After a tumultuous offseason as it sought a promoter to take over after a successful but fiscally tenuous debut, the Grand Prix of Baltimore is back with SRT presenting sponsorship and Andretti Sports Marketing promotion. It's a very crucial round of the IZOD IndyCar Series championship as the second-to-last race of 15 this year.
TRACK, PUSH-TO-PASS CHANGES – The chicane is out from the front straight, as the major track modification from a year ago. Shots of cars getting anywhere from two to four wheels airborne are gone, but passing opportunities and straightline speed should improve as a result. Additionally, the series has eliminated the push-to-pass activation delay, so an instantaneous power boost should take place once drivers hit the button.
POWER ON VERGE OF TITLE – In the last two years, Will Power has led the championship heading to the final races of the year, but hasn't had enough of a gap going in to where he had the chance to clinch the title. He has that chance this weekend in Baltimore.
With a 36-point margin between he and Ryan Hunter-Reay, a win will assure him the title so long as he starts the season finale at Auto Club Speedway, as that would net him at least 46 points to second place. A maximum of 43 points can be gained on one weekend – a win with all bonus points is 53 markers, down to a minimum of 10 for 25th place.
And that sets the scene for this weekend, where Hunter-Reay (down 36 points), Helio Castroneves (41) and Scott Dixon (54) all are in desperate need of a win and some help – bad luck hitting Power – to have a chance going into the 500-miler at Fontana.
A year ago, Power put in one of his most impressive performances with a mid-race stint run after a restart at qualifying pace to build a 30-second gap over the field, to make a pit stop without losing the lead. Dixon finished fifth and Hunter-Reay eighth, while Castroneves made the highlight reel for the wrong reasons when Tony Kanaan launched over his car and into the catch fencing in the Sunday morning warmup. He would ultimately end 17th.
ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT SEEKS REBOUND – Andretti Autosport's four cars all finished 15th or worse at Sonoma, mechanical issues striking Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe with Hunter-Reay a victim of Alex Tagliani's spearing late in the race.
As in Milwaukee, expect the trio of drivers to be among the busiest off the track as well as on. It's the second race promoted by Andretti Sports Marketing – Michael Andretti the savior here after various promoting and financial issues that popped up over the winter and into the spring.
The results at Milwaukee did the ASM crew justice with Hunter-Reay winning and Hinchcliffe third. Hunter-Reay also won the year's most recent street race in Toronto.
AN ENCORE FOR GRAHAM? – The only driver remotely in Power's zip code this race last year, Graham Rahal, should have finished on the podium. He nearly stole the pole before Power edged him on his final lap, then ran second most of the race before the similar strategy of pitting after a mid-race caution dropped him back to 10th as he didn't have near enough of a gap.
He also had the close call where a safety truck still on track, going the opposite direction, was to his outside when he emerged on the exit of Turns 1 and 2 at the start. Obviously, that's something where no one will want to see a repeat of!
LUCK NEEDED FOR LAST YEAR'S PODIUM, TOO – Oriol Servia and Tony Kanaan, second and third a year ago for Newman/Haas and KV, could use an unfettered weekend for a change.
Servia put together a string of four top-five finishes in six races from Indianapolis through Toronto, but has been 18th or worse with mechanical woes in the three races since.
Kanaan, somehow, is still sixth in the championship despite weak qualifying performances the last five races. The passing master has come from respective starts of 19th, 17th, 21st, 18th and 16th to finishes of third, fourth, 18th, sixth and 10th. A year ago, he performed one of his most impressive overtaking feats with a run from 27th to third in a back-up car after his morning warm-up accident with Castroneves.
JUNQUEIRA'S BACK – Bruno Junqueira returns to IndyCar this weekend deputizing for Josef Newgarden at Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. What he lacks in laps in the current DW12, he'll make up for with years of experience and plenty of track time over the weekend, as he will be competing in both the IndyCar and the American Le Mans Series races.
Junqueira's now the third driver in as many races (Giorgio Pantano at Mid-Ohio, Sebastian Saavedra at Sonoma) making their first race start in the DW12 with limited or zero testing. His only IndyCar race start since 2008 was the 2010 Indianapolis 500, where he crashed out early.
SLEEPERS, CREEPERS AND STUMBLERS – Simon Pagenaud didn't race at Baltimore a year ago despite the fact it was a joint IndyCar/American Le Mans Series event. Perhaps this is the weekend where this year's Sunoco Rookie of the Year scores his first victory for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports.
Paid attention to Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand lately? Mostly notable for the fact he's ran different liveries the last two weekends (pink camouflage at Mid-Ohio, San Francisco 49ers red/brown at Sonoma), he's also been in the top 10 in three of the last four races and on the verge of cracking the top 10 in points. He started 17th and finished 19th at Baltimore last year, and will revert back to his usual livery this one.
Either of Dale Coyne's cars could post a surprise. Sebastien Bourdais and James Jakes qualified fifth and 11th a year ago, and with Bourdais' replacement Justin Wilson always a threat, it wouldn't be too hard to imagine similar grid spots this go-around. Wilson qualified third in Toronto and also started third in Long Beach.
Despite two decent qualifying runs on the road courses at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma (eighth and 12th), it's hard to expect much from Marco Andretti, whose street course starts this year have been seventh, 21st, 10th, 22nd and 22nd again.
LIVERY CHANGES – Sonoma winner Ryan Briscoe is in the blue, white and black PPG colors, Dario Franchitti reprises Lexar Media black and gold as in Brazil, Oriol Servia goes to a white and yellow WIX Filters scheme with Marco Andretti in gray and maroon for Dr Pepper Ten.
The Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT airs live Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on the NBC Sports Network.