Friday, August 30, 2013

Storylines: Grand Prix of Baltimore

With summer quickly fading (except in Indiana, apparently, where it’s felt like a sauna most of the week), IndyCar moves on to Maryland for the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT. This race has become one of my favorite street circuits on the schedule. Last year’s race featured a great restart (too great, argued Ryan Briscoe) by Ryan Hunter-Reay, and I think we’re in for another great race weekend. Here are some storylines as IndyCar’s Labor Day weekend arrives:

-IndyCar’s Iron Man! Congratulations to Tony Kanaan, who, when he starts this weekend’s race, will surpass KV Racing owner and former driver Jimmy Vasser for most consecutive IndyCar starts. 212 races is not a mark to sneeze at; it represents good times and bad, and at least a couple of injuries nasty injuries TK powered through. I hope Kanaan gets every chance in the next few years to pad his record.

-Dos Wilsons: Justin Wilson we be teammates with his brother Stefan Wilson, as Stef makes his long-awaited IndyCar debut. The Indy Lights winner looked to be in the car earlier in the year, but as they say, better late than never. Both of the Wilson boys are good guys, and both brothers finishing in the Top 10 would make a few weekends, I’m betting.

-Fallout: Baltimore is already getting a reputation as one of the most contentious and dynamic street circuits on the IndyCar schedule, and after the drama of Scott Dixon’s penalty last weekend, frayed tempers might not take much to go off. If there’s so much as a stop-and-go penalty, I fully expect Twitter to consume itself. How will Ganassi Racing respond this weekend? My first thought is “by kicking the crap out of everyone on track”, but we’ll see.

-Livery Watch: Dario Franchitti (who is contracturally obligated to never run the same livery twice in a row during a season) is sporting a snazzy black Cessna design on the #10 this weekend. Helio Castroneves will sport the white, blue, and black of the PPG livery, while Stefan Wilson will be rocking an extremely noticeable the Nirvana Tea livery (with Trader Joe’s also featured). We get to see the Dr. Pepper colors again for Marco Andretti’s #25 car (LOVE it), while it’s back to the orange for Tristan Vautier with Environmental Rail solutions. All in all, one of the better-looking weekends, I think!

-Mazda Road to Indy Update: OK, seriously—you need to check out the Firestone Indy Lights title battle, because at least one of these guys will be coming soon to an IndyCar near you. And the battle is seriously close. Points leader Carlos Munoz is only 15 up on Gaby Chaves, and only 16 up on Sage Karam. There are three races left, and you had better believe whoever comes out of this scrum to win the scholarship to IndyCar is going to have to earn it. There’s no room for the “rookie mistake”, and that, coupled with potential spoilers like Jack Hawksworth and Peter Dempsey, makes every lap and restart an absolute nail-biter.

To add to this, longtime MRTI participant Pabst Racing will be making their Lights debut with ladder driver Dalton Kellet. Owner/driver Matthew Di Leo returns for another weekend. Good things are heading for Firestone Indy Lights for 2014, and it’s already started.

-Pole Prediction: I think Will Power got the nudge he needed last week (no pun intended), and he’ll be in line for a good weekend.

-Winner Prediction: Hunter-Reay knows what to do when the chips are down. For the last time this year (I think), I’m picking RHR.

-Dark Horse: Oriol Servia. Folks might not expect overly much from Panther Racing this weekend, but Servia has finished P2 and P7 in the first two years at Baltimore. I like him to finish strong yet again.

Don’t forget those fantasy racing picks! It’s neck-and-neck at the top! As always, have a great weekend, and enjoy some great IndyCar racing. We’ll meet back here after the weekend to break it all down.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fan Stories: Graham Rahal

I asked IndyCar fans to share their best interaction with the drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy. We'll be sharing the best of those stories over the remainder of the season. Today's story is from fan Rick Bell:

Growing up, I was never much of a Rahal fan. Back in the CART days, I was an Andretti fan, and of course there was a bit of a divide among fans between the two. So when Graham Rahal came into IndyCar, I wasn't particularly a fan of his--I guess you can chalk it up to old loyalties dying hard.

