Thursday, June 7, 2018

Track Walk: Texas 2018

Texas marks the halfway point of the season
The ninth race of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season takes place at Texas Motor Speedway for the DXC Technology 600. Will Power lost the championship lead and took it back at Belle Isle after the Australian finished seventh and second. He enters on 309 points and has a five-point championship lead over New Zealander Scott Dixon. Alexander Rossi was leading the championship after race one but a lockup while leading and a left tire puncture with seven laps to go dropped him to third in the championship, 11 points behind Power. Ryan Hunter-Reay got his first victory in 42 starts in the second Belle Isle race and he is 31 points outside the championship lead. Defending champion Josef Newgarden rounds out the top five trailing his teammate by 39 points.

Time: Coverage begins at 8:00 p.m. ET on Saturday June 8th with green flag scheduled for 8:45 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 12:30 p.m. ET (90-minute session)
Qualifying: 4:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have live coverage of this session)
Second Practice: 7:15 p.m. ET (60-minute session)
Race: 8:45 p.m. ET (248 laps)

How Will the Race Play Out?
Last year saw a repave and reconfiguration to Texas Motor Speedway that increased speeds and also caused havoc for Firestone. The race saw 23 lead changes, the most for a Texas race since the autumn 2001 race but it also had nine cautions, the most for a Texas race and 66 caution laps, the third-most at the track.

Despite the abundance of lead changes, Will Power led 180 of 248 laps on his way to victory and passing was much more difficult than prior Texas races during the DW12-era despite the cars being bunched closer together. The bottom groove had a major advantage to the top line where it was difficult for a car to get a run and complete the pass on the outside.

Two big accidents left only six cars finishing on the lead lap and since the introduction of the DW12 chassis in 2012 every Texas race has either had five cars or six cars finish on the lead lap. The number of cautions made last year's race the fourth-slowest Texas race out of 29 IndyCar races held at the venue since 1997. The last two Texas races have averaged under 145 MPH after 22 consecutive races average over 150 MPH and six consecutive averaging over 160 MPH including the two fastest IndyCar races held at Texas Motor Speedway. Five of six Texas races during the DW12-era have had a driver lead over 100 laps with the one exception being 2015 where race winner Scott Dixon led 97 laps. In the DW12-era, the best starting position for a Texas winner is fifth in 2014 by Ed Carpenter.

IndyCar and Firestone had scheduled a tire test at Texas in March but that was hampered by high winds. An extra set of tires will be provided to the teams for this weekend. The teams will also be allowed to run a maximum rear wing angle of negative six degrees after only being allowed to run negative three degrees at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Will Chevrolet Hold Serve?
Honda's sweep at Belle Isle has the Japanese manufacture unbeaten on street courses but Chevrolet has won the two oval and two road course races held this season. Chevrolet has won six consecutive oval races with Honda's most recent oval victory being the 101st Indianapolis 500 with Takuma Sato.

Team Penske is responsible for all six of Chevrolet's oval victories dating back to last year with Will Power responsible for three of those victories and Josef Newgarden accounting for two of those victories. The other victory was at the hands of Hélio Castroneves at Iowa. Power has two victories at Texas, four top five finishes and seven top ten finishes in ten starts with three pole positions. He has an average finish of seventh and he has led 432 laps at Texas, the third-most all-time at Texas. If Power leads 75 laps on Saturday night he will be the all-time IndyCar lap leader at Texas Motor Speedway.

While Newgarden has won on the short ovals of Gateway and Phoenix in the last year, Texas has not be friendly to the defending champion. In six starts, Newgarden has never finished on the lead lap and his only top ten finish was eighth in 2013. Newgarden has retired from the last three Texas races including the last two years because of accidents. His 2016 accident with Conor Daly left him with injuries to his right hand and right shoulder.

Texas might be one of Newgarden's worst tracks but Simon Pagenaud has done excellent at the mile-and-a-half-ish oval. The Frenchman has three top five finishes and four top ten finishes in six starts and he has completed 1,444 of a possible 1,448 laps. However, Pagenaud's only laps led came in 2015 when he led 59 laps after starting second but he faded and finished two laps down in 11th. Pagenaud needs to get off the snide as the Frenchman does not have a top five finish through the first eight races and he sits tenth in the championship.

Team Penske is Chevrolet's flagship team but Ed Carpenter Racing has put together a strong fight when it comes to the ovals and to no one's surprise Ed Carpenter is leading the charge. The American's runner-up finish to Power in the Indianapolis 500 was his first top five finish since a third at Fontana in 2014. He led a race-high 65 laps at the Indianapolis 500 but since his Texas victory in 2014 outside of Indianapolis Carpenter has only led eight laps. He won the 2014 Texas race but has finished outside the top ten the last three years and his average finish is 14.4.

