You've got to have a great deal of sympathy for team personnel in this hectic period of the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, with races week after week after week. Yeah, obviously NASCAR crews have a whole season like this, but most Cup teams have plenty of back-up chassis set up for the various track configurations. It isn't that way for most IndyCar teams, so even the couple of days back at the shop between races are as tiring as being at the events.
However, on a purely selfish level, this is a great period of the season to be an IndyCar fan, as there's a real feeling of momentum. Come Monday mornings, the talk around the office water cooler among general motorsports fans is as much about open-wheel as about stock cars, and that is surely the result of this absurdly competitive and unpredictable season. This weekend, it's time for the Milwaukee Mile, a short oval with a long history – longer even than Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and it could well produce the eighth race winner in nine races.
ANDRETTI vs. GANASSI
On past record, these two teams are surely favorites for victory on Saturday. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: you could give Dario Franchitti a Target shopping cart and he'd be fast at Milwaukee, and so it's safe to assume he can vie for pole position this weekend. In the 2012 IndyFest (LEFT), the car's handling wasn't what Franchitti needed on race day once he'd dropped back in the pack as varied strategies played out, but the Texas race last weekend showed how the Ganassi No. 10 crew are so good at making huge steps year-on-year at each venue. Dario, therefore, should be a major contender for victory.
Franchitti's CGR teammate Scott Dixon is another potential race winner. As his race strategist Mike Hull has observed in the past, Scott is very swift at homing in on a setup that allows him to drive a variety of lines at the Mile, and this reaps huge rewards on race day. Last year Dixon screwed up his qualifying run, but was making startling progress until losing out under yellow, and then being mistakenly penalized by Race Control for a jumped start…while under caution! Suffice to say that, even though Dixon's style is usually more edgy than Franchitti's, he could still lead this race from start to finish.
But not if last year's Milwaukee winner Ryan Hunter-Reay has any say in the matter. He's right to describe his history at Milwaukee as feast or famine, but boy, when he's on it, he has few peers here and is the driver most likely to lead Chevrolet's charge against the Honda hordes. But don't discount his teammate James Hinchcliffe, who has also shone in both his Indy car races here. Hinch has the necessary ballsy attitude for lapping uncooperative backmarkers on this bullring, and when the cars are as close in performance as the IndyCar field is at present, that could mean the difference between winning or losing this race.
Marco Andretti and EJ Viso have also had days in the sun at Milwaukee (Marco took pole in '08) because neither lack aggression nor speed here, so all four Andretti Autosport cars should figure strongly. But beating the Ganassi boys will be very, very hard.
R. PENSKE, JAY PENSKE, EX-PENSKE
Helio Castroneves was the one ace I failed to mention in our Texas preview, so it was only natural that he should claim the win, so I'm wary of omitting him from this weekend's list of potential winners. However, Castroneves has never won here, despite taking three poles and leading a great many laps. Plus one wonders if, now holding a reasonable championship lead, he might drive circumspectly, going for a safe points haul rather than a possible win.
If so, he'll be made to suffer for it, because cautious driving gets punished around here as teammate Will Power proved last year. Having qualified fourth, Will had to start 14th because of an engine-change penalty and, surrounded by win-or-bust drivers, he spent the afternoon driving like a man trying not to lose rather than one trying to win. It's very different this year so he'll be going for it as hard as he was on the streets of Sao Paulo and Detroit.
Sebastien Bourdais has had a poor season so far, seemingly because many midfield teams have stepped up whereas Dragon Racing has struggled to do so. Driver error at Detroit (and yes, Seb, it was your fault) cost him a shot at a podium finish, but overall his main issue has simply been a lack of pace. Bearing in mind he's one of the very best drivers out there, this is beyond frustrating for him as well as the fans. However, he won at Milwaukee in Champ Car back in 2006, and this weekend could be the start of a revival for him if the team can find a good setup with some push.
Also keep an eye out for Ryan Briscoe, who will be sharing the No. 4 Panther Racing entry with Oriol Servia for the remainder of the year. Briscoe with his confidence high is a formidable competitor around Milwaukee, scene of his first IndyCar win five years ago for Team Penske. Also a polesitter at the Mile in '09 (ABOVE), Ryan could bring some much-needed help to John Barnes' team which hasn't turned out a quick car here since '06.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COYNE
Overshadowed by temporary teammate Mike Conway in Detroit, and struggling with horrible handling for much of the Texas weekend, Justin Wilson should be a podium contender – at the very least – in Milwaukee. He's frequently shone here in the past, scoring fourth and second in the final two Champ Car races at the Mile in '05 and '06, and qualifying second – without the benefit of the latest spec Honda – last year. He was also carving through the field in that race when his fresh Honda let go. It's safe to say that Wilson and engineer Bill Pappas know how to drive/set up the Dallara DW12 for this track, so if there's a sleeper in the Honda camp, it's car No. 19.
TWO SOPHOMORES AND A VET
Josef Newgarden had a strong couple of days in Texas, starting seventh and finishing eighth, ahead of three of this year's race winners (Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato and Simon Pagenaud) and that's good to see because he and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing needed and deserved it. Like Hinch, Newgarden is very brave and fast; unlike Hinch, he doesn't have three teammates with whom he can pool data, so if the right setup is found quickly, Newgarden will shine but if he and the team start off the weekend slow, they're going to struggle to remedy it.
Pagenaud's analytical but enthusiastic approach to short-oval racing is likely to pay dividends in his second year. Heck, he was impressive for much of this race last year, and a podium for Detroit's Race 2 winner wouldn't be a major surprise.
Even less of a surprise would be a big wedge of points for Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan. He's never scored a pole at the Mile but he has won twice, because he's always decisive and aggressive in the heat of battle. The result is that, even in his less competitive years, the Milwaukee has seen him in the top five and fighting for a place on the podium. Why would this year be any different?
On Friday there are two one-hour practice sessions at 11.00am and 2.00pm ET, followed by qualifying at 5:15pm.
On Saturday, the NBC Sports broadcast window is from 4.00 to 7.00pm ET, with the Milwaukee IndyFest due to get the green at 4:40 p.m.
Weather forecast is around 70 degrees with no rain interruptions Friday or Saturday.