However, I’ve been able to make it to Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Mid-Ohio the last few years, and every time I've interacted with Graham, he's been absolutely great. Even in the middle of his rough patches this season, he took the time to talk racing and football when I saw him in the paddock. He seemed genuinely happy to chat with fans. At Milwaukee this year, he signed an autograph for my young nephew--who you can believe wanted a Graham Rahal souvenir before we left!

I think the best story, I have, however, is two years ago at Indianapolis, in the middle of the qualifying weekend, he spent a good 10 minutes joking and talking about the Ohio State Buckeyes with a group of us. There wasn't any pretentiousness, or anything else but a kid talking football with a group of fellow guys. That doesn't sound like a huge moment or anything, but we talked about that the whole way home, and last year a bunch of the guys at our campsite were wearing Rahal colors. No, he didn’t buy me a new truck or put my kid through college, but he did seem like a guy I could sit down in a sports bar and watch a game with, and I think that’s important, too, isn’t it? I guess it's true what they say--sometimes, it's the little things that matter! I know this has not been the season Graham wanted, but this old Andretti fan can't help but pull for the kid now.

-Rick Bell
Chicago, Il.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sonoma Notes: Will Power Returns

-I was in and out with a family engagement during the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, which means I messed a bit of Sunday's race and had to go back to cover what I had missed. So what parts did I miss? Fortunately, much of it was yellow flag time. This was not a clean race at any point, but the odds are you'll have one like that every now and then.

-I suppose I should start with a hearty congratulations to Will Power for stopping one of IndyCar's most curious cold streaks. I can't think of a time a driver seemed more potentially dominant without winning than Will Power in the last year. Will has always been so great on the road courses, it's been almost unfathomable that his win drought lasted as long as it did.

-The Scott Dixon penalty...hoo boy. I understand Dixie is understandably enraged at seeing his championship points swing about 40 points after being sent to the back of the field after hitting a dawdling Penske crew member, but them's the rules. Yes, the tire carrier was showing poor situational awareness (no, I don't think he was deliberately trying to be hit), but there's not a lot of room to bend the rules when it comes to safety. If Dixon is going to catch the corner of Power's pit box, well, only bad things can happen, no matter how unfair or stupid the situation. I'm glad I didn't have to make the call, is all I can say.

-Ganassi's Mike Hull saw things a bit differently, placing the blame on poor technology that he thought adversely impacted IndyCar's review of the incident. Is he right? It's pretty strong words, but I'd love to see a comparison of just how IndyCar's replay assets match up against those of the NFL, MLB, and of course, other racing series.

-Moving on from that bit of unpleasantness, hey, what an awesome show by Justin Wilson, recovering from some early trouble to grab another podium (his third of the year). No one was getting Power on that last restart, but Wilson hung in admirably. Even with a few bad turns, this has been a fine season overall for the Dale Coyne crew.

-I still think Roger Penske could take Marco Andretti in a fight. Or, maybe not, but I think the Captain would get a few good licks in. Sunday's "altercation" between Penske and Marco was one of the stranger shouting matches I can recall hearing of.

-So how do the champion points look right now? Well, if you're Helio Castroneves, they look superb. You're 39 points up and Dixon, and Ryan Hunter-Reay has closed, but just barely, to 62 points back. Helio just is doing everything he needs to in order to secure that first IndyCar season championship. Baltimore, two Houston races, and Fontana...is there a goof-up in his future, and can RHR or Dixon capitalize if he does? Oh, and Marco Andretti is still hanging around--70 points back. He's not totally out of it yet, either, as long of a shot as that seems.

-By the way, Power marks our 10th different winner this year. Some guy on Friday had the audacity to complain about how "Ganassi was dominating everything". I'm pretty sure he's watching tapes from a few years ago. Check the points and win columns, friend.

-Charlie Kimball hasn't posted anything north of P20 at Sonoma in IndyCar. This track just doesn't seem to hold much good fortune for him.

