Thursday, April 27, 2017

Track Walk: Phoenix 2017

Sebastien Bourdais still leads the championship. Can he be on top come May?
IndyCar makes it back-to-back weeks with races as the series heads west for the first oval race of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season at Phoenix International Raceway. Last year, Scott Dixon led the final 155 laps to win the Phoenix Grand Prix, the first race at the track since 2005 and a race where passing was difficult due to the aero package. For the second consecutive year, the race will occur on a Saturday night.

Time: Coverage begins at 9:00 p.m. ET on Saturday April 28th. Green flag will be at 9:35 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN.
Announcers: Rick Allen is back in the booth (Leigh Diffey has Formula One duty) with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be working the pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice- 7:00 p.m. ET (2-hour session).
Qualifying- 11:00 p.m. ET
Race- 9:35 p.m. ET (250 laps).

Bourdais On Top But Challengers Closing
The Frenchman leads the IndyCar championship with 117 points but Sébastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing have plenty of top drivers on their coattails.

Scott Dixon is one of two drivers with top five finishes in all three races this season and he trails Bourdais by six points with Josef Newgarden fresh off victory at Barber seven points behind Bourdais. Dixon won last year at Phoenix while Newgarden won the other short track race last year at Iowa and two of Bourdais' five oval victories have come at short tracks.

The top three in the championship are all on impressive streaks on short tracks. Bourdais has four consecutive top ten finishes on short tracks while Dixon has three top five finishes and five top ten finishes in the last six short track races. Newgarden has six consecutive top ten finishes on short tracks, five of which have been top five finishes and three of those have been podium finishes.

Simon Pagenaud trails his fellow countryman by 11 points and he is the other driver to have three top five finishes from the first three races of 2017. He finished second last year at Phoenix and he is looking to have four top five finishes from the first four races for the second consecutive season and third time in the last four seasons.

James Hinchcliffe rounds out the top five with the Long Beach winner 15 points behind Bourdais. Hinchcliffe is coming off his first top ten finish in the race after a victory and he is looking for four top ten finishes from the first four races for the first time since 2012. Hinchcliffe has a short track victory but since winning at Iowa in 2013 he has two top ten finishes with an average finish of 13.0 in four short track races.

Chevrolet Looks to Repeat Dominance
Chevrolet dominated last year's race at Phoenix by sweeping the top ten in qualifying, taking four of the top five and eight of the top ten in the race and Chevrolets led all 250 laps. All signs from the preseason test points to Chevrolet continuing their dominance at Phoenix.

J.R. Hildebrand was fastest at the test at 193.234 MPH, the only driver to break the 193-MPH barrier at the test and faster than the track record. Hildebrand returns to the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet this weekend after missing Barber due to a broken hand suffered at Long Beach. Ed Carpenter was second at the test at 192.404 MPH and he will be making his season debut this weekend in the #20 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet. Hildebrand has never raced at Phoenix and Carpenter qualified fifth last year before retiring after slapping the wall exiting turn four. Carpenter has never finished better than 16th in three Phoenix starts.

Hélio Castroneves led the first 39 laps from pole position last year but had to make an unscheduled pit stop after his right front tire suffered a puncture entering turn one and he could only manage to finish 11th. The Brazilian was fourth fastest at the test behind his teammate Josef Newgarden. Castroneves won at Phoenix in 2002 but he has failed to finish in the top ten in the last three short track races despite starting on pole position for two of those three races.

Will Power rounded out the top five at the preseason test. Power finished third last year at Phoenix and finished second at Iowa in July. Power has had the worst start to a season of his career and he has five consecutive finishes outside the top ten, the longest drought of his career.

A.J. Foyt Racing did not have as successful of a test in February with Carlos Muñoz in 17th and Conor Daly 20th. Muñoz had two accidents last year at Phoenix, one in qualifying and the other in the race that caused him to be the first retirement. Daly completed 249 of 250 laps last year and finished 16th.

Short Track Specialists
Short tracks have been kind to Ryan Hunter-Reay as the American has won seven times on short tracks, including at least one short track victory for five consecutive seasons from 2011-15. Last year, Hunter-Reay started 12th, the second-best Honda driver and he made a bold start that saw him go from 12th to seventh and eventually he was up in the top five by his great restarts. However, Hunter-Reay would be caught out by cautions twice and twice had to come from the back but only could manage a tenth-place finish.

Like Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan has a great record on short tracks with six victories, two of which came at Phoenix, most of all active drivers at the track, but Kanaan has not won on a short track since Iowa 2010. Kanaan finished fourth at both short track races last season and he has five podiums, seven top five finishes and nine top ten finishes in the ten short track races in the DW12-era.

Graham Rahal has had a lackluster start to the season with finishes of 17th, tenth and 13th. Rahal finished fifth at Phoenix last year and he been consistently good on short tracks. He had two podiums and five top ten finishes in his first ten short track races and in his last ten short track races he has only one podium but has seven top ten finishes. This is the third consecutive season with Rahal starting with non-top ten finishes in the first and third races with a top ten sandwiched in-between in the second race and each year Rahal has finished second in the fourth race of the season.

