Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ranking The IndyCar Title Contenders

Right now for IZOD IndyCar Series fans, there are six races left in the 2012 campaign: Toronto, Edmonton, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, Baltimore, and Fontana. Before we know it, we'll be crowning this year's Series champion. Happily this year, the points battle remains close, and there's a genuine amount of uncertainty as to which driver can grab the title. If you look at the standings, no less than 5-6 drivers have at least a plausible shot at the championship, with a couple more hanging on around the fringes.

In looking at the championship hunt, I took everyone within a single racing weekend's worth of maximum points, plus our defending champion. Realistically, one of these eight drivers will be our champ. I’ve listed them based on reverse order of how likely I find their winning the title to be, starting with the least likely and going from there:

Still Hanging On

Dario Franchitti (8th place, 216 points)
When Franchitti’s engine blew last Saturday, it very well could have marked the end of his championship run. Outside of his two-race run at Indy and Detroit, Dario has only a single Top 5 on the season, which seems almost unbelievable to say in regards to the defending Series champ. Still, we’ve seen him finish strong before; the problem is, in his come-from-behind 2010 and 2011 championship runs, he was nowhere near this far back. At this point, Top 5s or Top 10s won’t cut this lead nearly enough in the six races remaining on the schedule; he needs wins and podiums strung together in a hurry.

Tony Kanaan (7th place, 235 points)
TK has been white-hot since Indy, finishing P3, P6, P11, P2, and P3. Those three podiums have bumped him up to P7 in the standings after a pair of disastrous races started his season. KV Racing Technology is still looking for that elusive win, and Kanaan is likely their best chance to get it. Looking to the schedule ahead, Toronto and Edmonton have been a mixed bag in years past for the affable Brazilian, but Sonoma has routinely been one of his best tracks. If he can keep his string of excellent finishes going, he could be a player going into the closing stages of the season. TK likely isn’t a title favorite this year, but he could certainly make it interesting.

The Perennial Candidate

Helio Castroneves (4th place, 261 points)
After starting the season with a win at St. Petersburg, Helio has managed to lead the Series in percentage of laps completed so far. That’s a very good indicator for a driver who previously lost championship fights due to a couple of really poor finishes in otherwise excellent seasons. Helio fans will have to wait and see if he can keep up that consistency over the last half of the season. If he does, the season finale at Fontana should be his kind of race, and that long-elusive championship for the Brazilian favorite could become a reality.

The Young Guns

Simon Pagenaud (6th place, 246 points)
As a long-anticipated rookie in INDYCAR, Pags has lived up to just about every expectation, and then some. He’s been good on the ovals (the area where many expected him to struggle), and with a single-car team, has put the fear into the competition on the road and street courses. Few drivers have been steadier this year than Simon. He should have a very good chance to collect more podiums and possibly even a victory over the next month or so of racing, and has every chance in the world of moving up in the standings. This rookie isn’t finished impressing just yet, one would wager.

The New Guard: Pags and Hinch have excelled this year.
(Used with permission. Courtesy TrackSideOnline.com)
James Hinchcliffe (5th place, 256 points)
As great as Hinch has been in his sophomore IndyCar season, he missed a prime opportunity to put the fear into Will Power after the points leader’s incident with EJ Viso at Iowa. Hinch’s single-car accident late in the race denied him the chance to make a nice jump in points, and belied the sort of consistent season he’s otherwise had this year. The Mayor has been competitive in nearly every race this season, but he’ll have to keep those podiums coming (and probably steal a win somewhere) if he wants to make a title run. It’s been a great campaign for Hinch; we’ll see if it can be a championship one as well.

The Great American Hope

Ryan Hunter-Reay (2nd place, 283 points)
In years past, RHR has been the sort of driver good for a victory once a year, but has never been the guy to string together enough races to really contend for the title. This year, I thought he might continue to stick around the tail end of the Top 10 after his disappointment at Detroit, but he responded by reeling off two extremely impressive victories on the short ovals to move right back into the title hunt. Hunter-Reay already has two road and street podiums this year, and is usually considered a contender on the twisties. He’s finished on the podium two years in a row at Toronto; if he matches that for a third year, it could be a nice indicator for the rest of the season. To match Scott Dixon and Will Power, though, he’s going to need keep his streak of good finishes going, with no major letdowns. If he does, this could be the year we marked as a big turning point in RHR’s already accomplished open wheel career.

The Favorites

Scott Dixon (3rd place, 271 points)
Although he’s in third place, Scott Dixon might just be the odds-on favorite for the title this year. Dixon’s usual method is to be quietly be in contention through most of the season, and close up bit by bit as other drivers fail to match the rhythm-like regularity of those sneaky wins and podium finishes. Over the last 6 races of 2011, he averaged a finishing position of 3.0. That’s just ridiculously good. Earlier this year, Dixie had a pair of back-to-back finishes outside the Top 10 for the first time since 2005. Unless has a serious relapse on that, it’s tough to see him not at least into contention going into the season finale.

Will Power (1st place, 286 points)
Without a doubt, Will Power remains the king of the road and street course. He routinely posts eyebrow-raising times in qualifications, and is an ace when it comes to pole position on those courses. What’s more, Power has won at every single remaining twisty on the schedule (with the exception of Mid-Ohio, where his career best is P2). To say he’s favorite to win at least a majority of the remaining twisty courses would seem a given, but remember, there are still six races to go, and it's been a turbulent year. For Power, there remains the specter of lost points leads in the closing races of both 2010 and 2011, and IndyCar once again closes the schedule with an oval this year. Will isn’t completely invincible, and will have to hope his Chevy engine continues to hold against fierce competitors both in the Bowtie Brigade and Honda. Still, he has to still be considered with Scott Dixon as a frontrunner to be this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series champ.

Agree? Disagree? Think we should have included someone else for consideration? Your comments are welcome below!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Notes: 500 Miles, Driver Rumors, Schedule

Just a few notes on an otherwise sedate Tuesday morning:

-With the season finale at Fontana now a 500-mile race, it sounds like the IZOD IndyCar Series should have a good and proper stage set if the points are still close going into the last race. I'd still like to see tracks like Milwaukee add 25 laps or so--I know IndyCar has to work on a TV window, but bumping up the laps next year would be a nice indicator to the fans that they're getting an even better value with the price of their admission. I'd love to see Texas or Pocono back as a 500-mile race next year as part of an oval Triple Crown, but this is a good first step. 400 miles vs. 500 miles might not sound like a huge difference to the outside fan, but it makes for a totally different race--especially considering the continuing engine competition. Yes, the 500-mile threshold is partly psychological, but it does count for something with a lot of fans.