-Ryan Briscoe looked good until his troubles, but I hope it isn't taken as anything against when I say I was happy to hear Oriol Servia will be in the Panther Racing car for the rest of the season. Ideally, I'd like to see both guys with strong, full-time rides, but Servia is such a delight to watch as a veteran who absolutely optimizes whatever situation he is given.

Other Notes: That was a nice Top 10 for Simona de Silvestro today. She's not had her name called much in recent races, but that was a very solid drive...Tough debut for Lucas Luhr, but I certainly hope this was a prelude to greater involvement for 2014...James Davison finished P18, but there's no doubt in my mind this guy would do just fine if he were given adequate seat team and a full ride. Probably not in the cards, but another perfectly serviceable weekend...Thank goodness we get back to Firestone Indy Lights next weekend!...Tony Kanaan will break the IndyCar consecutive races started streak in Baltimore. Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles did 2,632 games of baseball without sitting one out, but that's a bit different. Maybe the two could have dinner next weekend?


Friday, August 23, 2013

Storylines: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

The end of the IndyCar season is a bit rough on fans, with a few gaps between the action that make a race weekend seem a rare occasion indeed. Now, we’re looking at back-to-back race weekends at Baltimore and Sonoma, where the course of this year’s championship may well be decided for the remaining contenders. Let's check out some of the big storylines for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 4pm ET, NBC Sports):

Quals Matter: Sonoma is a track where qualifying position is huge when it comes to the race itself. Don’t believe me? Not only did last year’s winner, Ryan Briscoe, start P2 on the grid, but 2011 winner Will Power started on the pole. Here’s the big proof, though: going back to 2008, only 1 driver has finished on the podium after starting outside the first 3 rows. Watch your Firestone Fast 6, because at Sonoma as much as anywhere, that’s probably the pool your winner will be drawn from.

Test, 1,2: Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon continued their late-season renaissance by topping the Sonoma test this week, with Ryan Hunter-Reay right behind them. Dario’s really out of the title discussion, but Dixon and RHR are still chasing Helio Castroneves for the points lead. No driver can really afford an off weekend at this point in the season, so Dixie and Hunter-Reay had better hope they are just as on point for the race weekend.

New(ish) Faces: Sarah Fisher Racing welcomes Lucas Luhr to his IndyCar debut this week, as the experienced Le Mans driver jumps into the #97 car to give Josef Newgarden a teammate on the California weekend. Additionally, coming off a solid debut at Mid-Ohio for Dale Coyne Racing, James Davison will make his IndyCar Sonoma debut in the #18 this weekend. We already know about Ryan Briscoe with Panther Racing and JR Hildebrand with Team Barracuda, but it’s nice to see both of those drivers once again, too.

Briscoe’s Back: Speaking of Briscoe, it’s great to see Ryan back and recovered from his injury. Sonoma marks the place of his last series win, and he’ll be hoping to push Panther Racing to another level on this road course. Watching Briscoe in non-Penske equipment has been interested—a prolonged tryout for 2014, of sorts, and I’m immensely curious to see how he finishes out the season.

Team Barracuda Renaissance?: Sonoma is a “home race” for driver Hildebrand, and he’d love nothing more than to put an exclamation point on his return here while driving for Team Barracuda. As for Bryan Herta’s team, a good result and a clean weekend would be helpful in the extreme. Hildebrand nabbed a P8 result here last year, so let’s see if he can match or improve on that.

Livery Watch: where to start? Helio is in the Hitachi black-and-red this weekend, while Tony Kanaan’s #11 will be in the now-familiar Hydroxycut colors. Graham Rahal will switch over to the white-and-red Big O Tires livery, while Tristan Vautier will sport the green-and-yellow of Angie’s List. On the side of Lucas Luhr’s #97 will be the initials for RW Motorsports, who are helping make this venture of his possible this weekend.

Somewhat Interesting, Probably Meaningless Stat: Charlie Kimball will have his work cut out for him if he wants to repeat his awesome Mid-Ohio win. He’s the only driver in this field to finish worse than P20 at Sonoma the last two years.

