PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The Verizon IndyCar Series concludes its April stretch this weekend with its third race (plus a Texas Motor Speedway test) in four weeks this month. Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) provides the first glimpse at an all-left-hand turn race this year.

However, the downforce levels applied to both the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits have been locked in from 2016, which will make passing difficult if not outright impossible under the lights.

Here’s what to look for on Saturday night:

2017 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix – Talking Points

Wide-open points race

What enters as a 15-point spread between points leader Sebastien Bourdais, ahead of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe figures to increase after Saturday night’s race. If the Chevrolets are as strong as they were in testing and last year, it’d tend to favor Newgarden and Pagenaud on paper of those top five. Of course, Dixon won here last year, thanks in large part to his Ganassi crew. It’s a big test for the Bourdais and Coyne package.

Helio Castroneves (sixth, 33 points back) sits nicely positioned if he can end his near three-year winless drought. Meanwhile for Chevrolet’s other drivers, Phoenix could present an opportunity for Will Power (14th, 67 off the lead), Carlos Munoz (15th, 69) and Conor Daly (19th, 76) to make inroads. JR Hildebrand returns and Ed Carpenter makes his first start of 2017, but both had speed in the test here in February.

Late days at the office

It’s an interesting schedule for IndyCar and a tight turnaround from racing in Birmingham this past weekend, then driving back to the West Coast for all teams and drivers. There’s only one two-hour practice from 4 to 6 p.m. PT on Friday afternoon, a two-hour gap, and then night qualifying from 8 to 9 p.m. This will certainly be closer to race temperatures rather than qualifying during the day, as was originally projected for this race and was done last year – and perhaps helps the Hondas, which struggled in the heat of the day both last year and in this year’s test, but were better at night.

It’ll make for a lot of hurry-up-and-wait though, with none of the Mazda Road to Indy series joining on the weekend. The only support action are USAC Silver Crown cars and vintage IndyCars.

Fortunately, the field had two full test days here in February so they’re not short on track time. But it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, translates from them because it will be hotter and the track has been through a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend since.

Short ovals hard to project, outside of one three-letter acronym – RHR

There’s not really been a rhyme or reason to recent IndyCar winners on oval tracks one mile or less. Here’s a recent rundown in the Dallara DW12 era, with aero kits the last two years and the base chassis from 2012 to 2014:

  • 2016: Scott Dixon at Phoenix (started sixth), Josef Newgarden at Iowa (started second)
  • 2015: Sebastien Bourdais at Milwaukee (started 11th), Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started ninth)
  • 2014: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Iowa (started 13th), Will Power at Milwaukee (started first)
  • 2013: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started fourth), James Hinchcliffe at Iowa (started second)
  • 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay at Milwaukee (started second) and at Iowa (started seventh)

By recent history, short ovals have largely been the domain of Ryan Hunter-Reay – that’s a run of five wins in the last 10 short oval races in IndyCar, with five other drivers splitting the rest one apiece.

“RHR” was about worth the price of admission on his own here last year, but got caught out twice by ill-timed caution flags that negated a potential podium finish. If he can get track position nailed down, he could finally be in to break his own winless run of races.

As ever though, if your car is hooked up, it could be a long night for everyone else. That was Newgarden at Iowa last year, when he led 282 of 300 laps. And at Phoenix, once Dixon’s team got him to the lead on pit stops, no one else was able to beat him as he led 155 of 250 laps on the series’ return.

Firestone’s tire note

From Cara Adams, Chief Engineer of Bridgestone Americas Motorsports in Firestone’s pre-race advance: “Our team of engineers and compounders selected several constructions and compounds to test at PIR last October based on driver feedback, vehicle data from every race held at PIR along with tire analysis. Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Ed Carpenter assisted us in the evaluation of our test tires. We ultimately selected a superspeedway right side construction with a softer short oval compound along with the race-proven 2016 PIR left side tires. We then brought this tire package to the April 11th open test at PIR, and look forward to racing at this unique mile oval racetrack this weekend.”

Lingering questions

  • Do we get a fourth winner in as many races to kick off the new year?
  • Will Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing make it through Phoenix into May, still as points leaders?
  • Can Josef Newgarden carry the momentum from his first Team Penske win to the short oval?
  • Does Will Power snap his career-worst run of five consecutive finishes outside the top-10?
  • Similarly, does Power – or the other drivers without a top-10 this season, Max Chilton (pictured above), Charlie Kimball and Conor Daly – break into the top-10 for the first time?

The final word

From the defending race winner, Scott Dixon: “I’m excited to be going back to Phoenix again. We obviously had a great result here last year, and hopefully, we can duplicate that again with a strong run. It’s a tough track and I know it’s changed a bit over the years with some resurfacing, and we learned a lot last year in terms of how the cars handle now. I love the area and Arizona is a great part of the world. There are a lot of fans in the area and I hope they are as excited as we are to go racing Saturday night under the lights.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times PT and local):

Friday, April 28
4-6 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
8 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE online; airs NBCSN 7:30 p.m., April 29

Saturday, April 29
5-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
6 p.m. – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Simon Pagenaud
3. Will Power
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Graham Rahal
6. Josef Newgarden
7. Max Chilton
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Ryan Hunter-Reay
11. Helio Castroneves (pole)

The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.