Friday, June 7, 2013

Storylines: Firestone 550

It’s time for six-shooters and 10-gallon hats, as IndyCar takes its show to Texas for the Firestone 550 this weekend. There’s always something special about a primetime race, and this one will go off Saturday night on ABC. That’s a good thing for a race that’s still only next to Indy itself in terms of oval draws. IndyCar is going to have one of its bests chances of the season to put on a show for a wider viewing audience, and there’s no doubt Texas is usually a nerve-wracking compilation of thrills.

Here are some the storylines to follow heading into Texas:

Tech Stuff: Last year’s race got rid of the pack racing that was a former feature at Texas, but it didn’t seem to hurt the product at all—quite the contrary. This year, expect qual speeds to nudge up, as the aero configuration is being slightly tweaked in that direction. Also, Firestone should be bringing a tire that will give a bit more grip than last year. Make no mistake, though, this is still a track where the drivers have to drive.

Seriously, The Competition!: You’ve probably seen the stat by now: six drivers have won the seven races this year, and none of them are on Penske or Ganassi. Instead, Andretti, Foyt, Schmidt, and KV Racing have shown just what a competitive edge this series has right now. It’s absolutely thrilling—nothing seems out of the realm of possibility now. Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud, EJ Viso—really, any driver and team could find the right mix and be battling for the win at the end. Even races that are anticipated as being lower on the action scale—such as Detroit—have had some really excellent on-track battling. No one is sure how any race will play out, and that’s exhilarating.

The Defending Champ: Justin Wilson won a very popular victory last year when Graham Rahal brushed the wall in the closing laps. It was a brutal turn of events for Rahal the Younger, but for Wilson, it was another affirmation that he’s one of the very best in the business, especially when the downforce is scaled back. Wilson comes in with two podiums and three other Top 10 finishes on the season already, and a competitive P7 in a close championship race.

What About Graham?: Rahal was just mentioned above, and last year’s scrape was probably one of the worst ways possible to lose a race. He’s had a very up-and-down season, and it’s tough to predict just how he’ll do in any given weekend. In a year of breakout wins, could Texas mark his next one?

Points Battle Update: Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti are tied for P1 in the standings, but Ryan Hunter-Reay has been coming on strong, and is only 15 points back. Scott Dixon is only 20 back of the leaders, and Simon Pagenaud trails Dixie by only 9 points.

Further, Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson, Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, and Charlie Kimball round out the Top 10, and all are within less than 60 points of the leaders. Even out of the Top 10, names like Dario Franchitti, James Jakes, and EJ Viso are only a good race or two away from joining the immediate title conversation. Sooner or later, the chaos is going to subside, and the true frontrunners will emerge, but at this point, it’s still a guessing game, with some surprising names keeping themselves in contention.

Hey, Look Who’s Back: It’s time for a Texas-sized “howdy” for two drivers who are making another appearance after Indianapolis. Oriol Servia gets the nod in the #4 Panther Racing machine, whereas Pippa Mann and her Cyclops Gear sponsor will make a return in the Dale Coyne Racing #18 car. Surprisingly, Servia has never finished better than P20 at this track, while Panther scored a Top 5 here last year with JR Hildebrand. We’ll have to see if the respected vet can get it done Saturday. Meanwhile, Mann will be making her first-ever start here, though she has tested at the track before. She’ll be joining a Coyne team that not only won here last year, but put their second car in the Top 10.

Barracuda Comeback?: Alex Tagliani has started from the pole position the last two years at Texas, but Team Barracuda-BHA has struggled since the opening round this season. Tag can still qualify a car like few others, but it remains to be seen if Barracuda can shake some of that bad luck that’s been trailing them. Let’s hope so—that’s too good of an organization to struggle for long.

Another Chance For Dixie: Scott Dixon fairly dominated the proceedings in last year’s race, leading a whopping 133 laps before his crash. Before that crash, Dixon’s finishes here since 2008 went as follows: 1, 3, 4, 2, 2. Dixon hasn’t won yet this year, but this could be one of his absolute best chances this year.

Pole Prediction: I’d like to go with Tag once more, but I’m going to nudge this one to Hinch. He was excellent in Texas last year.

Winner Prediction: It’s time for a Ganassi to win one. Justin Wilson is driving lights-out this year, and it’d be great to see another Coyne win, but I sense a Dixon or Franchitti victory a-comin’. I’ll go with Dixon.

Dark Horse: You won’t believe it, but I’m going with James Jakes. He was very good here last year, and I like how he’s been driving since May. Plus, Rahal Letterman Lanigan was fairly quick in qualifying last year, although an engine penalty started them further back.

Stat of the Week: Six current teams can boast of victories since this race began in 1997: AJ Foyt Enterprises, Andretti Autosport (as Andretti Green) Chip Ganassi Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Panther Racing, and Team Penske. Until Coyne’s victory last year, a non-Penske/Ganassi team had not won here since 2005.

Other Stuff I Wrote: Besides my sympathetic look at Roger Penske’s plight, I also did an article on the the upcoming oval stint on the schedule. Be sure to give them a click, if you're so inclined.

Don’t forget to get those fantasy picks in by 10am ET today (Friday)! Enjoy the race, invite some friends over, and kick back with an RC Cola or Sun Drop while you do so.

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