Mazda Road to Indy Watch: No support from the MRTI at Sonoma this weekend. We’ll have to look to Baltimore for that, where Carlos Munoz, Gaby Chavez, and Sage Karam will continue their incredibly tight battle for an Indy Lights championship. Yep, I'll be missing Indy Lights this weekend, and I don't care who knows it.

Pole Prediction: Dario Franchitti. Guy’s on a roll.

Winner Prediction: Ryan Hunter-Reay. I think he can do it. If he doesn’t, a repeat title chance fades pretty badly.

Dark Horse Prediction: Seabastien Bourdais. It sounds as if he tested well, and that entry has been much improved as of late.

Don’t forget to make your IndyCar fantasy picks! Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fan Stories: Charlie Kimball

I asked IndyCar fans to share their best interaction with the drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy. We'll be sharing the best of those stories over the remainder of the season. Today's story is from fan Magdalena Brown:

I've been a Charlie Kimball fan since the first time I saw his Novo Nordisk car. My father went through a terrible time with diabetes, and it really destroyed his health in his later years. Knowing I and the rest of my loved ones were at high risk, we had to make big lifestyle changes. Still, I was diagnosed with diabetes last year, which really shook me up badly, since I had seen my dad go through so much.

I was able to attend the Indy 500 for the first time 2008 this past year, and sure enough, we were able to find the garage with the #83 car back in Gasoline Alley! My sister and I took all sorts of photos, and were getting ready to leave when Charlie came out and signed a few autographs. We told him a bit about our family's history with diabetes, and while he kept signing for the fans, he took a good five minutes to talk with us about our trip, our current situation, and answered our (probably silly!!) questions about his month at Indianapolis. He was so encouraging and friendly and polite the whole time and it made our trip back to Indy one for the record books! So soon after losing my dad, it was touching to have that sort of kindness.

I don't know if Charlie remembers us or not, but neither my sister or me will forget him taking that time for two silly middle-aged ladies. We were so happy when he won this last week, and will cheer until we go bananas every time for that great young man! He's a great ambassador for diabetics everywhere, and a great reminder the fight can go on!

Magdalena Brown
Sacramento, CA

(If you have a great story about IndyCar fan/driver interactions, it isn't too late! Send them to mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com, along with you name (or initials) and hometown! We'll publish the best on the site through the rest of the racing season!)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Thoughts On Barracuda’s Lineup

Yesterday, BHA-Team Barracuda finally revealed the two drivers that will be manning the wheel of the #98 car for the rest of the season. Luca Filippi has already run Mid-Ohio for Bryan Herta’s team, and will do the same for Baltimore and Houston. Meanwhile former Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand will jump in for Sonoma and the season finale at Fontana.

The entire situation leaves me torn. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Alex Tagliani, consider him one of the best ambassadors of IndyCar, and know quite well that his passion for this sport is rarely equaled and never surpassed. But on the other hand, it was obvious this team was floundering all-around, and some very brutal decisions were made. That’s nothing new in this sport, even as we still wince every time it happens.

So enter Filippi and Hildebrand. One is a GP2 ace who was fated to be perpetually denied his shot at Formula 1. The other is Mazda Road to Indy All-American, who nearly won the 500 as a rookie, and has endured about as mixed a career as one can imagine since then. Both have skill, and I’d love to see both firmly in the series for 2014. But that’s not really at the heart of the question here.

What can fix a small, one-car team that has this year looked very much like a well, small, one-car, struggling team?

Honestly, it’s probably too much to expect either driver to suddenly lift BHA to glory in what remains of 2013. This is a team in survival mode as much as anything, and some adequate, safe results and regular Top 10s would feel pretty good. JR Hildebrand finished in the Top 10 at Sonoma last season, so it isn’t as if this team will necessarily struggle every week through Fontana. They’ve picked two drivers that can do well by them, and I hope that they’re able to be as discerning for their choice or choices for 2014.