-I really would have liked to go to Road America, but I can appreciate the Powers That Be not trying to force a race without enough time to properly plan for it. IndyCar knows its bottom line better than fans, but they definitely need to have a solid schedule announced early for 2013.

-In regards to whether or not the 15 race limit means IZOD has an out, it sounds like IndyCar has already been looking to Firestone or Verizon to take over at least presentation sponsorship of the Series. Right now, IZOD's Mike Kelly is quoted as being OK with 15 races, and I can't see IndyCar doing anything that would result in a default breach. There's got to be negotiations going on with IZOD, and we'll see where it ends. Even though their management has changed directions this past year, it's been nice to have them on board. Still, INDYCAR needs sponsor activation, not just sponsors.

-In driver news, Pippa Mann confirmed publicly yesterday that she is working on a ride for Sonoma, Baltimore, and Fontana, though the team this would be with was not mentioned. We'll have to see what comes of it. I'd like to see more cars at Fontana for the 500-miler, in any case.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Notes From The Iowa Corn Indy 250

-It might have been a late start to the Iowa Corn Indy 250, but it was well worth the wait. We've been spoiled by a string of nearly continuously excellent races this year, with only a couple drop-offs, and Iowa was probably the equal of Texas, which was a fine race indeed. 

-Andretti Autosport seems good to grab 2-3 race wins a year in recent years, but two in a row on the short ovals is a nice accomplishment indeed. Ryan Hunter-Reay has managed to overcome a couple of bad races to become a legitimate title contender, and not just because of these last two wins (don't forget, he has two road/street podiums so far). Meanwhile, his teammate Marco Andretti finally grabbed both his first podium and Top 10 of the year. Marco seemed disappointed in the result after the race, but it was still a very good race for him.

-Perhaps the most exciting development outside the race itself is the points battle. Will Power dodged a bullet a bit last night when James Hinchcliffe crashed out of the race, but he still has Ryan Hunter-Reay only 3 points behind him. In fact, the top seven drivers are within a single race weekend of max points of each other. There will be more to come on this, but don't hand the crown over to Will Power just yet, despite his proficiency on the road and street courses to come.

Deja Vu: RHR in a short oval Victory Circle.
(Used with permission. Courtesy TrackSideOnline.com)
-Speaking of Will Power, cheers to him for owning up to his on-track mistake after he the replay of his accident with EJ Viso (after flipping EJ the bird after it initially happened, admittedly). Cheers, too, to EJ Viso, who was having a heck of a run before the accident. When Dario was in the NBC Sports booth, he called out Viso as having hit "everything but the pace car" and never taking ownership of a mistake. (Had they heard the latter part of Dario's comment, I'm pretty sure Will Power, Takuma Sato, and Josef Newgarden (among others) might have muttered something about pot meeting kettle on that one...).

-Over to Newgarden for a minute: I really like Josef, and he's going to do great things in this series, but after claiming no fault in his crash with Ryan Briscoe, his 10 seconds of watching the replay where he was clearly at fault was one of the more unintentionally hilarious moments in recent memory. Hey, stuff happens, and Briscoe was gracious about it. Owning your mistakes and being gracious about those that aren't your fault is always a classy move.


-Can I again mention how much fun the racing has been this year? Ultimately, I don't really care about whatever mini-crisis comes up in a given week; I just appreciate the Dallara and Firestone (and yes, the teams and drivers) have teamed up to give us some true edge-of-your-seat, skill-based, unpredictable racing. 


-Star Mazda is exactly as knotted up as we thought it would be. Sage Karam kept his title hopes alive with a repeat Iowa victory, while Jack Hawksworth's late incident, paired with Connor De Phillippi's P3 finish, was enough to change the order at the top of the standings. CDP is now first, with Jack Hawksworth 4 points back, the unsung Martin Scuncio 17 points back, and Sage Karam 22 points back. The upcoming Canadian swing for these guys should be a great one.

-The Firestone Indy Lights race was a bit of a parade, though drivers such as Gustavo Yacaman did their part to mix it up. Esteban Guerrieri took over the points lead once again with his win over Tristan Vautier, and now leads him by 14 points in the standings. Suffering mechanical failure, Sebastian Saavedra dropped 45 points back of Guerrieri in points, and will probably have some trouble catching the Sam Schmidt cars in front of him. Interestingly enough, judging from social media response, the two drivers most folks seemed to be cheering for were either Bryan Clauson or Anders Krohn, neither of which has a full time ride. Social media doesn't bring sponsorship, but it sure would be nice to see Krohn in a solid full-time ride.

-Other Notes: Justin Wilson brought home another Top 10 on an oval last night. Needless to say, he's really taking to the new type of driving demands of the DW12 on those types of tracks...Ed Carpenter found himself a lap down again early Saturday, but once more rallied for his second P8 in as many races. He now sits P19 in points...It sounds like Lights driver Alon Day's time with Belardi Auto Racing might be at an end. Nothing's official yet, but it sounds like it could be tied to funding (which is usually a good bet if a driver is out of a ride). We'll keep an ear out...Simona de Silvestro brought home her Lotus in P14. The Lotus is still wildly slow out there, but that's a much result on an oval then many of us thought we'd see...Simon Pagenaud looked great on track Saturday night, and leads Josef Newgarden in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year fight by 120 points. You can call that one, folks...

Friday, June 22, 2012

A-maize-ing Racing: Iowa Corn Indy 250 Preview

The IZOD IndyCar Series finishes off its June cornucopia of oval events with the Iowa Corn Indy 250. One of the most exciting and competitive races on the schedule, last year’s duel between Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, and eventual race winner Marco Andretti was an instant classic. This year promises more of the same, as the drivers should be given a challenging, on-the-edge car to drive.

It’ll be a late night for fans watching on NBC Sports Saturday evening, but it’s a small price to pay for one of the truly excellent races on the schedule. Here’s a list of storylines for IndyCar fans this weekend:

Qualifying Changes: Perhaps the biggest change will be the format of qualifying. The Series is trying out heat qualifying Friday night, and the basic idea is that three heat races of 30 laps each will determine qualifying positions for the main event. The drivers will be divided into these heats based on their times from the second practice session. Race 1 will determine the even-numbered positions of P10-P24. Race 2 will determine the odd-numbered positions of P9-P25. Then, Race 3 will see the 3 fastest drivers from second practice battle it out for spots 1-8. We’ll have to see how it works, but as a 30 lap dash, it could be pretty exciting!

