Preview: Detroit’s doubleheader a crucial weekend for IndyCar championship


DETROIT – Fatigue is starting to set in, but the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers and teams can’t yet lift their feet off the accelerator.

This is the eighth of 10 consecutive weekends on-track for the championship, although the first where most of the Indianapolis-based teams are traveling since the trip to Birmingham, Ala. at the end of April.


Yet this weekend’s Chevrolet Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans on Belle Isle Park arguably has as big a role on the championship as did last week’s Indianapolis 500, in the second-to-last street course race weekend of the year.

With this being the lone doubleheader weekend of 2015, it by default offers double points. The difference of course is that the points are the combination of two single-race points, rather than one race having twice the amount of points.

There were several movers and shakers in the points after last week – notably Charlie Kimball moving up six spots from 14th to eighth – and there figure to be more to come after this week in Detroit.

How important is it to roll out of the box well?

With only one 75-minute practice session, from 10:35 to 11:50 a.m. ET, teams will have to nail the setup out of the box to ensure they have a good working car in dry conditions.

Alas, it wouldn’t be IndyCar without some sort of curveball, and that comes with Saturday’s 60-70 percent chances of rain.

If you remember the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park, you’ll recall the Chip Ganassi Racing pair of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan – the latter of whom is adorned in a Taylor Swift concert tour livery this weekend – were pacesetters in the dry in practice.

However, once the rain came for qualifying, qualifying was washed out and cancelled. And the race turned into a rain-affected yet caution-drenched lottery (the cautions were coming down more than the rain was), won by James Hinchcliffe in what at least was a popular victory.

The injured but now thankfully released Hinchcliffe won’t have a chance to add a second win in what is likely going to be mixed conditions on Saturday but someone will seize the day, be it on staying clean or moving to the front on strategy, and that will kick off the weekend’s winners.

Sunday is expected to be cleaner, drier, and cooler, with ambient temperatures in the mid-to-high ’60s. Consider Thursday was in the high 80s when drivers and teams did a track walk to explore the newly resurfaced Belle Isle Park facility, which has a fair amount of new concrete, and that’s a big difference for what they’ll be facing most of the weekend.

In four past doubleheader races at Detroit there have been four different winners, in the form of surprise winners Mike Conway and Simon Pagenaud in 2013, and dominant forces from Team Penske in Will Power and Helio Castroneves last year.

As ever the Penske quartet will be strong, and we keep writing, and waiting for Pagenaud to get his first win with the team. Detroit is another realistic spot for it to happen.

But first, the remaining three drivers in the Captain’s stable must get past Juan Pablo Montoya. The lone chance I see for the rest of the field is fatigue; while the Indianapolis 500 champion rides the crest of momentum into Detroit, he’s had a busy week of media and now has to maintain his form into a track where he’ll admit he’s not the best of qualifiers.

Montoya is a damn good racer, not only one of the best in the series but one of the best all-time; that said, his qualifying is his weak spot.

And if there’s one thing the Detroit double has done to Indy 500 winners, it’s killed their momentum.

Kanaan came off his 2013 Indianapolis 500 win with finishes of 13th and 12th in Detroit; Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered through a diabolical Detroit last year with 16th and 19th, both failures to finish.

So if Montoya, who leads the points by 25 over Power coming into the weekend, banks one or two top-10s, he’ll have already exceeded his predecessors, and solidified his championship chances.

The Ganassi quartet is also strong – Scott Dixon is a past Detroit winner and either or both of Kanaan or Charlie Kimball looks poised to build upon podiums they achieved here last year. It’s Sage Karam who needs a big, trouble-free weekend and not the Ganassi equivalent of AJ Allmendinger’s 2013 “weekend on Hell Isle” in his last IndyCar street car race for Penske.

If there’s any Honda capable of upstaging the Bowtie brigade on home soil it’s undoubtedly Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, with Rahal saying earlier this week he feels “really good” heading into the weekend. And with good reason.

Considering the team’s comparative lack of cohesion and chemistry each of the last two years, this is still a team that has had podiums both years here – James Jakes was second in race two of 2013, and Rahal second in race one last year. Now that the team’s chemistry is actually firing on all cylinders, I’d fully expect Rahal on the podium at least once, and it wouldn’t shock me in the least to see him finally end his seven-year winless drought.

That hits nine of the 23… others to watch include Conor Daly in his Schmidt Peterson “mulligan” race, and first as Hinchcliffe’s injury replacement, Barber winner Josef Newgarden, as he looks to atone from historical struggles in doubleheaders, and KVSH Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais, who has consistently been a thorn in the Ganassi/Penske sides. Of the other Hondas, Takuma Sato was a pole winner here last year and if the Foyt team’s setup comes in, he is a possible spoiler.

We’ll see how it shakes out in the pair of races, both of which air at 3:30 p.m. ET on both of Saturday and Sunday.