Spencer Pigot qualified sixth for the Indianapolis 500, his career-best starting position but a pit lane speeding penalty cost him any shot of a top ten finish. Pigot will make his Texas debut this weekend and it will only be his second oval start at a track that wasn't Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Pigot finished 14th at Phoenix in April and that is his career-best oval finish.

As crazy as it may sound, A.J. Foyt Racing has been the second-best Chevrolet team this season. Tony Kanaan has three top ten finishes, including a seventh in the second Belle Isle race after starting 22nd. Matheus Leist might not have a top ten finish this season but the rookie has six consecutive lead lap finish. Statistically, Kanaan is the best driver in IndyCar at Texas with at least three starts. He has an average finish of 5.2 with 11 top five finishes, including three consecutive podium finishes and 15 top ten finishes but surprisingly he has only one victory at the track, which came in his third Texas start in June 2004. Kanaan has been running at the finish of all 18 of his Texas starts and he has completed 3,780 of 3,783 laps.

Carlin and Harding Racing are the unlikely Chevrolet teams to get a victory but both teams will be in the field. Gabby Chaves finished fifth last year at Texas in Harding Racing's second race as a team but the team's best finish since that night is 14th on two separate occasions. Charlie Kimball started on pole position last year at Texas but an oil leak ended his night after the first pit stop. Kimball had three consecutive top ten finishes at Texas entering last year's race. Max Chilton finished 8th at Texas last year despite finishing three laps down after being a part of the final caution of the night.

Who Can Breakthrough?
With only one street course race remaining on the schedule if any of the Honda teams want to win the championship they will have to breakthrough on the four remaining ovals and four remaining road courses. Entering Texas, Honda drivers take up seven of the top ten in the championship representing five different teams.

Scott Dixon picked up a ninth place finish last year despite late contact with Takuma Sato while the two drivers were trying to pass Will Power. While he has won at Texas in recent years, Dixon has been hit-or-miss in the DW12-era at this track. He led 133 laps in the 2012 race before a spin all on his own took him out of contention. The year after that, an oil line failure ended his race before the quarter-post. Dixon has four retirements in his last six Texas starts.

Andretti Autosport has three drivers in the top ten and none of them have great Texas track records. Alexander Rossi has not scored a top ten in either of his first two starts and a tire failure ended his race prematurely last year. The Texas-born Ryan Hunter-Reay has an average finish of 14.8 and an average starting position of 13.7 at this track and he has finished 19th or worse in six of 11 starts. He has finished outside the top ten in four consecutive Texas races. Since 2010, Marco Andretti has alternated between top ten finish and non-top ten finish in every other Texas start and he finished sixth last year. Andretti Autosport's only Texas victory was with Tony Kanaan in June 2004.

Robert Wickens will make his third oval start this weekend and so far he has done well with a runner-up finish at Phoenix and ninth in the Indianapolis 500. He has started inside the top ten for all but one race this season and in every race he was running at the finish of he finished on the lead lap. His teammate James Hinchcliffe finished second and led 188 laps two years at Texas. After finishing in the top ten in the first five races of the season Hinchcliffe did not qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and finished outside the top ten in both Belle Isle races.

Graham Rahal has finished in the top ten of seven of the first eight races and he is coming off two consecutive top five finishes at Texas after he won in 2016 and finished fourth last year. Rahal has finished in the top ten in both oval races this season and a top ten finish at Texas would be the first time Rahal has finished in the top ten in the first three oval races of a season.

Sébastien Bourdais fell to ninth in the championship after entering the Indianapolis 500 in third. He has finished outside the top ten in the last three races with two of those results being finishes outside the top twenty. This is the first time Bourdais has not had a top ten finish in three consecutive races since he had four consecutive finishes outside the top ten spread over the final three races of 2015 and the 2016 season opener. Bourdais picked up his first career top ten finish at Texas in 2016 when he finished tenth but Bourdais has started 18th in three consecutive Texas starts and his career-best starting position at this track is 15th.

Who Is Out?
We are through eight races and Texas marks the halfway point of the season. The championship picture is becoming clearer. We are seeing who the contenders are and we know who is already racing for pride but a few drivers lay in the middle and this weekend is where they have to decide what camp they fall in.

After Barber, I pronounced dead the championship hopes for five drivers and I think it is time to add a few more tombstones to the graveyard.

Since 1946, no champion has failed to score a podium finish within the first six races of the season and the only new podium finisher between race five and race six was Ed Carpenter, who is not competing full-time. Of the drivers who remained on life support after Barber those still without a podium finish are Andretti, Pagenaud, Kanaan, Sato and Veach. Andretti and Pagenaud are the only two of those drivers in the top ten of championship.