It’s a year to forget for Herta’s group, and with all my heart, I hope they endure past it. They are fan-friendly and fun, and the warm spot I have for them goes back at least to Dan Wheldon getting that chance at Indianapolis two years ago. I’ll be hopefully looking for any sort of spark at Sonoma, Baltimore, Houston, and Fontana, while hoping that Alex Tagliani finds a spark of own.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Send Us Your Awesome IndyCar Driver Fan Experiences

INDYCAR fans know they're lucky when it comes to driver interaction--drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series generally carry a great reputation for interaction with fans whether it's at the track or at an outside event. 

IndyCar Advocate wants to hear your best driver/fan stories about active and recent IndyCar drivers making the fan experience extra-special. Whether it's Ed Carpenter, Alex Tagliani, Scott Dixon, or Pippa Mann, we'd love to hear your great story about an IndyCar driver going the extra step for their fans. The idea is to round them up and share the best starting next week. With any luck, we'll have at least one almost every driver, and I bet we'll find out about some neat moments from INDYCAR's finest.

Please send your name and location (if you wish), along with your story to mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com. Please keep any entries to 300-400 words maximum. Please send in all entries by Sunday, August 18th. We'll also pick a random entrant for a free INDYCAR t-shirt or decal giveaway. Mazda Road to Indy drivers, including Indy Lights, are also more than welcome as a suitable topic!

I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the great INDYCAR fan/driver stories I know are out there. Spread the word, and send in your stories. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Projecting The Course: IndyCar's Title Fight

With four race weekends left in the IZOD IndyCar Series 2013 campaign, there are three drivers we can reasonably assume still have a solid shot at the title. Helio Castroneves is in the driver’s seat, leading second-place Scott Dixon by 31 points, and third-place Ryan Hunter-Reay by a margin of 65 points.

Usually, we can look at a driver’s history at a track or tracks, and get a reasonable projection of how they may fare on a given race weekend. What makes looking at this year’s title fight so unique, however, is that we’re fairly starved for data when it comes to that. We have no usable data for Houston, and only a single recent race at Fontana to attempt to parlay into a reasonable projection.

Still, let’s have a go at it. I’ve looked at the last three years of finishes for Sonoma, the last two years for Baltimore, and last year’s event for Fontana. Here’s the average finish at each event for each contender:

Sonoma: Castroneves 4.3, Dixon 6.7, Hunter-Reay 12.0

Baltimore: Castroneves 13.5, Dixon 4.5, Hunter-Reay 4.5

Fontana: Castroneves 5.0, Dixon 3.0, Hunter-Reay 4.0

If each driver nets their average finish at each remaining race, the points would look like this, with only the Houston results to add in:

1) Castroneves 32 (Sonoma-P4)+16 (Baltimore-P14)+30 (Fontana-P5)+453=531
2) Dixon 26 (Sonoma-P7)+30 (Baltimore-P5)+35 (Fontana-P3)+422=513
3) Hunter-Reay 18 (Sonoma-P12)+30 (Baltimore-P5)+32 (Fontana-P4)+388=468

Essentially, if the Houston races are fairly even points-wise and averages hold true as above, Dixon nudges a bit closer, RHR stays pat, and Helio wins the title.

Lets’s see what happens to the points, however, if each driver were to match their best finish at each track of the last three years, again with only Houston not added in:
1) Castroneves 40 (Sonoma-P2)+20 (Baltimore-P10)+30 (Fontana-P5)+453=543
2) Dixon 40 (Sonoma-P2)+32 (Baltimore-P4)+35 (Fontana-P3)+422=529
3) Hunter-Reay 24 (Sonoma-P8)+50 (Baltimore-P1)+32 (Fontana-P4)+388=494

In that scenario, Dixie moves even closer, Hunter-Reay closes the gap, but Helio still wins.

So what does this tell us, if anything?

-Even if he has some awesome finishes, Hunter-Reay still needs a lot of help when it comes to closing the gap.

-Helio needs to just keep on bringing those Top 5s to keep Scott Dixon at bay.

-Dixon is at least in striking distance, though he can’t afford any miscues, either.

