lifted for Sneva.

1982 — Rick Mears
Rick Mears, a then young, sensational hot shoe for Team Penske Racing, set a new qualifying record booking a four-lap average of 207.004 mph. Pole Day was marred by the horrific accident and death of Gordon Smiley in Turn 3, and although qualifying would eventually resume, no one was a match for the speed of Mears. The young Mears was surrounded by talent on the starting grid with teammate and SCCA Formula B Champion, Kevin Cogan, and AJ Foyt on the front row, and the legendary Mario Andretti directly behind him in the second row. Much of that talent was eliminated before the start as “that damn Coogin”, as AJ Foyt called the young driver, suddenly swerved to the right to collect first AJ Foyt and then Mario Andretti.

Rick Mears, #1, The Gould Charge, Penske, Cosworth -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Rick Mears, #1, The Gould Charge, Penske, Cosworth — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo

Mears easily lead most of the first half of the race, but in the later laps, Gordon Johncock had assumed the top position, after Mears had a disasterous final pit stop, his team overfilling his car with an unnecessary amount of fuel. Mears was faster than Johncock, but the final pit stop placed him several seconds behind. Although Mears would gain significant ground on the leader, Johncock would retain the lead and win the 1982 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race by a mere 0.16 seconds, the closest finish at the time.

1992 — Scott Goodyear
The race in 1992 was one of the coldest in the history of the 500. Gusty winds followed the arrival of a cold front that saw temperatures plummet into the upper 40s. The cold temperatures meant that mechanical grip was almost nil. The challenging traction conditions caught out pole sitter Roberto Guerrero who spun during the parade laps while trying to develop some heat in his tires. Scott Goodyear was fortunate to simply make the race. His official qualifying effort was not strong enough to make the Field of 33, but his teammate, Mike Groff had qualified in P26. The team, having already designated Goodyear as their No. 1 driver, swapped out Groff for Goodyear, forcing the team to move the car back to the outside of the 11th row in 33rd place. After starting from dead last, much like Sneva’s run in 1980, Goodyear steadily moved his way through the field and toward the front.

Al Unser, Jr. edges Scott Goodyear by less than a car length at the 1992 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Al Unser, Jr. edges Scott Goodyear by less than a car length at the 1992 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Cold tires throughout the day meant that attrition would play a significant role in the outcome of the race with several of the perinnial favorites such as Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, and Emerson Fittipaldi crashing out. Mechanical gremlins were also rampant throughout the day. Michael Andretti, who had be dominant all day long, suffered a fuel pump failure with just 11 laps to go. This relinquished the lead to Al Unser, Jr who had just passed Scott Goodyear for P2. When the green flag flew again after safety crews collected Andretti’s terminal car, Al Unser, Jr. and Scott Goodyear held one of the most dramatic final lap showdowns in the history of the 500. Goodyear was glued to Little Al’s gearbox, but the more experienced racer help the Canadian behind him. On the last turn of the last lap, Unser had to lift to correct for a sudden oversteer condition allowing Goodyear to get a better exit from Turn 4 and carry more speed down the long front stretch. Goodyear pulled along side Unser and they were wheel-to-wheel across the line with Goodyear coming up 0.043 seconds short of victory, setting a new record for the closest 500 finish.

2006 — Marco Andretti
Marco Andretti came to the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2006 carrying the huge burden of the famed family name, as well as the infamous ‘Andretti Curse’. None of that seemed to phase the rookie as he placed his No. 26 Honda/Dallara solidly in the field, starting on the outside of Row 3. The day seemed to belong to Dan Wheldon as he dominated the first half of the race, and led most of the second half, battling with pole sitter Sam Hornish, Jr. In the final 20 laps, however, it was the Andretti Autosport squad who claimed all four of the front positions with Marco running in second. Hornish had the faster car, but he was almost a full lap adrift of the leaders after having to serve a drive through penalty for attempting to leave the pits with the fuel nozzle still engaged. A late yellow allowed Hornish to catch up with the Andretti pack.