It is nothing personal but Kanaan, Sato and Veach are not going to win the championship this year. I will leave the door open for Andretti and Pagenaud but both drivers need a massive performance this weekend.

With eight drivers eliminated and two on deathbeds that leaves ten drivers kicking but there are two we should look at, both outside the top ten of the championship. Hinchcliffe and Jones both have podium finishes this season with Jones picking up his second podium finish of the season at Belle Isle. Hinchcliffe's rotten three weeks have been well documented and missing a double points event is a massive blow but there are nine races remaining and if he were to go nine-for-nine he would probably win the championship. Missing the Indianapolis 500 doesn't kill your championship hopes but it makes it very clear the only way back in is through winning each week out. Jones has four top ten finishes through eight races but all on street circuits and his other four finishes are 20th or worse.

I will keep Hinchcliffe and Jones alive for now but like Andretti and Pagenaud both need a great night at Texas and we will have a better idea of the title hopes for these two drivers after Road America.

Of the eight drivers we can say are still kicking, Wickens and Rahal are the only two without a victory. There have been a few champions that have waited longer than this to get their first victory of the season but it is rare. Since 1946, four champions won their first race after the eighth race of the season. Those champions are Joe Leonard in 1971, who won in his tenth race; Al Unser in 1985, who won in the 14th race; Gil de Ferran in 2001, who won in the 17th race; and Scott Dixon in 2013, who won in the 11th race.

There have also been three winless champions, Tony Bettenhausen in 1958, Tom Sneva in 1978 and Scott Sharp in the inaugural IRL season in 1996. It isn't unprecedented but it is highly unlikely this year's champion will do it without a victory.

Fast Facts
This will be the 16th IndyCar race to take place on June 9th. The most recent race was in 2012 at Texas where Justin Wilson took the victory.

This will be the 30th IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway.

There has never been a repeat winner at Texas.

Four different teams have won the last four Texas races.

Six different drivers have won the six Texas races during the DW12-era.

Three drivers have picked up their first career IndyCar victory at Texas. Those drivers are Billy Boat, Mark Dismore and Jeff Ward. It was the only IndyCar victory for those three drivers.

Only one Texas race has not reach full distance. That was the autumn 2003 race where Gil de Ferran took the victory after the Kenny Bräck-Tomas Scheckter accident ended the race five laps early.

Five nationalities have won the last 13 Texas races. Those nationalities are American, Australian Brazilian, British and New Zealander.

Honda has won ten Texas races while Chevrolet has won seven Texas races.

Oldsmobile has the second-most Texas victories for engine manufactures with nine.

Ryan Hunter-Reay set fastest lap in both Belle Isle races. The last driver to set fastest lap in three consecutive races was Sébastien Bourdais in 2007 when he set fastest lap in six consecutive races. Those races were Houston, Portland, Cleveland, Mont-Tremblant, Toronto and Edmonton.

Despite not finishing last year's race, Takuma Sato picked up his second career top ten finish at Texas with a tenth place finish.

Five drivers make their first career start at Texas. Those drivers are Matheus Leist, Robert Wickens, Zachary Claman De Melo, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach. The only driver to win in their first Texas start was Arie Luyendyk in the inaugural Texas race in 1997.

Only twice has a driver won the race prior to Texas and a Texas race. The first was Luyendyk in 1997, who won the Indianapolis 500 and then the inaugural Texas race. The other was Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2002, who won at Chicagoland and then won the season finale at Texas.

The average starting position for a Texas winner is 5.172 with a median of three.

Twelve Texas races have been won from the front row but not since the first race of the 2011 doubleheader when Dario Franchitti won from second. Seventeen Texas races have been won from one of the first two rows but not since Will Power won from third in the second race of the 2011 doubleheader.

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

The average number of lead changes at Texas is 14.31 with a median of 14.

The average number of cautions at Texas is 4.48 with a median of four. The average number of caution laps is 35.379 with a median of 32.

Possible Milestones:
If Scott Dixon finishes on the podium it will be his 100th podium finishes and put him in a tie with Michael Andretti for third all-time.

Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead 145 laps to reach the 1,500 laps led milestone.

Simon Pagenaud needs to lead 91 laps to reach the 1,000 laps led milestone.

James Hinchcliffe needs to lead 89 laps to reach the 800 laps led milestone.

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

Graham Rahal needs to lead 26 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Tony Kanaan stuns nobody and wins at Texas with another Chevrolet and one Honda on the podium. There will not be an accident that takes out more than five cars. There will be fewer lead changes than last year but more than a dozen. At least seven cars finish on the lead lap. At least two of the drivers in the top five of the championship finish outside the top fifteen. Spencer Pigot finishes in the top ten but behind Ed Carpenter. Only one rookie finishes in the top ten. The pole-sitter does not lead the most laps. Sleeper: Tony Kanaan.