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PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix

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A busy month of April for the Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off this weekend with the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix (April 7, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at the newly rechristened ISM Raceway (formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway).

What’s more, as the first oval race of the year, it will provide a glimpse into how the 2018 aero kit will perform on circuits that feature left turns exclusively.

Talking points ahead of Saturday’s 250-lap affair under the lights are below.

New Aero Kit Meets its Toughest Task

The aero kit era featured a lot of single-file racing at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Perhaps no track was more negatively impacted during the aero kit era than ISM Raceway, with the events from 2016 and 2017 featuring a lot of single-file racing as drivers struggled to get close enough to each other for overtaking to be a regular facet.

However, two days of pre-season testing at the one-mile oval gave way to optimism that the new 2018 universal aero kit would improve matters, with tire wear also becoming a factor as drivers practiced long runs over the two days of testing.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal firmly believes this year’s race will be much better than the previous two.

“The new aero kit will make it much more competitive,” Rahal asserted. “Everyone knows the struggles of the past, and somewhat of a split grid. That won’t be the case this time. I think you are in for a long night and a very competitive race weekend.”

Still, this week will likely be the toughest test for the 2018 aero kit in terms of its impact on the on-track product and its ability to improve overtaking. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was one of the best street course races in years, and if a similar race is presented at ISM Raceway, then it will be “mission: accomplished” in terms of improving the show.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Look to Build on Fast Pace from Testing

Takuma Sato turned the fastest lap times at the open test in February. Photo: IndyCar

The RLL duo of Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal surprised quite a few people with their astounding pace in the aforementioned pre-season test. Rahal topped one session, while Sato topped the other three, with both demonstrating dominant speed that few saw coming.

“The car has pace. Both cars have pace, and so that’s awesome,” Rahal said after Day 1 of testing in February. “Trust me, to come here, Takuma and I were talking (the night before) and we were like, ‘You know, I don’t really like this place.We haven’t had a lot of luck here the last few years, we’re used to coming here and getting our butts kicked.’ To be able to come here and be competitive with this aero kit is awesome. Obviously Honda has done a good job with the engines, but I mean it’s competitive.”

Teammate Sato shared a similar enthusiasm about their results at the test, and thinks that it gave them a great baseline on which to build entering the weekend.

“We had quite a successful open test in February. Obviously, the temperatures and conditions will be different but it gave us a very good indication of the new aero kit on the track there and we had a very productive test,” Sato detailed ahead of this weekend’s race.

How that testing pace will look over the course of a race weekend remains an unknown, but the RLL squad will be one to watch all weekend long.

Team Penske Looks to Rebound After Tough Start to 2018

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud is the defending race winner at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

The powerhouse Team Penske stumbled out of the gates at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden failed to advance out of the first round of qualifying, taking 13th on the grid, but was the highest finishing Penske car in seventh, overcoming a cut tire to do so.

Will Power qualified second, but spun in Turn 2 and bounced off the outside wall, damaging his rear wing and forcing an unscheduled stop for repairs. Power eventually finished tenth.

Meanwhile, Simon Pagenaud had an uncharacteristically quiet race that saw him finish 13th.

However, last year’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix was a dominant one for the Penske operation, with Pagenaud leading Power in a 1-2 for the team, while Helio Castroneves finished fourth to make it three Penske cars in the top three. Newgarden finished ninth after sustaining damage to his front wing, but was a frontrunner the entire night.

Consequently, the Team Penske outfit is ready to right the ship after St. Pete.

“We didn’t have the finish we wanted at St. Petersburg so I’m really looking forward to the weekend at ISM Raceway,” said Power. “We found some great speed at our test there back in February and feel like we’re going to bring a strong oval No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet for the race.”

Teammate Newgarden echoed Power’s desire for better results this weekend.

“We had a decent start to the season at St. Petersburg with a top-10 finish but we’re hungry for more,” Newgarden asserted. “We tested recently at ISM Raceway with the new aero kit and learned a lot that we can apply to our oval program for the season. Phoenix is a really fun market and the fans there always are really excited for the race weekend. Last season we had a decent finish there but we’re ready to find a better result this year for the No. 1 Verizon Chevrolet.”

Misc.

  • Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing made it back-to victories in St. Petersburg in March. Can they go one step further and go two-for-two in 2018 by winning at ISM?
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had as strong of a weekend as they’ve ever had in St. Petersburg, with James Hinchcliffe finishing fourth while Robert Wickens dominated the race from the pole and looked set for victory before late-race contact with Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. The SPM outfit should be a regular force on road and street circuits. But, will that form carry over onto short ovals?
  • Rookies Pietro Fittipaldi (with Coyne) and Kyle Kaiser (with Juncos Racing) make their IndyCar debuts at ISM Raceway this weekend. How will they do in their maiden IndyCar efforts?

 

The Final Word

From the defending race winner, Simon Pagenaud:

“I’m really excited to go back to Phoenix. While St. Petersburg did not go as we expected, I feel after testing at ISM Raceway earlier this year that the new aero kit is going to make some really exciting racing and I believe we prepared the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet really well for that event. Winning there last (year) with the Menards Chevrolet team was terrific. Phoenix is a fantastic market for INDYCAR and has really great support from the fans, so I can’t wait to go racing full speed on this thrilling oval at ISM Raceway.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

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

Friday, April 6
2-3 p.m. (5-6 p.m. ET)- Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
5 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE on NBCSN
8-9 p.m. (11-12 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series final practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Saturday, April 7
6 p.m. (9 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. (9:35 p.m. ET) – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. JR Hildebrand
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Scott Dixon
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Ed Carpenter
8. Charlie Kimball
9. Josef Newgarden
10. Carlos Munoz

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IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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