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.

JR Hildebrand shines at Phoenix after return from injury

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JR Hildebrand had one of the best weekends of his Verizon IndyCar Series career at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. After returning from a broken hand suffered at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Californian qualified a career-best third and went on to finish third. The result is his first top five since Long Beach in 2013 and his first podium since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Hildebrand explained in the post-race press conference that he knew Ed Carpenter Racing would be strong on short ovals, and he felt pressure to make good on their potential. “I was definitely anxious to make good on the speed. The team has a great short oval package,” he revealed. “I’m excited to get the result. The car was bitchin. I think at the end of the race, we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to have that in it. It’s a strong result heading into May.”

And if not for traffic at the end, Hildebrand might have been able to pass Will Power for second. But, as he described, battling traffic was a main theme the entire night, especially with lapped cars battling each other for significant positions. “For me the race ended up coming down to how you managed traffic. Guys are a lap down but racing for top-10 spots. Usually when you’re lapping guys on a road course there’s no stress. Here they were racing even harder than we were. It is a difficult thing to manage. It became about picking opportunities to pass guys,” Hildebrand explained.

In regards to his hand injury, Hildebrand described it as a non-factor and does not see it being an issue going forward. “In my hand, there was no stress. (It’s) good for (Gateway International Raceway) on Tuesday and then the whole month of May.”

Hildebrand now sits 13th in the championship standings, ten back of tenth place Ed Jones.

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Pagenaud breaks through for first oval win in Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Simon Pagenaud parlayed a combination of pace and longer fuel stints to win his first career Verizon IndyCar Series race on an oval, in the next logical career step for the 2016 series champion.

After starting fifth, Pagenaud advanced to the lead and led 116 of 250 laps in Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the fourth race of the 2017 season in his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

He’s the fourth winner in as many races, has four top-five finishes to kick off the year, and has now moved into the points lead. It’s his 10th career win.

In a Chevrolet-dominated affair, Pagenaud led teammate Will Power, who finally broke his duck of five straight races outside the top 10, JR Hildebrand, who finished on the podium in his return to action, and Helio Castroneves, who again lost the win from pole position but banked his fourth top-10 straight.

Team Penske dominated, leading all 250 laps themselves – the first time a team has done so since Penske did in Detroit last year.

Scott Dixon completed the top five finishers, the top Honda.

In an attrition-filled race, only 13 of 21 starters finished, with five cars going out in a first-lap accident.

More to follow…

RESULTS

Bourdais among five cars caught up in Turn 1 pileup at Phoenix (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – A massive five-car pileup has dwindled the 21-car Verizon IndyCar Series field in tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix down after a first turn accident.

Points leader Sebastien Bourdais, rival Mikhail Aleshin (the two have collided several times before), Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Max Chilton were all involved in the accident.

Aleshin, who started seventh in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, lost control coming through Turn 2 and collected the others. Bourdais, in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, tried to avoid to Aleshin to the outside but crashed into him. Andretti, in the No. 27 Oberto Honda for Andretti Autosport, spun behind him after contact with Bourdais. Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda, tried to split the gap but got caught up. Chilton’s No. 8 Gallagher Honda has also sustained enough damage to be sidelined.

All drivers were out of their cars after the accident, and have been checked, cleared and released from the infield medical center.

Quick quotes are below, Aleshin, Rahal and Chilton talking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Andretti to Marty Snider and Bourdais to Kevin Lee.

“Unfortunately when I started to turn into Turn 1, the rear went and I couldn’t do anything. With full lock, I understood that was it. Snap oversteer. Couldn’t do anything about it. It was obviously my mistake. I am sorry for the guys who hit me as well. That’s racing,” Aleshin said.

Andretti said, “I want to be able to just finish a race. Everyone was trying to miss Mikhail. It looked like he had more downforce. Ryan just missed it. I tried to spin to miss him, then my smoke is why Graham couldn’t see. He hit me. It’s not ideal seeing blue smoke with most of the field coming at you. Glad everyone is OK. It was a product of Mikhail losing it and us trying to avoid it.”

Rahal added, “I didn’t have a perspective. I don’t know what happened. The spotter yells go low, Chilton’s spinning in front of me, I tried to go above him, and his car came up the banking. Legitimately I don’t know what happened. Our luck right now. Need to go to New Orleans for a voodoo doll. Spotter yells one thing. Where else do you go? This is what happens when you qualify at the back. Our sponsors, mechanics don’t deserve this. A lot of work to be done ahead. You’ve been around this long enough – you, PT – you’re just doomed. I was wrong place, wrong time.”

Bourdais said, “You’re just along for the ride. I was too close to brake. Marco was already in there anyway. Ryan cleared it barely. Not much you can do. It was a pretty big slap. It was a shame. You have to have wiser moves on the start like that. Everyone gets caught up in the moment and we were collateral damage. Our Sonny’s BBQ car is busted on the left and right side.”

Chilton concluded, “We had a pretty decent start. I was sort of tensing because four-wide is never good on a short oval. Mikhail lost his car. You only need one car to make a mistake and it’s a disaster. I did the normal human reaction. I spun, as I came back, I got collected by Rahal. Frustrating way to end the day. But so much downforce and these races are so boring, everyone tries to overtake on Lap 1.”

A quick video of the accident via the inside of Turn 1 is below along with the main video above.

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below: