Thursday, April 5, 2018

Track Walk: Phoenix 2018

Spring sees IndyCar return to Phoenix
After three weeks off, IndyCar starts a three consecutive week stretch with races on three different types of courses. The first race of the hectic month of April is the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at the famed one-mile oval in Phoenix. Chevrolet has won the last two races at Phoenix but in February testing Honda had the fastest time and led all four sessions. Team Penske's four drivers combined to lead all 250 laps last year with Simon Pagenaud taking the victory. Sébastien Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing lead the championship entering the second race of the season for the second consecutive year. Bourdais lost the championship lead at Phoenix last year when he was caught in the turn one lap one accident but Phoenix was the fourth race of the 2017 season.

Time: Coverage begins at 9:00 p.m. ET on Saturday April 7th with green flag scheduled for 9:30 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 5:00 p.m. ET (60-minute session)
Qualifying: 8:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage of this session)
Second Practice: 11:00 p.m. ET (60-minute session)
Race: 9:30 p.m. ET (250 laps)

Will There Be More Passing?
IndyCar's first two races back at Phoenix were remembered more for the lack of passing.

The 2016 race had only two lead changes and both occurred when the leader suffered a tire puncture. First was Hélio Castroneves on lap 40 and that handed the point to Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian would lead 56 laps before a cut tire forced an unscheduled pit stop. Scott Dixon would take the lead from there and the New Zealander led the final 155 laps on his way to victory.

Last year's race had double the lead changes from 2016 but two of those occurred during the first round of green flag pit stops. Castroneves led the first 73 laps before Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud each led a pair of laps. Will Power led 59 laps after that with Pagenaud retaking the lead from the Australian and leading the final 114 laps on his way to his tenth career victory and first on an oval. Four of the top five starters finished in the top five of last year's race with Newgarden finishing ninth from fourth on the grid.

In ten Phoenix races prior to IndyCar's return to the track in 2016, seven races had seven lead changes or more with the fewest in that period being four lead changes.

The good news for IndyCar is the series is coming off an impressive debut for the universal aero kit at St. Petersburg. The race saw 366 overtakes occur, smashing the previous event record of 322 overtakes set during the wet and time-shortened 2008 St. Petersburg race. Some drivers were optimistic during testing that tire degradation would allow more overtaking and IndyCar will attempt to rubber in the up groove by rolling tires in the top lane of the turns leading up to the event Thursday, Friday and possibly before the race on Saturday.

Will Andretti Autosport Regain Short Track Dominance?
From 2008-2014, Andretti Autosport won nine of 16 short track races including seven consecutive from Iowa 2011 to Iowa 2014. In the three seasons of the aero kit-epoch, Andretti Autosport won one of six short track races, had two podium finishes and three top five finishes.

Ryan Hunter-Reay led the way for the team on the short ovals with the 2012 champion having won six short track races for Andretti Autosport and Hunter-Reay had a stretch where he won at least one short track race for five consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2015. He has yet to have a breakthrough at Phoenix with Hunter-Reay having started 12th in both of his starts at the track and he finished tenth in 2016 but retired from last year's race with suspension damage after brushing the wall.

Dating back to last season Hunter-Reay has three consecutive top ten finishes and seven top ten finishes in the last eight races. He has finished in the top five in three consecutive season openers but Hunter-Reay has not finished in the top ten in the second race of the season since he won at Barber in 2013. Only once in his career has Hunter-Reay started a season with consecutive top ten finishes. In 2004, he opened the season with three consecutive top ten finishes.

Alexander Rossi has been alternating between podium finish and non-podium finish since last year at Toronto with Rossi having four podium finishes in the last seven races. Rossi had a good outing in his first Phoenix appearance before brushing the wall late in the race dropped him from a top ten finish and he retired from last year's race after contact with the barrier. Rossi's best finish in four short track starts is sixth while he has yet to start in the top ten on a short track.

