Houston IndyCar weekend rebounds in a big way after 2013 trials (VIDEO)

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It’s fair to say that heading into this weekend, Houston had a bit to prove as an event on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

A trying first weekend back on the calendar last October was not without its challenges. And in theory, a doubleheader the last weekend of June for this year shouldn’t have improved things.

But following the two races that made up the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, it’s definitely easier to say this was a much smoother, better second year than the first.

The weekend this time around was not without its speed bumps and question marks. The heat and humidity did make things uncomfortable, particularly on Sunday.

And the biggest misstep of the weekend from an organizational standpoint came during Sunday morning’s qualifying, when two men somehow were able to run across a hot track from one side to the other just prior to Turn 6. Per this Autosport report, INDYCAR and track officials said they’d work on a fix.

Putting those two aside, otherwise, the $1 million in investments and upgrades put in by the event organizers seemed to pay dividends. The M.D Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at NRG Park circuit was still bumpy, but not nearly as rocky and craterous as it had been last October. Fortunately the new catch fencing enhancements didn’t need to be crash tested.

And the races? Smashingly entertaining, baby. Between various strategies, weather conditions, a flood of passes, penalties and controversies and a vintage, cursing A.J. Foyt, IndyCar’s pair of races had everything you could ask for and then some.

Last year, Mike Conway dominated race one in Detroit coming in off the couch driving Dale Coyne’s beloved yet perpetually underfunded second car, and the IndyCar world collectively asked, “How the hell did that just happen?”

Saturday, an unheralded 23-year-old Colombian rookie named Carlos Huertas – better known as “TBA” just five days before St. Petersburg – managed to bag his first career win in a canny, mature drive beyond his years in the beloved yet perpetually underfunded second Dale Coyne car. And again, the IndyCar world collectively asked, “How the hell did that just happen?”

As he did in Detroit race two last year, Simon Pagenaud again won race two in Houston. It was yet another sign the Frenchman must be considered among IndyCar’s elite drivers at the time being, as his already high stock continues to climb in the paddock.

Behind them, the fight for the rest of the top five was seriously entertaining. It was a battle of generations as Juan Pablo Montoya, back in IndyCar and adding to the spice of the series, fought tooth and nail with rookie Jack Hawksworth – the Englishman was all of eight and nine years old when JPM swept through CART in 1999 and 2000 like a storm through “tornado alley.”

This is why IndyCar is brilliant at the moment. You run through the stats and the level of competition is off the charts. You see the racing and wonder how much better can it get. You hear the excitement of the commentators in the NBCSN booth, just adding to and enhancing what was already a great show on track.

When an event at Houston, which is by no means a classic circuit, delivers the level of awesomeness that this weekend did, it speaks volumes of the caliber of racing IndyCar can put on at a single event right now.

It also helped to redeem the event, which rebounded nicely in 2014 after its 2013 return to the calendar.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at Ground Zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.