-Every race is important, but factoring in a possible max of 100+ points from the Houston weekend is huge—and we have no idea how that’s going to go. That could be a big comeback weekend for someone, or a doubleheader that spells doom. That is not the weekend to be lost on setup.

Don’t forget, Marco Andretti is only 11 points behind Hunter-Reay, as well. He can’t seem to quite close the deal this year, but he’s been as consistent as nearly anyone in the Series. He would likely need an unprecedented string of victories to head into Fontana with a chance, but you never say never.

Ultimately, we can look at stats and numbers all day, but we’ll just need to see which drivers can finish strong. As we learned last year, an IndyCar title fight can be full of surprises.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Kimball Makes Good: A Look Back

I usually write a Monday notebook after every IndyCar race, but this weekend warranted something a bit different. I want to spend today discussing this year's Honda Indy 200 champ, Charlie Kimball.

It wasn't too long ago that Kimball was attempting to make the jump from Firestone Indy Lights to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Back then, much critique was given to his Lights resume, which pointedly did not include any victories. When compared to the records of drivers making the jump around the same time--JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, and others--Kimball's record just wasn't seen as up to snuff by some.

Indeed, there was also a lot of grumbling, as Kimball took his place in what came to be referred to a Ganassi's "B" program--the thought that an unheralded rookie did not deserve jump right into a Ganassi car. Kimball faced a deep learning curve, especially when he was always going to be held up to to teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon--as unfair as that comparison was going to be.

Kimball's first year was not an easy one, and his rookie campaign saw a pair of Top 10s as his best results. The next year saw his first podium, and an increase in comfort behind the wheel. It still seemed as if he wasn't aggressive enough at times, and despite improvement, he finished P19 in the standings once again.

This year, though, has been different. Kimball has regularly placed in the Top 10, has hovered around the Top 10 in points overall this year, and seems to have turned the corner in terms of where he rated in this series.

That played out Sunday, when Kimball made a beautiful pass late in the race at Mid-Ohio to hold off Simon Pagenaud for his first-ever IZOD IndyCar Series. Needless to say, most fans likely had another Ganassi driver--Scott Dixon--as their project Mid-Ohio winner. But it was Kimball that found victory on a beautiful Midwest August afternoon.

Sometimes, we see drivers, know they were born with talents few of us will match, and in enviable circumstances that help them get into racing, and assume they just walked into their career. What we don't see is that it still takes work, huge amounts of work, dedication, and practice to get to the top tier of the sport. For Charlie Kimball, the difficulty was compounded by having to temporarily put his racing career on hiatus while he dealt with diabetes.

That would have been a point where it was easy to give up, or take another career path. Instead, Kimball turned what many would consider a weakness into a strength. He parlayed his involvement into with Novo Nordisk into an IndyCar ride, and the diabetes medical supply company has become one of the most involved and stalwart sponsors in the series.

Charlie Kimball has often been unfavorably been compared to more extroverted drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, with the idea that he's somehow more vanilla or lacking in the social aspect of the sport. Yet he's been unfailingly accessible to bloggers, humble, and an all-around really nice guy. Even that was pointed out as an indication he lacked the needed edge, but this season and Sunday's win should put an end to that.

So, an American driver and Mazda Road to Indy product who has overcome big personal chances to make good got his first victory Sunday. Charlie Kimball has come a long way, and his future seems brighter than ever.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Storylines: Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio

After a layoff of three full weeks, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns with its annual trip to Ohio for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Along with a title battle that’s heating up, there are some new faces and twists since the open wheelers all gathered together. With only five race weekends left, some teams are looking to make a last-minute charge—while others are desperately trying to salvage something in the races that are left.

Regrettably, I’ll be missing out on the Mid-Ohio trip, which is rough, but I’ll be following along as best I can. Whether you’re a couch warrior or credential-holding attendee, here are some of the big storylines for the weekend:

Red-Hot Racing Streak: Scott Dixon is coming off three straight victories, and he’s won three out of the last four at Mid-Ohio. To say he’s a favorite this weekend would be a bit like saying ESPN likes covering Danica Patrick. If Dixie wins here, he’ll not only erase a bit more of that championship lead Helio Castroneves is fighting to protect. There’s no drivers in the series right now looking as confident or as consistent as Dixon, and he looks poised to continue what’s been an absolutely brilliant run (and a resurgence for Honda, one might add).