Engine Penalties: Mr. Kanaan and Mr. Viso will each have a 10-grid penalty due to engine changes from the last race weekend. That said, with the nature of Iowa, that might not mean very much with the way this race is projected to go. It does mean we’ll also probably be in line for one of TK’s patented crazy passes at the green flag. Never has an engine penalty brought so much good news for fans!

Title Update: The good news for Will Power seems pretty extensive just now. Through Milwaukee, he's hung in on the ovals, and still leads his closest competitor, James Hinchcliffe, by 31 points. Yet with the way the season has gone, he's not out of the woods yet. Still, if Power hangs in at Iowa and gets a nice result and Hinch or contenders like Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay falter, things could close up in a hurry. It's not too late to count out Dario Franchitti from the title hunt, but he's 69 points behind Power, and hasn't looked quite in the same form we saw at Indy as of late.

Marco's big Iowa night in 2011.
Courtesy IndyCar Media
Oval Stint Nears End: With three out of the last four races being ovals, Iowa will mark the end of the main oval portion of the schedule for a bit. The AJ Foyt Oval Championship will still be decided on Fontana, but barring a late addition to the schedule, this will be the next-to-last oval race of the year. Currently, James Hinchcliffe is leading the oval trophy battle with 108 points, with Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe 7 and 12 points back, respectively. Also keep an eye on Justin Wilson, who is only 16 points back in P4. Iowa will obviously have a lot to do with which driver becomes this year's oval champ.

Marco, Continued: As mentioned last week, Marco Andretti has still not managed to nab a Top 10 finish this season. However, he won at Iowa last year in memorable fashion, and he’s the sort of driver that seems to spontaneously catch lightning in a bottle now and again. If Marco wants to finish anywhere near the top part of the standings, he needs to start showing better results immediately. We’ll see if he can recapture the magic of last year’s Iowa experience.

The Lotus Saga Endures: No, you didn’t dream that. Simona de Silvestro’s Lotus HVM machine was able to outqualify someone last week in Milwaukee. While she had an early end, another short track at Iowa could give at least a glimmer of hope that the black flag can once again be avoided. It’s been hard to watch that crew struggle, but with any luck, their upcoming engine update will give them a hand.

Lights Update: Our favorite Viking returns with Bryan Herta Autosport this weekend, as Anders Krohn rejoins Firestone Indy Lights after a disappointing mechanical issue at IMS on Carb Day. Esteban Guerrieri narrowly trails rookie Tristan Vautier in the standings, but won the pole here last year. Don’t forget, Bryan Clauson will not only be driving for Fan Force United this weekend, but will also be driving a USAC Midget at the track as well.

Star Mazda Update: If you missed it, check out Wednesday's article on the great Star Mazda fight that will carry into Iowa.

Random Fact: EJ Viso's average finish in 2010 was 17.4. In 2011, it was 17.9. In 2012 so far, it is 13.4.

Pole: Scott Dixon. If it’s about letting the drivers drive, he’ll have that well in hand.

Winner: Kanaan is so close to a win right now, he could reach out and touch it. I’d also expect the Andretti cars to have a good outing and contend here.

Dark Horse: I could see Justin Wilson being strong again with the aero package we expect to see this week. This hasn’t been one of his best tracks, but the Coyne team has looked pretty speedy at Indy, Texas, and Milwaukee now. Let’s see if that continues.

Iowa is usually a bright spot on the IndyCar calendar, and there's no reason not to expect more of the same this weekend. Enjoy the race, whether it's at the track or on the couch!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Star Mazda Returns This Weekend (About Time)

All of the Mazda Road to Indy Series have built-in gaps to their schedules, but perhaps none this year has made fans impatient as that of the Star Mazda Championship. Ask just about anyone involved in the INDYCAR ladder program this year, and they'll tell you some of the best racing and best prospects can be found in Star Mazda.

This weekend's Iowa  race will not only mark the halfway point of the Star Mazda schedule, but will be the last oval the drivers face this year. As such, it takes on an additional importance, as drivers such as Connor De Phillippi, Sage Karam, and Zach Veach have a chance to repeat their podium sweep from Lucas Oil Raceway.

Lest we forget, there's still the matter of a scholarship for this series champion to move up to Firestone Indy Lights. The last two champions, Conor Daly and Tristan Vautier, each found rides with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and victory in Lights. That's a nice vision for this year's contenders to consider.

Right now, Jack Hawksworth has been sharp on the track, but stumbled slightly at Lucas Oil, finishing P7, and giving race winner De Phillippi a chance to reel him back in. Now, Hawksworth's lead is down to 12 points over De Phillippi, but the young English driver remains confident.

The Night Before The 500 was all about CDP and Juncos.
(Courtesy StarMazda.com)
"At the moment I'm leading the points so that's a great position to be in," Hawksworth noted when interviewed earlier this month. "Obviously the last race didn't go quite to plan for us, but the fact that we are still leading the points by a healthy margin is testament to how strong we have been up to that point. We are working towards bouncing back at Iowa and if we can snatch a decent result there then I feel we will be in a very strong position heading back to the street and road courses."

For his part, in a preview for Iowa, De Phillippi stated he thought the Lucas Oil race was "a big momentum shift in our favor", and called the upcoming race "an opportunity to capitalize on having a good car", noting Juncos Racing has won two of the last three races at Iowa.

If the Hawksworth/De Phillippi battle remains an absolute slugfest between two top open wheel prospects, other drivers remain dedicated to climbing the standings. Martin Scunco sits at P3 in the points, having already won this year at Barber Motorsports Park. American Gabby Chavez is in P4, and is looking to find his third podium of the year. Andretti Autosport's Sage Karam hopes to continue to bounce back after a rough start to the season, and is the defending champ at Iowa. Finland's Petri Suvanto, last year's USF2000 champ, has been consistent in his rookie year, but still looks for a breakout race.

It's a young, superbly talented group of drivers that will be taking to the track at Iowa Speedway this weekend. And while not all of them will make the jump to the next levels of the sport, it's safe to assume we're watching at least a few future IndyCar Series at work.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Mile Returns: Notes From IndyFest

-I have to start our notes from last weekend with the simple acknowledgement that the folks at Andretti Sports Marketing and the staff at the Milwaukee Mile pulled off a startling transformation this past weekend. From a place that couldn't draw over 13,000 in 2011, the Mile was transformed into an actual "event"--with plenty to do, good word of mouth, and a very nice increase in attendance. Milwaukee IndyFest was a happy story, and a welcome bit of good news for the IndyCar schedule.

