This Saturday, the Verizon IndyCar series returns to Texas Motor Speedway – a track that is tied with Milwaukee as my second favorite oval behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s nothing against the remaining three on the schedule – Iowa, Pocono and Fontana. All six have their own favorable characteristics and can offer great racing; but those two have a slight edge for different reasons. Milwaukee has its history and Texas has sheer speed.
Yes Fontana, Pocono and Indianapolis all feature higher speeds than Texas – but those tracks are all two miles long or longer. Texas is confined to a very tight 1.5 mile oval and comes across on television as extremely fast.
Of course, I offer these opinions like I’ve been to all of these tracks. I haven’t. The only two ovals on the current Verizon IndyCar Series schedule that I’ve been to in person are Indianapolis and Fontana; although I want to go to each of them at some point. I did attend the ill-fated IndyCar race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1999; which is pretty much of a clone of Texas. Before the race was halted due to spectator fatalities in the stands – even those old IRL cars looked fast.
The DW-12 has raced at Texas twice. The 2012 race was decent, but last year’s race, shown in prime time on ABC, was a dud. For good reason, there has been an emphasis put on getting away from the pack racing we used to see there. Although the pack racing was edge-of-your-seat excitement; the potential consequences of something going wrong were drastic. The risks were just too great, as we saw in Las Vegas in 2011.
The trade-off for safety has been races that aren’t quite as riveting as they were say, ten years ago. I used to stand up to watch this race in my den. I paced back and forth watching the cars dice in and out with each other, while the entire pack made its way around the track, lap after lap, like a swarm of bees. While it was exciting, I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to someone. A few times it did. Davey Hamilton and Kenny Bräck both had their driving careers effectively ended at Texas Motor Speedway. Both drivers eventually would return to the cockpit sporadically, but only once more for Bräck.
But last year, the theory is they changed the aerodynamics too much in order to get away from pack racing. Helio Castroneves won a snoozer that was essentially a single-file parade. In all honesty, I can’t remember a single highlight from the race – except it was boring. Rumor has it that there will be more flexibility in the aero-package this year to create better racing. Let’s hope so.
After all of the exciting races held there over the years, it’s hard to believe I’m saying this – but this race needs a shot in the arm. The last edge-of-your-seat race held there was in 2008, when Scott Dixon won a nail-biter just two weeks after winning the Indianapolis 500 on his way to winning the championship. Since then, aero-tweaks in the name of safety have toned down the excitement level in recent years. The worst tweak was done in 2011, when they split the normal distance into two separate races in one night. Adding even more insult was the method used to determine the starting grid for the second race – a cheesy random draw complete with spinning tires on a stage. Fortunately, that experiment was abandoned after one year.
In recent year’s, Texas Motor Speedway has taken on the look of Roger Penske’s playground. Of the last nine IndyCar races run there, Team Penske has won six of them – including last year. Two of the others were won by Ganassi cars and one by Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne.
Right now, Chip Ganassi Racing is struggling to find its way. Last year they faced similar struggles, but righted the ship at Pocono and Scott Dixon fought his way to the championship. This year, they find themselves in an even tougher situation. There is an additional car, two new drivers and a swap from Honda to Chevrolet. Scott Dixon is the highest ranked Ganassi driver at eighth, 142 points out of first. If they have any hopes of another championship run for Scott Dixon, it needs to start tomorrow night.
After a disastrous weekend at Detroit, Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to bounce back for his confidence, if nothing else. He plummeted from first to third in points last weekend. I think he and the rest of his Andretti Autosport teammates are in for a much better weekend at Texas.
Up until last year’s season finale at Fontana, Will Power could only claim the second half-race at Texas in 2011 as his only oval victory. They still don’t appear to be his strong suit, but I think he’ll do well enough to hold on to his points lead. I’m not going out on a limb much at all for my pick for this weekend. He has won this race four times already and his team has a lot of momentum after a near miss at Indianapolis and a win at Detroit. Of course, I’m talking about Helio Castroneves – who will win his fifth Texas race overall and his second in a row.
And for those that think I’m blinded by my Penske bias – that is not the case. I’m simply going with who has the hot hand right now. Remember – I picked Scott Dixon to win the championship last season, despite my admitted partiality to Team Penske. We’ll see.