Too Late For RHR?: After a disappointing string of races, Ryan Hunter-Reay finds himself fighting to stay in the title fight. He’s now 69 points behind Helio Castroneves, and that means his margin of error for the rest of the season has dwindled rapidly. He led the Mid-Ohio test, but it remains to be seen if he can catch fire in the same way as he did last season and jump back to the front of the championship brawl.

Look At All Those New Faces: James Davison makes his IndyCar race debut with Dale Coyne this weekend, while Luca Filippi gets his long-awaited shot in the Team Barracuda #98. Oriol Servia is a familiar sight, but he’s also returning to action this weekend for Panther Racing. This gives Mid-Ohio a “tryout” sort of feeling. Keep an eye especially on Filippi, who looked fairly sharp in this week’s open test.

Seabass Finding His Groove: Sebastien Bourdais looked great at Toronto, and he was quick in the open test at Mid-Ohio. For a struggling program like Dragon, having Bourdais grabbing a victory would be absolutely huge. Is he going to be able to make it happen this weekend? It’s a tall order, but it’s also great to see Bourdais finding some of that old form again after a brutal start to the year.

Rahal’s Home Race: I think we’re ok with calling Graham Rahal’s first season with his dad’s team fairly disastrous so far, aren’t we? Well, Rahal’s back in his home Buckeye State this weekend, and I’m sure he and the team would really like to get going in front of a supportive home crowd. Graham really hasn’t had a great finish at Mid-Ohio (outside of a P8 back in ’09), so he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: For only the second time this year, we’ll have more than 10 entries for Firestone Indy Lights. That’s thanks to the debut of Axcil Jeffries (with Bryan Herta Autosport), Belardi Auto Racing fielding a third car for Venezuelan driver Giancarlo Serenelli, and young owner/driver Matthew DiLeo returning for another round. You don’t want to be one of only two drivers on the season to finish outside the Top 10. Up front, Carlos Munoz holds an 8-point lead over Sage Karam. This is the first time Indy Lights has been to Mid-Ohio in a few years, so it should be interesting to see who has a knack for this course.

As far as Pro Mazda goes, Matthew Brabham was looking invincible before Spencer Pigot and Shelby Blackstock both grabbed victories in Toronto to stop his winning streak. Brabs still has a strong lead in the standings, and was quickest in the July Mid-Ohio test. If a driver like Blackstock or Diego Ferreira want any shot at the Pro Mazda title, they’ll need a perfect weekend—and some help from Brabs. Looking over at USF2000, Scott Hargrove still leads, but prospects like Danilo Estrela and Florian Latorre are stepping up their game as of late. All in all, the weekend is going to be chock full of Mazda Road to Indy action.

Livery Watch: Panther Racing will again have pink mixed into the #4 car’s color scheme, in honor of female soldiers (thank you, ladies!). Dario Franchitti will have a purple-and-blue GE Reveal car this weekend (it’s unique, I’ll give it that). Helio returns to the black, blue, and white PPG livery (I’ve always liked that), while Tristian Vautier is in green and yellow for Angie’s List in the #55 car. James Davison will make his debut in the red-and-white Sonny’s BBQ livery for Dale Coyne’s #18. All in all, it might be a slightly confusing weekend.

Pole Prediction: Will Power. It’s about time.

Winner Prediction: Scott Dixon, until someone else besides the Kiwi proves they can win here.

Dark Horse Prediction: I suppose it really wouldn’t be a surprise if Simon Pagenaud won, so I’m going with James Jakes to get Rahal a backyard victory.

Also, don’t forget to get your Fantasy Racing picks in ASAP! Have a great weekend, and we’ll meet back Monday to discuss all the weekend’s action.