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PREVIEW: Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual Indianapolis stint for three weeks and Detroit for a doubleheader weekend now cedes to a more normal race weekend for the first time in more than a month, with just a two-day affair at the reprofiled Texas Motor Speedway (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For Texas and IndyCar’s sake, an encore of 2016’s resumption portion in August – and not its originally scheduled June date that was marred by rain – figures to be in order. But with the track different than last year owing to the repave, it’s likely set to jumble things a bit.

Add in the predictably unpredictable nature of the 2017 season and there’s more questions than answers heading into the ninth of 17 races this year, as the series hits the halfway point.

2017 Rainguard Water Sealers 600 – Talking Points

The new track itself 

Per TMS, here’s what’s been adjusted following the repave, which was completed earlier this year prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in April:

The re-profiling of the speedway reduced the banking in Turns 1 and 2 by four degrees, decreasing it to 20 degrees. That change added additional racing surface with the width expanding from 60 to 80 feet in that section of the track. The result is a more unique and challenging layout then the previous symmetrical layout of 24 degrees in each turn and racing surface width of 60 feet in those turns.

IndyCar had what was meant to be a full-field test day on April 12, just a few days after Long Beach, although a handful of Honda teams were restricted from running. As it was, the field raced cleanly while adjusting to the different layout.

Ensuring the balance is correct between the two opposite sets of corners will be key to success this weekend.

Texas always tests the engineers in terms of picking downforce levels and accounting for proper tire falloff from Firestone, and this reprofiling only figures to add to the puzzle pieces.

Rahal’s quest to double up at Texas after Detroit double

There’s seven winners from the first eight races, and only Graham Rahal has won more than once – the Ohio native doubled up in Detroit and became the first driver to two wins.

What does history say will happen for Rahal as a result of that? Let’s take a look at recent years since the Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced in 2012:

  • 2016: Simon Pagenaud, first to two wins (Round 3, Long Beach, Round 4, Barber), and won title
  • 2015: Juan Pablo Montoya, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 6, Indianapolis 500), lost title on a tiebreaker
  • 2014: Will Power, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 6, Detroit 1), and won title
  • 2013: James Hinchcliffe, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 4, Brazil), fell to eighth in points
  • 2012: Power, first to two wins (Round 2, Barber, Round 3, Long Beach), lost title at season finale

So in five years, the first driver to two wins has won the title twice and lost the title twice at the final race, thus finishing second in points. It’s only been once in five years that driver has fallen out of the title fight altogether.

Rahal won last year in Texas in dramatic fashion while coming so short of victory here in 2012. This weekend will be the start of his title pursuit in earnest; he vaulted from 15th to sixth last weekend. Pagenaud won three races in a row last year from Long Beach through the Indianapolis road course.

Crazy tight points fight

Neither Scott Dixon nor Helio Castroneves has won a race but they’re 1-2 in points on the strength of consistency. Both are past Texas winners though. Dixon has two wins in 2008 and 2015, both years of which he won the championship. Castroneves has four Texas wins, none since 2013 though.

Behind those two, separated by only eight points at the top of the tables (303-295), just 91 points cover from second-placed Castroneves to 12th-placed Max Chilton. There’s not as much chance for movement this weekend as there has been in either of the last two weekends, where there was either double points (Indianapolis) or double races (Detroit), but Texas does provide some intrigue there.

Unpredictable nature of Texas

Going with the theme of unpredictability, and adding in the track is new, the last thing Texas has offered in recent years is a form guide. There’s been eight different winners the last eight Texas races dating to 2010.

In order, Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti, Power (Franchitti and Power won one race each in 2011’s lone Texas double), the late Justin Wilson, Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, Dixon and Rahal have made it eight winners from five different teams (Penske, Ganassi, Coyne, Carpenter, RLL). And that’s before you get to the fact Hinchcliffe dominated last year – albeit before incurring a significant post-race penalty for excessive skid wear – for SPM.

