PREVIEW: Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual Indianapolis stint for three weeks and Detroit for a doubleheader weekend now cedes to a more normal race weekend for the first time in more than a month, with just a two-day affair at the reprofiled Texas Motor Speedway (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For Texas and IndyCar’s sake, an encore of 2016’s resumption portion in August – and not its originally scheduled June date that was marred by rain – figures to be in order. But with the track different than last year owing to the repave, it’s likely set to jumble things a bit.

Add in the predictably unpredictable nature of the 2017 season and there’s more questions than answers heading into the ninth of 17 races this year, as the series hits the halfway point.

2017 Rainguard Water Sealers 600 – Talking Points

The new track itself 

Per TMS, here’s what’s been adjusted following the repave, which was completed earlier this year prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in April:

The re-profiling of the speedway reduced the banking in Turns 1 and 2 by four degrees, decreasing it to 20 degrees. That change added additional racing surface with the width expanding from 60 to 80 feet in that section of the track. The result is a more unique and challenging layout then the previous symmetrical layout of 24 degrees in each turn and racing surface width of 60 feet in those turns.

IndyCar had what was meant to be a full-field test day on April 12, just a few days after Long Beach, although a handful of Honda teams were restricted from running. As it was, the field raced cleanly while adjusting to the different layout.

Ensuring the balance is correct between the two opposite sets of corners will be key to success this weekend.

Texas always tests the engineers in terms of picking downforce levels and accounting for proper tire falloff from Firestone, and this reprofiling only figures to add to the puzzle pieces.

Rahal’s quest to double up at Texas after Detroit double

There’s seven winners from the first eight races, and only Graham Rahal has won more than once – the Ohio native doubled up in Detroit and became the first driver to two wins.

What does history say will happen for Rahal as a result of that? Let’s take a look at recent years since the Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced in 2012:

  • 2016: Simon Pagenaud, first to two wins (Round 3, Long Beach, Round 4, Barber), and won title
  • 2015: Juan Pablo Montoya, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 6, Indianapolis 500), lost title on a tiebreaker
  • 2014: Will Power, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 6, Detroit 1), and won title
  • 2013: James Hinchcliffe, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 4, Brazil), fell to eighth in points
  • 2012: Power, first to two wins (Round 2, Barber, Round 3, Long Beach), lost title at season finale

So in five years, the first driver to two wins has won the title twice and lost the title twice at the final race, thus finishing second in points. It’s only been once in five years that driver has fallen out of the title fight altogether.

Rahal won last year in Texas in dramatic fashion while coming so short of victory here in 2012. This weekend will be the start of his title pursuit in earnest; he vaulted from 15th to sixth last weekend. Pagenaud won three races in a row last year from Long Beach through the Indianapolis road course.

Crazy tight points fight

Neither Scott Dixon nor Helio Castroneves has won a race but they’re 1-2 in points on the strength of consistency. Both are past Texas winners though. Dixon has two wins in 2008 and 2015, both years of which he won the championship. Castroneves has four Texas wins, none since 2013 though.

Behind those two, separated by only eight points at the top of the tables (303-295), just 91 points cover from second-placed Castroneves to 12th-placed Max Chilton. There’s not as much chance for movement this weekend as there has been in either of the last two weekends, where there was either double points (Indianapolis) or double races (Detroit), but Texas does provide some intrigue there.

Unpredictable nature of Texas

Going with the theme of unpredictability, and adding in the track is new, the last thing Texas has offered in recent years is a form guide. There’s been eight different winners the last eight Texas races dating to 2010.

In order, Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti, Power (Franchitti and Power won one race each in 2011’s lone Texas double), the late Justin Wilson, Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, Dixon and Rahal have made it eight winners from five different teams (Penske, Ganassi, Coyne, Carpenter, RLL). And that’s before you get to the fact Hinchcliffe dominated last year – albeit before incurring a significant post-race penalty for excessive skid wear – for SPM.

Going on recent oval form, the Hondas have looked better on the big ovals, but Chevrolet mounted a challenge here last year with Tony Kanaan (Ganassi) and Pagenaud (Penske) both in win contention late. And what of Honda’s reliability concerns? We saw what hit them at Indianapolis and you wonder see if they can get through a clean weekend in Texas.

Return for Newgarden, Daly

Last year’s most scary moment of the year occurred on, we’ll call it “race day attempt number two of three,” as Conor Daly’s car got loose and collected Josef Newgarden the Sunday after the race started a day late. It produced an incredibly frightening moment and left Newgarden with a collarbone injury. As both drivers weren’t able to restart the race in August upon the resumption, Newgarden watched while Daly made his pit road reporting debut. It’ll be good to have the two young Americans back in properly this go-‘around.

The part-time spoilers

An interesting weekend lies ahead for the three returning drivers this weekend. Ed Carpenter is back as he usually is on ovals. Gabby Chaves is set for his second start with Harding Racing, and the team was able to test here in April, which is good background. And with Tristan Vautier getting a call to Dale Coyne Racing, it puts him back on an oval for the first time since Pocono 2015.

Finish up and get out of town

After the race, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Mikhail Aleshin and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell will be heading from the Lone Star state to the ‘tricolor’ land of France, with all four set to compete in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans next weekend. Dixon and Kanaan are in a pair of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs, Aleshin in an SMP Racing Dallara P217 Gibson and Bell set to defend his GTE-Am class win in a Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE.

The final word

From JR Hildebrand, who makes his Texas return for the first time in five years:  “I’ve had a couple of good runs at Texas Motor Speedway. The last time I ran there, we ended up fifth. That was one of the ultra-low downforce, sideways, all-over-the-track races. I’m looking forward to going back where it should be a little less of a hairy situation, but it’s always a great race and Ed Carpenter Racing has been solid there the last couple of years. There will be some differences with the new track surface, but I definitely expect for us to be strong there when we roll out.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):
Friday, June 9
10-11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, (Live)
2:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), NBCSN (2:30 p.m.)
5:45 – 6:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)

Saturday, June 10
6:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
7:01 p.m. – Driver introductions
7:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
7:45 p.m. – Rainguard Water Sealers 600 (248 laps/357.12 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10: 

1. Graham Rahal
2. James Hinchcliffe
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Carlos Munoz (pole)
8. Will Power
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Sebastien Bourdais

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500