What's the reward for the fans showing up? We get at least one more year with the Milwaukee Mile. The Andrettis made this event affordable, exciting, diverse, and above all, one with a sense of an actual future--something that was definitely lacking after the prior promoter debacles. Andretti realized a race isn't enough; it has to be an Event, with a capital E. Now, let's see how they build on that for 2013. I can't wait to see what they do with even more time on their hands to get things ready.

-Milwaukee is a great city. Hoosiers pride themselves on hospitality, but the denizens of Milwaukee just seem to have this great polite streak. We had so many pleasant conversations with locals this weekend, and all of them involved in or around the race seemed to grasp that this race can be a good, solid event, and appeared to genuinely want its return.

-I have to thank the folks behind Champion Crew Conversation for providing a website geared towards getting fans to the race for an affordable, easy experience. Thanks to them, I secured a great rate at a very nice hotel close to the track. If you're going anywhere on the IndyCar calendar this year, check them out first.

A great day for Hunter-Reay, Andretti, and Mile fans.
Used with permission. Courtesy TrackSideOnline.com.
-If the rain delay hurt matters this year, in terms of on-site attendance, it wasn't much. There was such a cool vibe to this event. The fans were extremely good-natured during the rain delay, possibly because there was more to do than just huddle under the grandstands. Stationed by the main entrance/exit, I saw perhaps a handful leave, but folks were still walking in during the heaviest part of the showers. When people are genuinely content and happy to be at your event, even when nature throws a wrench in the works, that's a good sign.

-I heard the presentation of the race on ABC (and wherever they moved it after their TV window closed) was an uneven affair, but outside of the leader, there was some pretty good action through the pack. It wasn't a total pass-o-rama, but there was enough passing to keep things pretty lively. EJ Viso in particular had a very good, very spirited race, and kept fighting hard through the closing laps. That's the Viso we like to see.

-The points battle for the Championship remains closer than any of us perhaps thought at the halfway point of the season. Will Power hasn't done too poorly on the last two ovals and still leads the standings, but James Hinchcliffe has moved to P2 (31 points back) through pure consistency. We'll have to see if he can find a win or two, which is what he'll need to make up that deficit. Despite rough outings in the last two races, Scott Dixon is still only 4 points behind Hinch, and Ryan Hunter-Reay has shrugged off Indy and Texas to jump up to P4. Helio and Pags lurk, too. With Iowa the last oval until Fontana, we'll see if anyone can shave points off that lead with a sharp performance before we go back to the twisties.

-Ryan Hunter-Reay seems good for one win each year. We'll see if he can grab another one this year, but this is his third year in a row with one win. It's a fun question to debate who's the best Andretti driver right now, RHR or James Hinchcliffe.

-Even discounting the weird penalty on Scott Dixon, for a 2nd straight race, this was not Ganassi's day. Graham Rahal was steady with a P9, but Dixie had some substantial car issues and could only fight to P11. With Dario crashing and Kimball finishing a lap down, the Ganassi teams will be looking to find their way back to the top in Iowa.

-Tristan Vautier ran a consistent, smart Indy Lights race, and got the big oval win we discussed last week. He holds a narrow 3 point lead over Esteban Guerrieri, and is 14 points ahead of 3rd place Sebastian Saavedra. The Firestone Indy Lights championship is quickly becoming a 3-man race, with any of those drivers in a spot to jump into P1 after next weekend.

Vautier took back the Lights lead with a sharp race.
Used with permission. Courtesy TrackSideOnline.com.
-Other Notes: You would have to go back to 2005 to find a year in which Scott Dixon had more than one pair of back-to-back finishes outside the Top 10--until 2012...Great sponsor activation at the track by the RC Cola/Sun Drop folks, who were handing out free samples all over. It was also the only track I've been to where RC Cola was the vendor drink of choice...Ed Carpenter started the week with some definite struggles, but hung in there for a nice P8 finish...Justin Wilson was running very well indeed before his engine let go. I'm not sure he's done winning this year...Simona de Silvestro had an early out on the day, but the Lotus HVM car actually outqualified someone on an oval this weekend. That might not seem like much, but it's progress...Oriol Servia doesn't get as much attention as the other drivers, but he's as good a multi-discipline driver as anyone in the Series...Marco Andretti (P15) still has failed to crack the Top 10 in any race this year...It was difficult to get an exact number on attendance, but my best guess for the crowd is somewhere between 20-25,000...When in and around Milwaukee, check out El Beso Mexican Restaurante in Greenfield for some amazingly good food. I didn't equate Milwaukee with prime Mexican food, but El Beso was fantastic.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Milwaukee IndyFest Preview

If you missed my Milwaukee pep talk the other day, this is a big moment in the history of one of the most iconic American open wheel ovals. If the Milwaukee IndyFest can have at least a good initial outing under the hand of Andretti Sports Marketing, then this event could be sustainable in the long run. If it’s a mess attendance and promotion-wise like 2011 was, well, that makes the case quite a bit harder.

Honestly, with the sort of racing we’ve seen this year, taken with plenty of big stories and contenders, Milwaukee should be a great racing weekend. Here are some key items in mind to watch this weekend:

Watching The Attendance: As mentioned above, this race could very well be a make-or-break year for the Milwaukee Mile hosting IndyCar. While it sounds like things are going much better than last year (how could they not?), we'll have to see what sort of last-minute and walk-up boost the event gets. Most folks are saying in the 20k range would be a good start, and 25k would be a big success for the first year. After a couple of years of disappointment, we'll see how the fans react to the promotional efforts this year.

Grid Penalties Galore: The top two points leaders, Will Power and Scott Dixon, will be serve 10-grid penalties for this race, along with Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson, Josef Newgarden, and Mike Conway. That’s one Chevy and a plethora of Hondas, if we’re keeping track.

The Big Points Battle: The above penalties are especially interesting when you consider how the points battle is shaping up. Will Power maintains a 36 point lead over Scott Dixon, but James Hinchcliffe (12 behind Dixon), Helio Castroneves (17 behind Dixon), and Simon Pagenaud (21 behind Dixon) are keeping it interesting. Meanwhile, Dario Franchitti sits 64 points behind his rival Power, but is known for his ability to bring those point deficits down in a hurry. It might seem like an obvious statement, but if you want to see how the standings will shake out, watching a driver’s consistency over the course of the season is the best way. It doesn’t take many poor races or early

Chevy v. Honda, Round 8: Chevy grabbed the first four wins of the season, but Honda has won the three races since then, including the Indy 500. While it’s still been a close battle on track, there’s at least the perception that for now, Honda has the upper hand. It goes without saying a Chevy win here would be welcome news indeed for the Bowtie Brigade.