Ed Jones might be entering his fourth career IndyCar start and his first ever on an oval but the Emirati driver has already shown he has a bit of skill on short tracks in Indy Lights. In his four short track starts in Indy Lights, Jones had three podium finishes including runner-up finishes at Iowa in 2015 and at Phoenix last year. His worst finish on a short track was eighth at Milwaukee in 2015. Jones was 18th in the preseason test.

On the Right Path
Alexander Rossi overcame his engine failure at Long Beach with a fifth-place finish at Barber, matching his career-best finish on a road/street circuit and he finds himself in the top ten of the championship. Rossi ran well at Phoenix last year and was in position for a top ten finish before needing to pit for fuel when the pits were closed and skimming the wall with two laps to go to bring out the final caution of the race. Rossi did finish sixth at Iowa last year.

Mikhail Aleshin and Max Chilton both have improved two positions in each race this year with Aleshin finishing 14th, 12th and tenth in the first three races and Chilton going from 16th to 14th to 12th. Aleshin had a fifth-place finish at Iowa last year and he finished eighth at Milwaukee in 2014. He was also the top Honda at the Phoenix preseason test in sixth. Chilton finished seventh last year at Phoenix in his second career IndyCar start. That remains the Brit's best IndyCar finish to date. He qualified fourth at Iowa but a spin caused him to finish 19th.

Looking to Buck a Trend
Takuma Sato is eighth in the championship with finishes of fifth and ninth in two of the first three races but Sato's track record on short tracks does not boded well for him this weekend. In 14 short track starts he has three top ten finishes but his most recent was seventh at Milwaukee in 2013. His average finish on short tracks is 15.07 with six retirements.

Marco Andretti had a promising start to the season by finishing seventh at St. Petersburg but an electrical issue and a gearbox issue at Long Beach and Barber respectively have derided Andretti of building on his start and he has fallen to 17th in the championship. Since his 2011 victory at Iowa, he has one podium at a short track (second at Iowa 2012) and four top ten finishes.

Charlie Kimball completed all 90 laps at Barber but his average finish in the first three races is 17.0. Last year, Kimball had only two finishes of 15th or worse and his best finish through the first three races is 15th. Kimball's best finish in 13 short track starts is ninth with an average finish of 14.153.

Fast Facts
This will be the fifth IndyCar race to occur on April 29th and the first since Will Power won on the streets of São Paulo in 2012.

Six drivers have finished in the top ten in all three races this season (Bourdais, Dixon, Newgarden, Pagenaud, Hinchcliffe, Castroneves).

Josef Newgarden has finished on the podium in the last two races, the first time he has had successive podium finishes in his IndyCar career.

Conor Daly has never finished on the lead lap in his prior six oval starts.

A.J. Foyt Racing did not have a top ten finish on an oval last year and the team's last top ten finish on an oval was sixth at Pocono in 2015 with Takuma Sato. The team's last top five finish on an oval was fifth at Iowa with Darren Manning in 2007.

Chevrolet led 546 of 550 short track laps last year.

Alexander Rossi was responsible for the four laps led by Honda on the short tracks and they all came at Iowa.

Takuma Sato has not had three top ten finishes in the first four races since 2013.

Ed Carpenter retired from four of five of his starts last year and has not finished on the lead lap in his last six starts.

Teo Fabi and Arie Luyendyk are the only European drivers to win at Phoenix.

The average starting position for a Phoenix winner is 4.33 with a median of three.

The last two Phoenix races have been won from sixth position. Never has the same starting position produced three consecutive Phoenix winners.

The last oval race won from pole position was the 2014 Milwaukee race by Will Power.

In the 28 oval races in the DW12-era, only three have been won from pole position, only nine have been won from inside the top five and 11 have been won from outside the top ten, five of which have been from outside the top fifteen.

All three oval races won from pole position in the DW12-era have been by Team Penske (Power at Fontana 2013, Juan Pablo Montoya at Pocono 2014 and Power at Milwaukee 2014).

The average starting position for an oval winner in the DW12-era is 8.714 with a median of 7.5.

However, in the ten short track races in the DW12-era, eight of ten have been won by cars starting in the top ten for an average starting position of 5.7 with a median of five.

The average amount of lead changes at Phoenix is 5.274 with a median of five.

Last year's race had two lead changes, the fewest since 1992 when Bobby Rahal led all 200 laps.

The average amount of cautions at Phoenix is 4.787 with a median of four. The average number of caution laps is 36.09 with a median of 32.

Seven of the last ten Phoenix races have had over 50 caution laps.

Possible Milestones:
Should he start the race, Tony Kanaan will surpass Al Unser, Jr. for fourth all-time in starts with his 330th start.

Hélio Castroneves needs to lead 3 laps to reach the 5,600 laps led milestone.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 66 laps to reach the 5,000 laps led milestone.

Tony Kanaan needs to lead 4 laps to reach the 4,000 laps led milestone.

Marco Andretti needs to lead 10 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Josef Newgarden needs to lead 7 laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

Ed Carpenter needs to lead 95 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Chevrolet dominates again. Will Power gets off the snide and wins ahead of Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud. J.R. Hildebrand qualifies in the top five but only finishes in the top ten. Honda takes at least five of the top ten and gets one car in the top five and leads at least one lap. There will be at least four lead changes. Less than ten cars will finish on the lead lap. Sleeper: Ed Carpenter.