Preview: Second GP of Indy seeks to avoid a “sophomore slump”

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INDIANAPOLIS – This year’s Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis will at least remove the first-year thought process of “hey, this is an IndyCar race on a road course at Indianapolis… this is weird.”

It’s now year two for the event, which now features a new title sponsor in Indianapolis-based Angie’s List, a longtime supporter of teams and drivers in the Indy 500, and it’s also now had a year to establish a foothold in the local market.

The second year of an event is always an important one, both from a competition on-track standpoint and from an attendance carryover and/or improvement standpoint. So those will be the two things to watch this year, as the race looks to avoid a “sophomore slump.”

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The field will again be 25 cars, as it was here last year. Simon Pagenaud enters as defending race winner, and remains in search of his first win with Team Penske. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves completed the 2014 podium.

Any of those three would make it five winners in five races, a feat which was not accomplished last year. Fittingly, it was Hunter-Reay edging Castroneves in the Indianapolis 500 – last year’s fifth race – that ended the different winner streak to open the year.

Honda teams made some performance gains two weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park, although the nature of the IMS road course is far closer to NOLA Motorsports Park, which ran four weeks ago.

The challenge at IMS is finding a balance in downforce levels, given the two long straights but also ensuring there is enough downforce in the corners.

Jack Hawksworth, who qualified second and led 31 laps at the Grand Prix last year before finishing seventh, offered up NOLA as the proper comparison track heading in this year in the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda.

“It’s a tough one. The Indy GP is kind of similar to NOLA in, what you’re looking for in the car,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk. “There’s big brake zones and a lot of corners. But you need to trim out to not get eaten alive.

“It’s very similar to NOLA. With Indy, NOLA is bumpier as well. Indy has two dimensions, and unique compliance as well. It’s obviously billiard-table smooth. They’ve done a good job there. It’s a circuit which I enjoy.”

If form carries over from NOLA into IMS, look for the Chip Ganassi Racing teammates of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan to be the early pacesetters. In dry conditions at NOLA, they had the speed on the field. Will Power led the other session on a drying track.

Ganassi’s sleepers for the weekend include Sebastian Saavedra and Charlie Kimball, who figured into this race rather prominently a year ago. Saavedra impressed on his team debut at Long Beach with a top-10, and looks for a similar result this weekend. Of course, he’ll look to atone from his precarious pole position start line stall that triggered a massive accident to kick off last year’s race. Kimball, quietly and stealthily, achieved a fifth place here last year.

Penske looks to extend its streak of pole positions – seven in a row dating to Milwaukee last year – and front row sweeps – five in a row dating to Fontana last year – while also looking for its second win of the year. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves each look to add a Grand Prix win at IMS to their respective Indianapolis 500 wins. Of course, Power and Pagenaud also will be contenders.

Andretti Autosport has had decent top-10 results the last two races, but have not been outright pace contenders. With Justin Wilson joining the full-season trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti this month, this might be their breakout weekend.

Barber winner Josef Newgarden has led the contingent outside the established “big three” power teams. He’ll switch from his No. 67 Hartman Oil CFH Racing Chevrolet to the black-and-white No. 21 entry with Century 21 on board for the month of May. Teammates Luca Filippi and JR Hildebrand make their GPI debuts, the latter of whom also makes his first IndyCar road course start since August 2013 at Sonoma (some 21 months ago).

The star at Barber beyond Newgarden was Graham Rahal; aboard the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda, he’ll look to continue his early season pace and form this weekend at a track where then-teammate Oriol Servia nearly stole the race last year on strategy.

Sebastien Bourdais finished fourth this race last year and should do well in the No. 11 Mistic KVSH Racing Chevrolet. Teammate Stefano Coletti in the No. 4 KV Racing Technology entry looks for a decent, trouble-free weekend.

Hawksworth and teammate Takuma Sato seek to convert pace into results; meanwhile the Schmidt Peterson pair of James Hinchcliffe and James Jakes seem to be getting there on pace and have overachieved on results.

The NOLA pair of podium finishers look to emulate the result on merit rather than strategy this weekend; as for Hinchcliffe, nearly any result will be better than last year, where he was concussed after a piece of debris struck his helmet.

As ever, Gabby Chaves, Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone will look to punch above their weight for Bryan Herta Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing. Chaves, in particular, looks to atone for a challenging GPI weekend last year in Indy Lights.