Going on recent oval form, the Hondas have looked better on the big ovals, but Chevrolet mounted a challenge here last year with Tony Kanaan (Ganassi) and Pagenaud (Penske) both in win contention late. And what of Honda’s reliability concerns? We saw what hit them at Indianapolis and you wonder see if they can get through a clean weekend in Texas.

Return for Newgarden, Daly

Last year’s most scary moment of the year occurred on, we’ll call it “race day attempt number two of three,” as Conor Daly’s car got loose and collected Josef Newgarden the Sunday after the race started a day late. It produced an incredibly frightening moment and left Newgarden with a collarbone injury. As both drivers weren’t able to restart the race in August upon the resumption, Newgarden watched while Daly made his pit road reporting debut. It’ll be good to have the two young Americans back in properly this go-‘around.

The part-time spoilers

An interesting weekend lies ahead for the three returning drivers this weekend. Ed Carpenter is back as he usually is on ovals. Gabby Chaves is set for his second start with Harding Racing, and the team was able to test here in April, which is good background. And with Tristan Vautier getting a call to Dale Coyne Racing, it puts him back on an oval for the first time since Pocono 2015.

Finish up and get out of town

After the race, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Mikhail Aleshin and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell will be heading from the Lone Star state to the ‘tricolor’ land of France, with all four set to compete in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans next weekend. Dixon and Kanaan are in a pair of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs, Aleshin in an SMP Racing Dallara P217 Gibson and Bell set to defend his GTE-Am class win in a Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE.

The final word

From JR Hildebrand, who makes his Texas return for the first time in five years:  “I’ve had a couple of good runs at Texas Motor Speedway. The last time I ran there, we ended up fifth. That was one of the ultra-low downforce, sideways, all-over-the-track races. I’m looking forward to going back where it should be a little less of a hairy situation, but it’s always a great race and Ed Carpenter Racing has been solid there the last couple of years. There will be some differences with the new track surface, but I definitely expect for us to be strong there when we roll out.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):
Friday, June 9
10-11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, (Live)
2:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), NBCSN (2:30 p.m.)
5:45 – 6:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)

Saturday, June 10
6:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
7:01 p.m. – Driver introductions
7:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
7:45 p.m. – Rainguard Water Sealers 600 (248 laps/357.12 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Graham Rahal
2. James Hinchcliffe
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Carlos Munoz (pole)
8. Will Power
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Sebastien Bourdais

Dixon finally breaks through at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After a year of near misses and frustration, Scott Dixon has finally captured his first win of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing has won today’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America after leading 24 of 55 laps, and holding off a late charge from Josef Newgarden, best of Team Penske’s quartet.

The win also provides Mike Hull a victory on his 25-year anniversary with the team, a special moment. Dixon is now the eighth winner of the year, and the only active track where Dixon hadn’t led a lap – until today.

Hull made an excellent strategic decision to go with Firestone’s red alternate tires on the second-to-last stint. Following a restart after Takuma Sato spun at the Kink, Dixon then made a spectacular move to Newgarden’s outside going into Turn 1, and completing the move on exit. Newgarden had no counter as he was on Firestone’s blacks at that point.

Newgarden led home teammates Helio Castroneves, who fell to third from the pole, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, as Penske ended second, third, fourth and fifth after sweeping the top four spots on the grid.

Charlie Kimball parlayed an off-sequence strategy to jump up to sixth, with Ed Jones, Graham Rahal, Max Chilton and Mikhail Aleshin completing the top 10.

Tony Kanaan had a heavy accident at the Kink but got out of his car, in the race’s one major incident.

More to follow…

Stroll rewarded with shoey after first F1 podium in Baku (VIDEO)

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Lance Stroll was “lost for words” after becoming the second-youngest Formula 1 podium finisher in Sunday’s chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, crossing the line third for Williams.

Stroll qualified eighth in Baku before managing to rise up the order as a race of attrition set in at the front, with title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel both dropping back after coming to blows.

