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PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The Verizon IndyCar Series concludes its April stretch this weekend with its third race (plus a Texas Motor Speedway test) in four weeks this month. Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) provides the first glimpse at an all-left-hand turn race this year.

However, the downforce levels applied to both the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits have been locked in from 2016, which will make passing difficult if not outright impossible under the lights.

Here’s what to look for on Saturday night:

2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix – Talking Points

Wide-open points race

What enters as a 15-point spread between points leader Sebastien Bourdais, ahead of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe figures to increase after Saturday night’s race. If the Chevrolets are as strong as they were in testing and last year, it’d tend to favor Newgarden and Pagenaud on paper of those top five. Of course, Dixon won here last year, thanks in large part to his Ganassi crew. It’s a big test for the Bourdais and Coyne package.

Helio Castroneves (sixth, 33 points back) sits nicely positioned if he can end his near three-year winless drought. Meanwhile for Chevrolet’s other drivers, Phoenix could present an opportunity for Will Power (14th, 67 off the lead), Carlos Munoz (15th, 69) and Conor Daly (19th, 76) to make inroads. JR Hildebrand returns and Ed Carpenter makes his first start of 2017, but both had speed in the test here in February.

Late days at the office

It’s an interesting schedule for IndyCar and a tight turnaround from racing in Birmingham this past weekend, then driving back to the West Coast for all teams and drivers. There’s only one two-hour practice from 4 to 6 p.m. PT on Friday afternoon, a two-hour gap, and then night qualifying from 8 to 9 p.m. This will certainly be closer to race temperatures rather than qualifying during the day, as was originally projected for this race and was done last year – and perhaps helps the Hondas, which struggled in the heat of the day both last year and in this year’s test, but were better at night.

It’ll make for a lot of hurry-up-and-wait though, with none of the Mazda Road to Indy series joining on the weekend. The only support action are USAC Silver Crown cars and vintage IndyCars.

Fortunately, the field had two full test days here in February so they’re not short on track time. But it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, translates from them because it will be hotter and the track has been through a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend since.

Short ovals hard to project, outside of one three-letter acronym – RHR

There’s not really been a rhyme or reason to recent IndyCar winners on oval tracks one mile or less. Here’s a recent rundown in the Dallara DW12 era, with aero kits the last two years and the base chassis from 2012 to 2014:

  • 2016: Scott Dixon at Phoenix (started sixth), Josef Newgarden at Iowa (started second)
  • 2015: Sebastien Bourdais at Milwaukee (started 11th), Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started ninth)
  • 2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started 13th), Will Power at Milwaukee (started first)
  • 2013: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started fourth), James Hinchcliffe at Iowa (started second)
  • 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started second) and at Iowa (started seventh)

By recent history, short ovals have largely been the domain of Ryan Hunter-Reay – that’s a run of five wins in the last 10 short oval races in IndyCar, with five other drivers splitting the rest one apiece.

“RHR” was about worth the price of admission on his own here last year, but got caught out twice by ill-timed caution flags that negated a potential podium finish. If he can get track position nailed down, he could finally be in to break his own winless run of races.

As ever though, if your car is hooked up, it could be a long night for everyone else. That was Newgarden at Iowa last year, when he led 282 of 300 laps. And at Phoenix, once Dixon’s team got him to the lead on pit stops, no one else was able to beat him as he led 155 of 250 laps on the series’ return.

Firestone’s tire note

From Cara Adams, Chief Engineer of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports in Firestone’s pre-race advance: “Our team of engineers and compounders selected several constructions and compounds to test at PIR last October based on driver feedback, vehicle data from every race held at PIR along with tire analysis. Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter assisted us in the evaluation of our test tires. We ultimately selected a superspeedway right side construction with a softer short oval compound along with the race-proven 2016 PIR left side tires. We then brought this tire package to the April 11th open test at PIR, and look forward to racing at this unique mile oval racetrack this weekend.”

Lingering questions

  • Do we get a fourth winner in as many races to kick off the new year?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing make it through Phoenix into May, still as points leaders?
  • Can Josef Newgarden carry the momentum from his first Team Penske win to the short oval?
  • Does Will Power snap his career-worst run of five consecutive finishes outside the top-10?
  • Similarly, does Power – or the other drivers without a top-10 this season, Max Chilton (pictured above), Charlie Kimball and Conor Daly – break into the top-10 for the first time?

The final word

From the defending race winner, Scott Dixon: “I’m excited to be going back to Phoenix again. We obviously had a great result here last year, and hopefully, we can duplicate that again with a strong run. It’s a tough track and I know it’s changed a bit over the years with some resurfacing, and we learned a lot last year in terms of how the cars handle now. I love the area and Arizona is a great part of the world. There are a lot of fans in the area and I hope they are as excited as we are to go racing Saturday night under the lights.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times PT and local):

Friday, April 28
4-6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
8 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE online; airs NBCSN 7:30 p.m., April 29

Saturday, April 29
5-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
6 p.m. – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Will Power
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Graham Rahal
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Max Chilton
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Ryan Hunter-Reay
11. Helio Castroneves (pole)

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”