IndyCar concludes its Canadian swing at Edmonton this weekend, and the City Centre Airport could be the site of history if points leader Ryan Hunter-Reay can complete one of open-wheel racing's rarest feats.
RHR GOES FOR FOUR – Even if, generally speaking, the same two or three teams have ran roughshod over IndyCar competition the last decade, a stretch where any one driver winning four straight races is still particularly rare. It's happened only four times since 1990 across any iteration of American open-wheel racing.
Ryan Hunter-Reay has his shot at history this weekend in Edmonton. The American's last three wins in Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto have vaulted him into the points lead, and with a chance to become the first American to pull off the quartet since Al Unser Jr. in '90.
The last American three-peat winner before RHR, AJ Allmendinger, actually was in the same boat as his former Champ Car rival when he searched for his fourth. In 2006 at Edmonton, on the old City Centre Airport layout, Allmendinger finished third, behind old teammate Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais.
Bourdais, earlier that Champ Car season, was the last driver to record four straight wins. He did so on two street circuits (Long Beach, Houston), one temporary road course (Monterrey, Mexico) and a short oval (Milwaukee). If Hunter-Reay can win his fourth this weekend, it will have come across two short ovals, a street course and the temporary road course on the airport in Edmonton.
The other four-timers? Cristiano da Matta pulled off four straight in 2002 (Laguna Seca, Portland, Chicago Motor Speedway, Toronto) and Alex Zanardi in 1998 (Detroit, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto). All four drivers with four straight wins went on to win that year's championship.
THE BIG TWO'S PLAYGROUND – The Target Chip Ganassi and Penske teams should be thankful Edmonton is the next race after the series' two longtime power squads have had, by their illustrious standards, a rough stretch of events. Combined, the two teams have just one top-five finish (Scott Dixon's fourth at Iowa) in the last three races.
But Edmonton could change that. Since IndyCar took over sanctioning at the track in 2008, Penske and Ganassi drivers have stood on the podium with dependable regularity – 11 of a possible 12 podium positions. The lone interloper was Wilson (sensing a theme, here?) in 2008, with Newman/Haas Racing, in third place and only one spot ahead of Paul Tracy in what was Vision Racing's best ever road course finish.
Penske and Ganassi drivers have swept the top three each of the last three seasons. All five of their drivers are due better results soon.
AND THEY ALL NEED A FINISH… – For Ganassi, despite three straight poles, Dario Franchitti has yet to finish better than 17th in that stretch, and a 14th at Texas confirms the slump. Scott Dixon's already starting on the back foot – his engine failure at Toronto was his fifth and last fresh engine, and he'll take a 10-spot grid penalty for moving to his sixth, one beyond the allotted maximum.
Penske's drivers, save for Helio Castroneves, are also mired in mini-slumps. Will Power – twice an Edmonton winner and the only driver thus far to have won on both versions of the layout – has just one top-five finish since Brazil (fourth at Detroit). Ryan Briscoe needs some sort of luck adjustment; twice in a row he's been contacted while in a solid position and ended just 18th and 19th.
Castroneves' consistency has kept him in the championship chase (eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts) but a second win – both for his elusive title hopes and possible redemption from his 2010 blocking penalty while leading – would do wonders for the Brazilian.
A TOP TRACK FOR WILSON, SERVIA – On paper and on past history, Wilson's the likeliest outside the Ganassi and Penske squads – or RHR at Andretti – to topple the empire from a results standpoint at Edmonton.
The 2006 Edmonton winner (LEFT), Wilson finished no worse than fourth in the first four Edmonton races, and fifth last year for Dreyer & Reinbold to record the best finish of the season for both team and driver.
Promising races at Long Beach and Toronto in particular have yielded little in the way of proper results, and if luck can match pace, a podium at least could be in the offing for Wilson and the No. 18 Sonny's BBQ Dale Coyne Racing Honda.
Oriol Servia, the king of passing from starting to finishing position this year (some 98 positions advanced this year), also has a solid Edmonton record. With four finishes between second and sixth his first four starts (2005 to '08), a fifth went awry after taking a hit from behind last year. Servia has been impressive with four top-five finishes in the last six races, but coincidentally, all have been on ABC. This weekend's race airs on the NBC Sports Network – on whose televised events Servia has yet to crack the top-10 (11th at Brazil, in a Lotus, his best result).
UNDERDOG ENCORE? – If the timing of the first caution could be considered at least partially responsible for the jumbled finishing order in Toronto, the question at Edmonton is how many of the surprise stars can back it up.
Charlie Kimball, Mike Conway, Servia, JR Hildebrand, James Jakes and Alex Tagliani all started outside the top 10 in Toronto yet all managed a top-10 finish in the race. Of that batch, you'd expect Tagliani to put in the strongest qualifying run, maybe ahead of Conway and either Kimball or Hildebrand next depending on their qualifying group or their ability to avoid traffic.
Assuming the likelihood of the top dogs resuming in the top 10 this week, it's all but certain not all five will be able to reprise their Toronto results. Add to it the desires of drivers such of Bourdais, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud wanting to get a result after late-race drama in Toronto and there's even more drivers hungry for strong weekends.
Two others to watch: Takuma Sato has back-to-back finishes for the first time this season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and enters as the race's defending polesitter, and Rubens Barrichello, with seven finishes between seventh and 11th in nine starts, looks for his first top-five if not podium as well.
RESULTS NEEDED – Of the aforementioned, Franchitti, Dixon, Power and Briscoe. The others? Back-to-back failures to finish has suddenly stopped James Hinchcliffe's first half momentum and dropped him to fifth in points, and E.J. Viso, who's been an all-around improved driver this year, has two straight results in the 20s. There's a lot of hungry drivers this weekend and on a track with three great passing zones, hopefully there will be plenty of opportunities for them to prove themselves.
The Edmonton Indy airs live, Sunday, July 22, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network.