Stroll was left running second behind Daniel Ricciardo once Hamilton had pitted for repairs and Vettel had served his penalty, but had Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas bearing down through the closing stages.

In a drag race at the line, Bottas nosed ahead of Stroll by just 0.1 seconds to deny the Williams driver P2, but he was nevertheless able to hang on to third place.

Coming just two weeks after his maiden F1 points finish and following a barrage of criticism in the early part of the year, Stroll was overjoyed with the result.

“I’m just lost for words right now. I don’t even know what to say,” Stroll said.

“I can’t quite realize what just happened. It was a hectic race, people crashing and we stayed out of trouble, I kept my head cool and took it to the end.

“I lost out to Valtteri in the end. I reckon that was probably one of the closest finishes of all time! We were side-by-side across the finish line.

“What a race. I couldn’t believe coming into the weekend that I would be standing on the podium, it’s so amazing.”

Joining race winner and shoey extraordinaire Ricciardo on the podium, Stroll became the latest driver to take part in F1’s strangest tradition – albeit only after Ricciardo checked he was old enough.

Stroll completed the shoey like a champ, and was also informed that he had won the online Driver of the Day vote.

The result also saw Stroll became Canada’s first podium finisher since Jacques Villeneuve in 2001, as well as being the youngest ever rookie to finish in the top three.

Stroll missed out on the overall youngest podium record by 11 days to Max Verstappen, who won last year’s Spanish Grand Prix during his second season of racing in F1.

Ricciardo doubted Baku F1 win was possible, left ‘speechless’ on podium

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A stunned Daniel Ricciardo was left speechless on the podium after claiming his fifth Formula 1 victory in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, navigating a crazy race that he started from 10th on the grid.

Ricciardo survived three safety car periods, two early pit stops and a red flag stoppage to rise through the order and capitalize on trouble for title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, with both dropping back down the order after dominating early on.

Ricciardo moved into the lead when Vettel was forced to serve a penalty for dangerous driving, and went unchallenged en route to victory in Baku from there, finishing 3.9 seconds clear of the pack.

Struggling to form his words initially, Ricciardo said he only thought a podium was within reach after the restart, only for the issues for the leaders to hand him the race win.

“We know there was a chance of the podium after the restart, but then we heard what happened with Lewis and Seb. It was just a crazy race,” Ricciardo said.

“I made an unplanned stop at the beginning. After a few laps we had some debris in the brakes, so we had to stop and clean it. We dropped to 17th place.

“So did I think then that we could win? Absolutely not. I would have put all my money on it that this was very unlikely.

“A crazy race. This is the race we expected last year, with all the safety cars and all the chaos, and we got it this year.”

Ricciardo’s victory came after he crashed out of qualifying on Saturday evening in Baku, resigning him to a P10 start, but was pleased to make up for it in style.

“Yesterday I was disappointed with the mistake. I knew today would be a different outcome,” Ricciardo said.

“I said it yesterday that we had to stay out of trouble and it certainly paid off today. A big thanks to the team, it was nice to get one car home and on the podium.

“I’m honestly speechless. After the race on the cool down lap, I was kind of just giggling like a school boy.”

WATCH LIVE: KOHLER Grand Prix at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Road America this weekend, with the now 55-lap KOHLER Grand Prix this afternoon.

You can watch it LIVE on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app starting at 11 a.m. CT and local time, noon ET.

Coverage has moved up half an hour from a planned 12:30 p.m. ET start time with the Formula 1 race from Azerbaijan running long.

This moves the Indy Lights second race of the weekend, which was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET, with Jake Query and Anders Krohn in the booth and Hargitt in pit lane.

Coverage will run through to 3:30 p.m. ET. INDYCAR: NEXT at the 101st Indianapolis 500 is scheduled from 3:30 to 4 p.m. ET.

Kevin Lee is on the call along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy, with Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller in the pits.

Helio Castroneves secured the pole position for the race. The full qualifying report is linked here.