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New aero kits may create more passing in today’s INDYCAR Grand Prix

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Simon Pagenaud expects the IndyCar Grand Prix to be very different from the first four races. So does just about everyone else in Gasoline Alley.

The expected warm temperatures and breezy conditions could change racing conditions on Saturday. New aero kits are expected to create better drafting. A smoother asphalt surface is expected to make cars less sensitive. And this time, winning the pole may not be the surest path to victory lane.

The combination is expected to create more passing and a better overall show for the fans, a perfect combination for race organizers.

“You can follow closer and not get as affected as before,” said Pagenaud, a two-time race winner. “So there’s more (passing) opportunities for sure. Now we’ll see how many restarts there are because here it’s always very exciting on restarts because it’s such a long straightaway. There’s a lot of action into Turn 1.”

There are plenty of uncertainties, too.

By condensing the weekend schedule from three days to two, drivers had only two short practice sessions before qualifying. All 24 drivers will have one more 30-minute tuneup on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course Saturday morning.

The limited track time may explain why some familiar names – Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay – failed to reach the second round of qualifying. Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan were all eliminated in the second round and defending series champion Josef Newgarden barely made the final qualifying group.

Will Power won his third Indy GP pole with a fast lap of 1:09.8182 on his final run of the day.

Everyone seems to expect an increase in the kind of daring moves that can create intrigue, consternation and anger. Possibly crashes, too.

Sebastien Bourdais knows just how dicey it can be. He complained publicly about everything from IndyCar rulings to his fellow drivers after successfully negotiating one of this season’s best passes at Long Beach – only to have it negated by a penalty for using pit lane.

The Frenchmen who drives the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda expects things to heat up again this weekend.

“Just a lot of passing opportunities (here), and especially with the new aero kit this year,” Bourdais said. “I think it will be quite an interesting race, and even more so if the weather comes into play.”

In previous years, Indy’s road course hasn’t created much tension.

Pagenaud and Team Penske teammate Power have split the first four Indy GP races, Pagenaud winning in even-numbered years, Power in the odd-numbered years. The only pole winner who failed to win the race was Sebastian Saavedra in 2014. He got caught up in a crash at the start that prevented three drivers, including Saavedra, from completing a lap.

Nobody believes it will be such a one-sided affair this time.

Series officials have said nearly twice as many total passes were logged over the first four races than last season, something they expect to continue this weekend and at the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Fans also will be watching the engine manufacturer’s race between Chevy and Honda, which is tied at 2-2 going into the weekend.

That’s exactly what organizers wanted when it made the technical changes after last season.

“We don’t know how it races yet here, but everywhere else, it’s been better,” Power said, referring to the new cars. “It’s just easier to follow. You don’t have a big, dirty wake from all the winglets and stuff that was hanging off the old car. I can see it being – especially being such a hot day on race day – pretty good racing, tire degradation, and people might struggle to come on to the front straight here a little bit, so yeah, it’ll be absolutely better racing here than last year.”

Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”