Thursday, June 8, 2017

Track Walk: Texas 2017

Graham Rahal could make IndyCar history at a new look Texas Motor Speedway
IndyCar returns to Texas and this year the series hopes to complete this race before the month of June ends. Last year's race will be forever remembered for the multiple rain delays and postponement until August 27th. However, the completion of the race made up for the two-and-a-half month delay as Graham Rahal won the race by 0.0080 seconds over James Hinchcliffe, the fifth-closest finish in IndyCar history and Tony Kanaan finished third, 0.0903 seconds behind Rahal. Eight different drivers have won the last eight Texas races.

Time: Coverage begins at 8:00 p.m. ET on Saturday June 10th. Green flag will be at 8:30 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN.
Announcers: Kevin Lee will be in the booth (Leigh Diffey has Formula One duty) with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be working the pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice- 11:00 a.m. ET (75-minute session).
Qualifying- 3:15 p.m. ET
Final Practice- 6:45 p.m. ET (30-minute session).
Race- 8:30 p.m. ET (250 laps).

New Track, New Tires
This will be IndyCar's 29th trip to Texas Motor Speedway but this one will be unlike any of the previous 28 trips to the Denton County track.

Since IndyCar was last at Texas in August the track has seen at slight reconfiguration to turn one and turn two and a repave of the entire circuit. The banking in the first two corners has been lowered by four degrees from 24 degrees to 20 degrees and the first two corners have been widened by 20 feet.

Ed Carpenter participated in the open test at the track in April and said the tire degradation wasn't on the same level as previous years at Texas but he did leave the door open should the temperature be warmer than usual. Firestone has brought a new tire for the race weekend after concerns from blisters that developed on the tires after a few laps of running at the April test. Firestone will also bring a softer left-side tire due to the re-profiled turns one and two as the less banking will cause less load on the left-side tires.

Top Two Are Winless
Through eight of 17 races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Scott Dixon and Hélio Castroneves top the championship with the New Zealander on 303 points, eight ahead of the Brazilian but while Dixon holds the advantage over Castroneves on points, the two drivers are leveled on victories at zero.

Dixon has finished on the podium in every odd-numbered races this season including three runner-up finishes. Outside of his 32nd-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 after his accident with Jay Howard, Dixon's worst finish was sixth in race two from Detroit. Castroneves' runner-up finish in the Indianapolis 500 is his only podium this season but Castroneves heads to Texas as the only driver with top ten finishes in all eight races this season.

Castroneves is the all-time leader in Texas victories at four while Dixon has won at the 1.5-mile oval twice. Castroneves is also the all-time leader at Texas in top five finishes with 11 and top ten finishes with 15 and Castroneves has seven consecutive top ten finishes at the track. Dixon has 11 top ten finishes at Texas but he has retired from three of the five Texas races in the DW12-era, twice because of accidents.

Not only is Scott Dixon winless but also the entire Ganassi team has not won through the first eight races of the season despite five different teams having already earned a victory this season. Tony Kanaan has the best average finish at Texas among active drivers at 5.4 and he has finished on the podium at Texas in three of the last four races but Kanaan's only Texas victory came in the June 2004 race. Charlie Kimball has three consecutive top ten finishes at Texas after failing to finish in the top fifteen in his first four starts at the track. Max Chilton finished 15th last year at Texas, five laps down. It was Chilton's first race at the track.

Team Penske's Texas Ranch
While Castroneves is winless this season, Team Penske is not and it has three victories and it heads to a track the team has dominated. Team Penske has won eight times at Texas, more than any other team. The only other teams with multiple Texas victories are Chip Ganassi Racing, which has four victories, the defunct Panther Racing, which also won four times at Texas, and the defunct Kelley Racing, which won three Texas races.

Besides Castroneves, Will Power is the only current Penske driver with a victory at Texas. Power won race two of the 2011 Twin 275s. The Australian has three podiums at Texas and six top ten finishes. Power did win three consecutive pole positions at Texas from 2014-16 and he has never started worse than eighth at the track and he has been running at the finish in all nine of his Texas starts.

Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden each have five starts at Texas. Pagenaud has completed all but four laps in his five starts and he has finished fourth twice and Texas was the site of Pagenaud's first career top ten finish on an oval when he finished sixth in the 2012 race. Newgarden has not had quite the same fortune as his French teammate. Newgarden has only one top ten finish at Texas, an eighth-place finish in 2013. He retired with an engine failure in 2015 and he suffered a broken collarbone and hand after an accident with Conor Daly last year.

While Penske has been the most-successful team at Texas it has not won at the track the last three years and since Team Penske joined the IRL in 2002 it has never been winless in four consecutive Texas races.

Rahal Looks to Repeat and Three-Peat
Graham Rahal heads to Texas not only as the defending Texas race winner but the winner of the last two IndyCar races after he swept the Belle Isle doubleheader. Rahal's dominant weekend in Michigan vaulted him from 15th in the championship, 101 points off the championship lead to sixth in the championship, 52 points off the championship lead.

Rahal looks to become the first driver to win three consecutive races since Simon Pagenaud did it last year at Long Beach, Barber and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Other drivers to win three consecutive races in the DW12-era include Will Power, who has won three consecutive races twice in this era when won at Barber, Long Beach and São Paulo in 2012 and won the final two races in 2013 at Houston and Fontana and the 2014 season opener at St. Petersburg. Ryan Hunter-Reay won three consecutive races at Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto in 2012. Scott Dixon won IndyCar's return race at Pocono in 2013 and the following weekend swept the doubleheader at Toronto.

What Rahal could do this weekend that no one else has ever done is win consecutive Texas races. Texas has hosted 28 IndyCar races in 21 IndyCar season. The track hosted two races from 1998 to 2004 but never has a driver won back-to-back races at Texas. Twice has a Texas winner returned and finished second in the next race. Scott Sharp won the June 2001 race and finished second to Sam Hornish, Jr. that October by 0.19 seconds. Tony Kanaan won the June 2004 race and finished second to Hélio Castroneves that October in the final autumn Texas race

Andretti Sits On a Century Mark
Marco Andretti heads to this weekend's race 14th in the IndyCar championship with two top ten finishes this year. At Texas, Andretti has 12 starts, four top five finishes and five top ten finishes. Andretti also heads to Texas having made 100 starts since his most recent IndyCar victory at Iowa in 2011.

In Andretti's 100 starts since that Iowa victory he has finished on the podium eight times with three runner-up finishes, most recently in the first Belle Isle race in 2015 and his most recent podium finish being a third at Fontana in 2015. He also has 15 top five finishes in that time period with that third at Fontana being his more recent top five finishes and he has 46 top ten finishes with his eighth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago being the most recent. Andretti has won three pole positions in that time frame, all on ovals and the most recent was at Pocono in 2013.

Only one other driver in IndyCar history has had more than 100 starts behind victories. That was Graham Rahal, who went 124 starts between victories at St. Petersburg in 2008 and Fontana in 2015.

Since Iowa 2011, Andretti Autosport has won 18 races with Ryan Hunter-Reay leading the way with 12 victories. James Hinchcliffe won three races with the team in 2013 and Carlos Muñoz, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato all won once with the team with Rossi and Sato having won the last two Indianapolis 500s.

Sato is the top Andretti car in the championship in third but in eight Texas starts he only has one top ten finish, a fifth in the first Twin 275 in 2011. Last year, he matched his career-best Texas starting position when he qualified fourth. Hunter-Reay has not had a great track record at Texas with only three top finishes and three times starting in the top ten in ten starts. He has finished outside the top fifteen in six of those starts. Rossi started ninth and finish 11th last year in his Texas debut and finished two laps down.

Texas has not been a great track for Andretti Autosport. The team's only victory at the 1.5-mile oval was by Tony Kanaan in June 2004 in what was a 1-2 finish for the team with Dario Franchitti in second. In the DW12-era, Andretti Autosport has only had four top five finishes with Hunter-Reay's runner-up finish in 2013 being the team's lone podium finish at the track in that time.

