PREVIEW: Firestone 600 at Texas

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ rather draining run of five races in as many weekends – plus qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on the one non-race weekend – comes to a conclusion with this Saturday evening’s Firestone 600 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Here’s what to look out for in the ninth round of the season, the third of five ovals and the first race in the second half of the 16-race calendar:

2016 Firestone 600 – Talking Points

Domed skids, Round 2

After really not having much of an impact at the Indianapolis 500, how the “infamous” domed skids play at a track with higher banking and will they make cars more difficult to drive figures to be a talking point this weekend. Following the test in May, it was still in the crosshairs.

Rossi’s next oval bow

After the Indianapolis 500 win, Alexander Rossi heads to a track that he’s tested at once and already likes, as part of his oval baptism.

“Texas is my favorite oval that I’ve driven on actually,” Rossi said during this week’s IndyCar teleconference. “We had the one test there at the beginning of May, and it was awesome. I really, really enjoyed it. We did a little bit of a group run towards the end of the day, and it was very interesting for me to kind of be on an oval where there were so many different lines. As you said, it’s very high banked, so it’ll make the racing incredibly exciting, and I’m very much looking forward to Saturday night.”

In terms of what the Indy 500 winner has done for a recent encore on the first oval since, here’s the recent results: Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth last year, Ryan Hunter-Reay 19th in 2014 after retiring, Tony Kanaan was third in 2013 and Dario Franchitti was 14th in 2012. Does it forecast anything for Rossi in the now No. 98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda this weekend? Probably not, but it’s still interesting to note.

Pagenaud vs. the field

With his 80-point lead and at a track where he has a couple top-six results but hasn’t really looked the measure of challenging for a win, Simon Pagenaud has a chance to further establish his title credentials with a strong run on IndyCar’ lone 1.5-mile oval this season. If he doesn’t and slips back in the field, it could open the door for Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and others to make inroads.

The ‘ol tire degradation story, and downforce levels

How much and how fast the Firestone tires fall off over a course of a stint has become a big part of Texas Motor Speedway races the last few years, since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis. Combined with downforce selections, these two items will help tell the tale on Saturday night.

The final word

Hunter-Reay has a good assessment on the challenge of Texas: “Getting a win at Texas Motor Speedway for the DHL Honda is at the top of my list. This track can be very tricky to get the setup just right, so as a four-car team, we’ll all be working together to prepare the best setup we can for race day.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 10
11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, NBCSN (Live)
3:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), NBCSN (6 p.m. ET)
6:45 – 7:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)

Saturday, June 11
4 p.m. – Systems check
7:06 p.m. – Driver Introductions
7:45 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
7:50 p.m. – Firestone 600 (248 laps/360.84 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Scott Dixon
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Marco Andretti
6. Carlos Munoz
7. Charlie Kimball
8. Ryan Briscoe
9. James Jakes
10. Gabby Chaves
13. Will Power (Pole)

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

Hunter Jett Lawrence fans
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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”