What to watch for: IndyCar at Fontana (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra)

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Today’s 11th round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the MAVTV 500 from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. will be one of the tougher tests of the season.

source: Getty Images
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It’s the second of three 500-mile races this year. While drivers have been concerned about the potential of pack racing returning, the race will likely, as at Texas, come down to tire degradation over the longer runs as well as the downforce levels the field will pick.

Here’s what to watch for ahead of the race, which begins with live coverage at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and on NBC Sports Live Extra.

HIGH HEAT, HIGH DRAMA?

With ambient temperatures expected to be in the 90-degree range, and track temperatures anywhere from 130 to perhaps as high as 150 degrees (it’s extreme, but it’s possible), and the lack of rain in California also making for a dustier track than normal, it’s arguably going to be the hottest race of the season for the series.

How the drivers’ fitness levels will hold up for the 500-mile race in the high heat, and how well they’ll behave on track is going to be key.

TIRE FALLOFF TO BREAK UP THE PACK 

As ever, management of the Firestone tires will be one of the keys to the race. Who manages their tires best over the course of the stint and avoids too slow of a fall off – say from 215 mph down to maybe 210 or 209 instead of as low as 205 or 204 – might pay dividends over the course of a longer run.

The expectation is that if there are long green runs, the tire falloff will be typical and will sort out the field organically. It might not be a pack race, as some drivers have feared. Teams have been issued 15 sets of tires from Firestone for the weekend; it should be either a six or seven-stop race.

NEW WINNER?

Neither polesitter Simon Pagenaud nor fellow front-row starter Helio Castroneves has won this season, and either would be the eighth winner in 11 races this season.

Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter are also possible win contenders from third and fourth on the grid, and Tony Kanaan will look to defend his MAVTV 500 crown of a year ago.

Charlie Kimball is another potential sleeper, starting 13th. He finished third in the Indianapolis 500.

In fifth, seventh and eighth are Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Will Power, three likely win contenders and three past winners this season. Toronto winner Josef Newgarden rolls off from 12th as he looks for his first career back-to-back run of wins.

Andretti Autosport picks James Hinchcliffe for last 3 races of season

Andretti Autosport James Hinchcliffe
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James Hinchcliffe will finish the NTT IndyCar Series season for Andretti Autosport, replacing Zach Veach in the No. 26 Dallara-Honda.

The team made the announcement Friday afternoon that Hinchcliffe will return after racing for Andretti at Texas Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Indianapolis 500.

Hinchcliffe, who also has worked as an IndyCar on NBC analyst and pit reporter, will race in the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“It’s always unfortunate to have to change drivers this far into a season, but we have to look at finishing the year the best we can for the 26 team and start evaluating and looking at options for 2021,” team owner Michael Andretti said in a release. “James has an existing relationship with our team that we’d love to build on and it makes the most sense for him to step in for these last three races. We are looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

Hinchcliffe has a season-best finish of seventh in the Indy 500. He had been working on trying to put together a deal for next season after scrambling to secure a partial schedule this year when he lost his ride at Arrow McLaren SP after 2020 with a year left on his deal.

VEACH OUT: Driver elects to vacate seat for rest of season

“I know, probably better than most, what Zach is feeling right now, and I have to say that he has handled everything about as class act as you can,” Hinchcliffe said. “I’ve known Zach as a teammate, before that as a colleague and even before that as a friend, and he is a guy that I respect in every way. I know he is a fighter and will fight back to where he wants to be.

“For me now, my focus is 100% on racing the Harvest GP and getting the best possible results for Gainbridge, for Honda, for Michael and for the team. I obviously haven’t been on a road course in a while, but at least the last time I was, it was here at IMS! Hopefully that puts us in a good position to go out there and have a strong weekend.”