After a five-week hiatus, IndyCar racing is finally back – and not a bit too soon. The IndyCar Series heads to Reliant Park in Houston for the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. As I noted last week, I had lost interest and focus on the series – but there has been a ton of news lately that has sort of jolted me back into race mode. Maybe the biggest step in bringing me back around was the announcing of all the details earlier this week regarding next year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis. I’ll have more thoughts on that next week.
Fortunately, our attention is focused back onto the track this weekend. Not only is the series racing again this weekend, it’s the third of three double-headers. The first two double-header weekends proved much more entertaining than I was expecting, so I’m really looking forward to the Saturday/Sunday races.
There is also a championship battle going on. Just a reminder, Helio Castroneves now leads Scott Dixon by forty-nine points. Helio has been playing it safe for the past several races. Normally, when a driver starts racing more conservatively than he or she usually races – bad things happen. But Scott Dixon’s continuous bad luck has made Helio’s strategy pay off for him – so far.
Keep in mind that the last double-header weekend in Toronto was swept by Scott Dixon. If he has allowed his temper to cool down since Baltimore and gotten his bad luck out of his system, Dixon could make things very interesting over the two-day stretch this weekend.
While Helio has been playing it safe and Dixon has dealt with his issues, Simon Pagenaud has been the driver on the move. Pagenaud won at Baltimore and is now only twenty-one points behind Dixon for second and seventy points behind Helio. If Pagenaud has a big weekend and Dixon and Helio both stumble – well, things could change quickly. You can’t count out Marco Andretti, who is only one point behind Pagenaud in the standings, but his performance has been sliding in the wrong direction in the second half of the season. He needs a couple of good finishes in Houston and another at Fontana to finish with strong momentum for 2014.
Will Helio continue to tip-toe around the track for the next three races, or will he return to his natural form to try and bury his competitors? Castroneves is the third Team Penske driver for every year since 2009 to be in a position to snag a championship late in the season. Ryan Briscoe faded fast over the last couple of races in the 2009 season to lose it. For the next three years, it was Will Power who wilted under the pressure in the last race of the season – twice to Dario Franchitti and last year to Ryan Hunter-Reay. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m pulling for Helio to win his first championship, so I hope whichever strategy Helio picks – it’ll work out for him. I’m Sure Roger Pesnke does too. When Team Penske moved over from CART to race full-time in the IndyCar Series in 2002, it was perceived that they would sweep the title every year. This is their twelfth full season and they have come away with exactly one title in that time – Sam Hornish in 2006.
This is not the same track that hosted CART events from 1998 to 2001. Those four races were contested on the streets of downtown Houston and were won by Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser and Gil de Ferran respectively. After the 2001 race, the event went on a four year hiatus before re-emerging at Reliant Park in 2006 & 2007. Those events were both won by Sébastien Bourdais. When Champ Car and IndyCar were unified in 2008, the event dropped off of the schedule until this season.
The centerpiece of the track is Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. From what Graham Rahal said on Trackside the other night – the track is very bumpy and physically demanding. The 1.69 mile, ten-turn circuit features a long straightaway and a sweeping turn near the stadium. Each race will run for ninety laps for a total of 153 miles.
I remember watching those CART races in downtown Houston in the late nineties. My most vivid memory from those races is Paul Tracy getting into an actual fight on pit lane with his car owner, Barry Green. If memory serves me correctly, that was the last race of the season and Tracy began the next season serving a one-race suspension at the season-opener at Homestead. Raul Boesel drove the No. 26 Kool car as his replacement.
But I must admit, I did not watch the Champ Car races run at Reliant Park in 2006-07. By that time, my allegiance had shifted towards the IRL and I had pretty much lost interest in Champ Car. So I have no memories of those two races to draw from. It’ll be like a brand new track for me.
Will Power has much to prove after his brain fade in Baltimore. Scott Dixon needs to do more than save face; he needs to score points – a lot of points – while hoping Helio Castroneves suffers some misfortune. Helio can put this thing away by winning at least one of the races and having a good finish in the other. But if he plans on playing it safe, he needs to at least keep pace and stay out of trouble. My prediction? Will Power will win one race, Scott Dixon will win the other, while Helio Castroneves maintains his advantage in the points. We’ll see.