Preview: Anyone’s game as IndyCar heads to historic Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – It is the gold standard by which all other street races are measured.

“It” is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which has its latest running this weekend with the 41st edition of the race this Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN), and the 32nd for a North American open-wheel racing series.

More than most events, all drivers have a story to tell about Long Beach for their careers. It ranks second to the Indianapolis 500 in terms of prestige and glamour on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, and tops among street and road courses.

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“That’s a track I love, that’s a track I’ve always run really well at,” said James Hinchcliffe, who looks for his second consecutive win this weekend.

“I got my first podium in IndyCar there, my first (Indy) Lights pole there, and my first Lights win there, so it really is a track that’s treated me well and I really enjoy.”

Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda, isn’t the only past Long Beach winner in the field, although he has yet to win in IndyCar proper.

Past IndyCar winners racing this weekend include:

  • Will Power (2008 Champ Car, 2012 IndyCar)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (1999 CART)
  • Helio Castroneves (1997 Indy Lights, 2001 CART)
  • Sebastien Bourdais (2005, 2006, 2007 Champ Car)
  • Takuma Sato (2013 IndyCar)
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay (2010 IndyCar)

They aren’t the only past Long Beach winners in the field, with these drivers also having tasted success in other categories here:

  • James Hinchcliffe (2010 Indy Lights)
  • Scott Dixon (2000 Indy Lights)
  • Simon Pagenaud (2010 ALMS)
  • Carlos Munoz (2013 Indy Lights)
  • Gabby Chaves (2014 Indy Lights)

That’s nearly half the field who have won at Long Beach, and yet some of the ones who haven’t are among those to watch this weekend.

Tony Kanaan, for example, is driving out of his mind at the moment – and that’s a good thing. I haven’t seen TK this revitalized, this amped, and this consistently fast and focused in years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet bagged his first road or street course win since Detroit in 2007 this weekend. His comeback to sixth at NOLA was as admirable as his podium in St. Petersburg.

Luca Filippi and Josef Newgarden are respective sleepers with CFH Racing. Filippi will make his track debut, taking over the 2014 race-winning No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, and has shown speed on street courses. Meanwhile Newgarden, in the No. 67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet, has a second place start here and should have at least podiumed a year ago before getting speared by Hunter-Reay.

Filippi, as a track debutante, noted how important this race is on a global scale and how much he’s looking forward to making his first Long Beach start this weekend.

“It’s a place I’ve never been … but I watch every single race there. It’s a special place,” Filippi told me at NOLA last week. “There’s all the history from IndyCar to Formula 1. Being a part of that event is in itself special, and something I really want to have my name involved somehow.”

Graham Rahal could be one to watch, given his own fast start and the improved overall team performance from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He’ll stand out on track in the bright red No. 15 Steak ‘N Shake Honda, and so will his father Bobby, who has one of his busiest weekends of the year this weekend. The senior Rahal will emcee the annual RRDC dinner Thursday night, honoring Bobby Unser, which is always a highlight of the racing year. Then once the race weekend starts, it’s the traditional double barrel effort of RLL IndyCar and TUDOR United SportsCar Championship BMW programs running simultaneously.

That’s 15 of the 23 who are contenders straight off right there.

Of the remaining eight drivers, Charlie Kimball has shown some promise but been unlucky at Long Beach; new teammate Sebastian Saavedra will have his first chance to prove his Ganassi worthiness at the race where he scored his most recent top-10 finish, ninth last year for KV/AFS Racing.

Marco Andretti has flown under the radar thus far to start the year, while Jack Hawksworth will look to improve upon his street course pace from St. Petersburg now with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

“It’s good we’re going there after NOLA,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk heading into the weekend. “It’s better buzz, better weather, and a good track. It’s one of those tracks everyone looks forward to going to.”

James Jakes has a shot at his second straight podium overall, while rookie Stefano Coletti will look to continue his early season passing prowess. He might find it difficult given his primary rear wing assembly was damaged in a bad crash at NOLA, and he may be running the 2014 rear wing assembly this weekend.

Dale Coyne’s pair of Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone will look to achieve better headlines than the ones they did last week, although fortunately, Dracone’s crew chief Todd Phillips is quickly on the mend despite being struck in the pits.

On paper, the race seems a Penske benefit – Montoya is driving ridiculously well, Power traditionally is quick here if not overly dominant, and Pagenaud could well deliver his first win for the team here. Yet Castroneves isn’t to be overlooked and the veteran Brazilian always seems to factor into the equation.

Kanaan more than anyone is Ganassi’s best bet – for whatever reason, Long Beach is Dixon’s kryptonite. Dixon’s last and only top-10 at the track, in eight starts, was fourth in 2010.

And for Andretti Autosport, Hunter-Reay always seems to hit another level in qualifying at Long Beach, but has struggled to deliver in the race. Since his emotional 2010 win, he’s had miserable race results each of the last four years, culminating with last year’s pinball wizard display out of the fountain section.

It’s still likely anyone’s day though, witness the fact Conway – since departed to the FIA World Endurance Championship – has won two of the last four races here and Sato scored a popular upset in 2013.

That’s the beauty of modern day IndyCar and Long Beach paired together: you never know what you’re going to get.