Marco's Brutal Season: Many people thought 2012 might be a turnaround year for Marco Andretti, but instead he has failed to record a single Top 10 this season. There's always the promise of another Andretti win around the corner, but so far, this season has been nothing short of dismal. If he can win at Milwaukee, it  would be keeping in the Andretti family's success here over the years, and a potential season-saver to boot.

ROY Fight All But Over?: Let's be honest, right now Simon Pagenaud (199 points) is mopping the floor with Rubens Barrichello (118 points; a rookie, but not technically a ROY candidate) and Josef Newgarden (104 points) for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Sure, plenty can happen, but Josef needs a game changer if he want to catch Pags, and soon.

Indy Lights Update: If you missed the article yesterday, Bryan Clauson chatted a bit about Firestone Indy Lights and his other endeavors. He’ll be in the car for Fan Force United this week, as well as for Iowa. Meanwhile, Esteban Guerrieri has jumped to the overall points lead, with Tristan Vautier and Sebastian Saavedra only 15 and 16 points back, respectively. This could be a weekend for Guerrieri to truly make his case for the Lights championship and begin to put some daylight between himself and his nearest competitors. He won here last year, and should have a good chance to do the same this time around.

Pole: Let’s go with Scott Dixon on this one.

Winner: We’ll go TK this time, though I think Dario could quite possibly win here again.

Dark Horse: As recompense for my doubt in Simon Pagenaud last week, he’ll get the nod for Milwaukee.

I’m headed up to Milwaukee, and should be in sometime this evening ahead of tomorrow’s race. If I see you up there, please say hi—I’ll be the big guy in the orange shirt yet again.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bryan Clauson: IndyCar, Lights, And A Very Busy Schedule

Driver Bryan Clauson has had a pretty hectic calendar as of late. After running his rookie Indianapolis 500, he’s back on the trail of another USAC title, and has also joined Fan Force United for a couple of races in Firestone Indy Lights.

It’s that Firestone Indy Lights role that brings him this weekend to the Milwaukee Mile. To hear Clauson tell it, he’s just happy to have the opportunity with Fan Force United.

“It was kind of something that just happened,” admitted Clauson. “They had an opening for the next few ovals come up and they had a sponsor for Iowa and they went actively searching for a driver. I don't know if I was call #1 or call #100, but I gladly accepted when the phone rang.”

While his partnership with Fan Force United is recent, that doesn’t mean Clauson hasn’t set some serious goals for their efforts.

“We obviously want to run as well as possible, so the goals are to win. I ran pretty well at Milwaukee last year and was really strong at Iowa, so the two tracks are ones that I’ve ran well at and am familiar with. I think the hard part is we haven't really had any ovals to see where everyone stands this year. The Freedom 100 is a pack race that is basically who can draft the best, so it'll be interesting to get to Milwaukee and see where we stand”.

Despite the return to Lights and a new team, Clauson states the book isn’t closed on the partnership he had for the Indy 500 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

“Both myself and SFHR are working tirelessly to be back out on the track at some point this year,” Clauson stated. “I like our chances, but we will see what happens.”

Clauson finished P4 in Lights at
Milwaukee in '11.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Clauson also discussed his overall Month of May with Fisher’s team.

“The overall experience was amazing. Sarah, Wink [Hartman], and everyone at SFHR did everything they could to make sure it was a truly special experience for me, and it was,” he said. “We had a great first 3/4 of the month, and I think showed that we could be competitive in the Indy Car Series. I think there were a lot of positives things to take away from the month even though it got to be a little bit tough on us there at the end.”

Despite the rough ending (P30) at this year’s 500, Clauson remains anxious for more. He said he is not only “100%” focused on getting back to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but also talked about his feelings in being a part of the race itself.

“Indy is such a unique place. You pour your heart and soul into something for 4 weeks (really longer because Indy prep starts long before May) and to have it end in the way that it did, was kind of heartbreaking. I still think there are a lot of positive things to take away from the month that we had, and hopefully we will be back to build on those positives.”

While Clauson’s immediate focus is this weekend’s action, he’s also still working on adding a third USAC National Championship to his list of accomplishments. In fact, he picked up a couple of sprint car victories earlier this month.

“It’s going well,” Clauson said of his USAC title hunt. “but we are in the hunt and I feel good about our chances for a three-peat!”

With IndyCar, Indy Lights, and USAC all a part of his 2012 racing schedule, Clauson should also feel good about his chances of remaining extremely busy for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Milwaukee: It's Up To Us

Last year, knowing attendance was poor at one of my favorite tracks, I made a plea for all IndyCar fans to consider making the trip to Kentucky Speedway. Those who went saw the tremendous finish between Ed Carpenter and Dario Franchitti, and the resultant nail-biting first victory of Carpenter's IndyCar Series career. Ultimately, though, attendance at the race was poor, and sadly, the race is off the schedule this year.

It's not quite a year later, but there's another oval on the schedule, and again, it's time to see what happens in terms of attendance.

Randy Bernard has publicly said if Milwaukee doesn't work out this time, that could be it for this venerable race track. So it comes down to once more unto the breach, IndyCar fans. Will this race live or die?

In the past few years, the Mile has been plagued by low attendance, not only due to scheduling issues, but due to some truly inept promotional efforts. This year, that isn't an excuse. We've also heard how ovals need to be more like street courses in offering additional entertainment and activities for fans. That's been taken care of, too. Andretti Sports Marketing has taken over the race, and is primed to deliver an absolute renaissance in terms of what's going on this weekend. The Milwaukee IndyFest is shaping up to be a great event, both on and off the track. And that's precisely what this track and its fans deserve.

This is the track of Ralph DePalma, Rex Mays, A.J. Foyt, Lloyd Ruby, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, and dozens of other great champions of our sport. It dates back to 1903, and has seen the true highs and lows of American open wheel racing. Aside from Indianapolis, no track is as intertwined with the the course of this motorsport as Milwaukee.

Even if you're on a budget (as I certainly am), tickets are affordable. A seat high in the North Terrace will only cost $19 for Saturday and if you get up there on Friday, remember grandstand admission is free.

Let's make this happen, IndyCar fans. If you're anywhere close to Milwaukee, carpool, grab friends, make a spontaneous road trip weekend out of it. Bring an extra family member or friend. Relive those days where driving all night and sleeping in your car were worth it to see the race. Because if the racing this year has been any indication, it will pay off in a big way.

