INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for this weekend’s doubleheader in Texas

Who Are The Top Superspeedway Drivers In The Series?

Being good on superspeedway’s is an art. It’s not something that you just have. It takes a while for these drivers to get acclimated to racing on them as it not only takes skill, it takes guts. With that said, it’s no surprise that the best drivers in the game today are most all veterans.

While the smallest percentage of disciplines of tracks on each given year are superspeedway’s, they’re also the ones that decide the champion more times than not. Indy is double points and the top drivers that are always championship contenders almost always come away with top 10 finishes on the three annual stops.

Racing on these high speed tracks is an art. Not everyone can do it. It’s an acquired skill that times time to perfect. In order to win a championship, you have to be aggressive, yet calculated in that aggression too. That’s the same discipline needed to win at Indy, Texas and Pocono. Now that Pocono is gone, that leaves just Texas and Indy on the schedule in terms of superspeedway’s. You don’t want to leave any bad finishes on the table when you know your main rivals for the title are taking top finishes on them.

These used to be Will Power’s Achilles Heel. Now, these are arguably his best tracks with nearly half of his last 10 superspeedway starts resulting in victory. Power, has five top eight finishes in his last 10 tries too.

Simon Pagenaud is the same way. Six of his last 10 superspeedway starts have resulted in a top four finish. He has three top three finishes in his last four Texas starts. Even their Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden has gotten a better handle on them. Nine of his last 14 superspeedway finishes were in the top five. He was third in this race last year and fifth at Indy.  Scott Dixon has six podiums in his last eight superspeedway tries including leading 157 of 200 laps at Texas in a win and 111 of 200 in a runner-up at Indy. Alexander Rossi has six top four finishes in his last nine tries on them. They’re the ones to beat for a reason.

The top five of the final standings in 2019? Newgarden-Pagenaud-Rossi-Dixon-Power. Three of them were in the top five last year including 1-2. The same five drivers took home the top six spots in2018 with Ryan Hunter-Reay joining the part up front. Hunter-Reay, has two superspeedway victories to his credit including five top eight finishes in his last eight starts on them.

2017? Newgarden-Pagenaud-Dixon-Helio-Power-Rahal-Rossi. We all know Castroneves was one of the best on these tracks before he walked away full time and Rahal has four top six finishes in his last seven starts at Texas.

Will The Traction Compound Ruin The Racing Again?

When NASCAR and Texas officials started adding the traction compound to the race track, it has in turn greatly affected the INDYCAR stop to the Lonestar State. The track applied this prior to the NASCAR race on it in November 2019. While they tried to get it off, it created a mess of things.

The compound was put in the middle to high lanes in the corners for more grip on the 1.5 mile race track in order to create more lanes of racing for the much heavier stock cars. For the INDYCARs, the compound is like driving on ice. They weigh far less than a NASCAR and are much lighter on downforce. When getting into it, your car just wants to break loose.

We saw it happen with Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay in practice last year and then Takuma Sato in qualifying.

“It’s pretty slippery,” said Graham Rahal last June. “If you enter too shallow, the car doesn’t want to turn at all. You dance on a fine line.”

Neither Josef Newgarden nor Scott Dixon last year attributed the traction compound as to what caused Sato’s crash though, but rather his line in general. They say that Sato typically runs a higher line in that area and that is what likely turned him around.

“(Takuma) Sato was running pretty high on entry last year, which can expose the rear of the car especially,” Dixon said of Sato’s crash. “Just where the track kind of flattens off before you hit the banking can be kind of weird.

“Like in the race, you can have many a moment where you’ll start to turn in, then you kind of have to turn straight again just because you lose a lot of the support from the banking of the car.”

Newgarden, Dixon and Hunter-Reay all said though that they were warned of the compound prior to last year’s race but were told it was removed. Despite that, Hunter-Reay, confirmed to us that the substance was the reason for his incident in practice in 2020.

