Preview: Milwaukee IndyFest important short-oval test for IndyCar field


How will the Verizon IndyCar Series follow up arguably its most exciting, thrilling race in ages?

That is the question first and foremost on the minds of the paddock heading into this weekend’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, or more simply known as Milwaukee IndyFest, at the legendary Milwaukee Mile.

Milwaukee hasn’t necessarily thrown up great races the last few years, but it does reward drivers and teams who unload strongly off the hauler.

Preparation will be key more than ever with what is essentially a one-day schedule, for the race’s third date in as many years (mid-June, mid-August and now mid-July).

There’s a single practice on Saturday afternoon but all of practice two, qualifying and the race will be spread over a 10-hour period on Sunday, starting in the morning and culminating with a 4:35 p.m. local green flag time (live coverage begins at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

One of IndyCar’s younger drivers, Jack Hawksworth, describes the challenge facing the current field with this de facto one-day show.

“These ovals are so hard for drivers and teams because practice is so, so limited,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk in an interview.

“Look at Fontana. There was a 45-minute practice one, and a one-hour practice two. We had a red for an hour in one and 10 minutes in another. You have to roll off the truck good. With a hiccup here or hiccup there, it’s almost impossible to have a smooth weekend.”

Still, the driver of the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda likes the fact the schedule sets up similar to something his team boss, A.J. Foyt, faced on a regular basis in his driving career.

“Having practice, qualifying and race, all a on the Sunday, it feels like an event which is great,” he said. “From a driver or team perspective, we don’t have time to react. Should we try this or that? We either get it right or don’t.

“It will be a very high pressure situation between qualifying and race. There’s certainly an element of gambling. The scheduling sounds good with a lot going on Sunday, but better than when we’re standing around all day waiting with nothing to do. Like Texas had nothing all day, then we raced. This one will be good.”

So who will be good in the fourth oval race of the season?

It’s not as clear-cut as you might think this time around. It’s the first short oval race with the new aero kits, which will be back to the road course, high downforce setup, after three high-speed oval races.

Penske has been great but Ganassi not as much in recent years at Milwaukee. Will Power dominated a year ago while teammate Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan had a great battle for second, although both ripped on traffic.

Scott Dixon was a dominant Milwaukee winner in 2009 but hasn’t finished on the podium since. Milwaukee has frequently been Helio Castroneves’ house of horrors.

The wild card team to watch is Andretti Autosport, as Ryan Hunter-Reay took authoritative wins in both 2012 and 2013 but fought through a suspension failure last year. RHR has been better in recent races, with Carlos Munoz also more on form than not. The team’s driver to watch though is Marco Andretti, who has been on a roll of late since Indianapolis and has traditionally raced well at Milwaukee.

Fontana winner Graham Rahal also looks for a follow-up act on the first short oval of the year, a circuit he’s struggled in two previous outings with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. We’ll see how the team gets the No. 15 Honda set up this time around.

Ryan Briscoe should be good for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and teammate James Jakes has been quietly decent with back-to-back oval top-10s in Texas and Fontana. Briscoe won his first career race at Milwaukee in 2008.

Outside that group, CFH Racing, KVSH Racing/KV Racing Technology, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Bryan Herta Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing may not be fighting for the wins but for decent top-10 positions. CFH has blown hot and cold this year and desperately needs some oval success to match a win apiece on a road and street course.