This is not a time for the jaded; it's a time for those who love IndyCar to step up, and in a big way. Let yourselves have fun again instead of navel-gazing on every real and imagined mirco-issue out there. Get to the track. Share that passion. Remember why you loved this sport in the first place. Find a way to be a part of something amazing.

It's easy enough to sit back, nitpicking and criticizing the good and bad alike online; it's something else to do something that directly, positively impacts this sport (and have fun doing it). IndyCar and Andretti have the promotion, the pricing, the competition, and the drivers to bring the Milwaukee Mile back. All that's missing right now is you. Let's do this.

Monday, June 11, 2012

18 Notes And Thoughts On The Firestone 550

There are a few races where after you wake up the next morning, you have to ask yourself, "did that really happen?". That's where we are after a result in the Firestone 550 that absolutely no one saw coming. So, in honor of race winner Justin Wilson's #18 car, here are 18 thoughts on an absolutely amazing race:

1) It was a mix of wearing tires and the right call on the aero package that enabled the drivers to truly drive, and that call was rewarded amply Saturday night. One thing I noticed was how absolutely exhausted all the drivers looked after climbing out of their cars. It might not have been easy, but that's part of what made it so captivating.

2) There are few more likable combos to cheer for than the triad of Wilson, engineer Bill Pappas, and owner Dale Coyne. We know after Watkins Glen a couple of year ago this team can win, but seeing them do it on an oval just reinforced that while they might be considered a lower-budget team, that doesn't mean they don't have the people in place to get it done.

3) Wilson was at the top of his game Saturday night. For a driver widely pegged as a road/street specialist, he's had two really good ovals in a row now (first Indy, now Texas). It's tough not to be happy for Wilson--not only has he had some of the hardest luck in the Series the past couple of years (remember the broken back last year?), but he's widely regarded as one of absolutely nicest guys in the paddock.

4) On other other side of the coin was Graham Rahal, who looked to have this race in hand in the last few laps before his brush with the wall. He managed to save it for the P2, but it was still a big letdown for the legacy driver. I thought his interview and subsequent mea culpa after the race were all class. Rahal will have his day, and soon.

5) Scott Dixon crashed out after absolutely dominating the race, but I loved that he was really on board with the style of race we saw at Texas. If we see another like it soon, you have to like Dixie's chances.

6) OK, raise your hand if you saw Will Power gaining championship points on Dario Franchitti and Dixon this week. Yet that's exactly what happened. James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud also got some excellent results to stay in the extended discussion for the top spot in the Series.

Well, we didn't see that one coming.
(Photo by Paul Hurley. Courtesy TrackSideOnline.com.
Used with permission). 
7) When's the last time we saw Dario Franchitti struggle on setup like that? We saw several BIG wiggles out on track, and it looked like a fight the entire time. Still, he stayed out there, and managed a P14 through attrition. That's not a championship killer, though of course it's also not the momentum he was searching for after Indy and Detroit.

8) I thought Beaux Barfield and Race Control made the correct call in assessing Will Power a penalty for blocking Tony Kanaan. TK may have had the best of the Chevy cars out there on the night, and recovering for P7 after his broken front wing ensured his overall drive was still a pretty good one.

9) Time for a big crow-eating session by Your Truly. I chose Simon Pagenaud as my Drop this week for INDYCAR Fantasy Racing, citing the depth of the field and Pags' relative oval inexperience. Well, Pags was only one of six cars on the lead lap, finishing P6. New Rule: Never doubt Pags.

10) While we're on it, let's give some credit to Wilson's teammate James Jakes, who had a nice race to grab a Top 10 finish. I scratched my head when my youngest daughter picked him in our contest this week ahead of drivers such as Oriol Servia and Dario Franchitti. Obviously, she knew something we didn't.

11) Several times Saturday night, you could see the cars bobble significantly as they cut through the wake left by a car in front of them. I really thought the NBC Sports Network coverage did a fine job in relaying just how challenging it was out there for the drivers.

12) The comments relayed from Ed Carpenter on the Ed Carpenter Racing Twitter feed showed not everyone was a fan of the racing at Texas. Whatever he thought of the racing, Ed hung in there, and before some late issues, was running towards the front of the pack. Their finish--P12--was pretty respectable.

13) I've often heard folks discuss old-style races where only a handful of cars were on the lead lap at the end as "boring" (mainly among the demographic that never experienced that type of racing). Saturday night showed precisely how there can still be a great deal of action and drama even as a big part of field ends up lapped. When cars are on the edge and mechanical issues lurk around every corner, that can happen.

14) Justin's brother, Stefan Wilson, provided some great updates on Twitter throughout the race. Getting him back in a Firestone Indy Lights car to finish what he started there needs to happen.

15) One more thought on Justin Wilson: his previous best finish at Texas was P15. Talk about a reversal of fortune!

16) Two consecutive weekends, two consecutive mechanical issues leaving Rubens Barrichello with a very early finish on the day. That won't do him any favors in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year fight.

17) Really, looking at the race, it had just about everything, didn't it? Surprises around every turn, setup struggles, well-earned passing, several stunning developments at the front of the pack, a heartbreaking missed opportunity, and an unlikely winner. Watching the replay, it wasn't just the euphoria of the unexpected; it really was just a great race.

18) Will the IZOD IndyCar Series return to Texas? I'm not sure; the relationship between track president Eddie Gossage and INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard seems chilly or strained at best, but there's no doubt that INDYCAR can put on a great show in Texas in front of a good oval crowd. Gossage can be a total pain in the butt, but hopefully his race is given the consideration it deserves.

One more note, not related to Texas, but interesting nonetheless. Congratulations to Fan Force United and Bryan Clauson on their partnership for the Lights races at Milwaukee and Iowa. I'm really happy to see Clauson sticking around American Open Wheel. Any sort of seat time he can get is valuable, and it'll be fun to see what he can manage with the FFU crew on the shorter ovals.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Firestone 550 Preview

Aero kits, angry owners, Twitter controversy. Hey, remember when we used to watch racing, like a few days ago?

Yes, it’s good to have the IZOD IndyCar Series back on track this weekend, as Saturday we’ll have the Firestone 550 on NBC Sports at 8pm ET (up against big NBA and NHL programming, yipes!). Texas is the first part of our oval triumvirate this month, and it’ll be really interesting to see how the new cars perform there after a rip-roaring Indy 500. With any luck, we can just focus on the racing stuff this weekend, which is, you know, fairly integral to the sport.