“Yeah, absolutely was,” said Hunter-Reay. “They warned us about it earlier, saying that it’s more of a stain at the moment. There is no grip to it. There’s nothing there that’s going to help you. That’s fine. But any time anybody’s been on it now, it’s been super slick, even in turn three and four.

“It’s strange. I mean, it’s very dark, which usually all my years of racing you see dark, you think that’s going to be a quick side, that is going to be rubber, something to help you. Yeah, there’s no traction about it right now. It’s tricky.”

Hunter-Reay said that there was no way for the compound to come in as it does during a NASCAR race weekend because it hasn’t been applied in months and it’s still causing chaos. We saw that too as no one ventured up to even test it out.

Newgarden said last year’s race was “mostly a track position race and was a hard night to pass.”

Newgarden, said that from what he understood, the traction compound wasn’t really even there. It was more of just a stain from the prep from last November but now it was a different color.

“If you look at the way it takes temperature, that part of the track during the day is probably hotter. It could be less grip because of that.”

So, how does this year look? From what I was told during the test last month, the compound isn’t there per say, but the stain is and it’s still treacherous. There’s far less grip in that portion of the track than below it. If you get on it, you’re on ice.

The track is essentially stained from it and even in trying to get the stain cleaned, it’s not working. Does that mean this weekend’s racing will be less than desired again? I mean, why race on ice and risk a crash? It will make this more of a single file parade which in turn makes qualifying all that more important again.

Tony Kanaan said that he’s heard that maybe you get an addition lane to a lane in the half on it potentially for this weekend as the track is still doing everything in their power to add grip to it. There’s reports that they’re using the tire dragon in that area as well.

Will it work?

“I think INDYCAR did a lot of effort,” he said. “They made a lot of effort to increase a little bit of the downforce. Firestone was coming with a softer tire, and Texas Motor Speedway has been doing a lot of work to be able to work it out that lane and a half.

“I think we need that. I think we’re going to make it work. I hope so because Texas — without going side-by-side in Texas, it would be a boring race.”

From 2003 though Race 1 of 2011, there were 11 straight races to where the race winner came from the top five of the starting lineup. It’s only happened three times in the last 10 and one of those was last year.

You need a good starting spot and flawless pit stops throughout the race to hold onto the track position. If you can manage to do so, you will have a good night on both days.

How Much Will Tires/Pit Stops Play A Role?

Last year, Firestone limited the amount of laps per stint to 35. By comparison, the stints were around 65 laps in 2019. How will this weekend look? Can your tires last a full 65 lap stint under green flag conditions or is the fall off so great that you need to break the stint in half?

See, Texas has a known history to produce some of the most thrilling side-by-side moments to a complete snoozefest. It’s a track that’s often been hard to figure out. The tires have played a big role in this because if you have minimal fall off over the course of a run, the cars can’t separate from one another and danger ensues. If you degrade too much, it creates single file racing without a lot of action. Throw in the Texas heat factor, the stained track from PJ1 and you never really know what you’re going to get. So, with minimal practice time and two races in one weekend, it’s anyone’s guess to how these two races are going to look.

So, while the tires are a bit of an unknown, the tire and pit strategy are going to be key. I mean, teams only get 13 sets for the entire weekend. That includes practice.

So, if you count backwards on Saturday, the final pit window would take place from Lap 147 on for Saturday and Lap 183 on for Sunday. If that final stint stays green, the guys that pit early will have a quicker burst of speed, but fall off as the run goes on. The guys that pit later will lose time to the guys with newer tires, but gain time when it counts in the end. Pit too soon, you’re a sitting duck. Pit too late, you don’t have enough time to catch up. There’s a happy medium.

But, you have to manage your tires too. You have to lay a set at the end in case for a late race caution which changes everything.

Then, the second to last stint would be Lap 82 on for Saturday and Lap 118 on Sunday. That doesn’t count any other yellow flags though, where it would be wise to pit under caution then having to come down on green flag sequences. You can’t afford to not pit under caution because not doing so and having to pit under green while most others don’t, well you’ll surely lose at least a lap in the process.

