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PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The Verizon IndyCar Series makes its third recent crack at returning to a classic one-mile oval with its return to Phoenix International Raceway for the first time since 2005 (Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MT/local time and 8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra), after prior tries at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and The Milwaukee Mile in the last few years.

The drivers are eager to return, and we’ve already had the preseason open test at PIR in the books. My thoughts on that are linked here.

For only the second race of the season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix an important one for the series, as orchestrated and helped put together by INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye in partnership with Track President Bryan Sperber.

Here’s the talking points headed into the weekend:

2016 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix – Talking Points

The downforce level ain’t changing

Too many variables existed if INDYCAR was to make a change to the downforce levels for Phoenix, and Bill Pappas and Tino Belli of INDYCAR’s technical department confirmed in separate stories (Pappas here to, Belli here to that INDYCAR wouldn’t be changing what the teams would be running at Phoenix. It means we’re set up for a weekend with average lap speeds topping 190 mph in qualifying, but with fall off likely to the high-160s and low-170s in race speeds, depending on how long the tires go off. It’s also gonna mean the cornering speeds and G-loadings – which were ridiculously high in testing – will stay ridiculously high for the race, and as such, make Phoenix one of the toughest and most physical races of the season.

How close is Honda?

Honda runners seemed closer to Chevrolet runners at St. Petersburg, which of course is an entirely different animal of a circuit. Still, with Honda’s aero updates also in play for short ovals as they were for road and street courses, you figure they will be closer here as well. Ryan Hunter-Reay is acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, short oval racer in the series and must be a serious contender – as is Marco Andretti, who was the leading Honda runner during the Phoenix open test in February. 

Power’s return

“No pressure Will Power” might be the most dangerous Will Power to the rest of the competition. As he doesn’t need to be concerned about points, he can go full tilt from Phoenix and let the points take care of themselves. As was noted in his book, it worked well for him the second half of 2013 and helped propel him to the 2014 title a year later. How the driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet does this weekend is a big story.

Carpenter also back

Besides Power, the other driver making his first start of the 2016 season is Ed Carpenter, the noted oval specialist and team owner at Ed Carpenter Racing. Carpenter is one of only four drivers in the field (Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon) with previous IndyCar experience at Phoenix, but he’ll look to improve upon past finishes of 16th and 19th in two starts. Off two past tests at Phoenix, both Carpenter and teammate Josef Newgarden will look to bounce back after a tough season opener in St. Petersburg. Interestingly, Newgarden was one of only two drivers (Graham Rahal) with two top-fives on the two short ovals last year; he was fifth at Milwaukee and second at Iowa. Rahal was third and fourth. 

An important weekend for Phoenix’s return

This is a big weekend for Phoenix on several levels. IndyCar has returned to other short ovals in recent years, and it hasn’t gone particularly well. Its return to Loudon, New Hampshire after 13 years in 2011 saw a smallish crowd and Power’s infamous “double bird” salute after a restart in the rain; it was a one-and-done race. That same year, Milwaukee came back after a one-year hiatus with a first-year promoter and ended off the schedule again for 2012 – only to be resuscitated at the eleventh hour by Michael Andretti.

Promotion has seemed better for this race; the test drew a very solid number of fans and the speeds are such that they must be seen in person to be believed. INDYCAR is running out of available one-mile ovals and for both business and entertainment reasons, it needs Phoenix to be a successful not just race, but event. 

The final word

We’ll let Charlie Kimball, who’s in a pseudo-home race with family in Buckeye and also coming from California coming over, describe the track:

“I think it’s a heck of a race track; a lot of fun to drive with a lot of load,” the driver of the No. 83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet told NBC Sports.

“I think it’s going to be a pretty intense race, for it being the second race of the season. Usually when we got to Milwaukee or Iowa, you have a couple races in on ovals. Having had two days to test there will knock a lot of the rust off, but I think the racing itself will be fairly unique.

“It might be a race of contradictions. You need patience but will need to be aggressive when possible. It’s a narrow line and it seems to race less like a short oval. We’ll have to try to make the tires last for a full fuel stint. The guys who can sync up their fall off point with their stops are the ones who’ll be successful.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

Friday, April 1

10:00-11:15  Practice 1 (LIVE on NBCSN)
2:00-3:00    Qualifying (LIVE on NBCSN)
6:15-6:45    Practice 2

Saturday, April 2

5:30         Pre-Race (LIVE on NBCSN)
6:10/6:15    Drivers Start Your Engine/Est. Green Flag (LIVE on NBCSN)

All times local and MT (same as PT)

Here’s last race at Phoenix top 10 (2005):

1. Sam Hornish Jr.
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Dario Franchitti
5. Scott Sharp
6. Dan Wheldon
7. Bryan Herta (pole)
8. Darren Manning
9. Patrick Carpentier
10. Kosuke Matsuura

Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.