PREVIEW: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – After a three-week break since the season opener, the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to sunny, Southern California for Round 2 of the 2017 season, one of the series’ flagship events in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The break in the schedule hasn’t been devoid of news, with a flurry of testing and other promotional efforts occurring before the schedule really kicks into high gear. Starting this week, there will be three races in four weeks – all on NBCSN (Long Beach times linked here) – in the buildup to the month of May at Indianapolis.

Passing is difficult and cautions are few here, which always places a premium on qualifying. In fact last year, the race ran caution-free. We’ve also had five different winners here in the last five years, with Will Power, Takuma Sato, Mike Conway, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud winning here since 2012. Dixon and Pagenaud have promptly gone on to win the championship later in the same year.

With that as a backdrop, here’s the talking points heading into Long Beach:

2017 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – Talking Points

A longer race, so no fuel saving in theory

Last year’s race was a two-stopper for everyone at 80 laps. This year, the race has been expanded five laps back to 85, which opens it back up to a three-stop potential with one short run.

The 2012 race showcased how good a strategic battle could be here at the 85-lap distance. Will Power led but had to defend from Simon Pagenaud, who was on newer tires and closed dramatically in the final laps to try to overtake him. Power held on for the victory over Pagenaud, in what was both his and James Hinchcliffe’s (finished third) first career podium finish in IndyCar.

Honda’s strength in numbers

So all the preseason words written about how another Chevrolet whitewash would occur were promptly blown away at St. Petersburg. Honda had its upgraded engine, the same spec it ran from the Indianapolis 500 onwards, in at St. Pete for the first time and coupled with the engineering expertise added to most of its five teams on the grid, suddenly Honda was a proper force, and looked the dominant manufacturer for the first time on a street circuit since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits in 2015.

It said something that four Honda cars made it into the Firestone Fast Six compared to two Chevrolets. Honda never got more than three cars into the Fast Six in any one race in 2016, and in 2015, only had five total Fast Six appearances the whole season. So that spoke to Hondas executing both on pace and grip level on the Firestone red alternate tires, and with Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports all getting at least one driver into the Fast Six, the parity was spread. Had he not had his incident, Sebastien Bourdais’ practice pace suggested a Fast Six run of his own was possible for Dale Coyne Racing.

Qualifying will again be key here this weekend and if the Hondas maintain their dominance in qualifying as they did at the street course in St. Petersburg, it could be a long afternoon for the Chevrolet camp.

Bourdais’ magic start and chance to recapture more old glory

It used to be Sebastien Bourdais would turn up at Long Beach and it was game over for the rest of the competition. Bourdais won three straight on the streets of Long Beach from 2005 through 2007, those wins helping to set sail for his eventual championship seasons.

Winning from last to first at St. Petersburg in his return to Dale Coyne Racing, getting the band back together was a great story… but it was also lucky. There’s a reason you have to go back several years to find the last driver to do so, in Dixon at Mid-Ohio in 2014. The stars aligned perfectly there but Bourdais will need any sort of qualifying performance if he’s to have something close to an encore here.

He was one of few drivers able to make passes here last year, though. Then driving the No. 11 KVSH Racing Chevrolet, Bourdais advanced from 14th on the grid to ninth in the race. That stood out when the top eight on the grid also finished in the top eight in the race, albeit not necessarily in the same order as they qualified. But if Bourdais can get into the Fast Six, a second straight podium in the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Honda is more than possible.

Pagenaud vs. Dixon, the encore

Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon haven’t really been perceived as top rivals but the last two series champions are coming into Long Beach with respective chips on their shoulders after both St. Petersburg and this race last year.

How so, you ask? Consider 12 months ago, Pagenaud’s questionable – but as it was deemed by INDYCAR, not illegal – re-entry from the pit exit drew sharp criticisms from the normally mild mannered Dixon, who’d felt he lost a sure win as he thought Pagenaud committed a violation. Meanwhile this win took Pagenaud off the winless list at Team Penske and helped to springboard his title run.

Flash forward to St. Petersburg. Pagenaud, like Bourdais, benefited from the yellow flag timing to vault forward from a poor starting position of 14th. Dixon was among those who didn’t pit beforehand, got shuffled to the back, and then managed to scythe his way back to a podium. But again, Dixon was aggrieved at a result lost.

It’s not being billed as a rivalry the way Pagenaud and Will Power’s was after contact here in 2014, before they were teammates, but if Pagenaud and Dixon wind up close to each other on Sunday, don’t think Dixon won’t be chomping at the bit to get around the defending champion and not be stuck staring at his rear wing.

A sneaky win or podium sleeper? It might be Sato…

There’s not many tracks where you think of Takuma Sato and win potential but Long Beach is one of them. Consider he should have been on the podium in 2012 before being nerfed off track by Ryan Hunter-Reay, then winning his first and thus far only race a year later, and scoring a solid top-five here last year, hounding Juan Pablo Montoya towards the finish. Despite an incident in practice at St. Petersburg, Sato rebounded nicely in the race. On paper, this could be a good weekend for the driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

An important weekend for the young guns

After mixed season-opening weekends in St. Petersburg, these questions occur for the younger set of drivers in the field (five years or fewer experience):

  • Is this the weekend for Josef Newgarden to score his first podium or better with Team Penske?
  • Can JR Hildebrand get ahead of Spencer Pigot, or will Pigot put together a second better weekend at Ed Carpenter Racing to kick off his sophomore season?
  • Will Alexander Rossi be able to make his first Firestone Fast Six after a weekend where he started eighth and missed a potential top-five at St. Petersburg, owing to the yellow timing and a slow puncture?
  • At a track where he’s won in Indy Lights and starred in a last-minute call-up two years ago, will Conor Daly be able to start higher up the grid, or will Carlos Munoz stay fractionally ahead in the battle of A.J. Foyt’s two young guns?
  • Was Max Chilton’s seventh place in qualifying at St. Petersburg or a mirage or a sign of greater things to come?
  • Can rookie Ed Jones back up his 10th place at St. Petersburg or will he fall further down the order?

The final word

From the defending race and series champion, Pagenaud: “Long Beach is a special event for me. I really like the whole California vibe. There’s just a different feeling in the air there. The St. Pete race allowed us to make a lot of points right away in our championship quest and it is what the Menards Chevrolet team does so well. We’ve done some testing during the break which has gone well. The whole team is very hungry. Long Beach has been kind to me and especially last year when we got my first Team Penske win. We’re ready for the street fight.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, April 7
10-10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on (Live)
2-2:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, NBCSN (Live)

Saturday, April 8
10:45-11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on (live)
3:30 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series qualifications); NBCSN (taped at 4:30 p.m.)

Sunday, April 9
9-9:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warm-up, streaming on (Live)
1 p.m. – NBCSN on air
1:23 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command
1:30 p.m. – Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (85 laps/167.28 miles), streaming on (live); NBCSN

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Scott Dixon
3. Helio Castroneves (pole)
4. Juan Pablo Montoya
5. Takuma Sato
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Will Power
8. James Hinchcliffe
9. Sebastien Bourdais
10. Josef Newgarden

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Scott Dixon
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
6. Will Power