IndyCar: Who needs to shine at the pair of hot, humid Houston races?

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This weekend is a pivotal weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, for the pair of races on the docket in the hot, humid but potentially rainy weekend.

Who needs to step up this weekend? We look through a few names to watch:

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 DHL Honda

The Indianapolis 500 champion has had a brutal three-race stretch since, including a doubleheader weekend to forget in Detroit and a mechanical issue pop up in Texas that dropped him to a 19th place finish. Hunter-Reay led the points standings by 40 coming out of the ‘500… he now sits 60 points behind new leader Will Power after a net 100-point loss over three races.

Sebastien Bourdais, No. 11 Mistic KVSH Racing Chevrolet

A former Houston winner, Bourdais hasn’t yet shown the race-winning form I expected coming into this year. He’s made several mistakes and also been penalized way too frequently. Last year the Toronto doubleheader – the second double-race weekend of the season – was his breakthrough, and ideally Houston fills that role for him this year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 National Guard RLL Honda

His starts on street courses this year read like a bad Bingo line: 21, 23, 9, 14. With Luca Filippi brought in the team’s second car this weekend, Rahal has to improve his qualifying game and nail the form that was so good at Detroit Race 1, where he finished second.

Chip Ganassi Racing – both Target Chevrolets, plus the NTT Data and Novo Nordisk Chevrolets

Yes, both Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball bagged podiums last street race at Detroit, but qualifying across the board for the quartet has been less than desirable. Averaging starting positions this year on road and street courses? It’s 9.1 for Scott Dixon, 11.8 for Ryan Briscoe, 12 for Kanaan and 19.8 for Kimball. Dixon won Race 1 here last year and here’s to hoping that the team’s two-day test at Sebring will have again paid dividends.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda

The opposite of the above drivers, Newgarden’s qualifying’s been great this year but through mostly no fault of his own, his results haven’t been. The talented young American either gets good results or good grid positions – rarely both in the same weekend. Driving what is arguably the sexiest looking car on the grid, in the chrome, blue and red Strike colors, it would be great to see Newgarden back on the podium – or at least in the top five – this weekend.

F1 2017 driver review: Carlos Sainz Jr.

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Carlos Sainz Jr.

Teams: Scuderia Toro Rosso (1-16), Renault (17-20)
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P4 (Singapore)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 54
Championship Position: 9th

Carlos Sainz Jr. has always been compared to Max Verstappen given their relative rise and stint together at Toro Rosso, but the Spaniard began to forge his own impressive path through 2017, securing himself a works drive with Renault in the process.

Alongside the struggling Daniil Kvyat for much of the season, Sainz led Toro Rosso’s charge, scoring 48 of its 53 points with a string of impressive drives. His headline moment came in Singapore when he matched Verstappen’s best result in Toro Rosso colors by finishing fourth, capitalizing on the start-line crash and the wet weather with a strong display.

Sainz’s displays led to a call from Renault, who announced just two days before his star display in Singapore he would be joining up for 2018 on loan from Red Bull. However, the deal was accelerated after a deal was brokered to secure Jolyon Palmer’s departure, allowing Sainz to join up from the United States GP onwards.

Sainz made an immediate impression, completing a perfect race en route to seventh on debut for Renault to secure six points that would prove crucial in the final constructors’ championship standings as the French team beat Toro Rosso to P6 in the standings at the last race of the year.

Red Bull retains an option on Sainz’s future beyond 2018, making him a candidate for a seat with its senior team should Daniel Ricciardo opt to leave. Failing that, Renault could offer Sainz the platform he needs to continue his rapid rise in F1 and establish himself at the front of the pack for many years to come.

Season High: Finishing fourth in Singapore after dodging the start-line drama.

Season Low: Crashing out in his final Toro Rosso appearance on the first lap at Suzuka.