This weekend has been billed as a special weekend for the Andretti family as Phoenix celebrates the 25th anniversary of Mario Andretti's final IndyCar victory, which occurred at the track. Marco Andretti will run a special commemorative livery, matching the car his grandfather won with in 1993.  This will be Andretti's 111th start since his most recent IndyCar victory at Iowa in 2011. He finished 13th in his first trip to Phoenix in 2016 but didn't make it through a lap last year. He has not finish in the top ten on a short oval the last two seasons and his most recent top five finish on a short oval was a second place finish at Iowa in 2012.

Like his teammate Hunter-Reay, Andretti has only started a season with consecutive top ten finishes once in his career. He had five consecutive top ten finishes to start the 2013 season.

Zach Veach will make his Phoenix debut this weekend. Veach finished 8th and completed all 90 laps in his only Indy Lights start at the track in 2016. He finished 16th at St. Petersburg, a career-best finish for the Ohioan. The most recent driver to score a maiden victory at Phoenix was another Ohioan, Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2001. Veach made five short track starts in his Indy Lights career, which included a victory at Milwaukee and three podium finishes.

Will The Short Track Trend Continue?
The aero kit epoch ended Andretti Autosport's short track dominance and in the six short track races from 2015-2017, five different teams were victorious. Sébastien Bourdais won the Milwaukee race in 2015 with KV Racing before Hunter-Reay's victory at Iowa. In 2016, Scott Dixon won at Phoenix with Chip Ganassi Racing with Josef Newgarden winning that summer at Iowa with Ed Carpenter Racing. Last year, Team Penske swept the short track races with Pagenaud taking Phoenix and Castroneves taking Iowa.

The team most likely to continue the trend of different short track winners has to be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Takuma Sato was fastest in the February test at the track with at 19.3790 seconds (189.855 MPH). His teammate was fifth fastest at the test at 19.4574 seconds (189.090 MPH) and Rahal enters second in the championship after a runner-up finish at St. Petersburg. Sato has not had a top ten finish in the last nine short track races with his last top ten finish being a seventh at Milwaukee in 2013 and he has finished outside the top ten in five consecutive races, his worst stretch since he had nine consecutive races outside the top ten in 2014. While he has not been getting the finishes, Sato has started in the top five of six consecutive races.

Rahal had four top five finishes in six short track races during the aero kit epoch. However, Rahal has only led 24 laps in his career on short tracks with most he has led in one race being 11 laps at Iowa in 2010 while substituting for an injured Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

A.J. Foyt Racing could be another team that keeps the parity on short ovals. Tony Kanaan was third fastest in the February test and he is the only active driver with multiple victories at Phoenix. A.J. Foyt Racing has three Phoenix victories but the team has not won at the track since 1975. Matheus Leist has never been to Phoenix but he was 13th at the test, top rookie. Leist won his only short track start in Indy Lights last year at Iowa.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports did not have a stellar test at Phoenix with Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe 16th and 22nd respectively but both drivers outperformed preseason testing at St. Petersburg. Wickens' story has been well covered. He took pole position on debut, led 69 laps and he was driver of the day only to have contact with Alexander Rossi in the final laps dropped him to an 18th place finish. This will be Wickens' first career oval race. Hinchcliffe started seventh and finished fourth at St. Petersburg. Hinchcliffe has not had a top five finish on a short track since his dominating victory at Iowa in 2013 where he led 226 of 250 laps and Phoenix has been a difficult track for him with an finish of 18th, two laps down in 2016 and four laps down in 12th last year.

A Pair of Debuts
Two junior formula series champions will make their IndyCar debuts this weekend and one has won at Phoenix previously.

Kyle Kaiser's IndyCar debut occurs at the track where the California-native picked up his first career Indy Lights victory in 2016. He led every lap from pole position in that 2016 Phoenix race. That was not only Kaiser's only oval victory in Indy Lights but his only oval victory in his entire Road to Indy series career. Kaiser won four more Indy Lights races in his three-year stint in the series. In nine oval starts in Indy Lights, along with his one victory, Kaiser had four top five finishes.

