What to expect from IndyCar’s return Phoenix

It’s been eleven years since there’s been Indy car racing at the Phoenix International Raceway, although it was a staple venue for CART and the IRL for decades. The IRL held its last race at the desert venue in 2005 and has not been back since. This year marks not only the first race back at Phoenix, but perhaps more importantly, it marks the first race back at an International Speedway Corporation (ISC) venue since the 2010 season. Does this mean that the IndyCar Series could be headed back to my home track, the Kansas Speedway? Well, probably not, although many of us who work the events would love to see it happen. Yes, photogs love BBQ and beer. Surprise. Let’s begin with a look at the track itself before we dive into the competition stories.

Track Configuration

The one-mile Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) oval circuit is very unique. Imagine the asymmetric Motegi oval where someone has pushed in and flattened Turn 2. Although there are four officially defined corners, it effectively has only three three, the tight Turn 1 leading into the kink of Turn 2 and ending with the long horseshoe of Turns 3 and 4. Therefore, much like the Pocono Speedway, set-up will be a compromise. One will be able to get the car set-up to work well in perhaps two of the three major sections, but it won’t be perfect in all three. This means that the teams will have to make some hard decisions, which means they’ll have the opportunity to guess wrong. This is a great thing for competition. It’s always nice to have teams given the opportunity to choose poorly. It’s not that I wish to see people fail, but rather I enjoy seeing people choose wisely and crush those who did not. Of all of the ovals on the 2016 schedule, this one offers the best opportunity for the smaller teams to make strategic and setup decisions that can allow them to compete against the juggernauts of Penske and Gannasi.

Prognostications

Although it’s never wise to bet against winner of the St. Petersburg race and last year’s Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Juan Pablo Montoya, he is up against two former Phoenix International Raceway race winners in his teammate Helio Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. Helio won in 2002 when Penske Racing joined the Indy Racing League on a full-time basis. Tony Kanaan won the following two years, 2003 and 2004, during his time at Andretti Green Racing. In pre-season testing earlier this year, Castroneves topped the time charts, edging his teammate, Simon Pagenaud, by a little more than a hundredth of a second. It was clear that Helio still remembers the fast way around this circuit.

“I am really excited to debut the new REV Group Chevrolet this weekend at Phoenix. I am one of the few guys who ran at Phoenix before and I have some really good memories of the track, including winning there in 2002. We learned a lot in our test there a few weeks ago and it sounds like there’s a lot of buzz in town around the Verizon IndyCar Series coming back to race at PIR. I know I am excited and looking forward to racing under the lights in the REV Team Penske Chevy on Saturday night.” — Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Racing

Right on the heels of the two Penske drivers, though were the two cars of Ed Carpenter Racing with Josef Newgarden in the No. 21 car leading his boss Ed Carpenter in the No. 20. Ed Carpenter has struggled on the road and street circuit, but is a formidable opponent on the ovals. His hired hot shoe, Josef Newgarden, is certainly good at turning both left and right, but he is also no slouch at the oval tracks. This Saturday night, Ed Carpenter Racing is fielding both drivers. The potential for the small team taking the victory is not insubstantial. Look for both Ed and Josef to be major factors in the race all evening long.

“I’m excited to get back to Phoenix. Hopefully we can get back up on the board this time, St. Pete was a bit of a rough start. Those things happen, but the guys have been working really hard leading up to this next race weekend. It will be great to be running with Ed (Carpenter) again, we always work well together. I think we’re going to bring a pretty strong effort to the first oval of the year and hopefully have a good showing in the Fuzzy’s Vodka cars.” — Josef Newgarden, No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing

So ok, let’s get down to it. Who’s going to win? If I were putting money on the race, I would have a hard time not betting for Helio. Montoya certainly is skillful at ovals, and he’s coming off of a win at St. Petersburg, but the oval game not one where he’s top-dog in Indy car racing. Helio has shown over the years that he can, and does, excel at turning left, and he’s a former winner here. My dark horse bet would be on Josef Newgarden. Carpenter has shown time and time again that he has masterful pace on oval circuits, enough pace to stick it to the big teams as he did when he was racing for Sarah Fisher Racing at Chicagoland and when he took the pole position at Indianapolis. I think you’ll see Newgarden outpace and outrace him as he did last year at Pocono. I really do think Newgarden and Ed Carpenter Racing have the potential to win this race, but it will take not only masterful race craft, but also some serendipity and some sort of bobble from Castroneves. If Helio and Team Penske don’t put a foot wrong, the race is theirs. If they make even the slightest mistake, Newgarden will be there to capitalize on the opportunity.

Schedule

The action starts Friday morning with the IndyLights Series at 0900 and the Verizon IndyCar Series cars taking to the track at 1000 for the first practice session. IndyCar qualifying begins at 1400 and IndyLights qualifying follows at 1630. The IndyLights race takes place in the heat of the afternoon, beginning at 1325 on Saturday and the IndyCar race begins in the early evening at 1810. (All times are Mountain Standard Time, -7h GMT) This is the first race of the season for the NBC Sports Network which will be broadcasting the first practice session, qualifying and the race. The IndyLights race will air later in the week, but you can still watch the IndyLights race live at RoadToIndy.tv.