Sam Hornish Jr. takes the checkered flag just barely ahead of Marco Andretti to end the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 in the second closest finish ever. -- Photo by: Leigh Spargur
Sam Hornish Jr. takes the checkered flag just barely ahead of Marco Andretti to end the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 in the second closest finish ever. — Photo by: Leigh Spargur
With four laps to go, Michael Andretti lead his son, Marco, and Hornish was closing on the pair, running in third. Marco took over the lead from his father, who then succumbed to Hornish. On the penultimate lap of the race, Hornish attempted to pass Andretti for the lead as they approached Turn 3, but Marco refused to back down forcing Sam to yield. On the final lap, Marco still lead, but Sam remained tucked in close behind as the pair rounded Turns 3 and 4 for the final time. Hornish would use the draft and better exit speed to slowly reel in the rookie. It would be just enough as Hornish would edge Andretti by 0.0635 seconds, trumping the record set in 1992 by Goodyear and Unser.

2011 — JR Hildebrand
2011 had to be one of the most heart-crushing finishes in the history of the Speedway. JR Hildebrand, a rookie driver of the No. 4 Panther Racing, drove a phenomenal race, not unlike Rossi’s drive this year. He was quick all month, but never right up with the leaders, qualifying on the outside of Row 4. For much of the race, it really looked as though the Ganassi duo of of Scott Dixon (No. 9) and Dario Franchitti (No. 10) were going to take the win. Good pit and fuel strategy placed Hildebrand in the position to claim the first rookie victory since Helio Castroneves in 2001. While battling with Franchitti in the final laps, the Scotsman had to pull back and conserve fuel in order to complete the race. This left Hildebrand unopposed with the ability to cruise to the checkered flag. His only concern, and it was a remote one, was Dan Wheldon who had overtaken Franchitti to claim second place, but was still no where close to Hildebrand.

JR Hildebrand crosses the finish line despite wrecking on the final lap -- Photo by: LAT Photo USA
JR Hildebrand crosses the finish line despite wrecking on the final lap — Photo by: LAT Photo USA

On the final lap, Hildebrand encountered lapped traffic and while trying to overtake the slower car of Charlie Kimball in Turn 4 on the outside. Hildebrand went too far outside and into the marbles (or klag) that littered the track outside of the racing groove. JR slid into the outside wall at the exit of the corner, but kept his foot flat on the throttle in hopes of still bringing his wounded, now three-wheeled, racer to the finish. He would make it across the start/finish line, but not until Dan Wheldon passed him for the lead and the victory about half way down the straight toward the Yard of Bricks.

The pain and motivating power of being the first loser

Carlos Munoz was literally in tears after his 2nd place finish at this year’s Indianapolis 500. With a handful of laps remaining, he knew that the only person between him and victory was Alexander Rossi. Furthermore, he knew that Rossi would not be able to keep his pace through to the end of the race, and thought that his teammate would have to pit before Lap 200. He was convinced of it. There was no way that Rossi would be able to stretch his fuel that far. There was just no way!

Except that there was.

Coming up short yet again after being so certain of victory that he could taste the milk was not just a disappointment, it was soul crushing.

“I was really disappointed when it comes down to fuel and you lose the race because of that. I was really disappointed to get second and be half a lap short. That’s what it took. I was sliding the last two stints. I knew I had the car to win in the first half of the race. I just was holding my position. Last part of the race I was pushing really hard, overtaking everyone. One of the yellows didn’t help us. We fell back into the field and got back to the front of the field again. It wasn’t our day, if I’m honest. My team never was in the fight. But this is racing. We have to congratulate him (Alexander Rossi). It’s part of the racing, strategy and everything. The only thing I’m clear about is that I want to win this race one day. Man, it was a close one. I think me and (Josef) Newgarden had the battle for the win, we were so strong. But I’m happy for the team, one and two Andretti, one and two for Honda.” — Carlos Munoz, No. 26 Andretti Autosport

For some, coming in 2nd might be a great thrill depending upon one’s initial expectations. From personal experience, coming in second in a race where I fully expected to be DFL was exciting and a joyful experience. However, coming in second in a race where I was in strong contention for the victory only to come up a couple of tenths short is among the worst feelings ever. You immediately start thinking about all the places where you made mistakes, where you turned in a bit too late, where you were too early on the brakes, where you didn’t get back on throttle soon enough. You start double-guessing everything. I completely understand the pain Munoz experienced. I understand his tears, but as Indiana Jones was once instructed, “You lost today, kid. Doesn’t mean you have to like it.” I believe that Munoz will win this race one year. Given how he’s been driving on ovals lately, I suspect that will be sooner rather than later.

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