Kaiser's debut comes in the #32 Chevrolet for Juncos Racing, the team Kaiser has driven for since the 2014 Pro Mazda season. Juncos Racing finished 22nd at St. Petersburg with René Binder in what was the Austrian's IndyCar debut. This is only the third race for Juncos Racing with its best finish being 15th with Sebastián Saavedra in last year's Indianapolis 500. Kaiser was the slowest of 23 cars during the February test.

Pietro Fittipaldi won last year's Formula V8 3.5 Series championship and the American-born driver will make his IndyCar debut in #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. The grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi won six of 18 races on his way to the title last year and he had ten podium finishes. Prior to that, Pietro Fittipaldi won the 2015-16 MRF Challenge Formula 2000 championship, a series where Conor Daly was champion in 2012-13. He was 15th fastest at the February test, second-best rookie, but this will not be his first time on an oval. Fittipaldi won the 2011 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series championship at Hickory Motor Speedway when he was 15 years old.

Fast Facts
This will be the fifth IndyCar race to take place on April 7th and the first since Ryan Hunter-Reay won at Barber Motorsports Park in 2013.

One Phoenix race has taken place on April 7th. Bobby Unser won on that day in 1968. Bobby Unser also won on April 7th, 1974 at Trenton while the year prior his brother Al Unser won on April 7th at Texas World Speedway.

Hélio Castroneves set the track record last year with a two-lap average of 194.905 MPH.

Sébastien Bourdais has won three times in the month of April. All three of those victories occurred at Long Beach.

Bourdais' victory at St. Petersburg was his fourth when starting outside the top ten. He is tied with Scott Dixon, Al Unser, Jr., and Dan Wheldon for most victories from starting outside the top ten.

Scott Dixon has finished in the top ten in 12 consecutive races, the longest streak of his career.

The last time the winner of the first oval race of the season went on to win the championship was Scott Dixon in 2008.

Simon Pagenaud has completed 2,834 consecutive laps dating back to Texas 2016.

Ed Carpenter did not have a top five finish in 18 starts during the aero kit epoch and only had three top ten finishes during that stretch including a seventh place finish last year at Phoenix.

Charlie Kimball has not had a top five finish in the last 28 races, the longest drought of his career.

Last season, five of six oval races were won from inside the top five with the worst starting position for a winner being ninth at Texas by Will Power.

The average starting position for a Phoenix winner is 4.34 with a median of three.

The last three Phoenix races have been won from row three while the four races prior to that were won from the front row.

The average number of lead changes in a Phoenix race is 5.25 with a median of five.

The record for most lead changes in a Phoenix race is 11, which occurred in the spring race in 1986 with Kevin Cogan taking the victory and in 1995 with Robby Gordon winning the race.

The average number of cautions in a Phoenix race is 4.705 with a median of four. The average number of caution laps is 35.97 with a median of 32.5.

Last year's race had two cautions, the fewest in a Phoenix race since the autumn race in 1986, which Michael Andretti won.

The Phoenix winner has lapped the field ten times and the most recent occurrence was Mario Andretti in 1993.

The closest margin of victory at Phoenix was Tony Kanaan winning by 0.5344 seconds over Scott Dixon in 2004.

Possible Milestones:
Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 95 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead nine laps to reach the 700 laps led milestone.

Takuma Sato needs to lead 33 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone.

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

Graham Rahal needs to lead 50 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

To round out the celebration of his grandfather, Marco Andretti will win the race with at least two Team Penske cars finishing in the top five. However, there will be at least one lead change within the final 50 laps of the race. At least one Foyt car finishes in the top ten but the other finishes outside the top fifteen. Sébastien Bourdais finishes in the top ten but does not retain the championship lead. Robert Wickens will not be the top finishing rookie. More than four cars finish on the lead lap and there will be fewer retirements in this race than last year. Sleeper: Spencer Pigot.