In any case, here are several story lines you’ll want to pay attention to for this weekend’s race:

Driver Dislike?: Dario Franchitti readily admits he isn’t a fan of this track. Oriol Servia had a special expletive for the track (or more likely, its president) on Twitter (but has since apologized). With the first return to a 1.5 mile oval since last year’s fateful Las Vegas event, there are some nervous folks out there, waiting to see how this race goes. The good news is, with the new car, the racing shouldn’t be as compact as in years past. With any luck, it will be a great Texas event in front of another good crowd.

Dario’s Comeback Continues?: Franchitti has really returned to form after a slow start to the season, and he’s won at Texas before. Since Penske and Ganassi have dominated victory lane at this track, he’ll have a very good shot to jump up even more in the standings. Will Power should also have a very strong car, and will look to silence some of the criticisms of his overall performance on ovals.

BHA Renaissance: Bryan Herta Autosport’s crew must feel like they’ve woken up from a bad dream. Since trading in their Lotus engine for one with a Honda badge, they’ve looked confident and extremely sharp out on course. Driver Alex Tagliani won the Texas pole last year, and the Honda engine should feel right at home on this track. If you’re looking for a small-team spoiler this week, don’t sleep on BHA.

Can Tag make it two Texas poles in a row?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Black Flagged (Again?): It doesn’t sound like there’s much hope for Simona de Silvestro and the Lotus HVM Racing crew to keep pace with the field this Saturday, as Beaux Barfield is already on record as stating they’ll likely get the black flag. Without some early attrition, it could come very early in the race indeed. It’s a shame after Lotus posted a nice result a Detroit (P13) after starting at the back of the pack.

Changes: Tony Kanaan will be back in his green n’ yellow #11 GEICO/Mouser machine this week, while Katherine Legge will be running the #6 Dragon Racing car this week in lieu of Sebastien Bourdais (Seb will be back for Toronto). Helio Castroneves will be back with his AAA sponsorship in the #3 car, while Dario will be sporting Energizer on the sidepods. Josef Newgarden will be back in the dark blue and black scheme we saw Bryan Clauson run for the first half of May at Indy.

Contenders Or Also-Rans?: While there’s little doubt guys like Power, Dario, and Scott Dixon will be around at the end for the Championship battle, we’re still waiting to see if drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, and Ryan Hunter-Reay can manage the sort of consistently good finishes to hang around in the overall points battle. It doesn’t take many poor races to ruin a championship hunt, and any week can knock someone right out of contention. Starting the season hot is great; sustained, consistent performance is what wins championships.

(As a side note: how about Oriol Seriva in P10 in the standings, despite having a Lotus engine up until Indy? Just how high in the standings can he climb before the season’s over?)

Rookie Battle: Yep, it's time to starting looking at where our Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates are in the standings. Katherine Legge, by merit of now splitting her ride with Bourdais, is realistically out of the ROY battle, but Josef Newgarden, Rubens Barrichello, and Simon Pagenaud are all still in the hunt. As of now, Pags is having his way, leading Rubens by 59 points, and Josef by a whopping 84. The question is, can he sustain that lead through the ovals, or can one of the other two cut deeply into it by the time we reach Toronto?

Pole: Dario.

Winner: Dario. The man is on a roll, and history shows this track is kind to his team.

Dark Horse: As much as I feel like picking Sato until he wins, let’s go with Tag and Co. getting the Barracuda car some glory this weekend. I also dig TK’s record at this track.

Have a great weekend, enjoy the race, and we’ll chat more on Monday.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

No Aero Kits In '13? I'll Live (Probably).

There are a lot of very differing, very reasonable positions out there on the inclusion or delay of aero kits for IndyCar next year. Some want them on general principle, while for others it’s a question of momentum. Still others really don’t care, one way or the other.

I do understand where the owners are coming from in not wanting kits for next year. If you’ve budgeted a certain amount for your racing program, it really isn’t that much different than setting your family budget at home. Sure, maybe you earn enough that you’ll be able to cover when you’ve got to pay those unexpected costs, but that doesn’t mean it’s something you want to do month after month. If the car is really $150-200,000 more than anticipated, and crashes/parts are costing more than budgeted, that’s not chump change, even to the more secure owners.

For the fans, there are those that want aero kits, either because they dislike the look of the car, don’t want “spec” racing, or both, and I can sympathize—I really can. However, as I stated elsewhere yesterday, I’m also not in the habit of spending the money of others for them. If the owners say it’s a no go, and the Series doesn’t force it, then we’ll deal with the consequences. I honestly don’t see a lot of fans walking away from the sport because aero kits are not added. Would we lose momentum, especially if some owners adopted and others did not? No one can say for sure, but I think that on-track product (good racing) is more important than this, and the current configuration gives us that. At the same time, I don’t want to discount that idea (is that wishy-washy enough for you?).

I’m not sure where any of you stand on it, but honestly, I’m pretty much ok with the current configuration of the DW12. I’ve come to like the look of it (extremely racy in person!), and we’re getting great passing and competition at most tracks, despite the fact those pesky Penskes and Ganassis are reigning at the top so far (but not without some healthy competition).

At times, it’s better to focus on what you have, work on managing those expenses, before adding anything new to the mix. Since none of us have access to team financial ledgers, we can’t be sure just what the actual impact of the aero kits would be. Would we lose 4-5 cars, or would most owners find a way to make it work?

In the end, some will differ, but I’m ok with no aerokits in 2013. Yes, I want them, but if it really isn’t workable right now, then we’ve still got a very entertaining product on track. This has been a great year overall for on-track IndyCar action, and if that’s what we get in 2013, I’ll be happy.

There might not be a right answer in terms of aero kits in 2013; ultimately, it’s a wait-and-see approach to observe how the decision affects INDYCAR. For next year, my desired focus is more on adding/retaining solid events, sponsorship, and cultivating talent, along with having great racing as much as possible. I think those are all areas where the Series can make some gains; if they do so, aero kits (or lack thereof) could be forgotten in a hurry.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Potshots: Notes And Thoughts From Detroit

-One of the earliest lessons life teaches any of us is some variation on the truism that states "poo happens." The Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix and all its participants were reminded that of a big way on Sunday. We had a crumbling course, 2 hour red flag delay, brief deluge, and a few good rules arguments thrown in for good measure. At times, all you can do is just laugh and move on to the next race. Stormy denouncements and rage don't belong here; a sense of understanding, good nature, and patience does. If you're blaming Randy Bernard, Roger Penske, or even Beaux Barfield for yesterday's proceedings, you might want to think again. Yesterday's issues were not the sort of thing you can plan for, and I thought the event organizers and INDYCAR did their best to fix the problem as best they could and still add some more laps to the race.