Both races are 3 stop strategy events, but it’s all about timing the stints right.

That’s why with practice, you’re going to want to run a couple of sets at least to see how much fall off they have and adjust setups accordingly, but you’re also going to want to have at the very least 4-5 sets of fresh Firestone tires in your pit box for each race during race time as well.

While some don’t envy the rookies, I don’t envy the strategists either.

With track position being key, you have to be flawless in pit lane but with longer green flag runs possible, you have to figure out the best time to pit and not lose ground on either side during your stint.

How Much Can You Take Away From Saturday’s Race To Apply To Sunday?

No rest for the weary. The NTT IndyCar Series drivers and teams move from St. Pete to Texas to race in not one, but two races this weekend. That’s difficult in itself, but factor in a two-day test at Indy a few weeks ago, followed by the season opener at Barber a week later then a week after that going to the streets of St. Pete then six days after there to Texas for a doubleheader and you get some tired folks in the paddock.

Plus, Barber and St. Pete are two of the more physical tracks on the schedule. Now, you get what will likely be a tough weekend mentally and physically at Texas.

But, with two races on the docket, how much can you learn from one and take to the other? Saturday’s race start at 7:45 p.m. ET but it’s 6:45 p.m. locally. That means the race isn’t likely to end under the lights but it will still be under the shadows of the grandstands which cools the track.

Sunday’s race starts at 5:15 p.m ET but 4:15 p.m. locally. It will be ending around the time Saturday’s race started meaning most of the race will be in the heat of the day with the sun baking the track. How much does that alter setups?

Also, the races are different lengths too. Saturday’s race is 212 laps. Sunday’s race is 248. You’re already going to be worn out from racing a physical race a day before, but now you have to strap in and do it again in hotter conditions less than 24 hours later and run a race 54 more miles in length.

How much can you take over from the two?

“I mean, it’s tough, right,” Kanaan said. “Race one is going to dictate a lot of your weekend as far as that. But you can only worry about things you can control. Obviously we’re there to race.

“I think you will see some guys maybe taking it a little easier in the first race to be able to just gather some points. The way the championship is right now, I mean, look at — there is 40 points separating P1 to P18. I think you’ll probably see a lot less crashes this year, though, as you’re throwing your championship chances away.

“It will be no different than what we did on those two double-headers we did last year. You’re going to have to be prepared. I think the teams are more prepared if something like that happens if going to have an advantage, and the teams that are not they’re going to have to tell their drivers to take it easy probably in race one.”

Honda Vs. Chevy – Can Honda Continue The Dominance?

Honda won this race last year and has taken 3 of the last 5 overall. But, those are also their only wins at Texas since 2013 too. Despite that, they’ve been the tops on the superspeedway package in general too lately which is why they have to be the favorites in both races this weekend.

They put 8 cars in the Fast 9 at Indy last year, swept the top 4 finishing spots and led 180 of 200 laps. At Texas, they had two cars in the top four and combined to lead 159 of 200 laps that night too.

In 2019, Josef Newgarden won at Texas in a Chevrolet powered car, but Honda drivers accounted for leading 194 of the 248 completed laps though and took four of the top five finishing positions including six of the top eight even. Newgarden, was the only Chevy driver to lead and he did so all at the end. He was also the only Chevy driver to lead in 2020 too as no other Chevy driver has led a lap at Texas since 2018. In 2018 in fact, Honda led 66-percent of the laps (162 of 248) too and took eight of the top nine finishing positions then as well. That’s Honda leading 74-percent (515 out of 696) of the Texas laps over the last three years.

That’s why Honda teams are the favorites.

But, how much does Texas translate over to Indy?

Chevy dominated Indy in 2018 and 2019 while Honda dominated Texas in both years too. Last year, Honda dominated both Texas and Indy. Can you take away anything from the Indy test and apply it to Texas and can you in turn take anything from Texas and apply it to Indy later this month?

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