Depending on your perspective for IndyCars on 1.5-mile high-banked ovals, you're either giddy or apprehensive about the series racing this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. It's the much-anticipated return for the series to one such track since last year's canceled season finale at Las Vegas.
Several tests have taken place to ensure the safety of the new Dallara DW12 chassis on the track, in the interest of breaking up the large pack – a major part of the catastrophic, 15-car accident at Las Vegas that claimed Dan Wheldon's life last October. In years past, Texas has seen the cars a little more spread out rather than completely bunched up, and avoiding “the big one” and mainly launching another car into the track's catch fencing are the two primary goals of the weekend.
ON PRE-EVENT PLANNING – IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield explained going into his home race that the series will feature the aero package tested in all instances at Texas with the DW12, not the revised package that was run at Indianapolis.
“The drivers want to make sure we have a pre-event meeting to address on-track protocol and behavior that happens in both practice and race conditions,” Barfield said in a phone interview earlier this week. “They're very thoughtful about what their expectations are from officiating and driver standpoints. I'm fully supportive and thankful for that.
“From the numbers at the test, it was difficult to get more than three or four cars together at a time,” he added. “The drivers and teams have come forward with wanting to have a mandatory range on the rear wing. There were a lot of positives that came out of it, in terms of it now being more difficult to run as close together as the past. We looked at the aerodynamic balance, and the way tires were designed.”
Twelve drivers tested in IndyCar's official open test in May, and three others did so for their rookie test earlier in the year. Scott Dixon posted the day's fastest lap at 212.371mph, and six drivers clocked in over 210. Charlie Kimball, one of Dixon's CGR teammates, expanded on the aero package based on both single-car and group running from the May open test.
“The package we ran in traffic had a little more downforce and a little more drag than what we'll be allowed to run this weekend,” Kimball said. “Last year I felt like the races at Milwaukee, Loudon and Iowa, the short ovals, drivers were really having to driver the car and pedal the car, especially halfway through towards the end of the tire and fuel stint, was some of the best IndyCar racing I've seen or been involved in. So I think the aerodynamic package that the series has come up with for Texas will create some great racing this weekend.”
BREAK UP THE BIG TWO? NOT AT TEXAS – In the last six Texas IndyCar races, there have been six different winners. A nice stat when it comes to variety.
Except, here's the caveat – all six have driven for either Target Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske. The last non-Ganassi/Penske Texas winner was Tomas Scheckter in June 2005 for Panther Racing, a win that was also Panther's last – and Chevrolet's last prior to its return to the series at the start of 2012.
A win for anyone other than the series' two power teams would not only end that streak, but the streak of six straight Penske/Ganassi wins to start 2012. At Texas, that run of winners has gone from Sam Hornish Jr. in 2007 (his last IndyCar win) to Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe and then Dario Franchitti and Will Power in last year's Texas doubleheader round.
BRISCOE'S DROUGHT – Two years. Seems an eternity since Briscoe last won, and it was at Texas in 2010 that the Australian last pulled into victory lane. It's the only win he's had in his Team Penske tenure since Power joined the team full-time before the 2010 season.
While even a top-three finish would be a much-needed result, the fact of the matter is Briscoe's season has not been bad. It's just the constant theme that it hasn't measured up to his teammates. He has two poles but has borne the brunt of bad luck in more races than the others, and stands eighth in points.
FIRST TEXAS RUNS FOR FOUR – Texas will provide one of the truest tests for the 2012 rookie contingent. Katherine Legge, Rubens Barrichello, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are all making their first Texas starts in any series – Legge's in at the deep end as the only one of the three who has not participated in either the rookie test held in April or the series open test in May.
“Obviously it's going to be a huge learning curve for me, but in the meantime, it's still a racecar and four corners,” Pagenaud declared. “I just have to understand what the car does, see what the others are doing in traffic, and try to understand the racetrack.”
“It's different from anything I've tried,” Barrichello said at his first test. “On my second run, after I broke the 200s, I was very rude on the radio because I was so excited. I said it was truly awesome, but not in a good manner.”
Legge's back behind the wheel for Texas and the subsequent oval races at Milwaukee and Iowa in the next two weeks, before Sebastien Bourdais returns to the seat at Toronto in July. The field has 25 cars, down five from this race last year and nine from Las Vegas.
THE BEST BOOTH MEDICINE – While Wally Dallenbach Jr. goes to TNT for its stretch of NASCAR races this summer, NBC Sports has found a more than suitable replacement in the one and only Tommy Kendall. Kendall will work alongside lead announcer Bob Jenkins and analyst Jon Beekhuis in the booth; Kendall and Jenkins worked together for several Champ Car races in 2004, when the series' races were broadcast on Spike TV.
• The IZOD IndyCar Series Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway airs live at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Saturday night on NBC Sports Network.