Friday, October 4, 2013

Preview: Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston

After surviving the desert IndyCar fans call September (OK, at least we had some cool Tony Kanaan drama and GP of Indianapolis stories to keep us entertained), it’s time for the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. Reliant Park will host this doubleheader, which will also mark the last twisty event of the year. Both IndyCar and Indy Lights could see big championship swings after this weekend, so let’s dive right in:

IndyCar’s Title Fight Update: This weekend is a doubleheader, which means it’s really the last chance for some of the folks dancing on the fringe of the title race to make a big statement and close the gap to a reasonable amount heading into Fontana. So while it looks like it’s either Helio or Scott Dixon heading into Fontana, Simon Pagenaud could easily be within striking distance if he has a tremendous weekend and one of the guys in front of him falters. For that matter, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay could have a career weekend and still be in the discussion. Even Justin Wilson, 108 points out but a fashionable pick to do well in Houston, could be back in this thing if he’s as strong as some are predicting.

Bottom line, though, this is still Helio’s championship to lose. We know how dangerous Scott Dixon can be, and you can bet he’ll be coming in looking to rebound from Baltimore’s uproar. But Helio has been so consistent this season. He needs to keep it up for three more races, and he finally has that title. Out to stop him? Oh, just everyone else with even within a prayer of the title.

Bright Lights: No, we’re not waiting until the 2/3rds mark of this article to mention Firestone Indy Lights! Coming into Saturday’s Streets of Houston event, the Top 5 drivers are separated by only 11 points. 11! If that’s not enough, Peter Dempsey has landed with Team Moore this weekend, and while he’s P5 in the standings, he could very easily ruin someone’s day with a good outing.

Sage Karam, Carlos Munoz, Gaby Chaves, and Jack Hawksworth have all won this year, and you can’t count out any of them for the Lights title. This has been an absolutely thrilling back-and-forth to watch this year. Munoz couldn’t pull away from Karam; Karam took the points lead; Chaves has come on strong in the second half of the year, and Jack Hawksworth has simply powered his way back into the fight. None of these guys will have any margin for error—NONE.

As if that weren’t enough, Team Moore is also running Conor Daly this weekend, Belardi Auto Racing is also fielding Juan Pablo Garcia, JMM/BHA is running the #28 with Axcil Jeffries, and Matthew Di Leo is running once again as an owner driver. There’s a big points difference between crashing out early and finishing P8 or P9 versus finishing P12 . Do not miss this weekend’s Lights action, because it’s setting up for an epic finish at Fontana in two weeks.

Grid Penalties: Both Dario Franchitti and Graham Rahal will be serving 10-spot grid penalties for unapproved engine changes on Saturday, so keep that in mind during qualifications.

Coyne In Command: This seems to be Mike Conway’s sort of road course, and Dale Coyne again has him in the Coyne #18 machine. Combined with Justin Wilson, this weekend should be a prime opportunity for the DCR boys to get another quality showing, and possibly even a win. And yes, I absolutely love having Dale Coyne among the favorites going into a race weekend.

Can Chevy Strike Back?: If you've been keeping score on engine competition, you may have noticed that since Pocono, a Chevy machine has won only a single race in that timespan. Honda has just had that slight edge, though it's been quite competitive across the board. Chevy could certainly use a victory or two this weekend, because the chips have not fallen their way as of late. We knew Honda would get on track eventually, and have they ever!

Hitting The Brakes: One of the key tech items to watch in Houston is the increased brake cooling allowed for Houston. Expected showers might keep the temperatures down somewhat, but it will be interesting to see just how far teams go with adjustments, and just how much it helps them handle the braking points in Reliant Park.

Standing Start Returns!: Yep, Race 1 will be a standing start. If Scott Dixon's standard start this weekend is anything like his one at Toronto, he'll be quite happy indeed. Let's see who uses it to their advantage and who is left eating dust.

Looks Like Rain: The weekend Houston forecast shows a 30% chance of thundershowers on both race days, and  a pair of already intriguing races could see some isolated storms wreak havoc with planned strategies. We know the gambles always go up with wet conditions, and the team who guesses right could get a big jump in the championship.

Livery Watch: It’s a colorful weekend in Houston, with Dario Franchitti repping the T-Mobile pink, and Hinch similarly attired in a GoPink/GoDaddy livery. Josef Newgarden will be in the very flashy, patriotic Strike #67, while Graham Rahal will have the blu e-cigs scheme. Of course, Helio Castroneves will be in Shell colors, which only makes sense for this event.

Pole Pick: I think Ganassi will come out swinging. Let’s give it to Dario (who would then start P11) or Scott Dixon.

Winner Pick: I get two, right? Going with Justin Wilson for one, and Scott Dixon for the other.

Dark Horse Pick: Since I can’t pick Wilson here, let’s throw Josef Newgarden out there. He’s got some success he can build on from Baltimore.

By the way, IndyCar Fan Favorite Driver polling closes October 7, so if you haven't voted yet, make sure to do so. Right now, Tony Kanaan is still leading Helio Castroneves by a slim margin, Charlie Kimball and Simona de Silvestro is in striking distance, and Pippa Mann's percentage continues to creep up.

Don’t forget to get those fantasy picks in—drivers will be scored across BOTH races this week. Enjoy the racing, and let’s see how IndyCar’s last street fights of the year play out.

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