Thursday, June 13, 2013

Storylines: Milwaukee IndyFest

I need to preface this post with my condolences and prayers to the family of Jason Leffler, taken from us last night in a terrible racing crash. Jason was a pure racer, a fantastic USAC driver, an Indy 500 starter, and I know he had worked towards returning to Indy in the last couple years.

God bless and Godspeed, Jason. I know you'd want us to go on, but this one really hurts.

I usually post my race storyline previews on Fridays, but since I’m preparing to head north Friday morning to Milwaukee, I thought I’d go ahead and hit the button.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I really enjoy Milwaukee, and love the Milwaukee Mile. I think it’s important, first and foremost, to note that this track, one of the most historical venues in America, looked to be absolutely dead to IndyCar after 2010-2011. However, last year’s race, with Andretti Sports Marketing stepping in, showed that this event can work. After the tentative steps of last year, IndyFest is growing into a full event, incorporating the outside community of Milwaukee, tie-in events, and plenty to do and see outside of the racing.

Seriously, if you’re an IndyCar fan, this should be a bucket list race. If you’re in the Midwest and haven’t planned on going, find some buddies or knock off work by yourself, call it a Father’s Day gift for Dad, make a mad dash up tomorrow, crash somewhere, and catch all the action. Between Friday and Saturday alone, you’re looking at 12 hours of open wheel on-track action, and that’s not including autograph sessions, Q&As, pre-race fesitivities, and the rest. There’s a lot of racing packed into this schedule, which is one of the big reasons I’m so excited to get there. It’s the sort of racing event that definitely deserves all the support it can get.

With all that out of the way, let’s get into the storylines to watch this weekend for Milwaukee IndyFest:

Can TK Keep It Going?: Tony Kanaan has amply shown that Indy was anything but a one-and-done performance, storming to a podium in Texas last week, and sits squarely P4 in the title hunt. TK is always a lot of fun to watch on any ovals, but I always enjoy seeing him on the short tracks. Can TK grab another oval victory this weekend? It certainly would seem not out of the question—he was runner-up at the Mile last year, and has won here before. He’s one of the best in this field when it comes to racing here.

That Title Hunt: We all know that this year’s championship battle is tight, so let’s focus on our Top 3 for a minute. Helio Castroneves has yet to have anything resembling the usual handful of catastrophic race results that knock him from title contention, and he’s opened up a 22-point lead over Marco Andretti. That’s not as dominating as it sounds, as that could easily be eclipsed in a single weekend. For his part, Marco has been the most consistently well-performing driver in the field this year, though he hasn’t grabbed a victory yet. P3 is currently occupied by last year’s champion (and Milwaukee winner) Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is really picking it up. It’s the sort of title fight where you’re waiting to see which driver blinks first. With the way these guys have been performing, a single nightmarish weekend could be a huge step back.

Hello, Briscoe: Ryan Briscoe get his turn in the seat-swapping going on for the #4 Panther Racing car this weekend. Briscoe won this event back in 2008 with Penske, so he’s definitely a driver to keep an eye on this weekend. We’ve already seen that pinch-hitters can win in this series.

Could TK add to his Milwaukee winning ways?
Courtesy IndyCar Media. Credit: Chris Jones
TBA, The Coyne Way: Dale Coyne’s team is definitely racy overall this season, but at the time of my writing this, no official announcement has been made for the #18 machine for Milwaukee. Ana Beatriz has been mentioned as likely getting back into the seat at some point, and without going out on too far a limb, it's probably her or JR Hildebrand we'll see in the car this weekend.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: At last! It seems like it’s been so very long since we’ve been able to talk about Firestone Indy Lights and especially Pro Mazda. Hold on to your posteriors this weekend, because both those ladder series will be contesting at the Mile. Leading off with Pro Mazda, Matthew Brabham has been absolutely dominant for Andretti Autosport in the early going, as so far as is following in his family’s footsteps rather splendidly. Behind him, teammate Shelby Blackstock and Juncos Racing’s Diego Ferreira continue to make guessing game out of the runner up position. This weekend will also mark a return to Milwaukee for Team Pelfrey’s Anders Krohn, a winner on this track back in Star Mazda days. With the Pro Mazda racing happening Friday evening, it should be a great way to cap to a very full day.

For Lights, the last time we saw these drivers was at Indianapolis, where Belardi’s Peter Dempsey won thanks to one of the most incredible finishes I have ever seen at any level of motorsport. He’ll be looking to repeat that showing in his first Lights race at Milwaukee, but it won’t be easy. Carlos Munoz is still in the driver’s seat when it comes to the title, leading 2nd-place Dempsey by 27 points. The Irish racer will really need to start chipping away at Munoz’s lead if he wants any shot at the championship. Meanwhile, Gaby Chaves and Sage Karam are right behind Dempsey, and P2-P4 in the standings are all within two points of one another. Karam should be especially fun to watch here—he had a tremendous victory in Star Mazda here in 2011, and this would seem to be his sort of track. Meanwhile, Jack Hawksworth desperately needs a good oval finish to remain in title contention. This is shaping up to be a good one.

A Who’s Who of Winners: I mentioned this in Tuesday’s article, but winning at Milwaukee has a certain distinction about it. If you wanted to create an All-Time All-Star list of IndyCar drivers, picking randomly from the list of Milwaukee Mile winners would be far from the worst option. Rex Mays, Pat Flaherty, Rodger Ward, Tony Bettenhausen, Jim Clark, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Greg Moore—the list goes on and on. (I get goosebumps just reading that list before I head into the Mile). And while winning here doesn’t confer instant legend status on the winner, it is an indicator that this is a driver’s track, where the very best have displayed their skill.

Livery Watch: Helio Castroneves will have the black-blue-and-white PPG scheme this weekend, while Dario will retain the red car, but with Huggies on the sidepod (make your own joke here). Tony Kanaan is back to Hydroxycut sponsorship for this race. Tristan Vautier will have the blue sponsorship. It looks to be a pretty normal sponsorship week, so there shouldn’t be too much in the way of confusing changes out there.

Irrelevant Stat Time: Only two IndyCar drivers competing this weekend won at Milwaukee in Indy Lights: Scott Dixon and Tristan Vautier. Knowing that, plus having a few bucks on you, might get you a Cream Puff.

Relevant Stat Time: Three drivers in this weekend’s field have won Milwaukee twice: Dario Franchitti (2004 [IRL], 2011), Tony Kanaan (2006-07), and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2004 [CART], 2012). Also, just because it’s neat to mention, this track was the one where A.J. Foyt had the most starts, with 45.

Pole Prediction: Tough one. Maybe Helio, building on that Texas success?

Winner Prediction: I’m going with Marco Andretti. This has never been one of his best tracks, but in a season where nothing goes as planned, why should that make sense? If not Marco, let’s keep it in the Andretti stable with RHR defending last year’s win.

Dark Horse: Let’s stay on the Coyne bandwagon. Justin Wilson looked to have this place figured out last year before his engine grenaded.

Of course, don’t forget to get your Fantasy IndyCar picks in before 10am ET Friday!

Have a good weekend, and if you’re at IndyFest this weekend, please stop and say hello!

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