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PREVIEW: KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After a hectic period in the lead-up to and run through the Indianapolis 500 in May, then into the first two and a half weeks of June, the Verizon IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend with the KOHLER Grand Prix at picturesque Road America.

The race’s return last year after nine years away proved a hit for drivers, teams and fans alike and the encore will also be one to watch.

With that, here’s some story lines to look out for the 2017 KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2017 KOHLER Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does a Will Power “summer smackdown” begin now? 

Last year, Power’s win at Road America was his second in a row after winning Detroit race two, and the second race in his ludicrously good run of four wins and two second-place finishes in six races. He enters the 2017 Road America race in exactly the same position, fresh off a dominant win in the race beforehand.

Power’s Texas win was authoritative and didn’t really seem in doubt, even as Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato posed late-race challenges before they collided. Power seems in a good spot mentally this year, more so than in past years, and a second straight win both in 2017 and at Road America would fully serve as a warning shot to the rest of the field that his title pursuit is underway.

How will the IndyCar trio at Le Mans fare back at Road America?

Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin return to action in their day jobs this weekend after racing at last week’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. There wasn’t much of a hangover here, last year.

Dixon and Kanaan qualified second and third, with Dixon running strong early before a mechanical issue. Kanaan, meanwhile, had probably his best drive on a road or street course in years, ending just behind Power in second. Aleshin had a somewhat quiet weekend, qualifying 13th and finishing 16th.

Can Rahal’s roll continue?

Graham Rahal had a very strong weekend here with a sixth place start and podium finish in third. He’s had struggles on permanent road courses so far this year, though. At Barber he qualified 21st and last and finished 13th; at the Indianapolis road course he was 20th on the grid but recovered to sixth.

A good qualifying effort will be key to snapping that rough run on the road courses and continuing the overall roll he and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team have been on in the last month, with the doubleheader sweep in Detroit and a fourth place at Texas.

Will testing help the six-pack of Hondas that tested here?

Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and one Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda all tested here last week, to get an early leg up on the track for 2017 ahead of the rest of the field. It’s been rare in 2017 – Indianapolis aside – that teams have got the opportunity to test at the same track so soon to race day, but the Andretti and SPM teams cannily used an Indy Lights test day to ensure their primary drivers got an extra half day of running in. Coyne, too, got Ed Jones a day on track in an IndyCar here. Jones was in the crosshairs in a crazy Indy Lights weekend here last year but has been much calmer, and solid, in his first season in IndyCar.

Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske also tested at Watkins Glen last week for a Firestone tire test, so they’ve had a bit of extra running in too.

Five extra laps of fuel doom? 

At just over 4 miles, there’s no room to be wrong on fuel strategy at Road America. You run out, and it’s likely game over – the strategy has to be pinpoint perfect.

This year’s KOHLER Grand Prix has been extended five laps to 55. It makes the race longer but it also forces teams into a very tight window of either three or four stops. Usually a fuel stint here is 12 or 13 laps; it can possibly be stretched to 14.

With pace laps to factor in early, pitting sooner on the first stop is possible. Can teams make it home on three stops this year or will a fourth be needed?

The potential eighth winner list has some good potential candidates

Besides the obvious driver you’d have expected to have a win but doesn’t so far in 2017 – Dixon – there’s also the names like Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and even Max Chilton or Ed Jones who could be considered potential eighth different winners of the IndyCar season. Marco Andretti has looked strong in road course practice this year but it hasn’t translated to qualifying or a result.

The final word

From Power, who seeks both his second straight win in 2017 and a second straight at Road America: “I’m really looking forward to racing at Road America after the race at Texas. It was a crazy race but the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team worked hard together to pull off a win. I’m confident that the momentum we’ve built off of that win can definitely be a huge benefit for us as we head to Elkhart Lake and get into the championship hunt. It’s a fun, energetic crowd there and a fun course. I’m just ready to get back on track.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 23
10:45 – 11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15 – 4 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
4:05 – 4:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 24
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5 p.m. ET, same-day delay)

Sunday, June 25
8 – 8:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
11:32 a.m. – Driver introductions
12:10 p.m. – Command to start engines
12:17 p.m. – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Will Power (pole)
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Graham Rahal
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
8. Josef Newgarden
9. Spencer Pigot
10. Carlos Munoz

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Scott Dixon
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Graham Rahal

F1 2017 driver review: Romain Grosjean

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Romain Grosjean

Team: Haas
Car No.: 8
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P6 (Austria)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 28
Championship Position: 13th

After leading Haas’ charge through its debut Formula 1 season in 2016, Romain Grosjean once again stepped up as team leader for the American team through its sophomore campaign despite scoring one point fewer.

Haas did not expect any major step in performance heading into 2017, having dealt with building all-new cars for two different sets of regulations, but the team was able to match its season one points total by the halfway mark this time around.

The big boost was the addition of a second points scoring driver – Kevin Magnussen – to partner Grosjean. Grosjean looked increasingly comfortable at Haas even if the car often presented problems, particularly under braking.

Radio rants were frequent, with Grosjean unable to drive around the issues as Magnussen did. But he was nevertheless able to finish the year as Haas’ top scorer, with his highlight moment being a perfect run to sixth in Austria.

Greater consistency was evident from both Grosjean and Haas through 2017, yet there were still swings in form that need to be ironed out in the future. The team was unable to capitalize on Renault and Toro Rosso’s late season difficulties that could have seen it jump to sixth in the constructors’ championship.

Grosjean once again proved himself to be a very competent and talented racer through 2017, but needs a little more panache – perhaps down to the car more than anything – if he is to put himself in the frame for a top-line drive in the future.

Haas continues to offer a good platform, though, and its third season should be its best yet thanks to the stability in the regulations. It will be a real chance for Grosjean to show what he can do.

Season High: A perfect run to sixth in Austria, leading the midfield cars.

Season Low: Crashing early with Ocon in Brazil, hurting Haas’ constructors’ hopes.