Short-trackers rejoice! We’re going under the lights Saturday night for the first oval race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. As far as the title picture in concerned, we’re filling in another piece of the puzzle this week – we’ve seen two street courses and one road course – and now we’re going to find out who brought their short-game (in racing terms) in 2017. So, what can we expect? Here’s your preview of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Gran Prix.
Inside the Numbers
Since we’ve only been to Phoenix once in the current format, there isn’t a lot of data to go off of here. Tony Kanaan won at Phoenix twice in the long-long-ago (2003, 2004) and Helio Castroneves took the win way back in 2002.
Last year, Scott Dixon was the man to beat, leading 155 of the event’s 250 laps. Penske did flex their muscle early, with Juan Pablo Montoya leading 56 laps and Castroneves leading 39. Graham Rahal carried the Honda flag to a fifth-place finish, but it was an event dominated by Chevy power.
Castroneves led the bow-tie parade in qualifying, while Marco Andretti was the top-qualifying Honda in P11. Can we expect the engine war to be a little more interesting this year thanks to Honda’s resurgent effort? More on that later…
Scott Dixon has been fast everywhere this year and we shouldn’t expect any less from the No. 9 Ganassi entry this weekend, even with the switch to Honda. Josef Newgarden, fresh off his win at Barber Motorsports Park, seems to be acclimated enough to his new team to start reeling off victories. Like Dixon, Simon Pagenaud has also been a picture of consistency despite finding himself in compromising circumstances at times, finishing second, fifth and third in the first three rounds of the season. More reason to watch the defending champ: He finished second at Phoenix last year.
Storylines to Follow
Passing at a Premium
Unfortunately, last year’s return to Phoenix wasn’t the fireworks show the series had hoped for. Outside of Ryan Hunter-Reay making some ridiculous moves on restarts, it was difficult for anyone to get through traffic. Even the leaders struggled to get by back-markers in dirty air. The series did test at Phoenix prior to the start of this season, so we’ll see if any mandated aero changes allow for more overtaking.
(Short) Oval Aero
We’ll get our first glimpse of just how far Honda’s resurgence extends when the field hits the track for qualifying Friday night. The aforementioned preseason test left some speculating that Honda was still behind the proverbial eight-ball in terms of its short-oval package. Which leads us to …
An Opportunity for the Chevy Under-cards
Penske is the main act when it comes to Chevy, but if Honda’s short-oval package is still lagging, this weekend could be a great opportunity for the other Chevy teams, Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing, to score good results. ECR has further cause for optimism with team owner and oval specialist Ed Carpenter back behind the wheel of the No. 20, and J.R. Hildebrand has been cleared (broken hand) to jump back in the saddle of the No. 21 machine. As far as the Foyt boys are concerned, Carlos Munoz tends to show good pace–and courage–on ovals. If he can avoid the wall this year (contact resulted in a last-place finish in 2016), the team could be set up for its best result of the season so far.
The Search for Bobby (and Graham) Rahal
We’re three races into 2017 and we’ve not heard much from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Once the standard-bearers for Honda, RLLR has struggled to find speed this year, mustering a season-best finish of 13th at the opening round in St. Pete. The season is still young, but one would think they need to at least duplicate last year’s fifth-place result if they want to have any say in the title.
“Game On” at Penske
Many predicted an in-house Penske title bout before the season started. But who would be the first to assert themselves in the championship hunt? Will Power’s bad Barber luck gave Josef Newgarden Penske’s first win of the season, but the young American’s teammates showed well in Phoenix last year. Pagenaud finished second, Castroneves lead the early stages of the race, and Power came home third. They know they can’t let Newgarden go on a roll (which he is very capable of doing) the way Pagenaud did early last year if they want to have a shot at the title in Sonoma.
Saturday Night Lights
Oval enthusiasts should temper their excitement for wheel-to-wheel action this weekend, just based on what we saw last year, but that doesn’t mean Saturday’s race will be any less compelling. In a season where parity and unpredictability have ruled the day, it is very reasonable to think we’ll see our fourth different winner in as many races when all is said and done in the desert. Qualifications are Friday at 11 p.m. ET and race coverage kicks off on NBCSN at 9 p.m. ET Saturday.