I will say it sounds like all the Belle Isle attendees had a great time through most of the weekend. I hope the event returns strong next year, with perhaps a better course configuration. They had some bad breaks, but they also have a good foundation--no pun intended.

-If you stuck around until the conclusion of the race, just know that you are a true fan, and that nothing--not hurricanes, locusts, or burning fire from the sky--will get between you and your INDYCAR.

-Look, when AJ Foyt is interviewed and admits while he's won in the snow, he's never had a street course basically come apart underneath him, you know you are on rare ground indeed.

-Even with a damage-shortened race featuring 15 laps to the finish, nothing seemed to phase Scott Dixon. Dixie has been to known to get teased for being a bit dry, but I think we've seen more of his personality this year, and if you haven't really examined his record up to this point, you may wish to consider doing so. He's the most consistent driver this season, and only 26 points behind Will Power heading into Texas. That's what being the "Iceman" will get you. In a lot of ways, the chaos of this race was a perfect example of what makes Dixon such a great driver--he's unflappable, consistent, and talented on any sort of track.

-How about Honda sweeping the top three spots in Chevy's backyard? They also nabbed six spots overall in the Top 10. True this was a weird anomaly of a race, but Honda certainly seems in a much better place right now. Speaking of Honda, how about Bryan Herta Autosport? Give them the tools to compete, and they have what it takes to give some serious headaches to far larger teams.

-ABC coverage is going to get an incomplete grade for this race. I thought it was better than St.Pete, but they still are missing through-the-pack action by dwelling on one particular battle for too long. It's ok if you miss a pass, just make sure you get the replay. I did enjoy their filler segments and interviews during red flag time, but I hope they don't need those segments again for a long, long time.

Quick Notes: Josef Newgarden was a lap down at the end, but he certainly did put on a show over the last six laps...Esteban Guerrieri is looking more and more like he's got a very good shot at the Firestone Indy Lights title. Sebastian Saavedra won't have much wiggle room in the next few races if he wants to catch Guerrieri or his teammate Tristan Vautier...Lotus wasn't great this weekend, but neither was the #78 Lotus HVM car horrible. Simona was able to hang in for a P13--no mean feat when so many drivers had severe mechanical issues. Small progress is still progress...I love road and street courses, but I am ready for the string of ovals on the schedule this month...if Oriol Servia had a Chevy since he start of the year, is there any doubt he'd be in the Top 5 of the standings right now?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix Preview

After about as fine an Indianapolis 500 as could have been witnessed, the IZOD IndyCar Series heads north to Detroit, as the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix returns to the schedule. After a turbulent week featuring plenty of speculation, indignation, and fury over discontented owners and INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard, it's nice to get back to some honest-to-goodness racing. For those of us fighting the annual post-500 depression, it's extremely welcome as we try to get out of the racing doldrums of returning to the grind after spending time at one of the greatest places on Earth.

Back to Detroit: Justin Wilson is the last driver to win on this course (all the way back in 2008), but with the narrow, curvy course, it stands to reason Will Power will have every chance to once against assert his twisty-style dominance. Rain's expected through at least part of the weekend, so it could be pretty entertaining as teams work through changing weather conditions. This is a highly technical track, one with tights turns and without much room for error, so we'll probably see some carbon fiber fly before it's all over.

Here are a few other story lines to follow through the weekend's action:

Post-Indy Momentum: After a phenomenal 500, we'll see if Belle Isle is capable of keeping some of the interest for IndyCar fans. Now, traditionally, this course is not known for on-track action, but we said the same thing about Barber, and look how that turned out. If some great Firestone tire compounds and a new car can help make this race another action-packed one, it'll mean a great season of racing just keeps going.

Eyes On ABC: ABC generally received ok reviews on their Indy 500 coverage, missing some big lead changes, but putting together some nice segments as well. The question remains if ABC can improve their coverage to give the on-track action the sort of attention and excellence it deserves. If another day of poor camera angles and unexplained lead changes ruled, expect some (ultimately fruitless) complaints from fans.

Can Andretti Bounce Back?: We've seen great drives from Andretti Autosport drivers such as James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and the entire AA team qualified very well at Indy before a disappointing overall turn in the race itself. Marco Andretti is struggling to put some good finishes together so far this year, but Hinch and RHR have looked like either one of them could contend for the win in any given week. An Andretti car winning this week would be a nice statement, and take at least a tiny bit of the sting out of Indy.

Wilson was all smiles after winning Detroit in '08.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Engine Penalties Come Due: Both Simona de Silvestro and Graham Rahal will be serving their delayed 10-spot grid penalty due to engine changes at Indy. It's particularly a shame for Simona, who had a chance to demonstrate what the "updated" Lotus might be capable of. Lotus HVM will still be off on power, but hopefully the deficit is at least somewhat lessened.

Time To Get Movin': Competition is tight this season, but those Top 20 or so spots should be instrumental once more in TEAM money payouts for 2013. With drivers such as Ed Carpenter (P23), Josef Newgarden (P21), and Alex Tagliani (P25, missed Brazil) sitting outside the Top 20, putting together some good finishes will become paramount as teams fight for those spots. It should be a great fight, with every driver involved capable of a good finish on any given day.

Pole: I'm sure you're wildly surprised to see Will Power's name here.

Winner: Power seems like the easy bet, but I wouldn't be quite ready to sell the Ganassis short just yet. They have a pretty good sense of hanging on to any bit of momentum achieved, and if they reassert their normal role in the pecking order, it can't be too much of a surprise. I have a feeling this might be the sort of track Sebastien Bourdais can make some noise on, if his Dragon Racing crew is on it.

Dark Horse: Justin Wilson had an excellent Indy 500, and I like the engineering on this team. Let's see if they can keep the momentum rolling. My sympathetic pick would be Takuma Sato.

Also: A bit off-tangent, but I have to mention the Champion Crew Conversation website. Dedicated to giving as much assistance to IndyCar fans traveling to races as possible, they were key in helping me secure a great hotel deal for my trip to the Milwaukee IndyFest later this month. If you're planning on attending any races this season, make sure to check out their website first.

I won't be up in Detroit this weekend, but I'll be following along online and via broadcast. Have a great weekend, and let's get ready for a very busy month of June!