PREVIEW: Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix

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A busy month of April for the Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off this weekend with the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix (April 7, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at the newly rechristened ISM Raceway (formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway).

What’s more, as the first oval race of the year, it will provide a glimpse into how the 2018 aero kit will perform on circuits that feature left turns exclusively.

Talking points ahead of Saturday’s 250-lap affair under the lights are below.

New Aero Kit Meets its Toughest Task

The aero kit era featured a lot of single-file racing at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Perhaps no track was more negatively impacted during the aero kit era than ISM Raceway, with the events from 2016 and 2017 featuring a lot of single-file racing as drivers struggled to get close enough to each other for overtaking to be a regular facet.

However, two days of pre-season testing at the one-mile oval gave way to optimism that the new 2018 universal aero kit would improve matters, with tire wear also becoming a factor as drivers practiced long runs over the two days of testing.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal firmly believes this year’s race will be much better than the previous two.

“The new aero kit will make it much more competitive,” Rahal asserted. “Everyone knows the struggles of the past, and somewhat of a split grid. That won’t be the case this time. I think you are in for a long night and a very competitive race weekend.”

Still, this week will likely be the toughest test for the 2018 aero kit in terms of its impact on the on-track product and its ability to improve overtaking. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was one of the best street course races in years, and if a similar race is presented at ISM Raceway, then it will be “mission: accomplished” in terms of improving the show.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Look to Build on Fast Pace from Testing

Takuma Sato turned the fastest lap times at the open test in February. Photo: IndyCar

The RLL duo of Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal surprised quite a few people with their astounding pace in the aforementioned pre-season test. Rahal topped one session, while Sato topped the other three, with both demonstrating dominant speed that few saw coming.

“The car has pace. Both cars have pace, and so that’s awesome,” Rahal said after Day 1 of testing in February. “Trust me, to come here, Takuma and I were talking (the night before) and we were like, ‘You know, I don’t really like this place.We haven’t had a lot of luck here the last few years, we’re used to coming here and getting our butts kicked.’ To be able to come here and be competitive with this aero kit is awesome. Obviously Honda has done a good job with the engines, but I mean it’s competitive.”

Teammate Sato shared a similar enthusiasm about their results at the test, and thinks that it gave them a great baseline on which to build entering the weekend.

“We had quite a successful open test in February. Obviously, the temperatures and conditions will be different but it gave us a very good indication of the new aero kit on the track there and we had a very productive test,” Sato detailed ahead of this weekend’s race.

How that testing pace will look over the course of a race weekend remains an unknown, but the RLL squad will be one to watch all weekend long.

Team Penske Looks to Rebound After Tough Start to 2018

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud is the defending race winner at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

The powerhouse Team Penske stumbled out of the gates at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden failed to advance out of the first round of qualifying, taking 13th on the grid, but was the highest finishing Penske car in seventh, overcoming a cut tire to do so.

Will Power qualified second, but spun in Turn 2 and bounced off the outside wall, damaging his rear wing and forcing an unscheduled stop for repairs. Power eventually finished tenth.

Meanwhile, Simon Pagenaud had an uncharacteristically quiet race that saw him finish 13th.

However, last year’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix was a dominant one for the Penske operation, with Pagenaud leading Power in a 1-2 for the team, while Helio Castroneves finished fourth to make it three Penske cars in the top three. Newgarden finished ninth after sustaining damage to his front wing, but was a frontrunner the entire night.

Consequently, the Team Penske outfit is ready to right the ship after St. Pete.

“We didn’t have the finish we wanted at St. Petersburg so I’m really looking forward to the weekend at ISM Raceway,” said Power. “We found some great speed at our test there back in February and feel like we’re going to bring a strong oval No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet for the race.”

Teammate Newgarden echoed Power’s desire for better results this weekend.

“We had a decent start to the season at St. Petersburg with a top-10 finish but we’re hungry for more,” Newgarden asserted. “We tested recently at ISM Raceway with the new aero kit and learned a lot that we can apply to our oval program for the season. Phoenix is a really fun market and the fans there always are really excited for the race weekend. Last season we had a decent finish there but we’re ready to find a better result this year for the No. 1 Verizon Chevrolet.”

Misc.

  • Sebastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing made it back-to victories in St. Petersburg in March. Can they go one step further and go two-for-two in 2018 by winning at ISM?
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had as strong of a weekend as they’ve ever had in St. Petersburg, with James Hinchcliffe finishing fourth while Robert Wickens dominated the race from the pole and looked set for victory before late-race contact with Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. The SPM outfit should be a regular force on road and street circuits. But, will that form carry over onto short ovals?
  • Rookies Pietro Fittipaldi (with Coyne) and Kyle Kaiser (with Juncos Racing) make their IndyCar debuts at ISM Raceway this weekend. How will they do in their maiden IndyCar efforts?

 

The Final Word

From the defending race winner, Simon Pagenaud:

“I’m really excited to go back to Phoenix. While St. Petersburg did not go as we expected, I feel after testing at ISM Raceway earlier this year that the new aero kit is going to make some really exciting racing and I believe we prepared the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet really well for that event. Winning there last (year) with the Menards Chevrolet team was terrific. Phoenix is a fantastic market for INDYCAR and has really great support from the fans, so I can’t wait to go racing full speed on this thrilling oval at ISM Raceway.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

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

Friday, April 6
2-3 p.m. (5-6 p.m. ET)- Verizon IndyCar Series practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
5 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), LIVE on NBCSN
8-9 p.m. (11-12 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series final practice, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Saturday, April 7
6 p.m. (9 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on air
6:35 p.m. (9:35 p.m. ET) – Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (250 laps/255.50 miles), NBCSN (Live).

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. JR Hildebrand
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Scott Dixon
6. Tony Kanaan
7. Ed Carpenter
8. Charlie Kimball
9. Josef Newgarden
10. Carlos Munoz

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Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

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Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2