AVONDALE, Ariz. – Well, Friday was an interesting day at Phoenix International Raceway. And it’s set up for an interesting race day for tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra) as a result.
Here’s what to watch for from the second round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season:
THE OLD GUARD LEADING THE WAY
Thus far it’s been the bulldogs/old guard/pick your superlative for “experienced veterans” that have held the edge at Phoenix, both from testing and in Friday’s practice and qualifying sessions.
The top six drivers on the grid include four of the most experienced drivers in the series, in the form of Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon. Then add Ed Carpenter and you have all of the drivers with previous race experience starting up front. The lone exception is Charlie Kimball, who is gelling well with new engineer Eric Cowdin, and qualified an impressive fourth.
The guys who’ve tended to excel on short ovals – the aforementioned veterans plus others like Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the two top qualified Honda drivers (albeit only in 11th and 12th) – are probably the ones to watch.
INDYCAR OVAL DEBUT FOR FOUR
It’s the baptism by fire for four drivers in their first IndyCar oval starts – Max Chilton, Alexander Rossi, Luca Filippi and Conor Daly – who will roll off eighth, 14th, 16th and 18th. Chilton’s seemed comfortable; Rossi was downbeat after his qualifying run, even though he did a very good job to get as close to his teammates as he did; Filippi seems keen to learn while Daly has been struggling, and admitted as much.
The goal for all of these four in their first oval starts, simply, is to finish – any result will come as a result of that.
Perhaps the best – or only – hope for Honda is that their cars run better when cooler and it’s darker out. Because in the heat of the day, they haven’t seemed the measure of Chevrolet… which isn’t good. Neither manufacturer wants the near half-and-half split that existed in practice and qualifying yesterday. It could be a long day for the Honda runners.
Chevrolet runners have the top 10 spots on the grid, with only one Chevrolet (Sebastien Bourdais) in the second half of the grid in 15th. The remainder of the field are Honda runners; and they’re also coming into the race after three heavy accidents sustained by Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz, all with low downforce rear wing mainplane assemblies on the rear wheel pod.
Optimism came from Hunter-Reay, who noted that after Iowa practice last year there was talk that cars couldn’t pass. But Hunter-Reay, a renowned short oval master, is going to give it his all tonight to ensure he’s making up spots from 12th on the grid.
“It’s really tough to say and the reason I say that, for many years at Iowa, following practice, we couldn’t pass,” he told NBC Sports. “But Iowa… is a two-groove track. I hope there’s tire fall off. It could be semi-processional for a bit.
“We need to run in lapped traffic. We need mix up to happen.”
PASS OR NO PASS?
Drivers were mixed on whether you’ll see a ton of passing at Phoenix. The way to set it up, in all likelihood, is to get a run off Turn 4, get side-by-side into Turn 1 and complete the pass through Turn 2.
I’d expect you may start to see some passing 15 to 20 laps into a stint as tires begin to fall off; that being said, expect stints in the 55 to 60 lap range before pitting and it to be a four-stop race.
How big will the crowd be? Optics matter and as it’s already going to be a tough draw for the series, up against the NCAA Final Four semifinals, Phoenix needs to have the “look” and “feel” of a proper event.