Vautier Returns
Tristan Vautier returns to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend as he will drive the #18 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Vautier fills in for the injured Sébastien Bourdais and Esteban Gutiérrez, who was not approved to race this weekend due to a lack of oval experience and the inability for him to test in the lead up to this weekend's race due to testing being not permitted during this portion of the season.

Vautier has not competed in an IndyCar race since 2015 when he completed the final 11 races of the season for Dale Coyne Racing after Carlos Huertas developed an inner ear condition prior to the Indianapolis 500 and was unable to compete. In 30 IndyCar starts, Vautier's best finish was fourth at Belle Isle in race two in 2015 and he has three top ten finishes. He has two starts at Texas and he finished 18th and 20th in those respective starts.

Vautier has spent the better part of the last two years driving sports cars. He currently splits his time between the #75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 in IMSA's GT Daytona class and the #88 AKKA ASP Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the Blancpain Endurance Series.

Fast Facts
This will be the 12th IndyCar race to take place on June 10th and first since 2007 when Sébastien Bourdais won at Portland. Hélio Castroneves won at Texas on June 10, 2006.

Last year's Texas race averaged a speed of 144.901 MPH and it was the slowest at the track since the October 1999 race won by Mark Dismore at 135.246 MPH.

The average starting position for a Texas winner is 5.035 with a median of third-place.

Last year, Graham Rahal won from 13th and became just the fifth Texas winner in 28 races to win from outside the top ten.

Justin Wilson won from the furthest back on the grid at Texas when he won in 2012 from 17th position.

In the DW12-era, only once has Texas been won from inside the top five. That was Ed Carpenter in 2014. He started fifth that night.

The pole-sitter has not won at Texas since Ryan Briscoe in 2010.

In the DW12-era, the most lead lap finishers at Texas was six in 2012 and 2014. The average amount of lead lap finishes at Texas in the DW12-era is 5.4.

James Hinchcliffe led 188 of 248 laps last year before finishing second and failing inspection for too much wear to the domed skid.

J.R. Hildebrand finished fifth in his most recent Texas start in 2012 after starting 23rd.

Ed Carpenter has been running at the finish of his last two starts. He was running at the finish of only one race last year.

Mikhail Aleshin started and finished 16th in last year's race after he was involved in an accident with 16 laps to go.

Conor Daly made his first career Texas start last year. Unfortunately, he started 21st and was classified in 21st after his accident with Josef Newgarden after completing only 42 laps.

Carlos Muñoz has finished in the top ten in the last two Texas races and he started on pole position last year and led 37 laps. Muñoz has been running at the finish in all three of his Texas starts but he has never finished on the lead lap at the track.

Ed Jones will be making his Texas debut this weekend. The best finish for a rookie in a Texas race in the DW12-era was Simon Pagenaud's sixth-place finish in 2012.

Gabby Chaves returns with Harding Racing for their second race of the season. They finished ninth in the Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago. The only time Chaves has had consecutive top ten finish was in 2014 when he finished ninth in the second Belle Isle race and tenth at Texas.

The average amount of lead changes at Texas is 14 with a median of 14.

The average amount of cautions at Texas is 4.312 with a median of four. The average amount of caution laps is 34.285 with a median of 32.

Possible Milestones:
Ryan Hunter-Reay is one top ten finish away from 100 career IndyCar top ten finishes.

Hélio Castroneves needs to lead 113 laps to surpass Al Unser for fourth most laps led in IndyCar history.

Scott Dixon needs to lead 59 laps to reach the 5,000 laps led milestone.

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

Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 153 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

Ed Carpenter needs to lead 90 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Alexander Rossi makes it six Honda victories from the first nine races but he will have three Chevrolets challenging him down the stretch. More than six cars finish on the lead lap but the number will be fewer than ten. Graham Rahal finishes ninth or worse. At least three drivers that start outside the top fourteen finish in the top ten and at least three drivers that start inside the top five finish outside the top ten. Sleeper: Max Chilton.