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PREVIEW: Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas

Firestone 600 Restart Your Engines

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing celebrates with Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, left, after winning the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Ron Jenkins

The Verizon IndyCar Series’ annual Indianapolis stint for three weeks and Detroit for a doubleheader weekend now cedes to a more normal race weekend for the first time in more than a month, with just a two-day affair at the reprofiled Texas Motor Speedway (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

For Texas and IndyCar’s sake, an encore of 2016’s resumption portion in August - and not its originally scheduled June date that was marred by rain - figures to be in order. But with the track different than last year owing to the repave, it’s likely set to jumble things a bit.

Add in the predictably unpredictable nature of the 2017 season and there’s more questions than answers heading into the ninth of 17 races this year, as the series hits the halfway point.

2017 Rainguard Water Sealers 600 – Talking Points

The new track itself

Per TMS, here’s what’s been adjusted following the repave, which was completed earlier this year prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in April:

The re-profiling of the speedway reduced the banking in Turns 1 and 2 by four degrees, decreasing it to 20 degrees. That change added additional racing surface with the width expanding from 60 to 80 feet in that section of the track. The result is a more unique and challenging layout then the previous symmetrical layout of 24 degrees in each turn and racing surface width of 60 feet in those turns.

IndyCar had what was meant to be a full-field test day on April 12, just a few days after Long Beach, although a handful of Honda teams were restricted from running. As it was, the field raced cleanly while adjusting to the different layout.

Ensuring the balance is correct between the two opposite sets of corners will be key to success this weekend.

Texas always tests the engineers in terms of picking downforce levels and accounting for proper tire falloff from Firestone, and this reprofiling only figures to add to the puzzle pieces.

Rahal’s quest to double up at Texas after Detroit double

There’s seven winners from the first eight races, and only Graham Rahal has won more than once - the Ohio native doubled up in Detroit and became the first driver to two wins.

What does history say will happen for Rahal as a result of that? Let’s take a look at recent years since the Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced in 2012:

  • 2016: Simon Pagenaud, first to two wins (Round 3, Long Beach, Round 4, Barber), and won title
  • 2015: Juan Pablo Montoya, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 6, Indianapolis 500), lost title on a tiebreaker
  • 2014: Will Power, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 6, Detroit 1), and won title
  • 2013: James Hinchcliffe, first to two wins (Round 1, St. Petersburg, Round 4, Brazil), fell to eighth in points
  • 2012: Power, first to two wins (Round 2, Barber, Round 3, Long Beach), lost title at season finale

So in five years, the first driver to two wins has won the title twice and lost the title twice at the final race, thus finishing second in points. It’s only been once in five years that driver has fallen out of the title fight altogether.

Rahal won last year in Texas in dramatic fashion while coming so short of victory here in 2012. This weekend will be the start of his title pursuit in earnest; he vaulted from 15th to sixth last weekend. Pagenaud won three races in a row last year from Long Beach through the Indianapolis road course.

Crazy tight points fight

Neither Scott Dixon nor Helio Castroneves has won a race but they’re 1-2 in points on the strength of consistency. Both are past Texas winners though. Dixon has two wins in 2008 and 2015, both years of which he won the championship. Castroneves has four Texas wins, none since 2013 though.

Behind those two, separated by only eight points at the top of the tables (303-295), just 91 points cover from second-placed Castroneves to 12th-placed Max Chilton. There’s not as much chance for movement this weekend as there has been in either of the last two weekends, where there was either double points (Indianapolis) or double races (Detroit), but Texas does provide some intrigue there.

Unpredictable nature of Texas

Going with the theme of unpredictability, and adding in the track is new, the last thing Texas has offered in recent years is a form guide. There’s been eight different winners the last eight Texas races dating to 2010.

In order, Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti, Power (Franchitti and Power won one race each in 2011’s lone Texas double), the late Justin Wilson, Castroneves, Ed Carpenter, Dixon and Rahal have made it eight winners from five different teams (Penske, Ganassi, Coyne, Carpenter, RLL). And that’s before you get to the fact Hinchcliffe dominated last year - albeit before incurring a significant post-race penalty for excessive skid wear - for SPM.

Going on recent oval form, the Hondas have looked better on the big ovals, but Chevrolet mounted a challenge here last year with Tony Kanaan (Ganassi) and Pagenaud (Penske) both in win contention late. And what of Honda’s reliability concerns? We saw what hit them at Indianapolis and you wonder see if they can get through a clean weekend in Texas.

Return for Newgarden, Daly

Last year’s most scary moment of the year occurred on, we’ll call it “race day attempt number two of three,” as Conor Daly’s car got loose and collected Josef Newgarden the Sunday after the race started a day late. It produced an incredibly frightening moment and left Newgarden with a collarbone injury. As both drivers weren’t able to restart the race in August upon the resumption, Newgarden watched while Daly made his pit road reporting debut. It’ll be good to have the two young Americans back in properly this go-'around.

The part-time spoilers

An interesting weekend lies ahead for the three returning drivers this weekend. Ed Carpenter is back as he usually is on ovals. Gabby Chaves is set for his second start with Harding Racing, and the team was able to test here in April, which is good background. And with Tristan Vautier getting a call to Dale Coyne Racing, it puts him back on an oval for the first time since Pocono 2015.

Finish up and get out of town

After the race, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Mikhail Aleshin and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell will be heading from the Lone Star state to the ‘tricolor’ land of France, with all four set to compete in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans next weekend. Dixon and Kanaan are in a pair of Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs, Aleshin in an SMP Racing Dallara P217 Gibson and Bell set to defend his GTE-Am class win in a Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE.

The final word

From JR Hildebrand, who makes his Texas return for the first time in five years: “I’ve had a couple of good runs at Texas Motor Speedway. The last time I ran there, we ended up fifth. That was one of the ultra-low downforce, sideways, all-over-the-track races. I’m looking forward to going back where it should be a little less of a hairy situation, but it’s always a great race and Ed Carpenter Racing has been solid there the last couple of years. There will be some differences with the new track surface, but I definitely expect for us to be strong there when we roll out.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):
Friday, June 9
10-11:15 a.m. - Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, (Live)
2:15 p.m. - Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), NBCSN (2:30 p.m.)
5:45 - 6:15 p.m. - Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, (Live)

Saturday, June 10
6:15 p.m. - Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
7:01 p.m. - Driver introductions
7:40 p.m. - Command to start engines
7:45 p.m. - Rainguard Water Sealers 600 (248 laps/357.12 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Graham Rahal
2. James Hinchcliffe
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Carlos Munoz (pole)
8. Will Power
9. Juan Pablo Montoya
10. Sebastien Bourdais

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