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IndyCar Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Gateway Motorsports Park

With only three races for Firestone Fantasy Challenge players, the opportunity to gain ground is getting limited.

That is certainly the case for yours truly, as my quartet for last weekend’s ABC Supply 500 failed to impress. To recover lost ground, those who fared well at Pocono Raceway’s “Tricky Triangle,” have been called upon to rake in the points as the Verizon IndyCar Series competes at the Gateway Motorsports Park oval for the first time since 2003.

Last week’s winner Will Power from Team Penske leads this Sunday’s foursome. Although known more for his exploits on road courses, the Australian has exceeded expectations on ovals in 2017. Two of his three triumphs have been oval-based, and he has a second and a fourth also on the scorecard. The only blemish suffered was a 21st-place finish at the Indianapolis 500, when Power was eliminated in a multi-car accident, not of his own doing.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan is not the same victory threat across the board that he was when he started his efforts in IndyCar in 2003. However, the Brazilian continues to remain potent on the high-speed layouts, earning a top-ten finish in every oval race so far this season. While not normally a good value concerning fantasy-wise, TK has earned his place on my team this weekend.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand unexpectedly struggled at Pocono, only placing 19th after suffering contact with James Hinchcliffe. Despite the setback, the Californian has excelled on the shorter ovals in 2017, collecting his two best finishes to date. He placed third behind two Penske cars at Phoenix and settled for runner-up honors at Iowa Speedway.

Alexander Rossi rounds out my roster for St. Louis, but may have the lowest credentials on oval tracks compared to the other members of the trio. But, the 2016 Indy 500 champion has momentum, collecting top-six results in each of the last three rounds.

With the oval portion of the schedule coming to a close, expect the edge Honda may have had on Chevrolet at Pocono to be lessened at St. Louis. If that plays out, Team Penske could take over the proceedings much as they did at Phoenix Raceway.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Hildebrand Scores Second Top-Five Of 2017

J.R. Hildebrand during the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season has been unable to shake the tag of being an oval track specialist.

While the 2011 Indianapolis 500 runner-up has finished no better than 11th on a road course to date, the Californian has done damage to the competition on the short ovals. The first major score came at Phoenix International Raceway in April where he chased Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Will Power to the finish to place third. On Sunday, Hildebrand would exceed that performance with a runner-up showing at the Iowa Corn 300.

Earlier this weekend at Iowa Speedway, the returns were not as pleasant. A practice crash on Saturday cost him valuable track time, but the Ed Carpenter Racing pilot absorbed the blow with style in time trials, placing the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on the outside of the front row for Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300.

After dropping back early, the 29-year old surged late in the first fuel stint, eventually taking the lead from pole winner Helio Castroneves on Lap 97. While maintaining position in the top-five for most of the distance, the major issue for the ECR team on Sunday was pit stops. During three of the four rounds of crew action, Hildebrand lost positions.

“The (ECR) guys did a good job today, (today) became more about track position than (Iowa) usually is,” said Hildebrand after the race on the IndyCar Radio Network. “We got pushed back to about fifth or sixth position (at the halfway point), it was really tough to run on the bottom (line).”

However, it would be the final round of stops under the green flag, that would allow the Californian a shot to earn his first IndyCar win. Electing to gamble by pitting earlier than others, Hildebrand was able to run several quick laps on new tires. The result of the successful bet vaulted the No. 21 Chevrolet into contention; however, the early call-in came with a price. With the new tire advantage shifting late to those in pursuit, Hildebrand succumbed to eventual race winner Castroneves with 35 laps to go. Unable to keep pace, the ECR chauffeur settled for second. 

“We got a couple of good restarts and (my team) made a great call to pit early, go out and really hustle to get the lead,” explained Hildebrand. “At that point, it was all about holding everyone off as long as we could. If we had a couple more laps left (I may not have finished second).”

With the IndyCar fleet headed north to the streets of Toronto, Canada next weekend, Hildebrand and the Ed Carpenter Racing figure to revert to their usual placing in mid-pack. However, the No. 21 entry could rejoin victory contention in August as the circuit heads to Pocono Raceway, followed by Gateway Motorsports Park the week after.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Fantasy Hot Tip: Iowa

Things have changed for the better. After back-to-back frustrating weeks at Detroit and Texas, my driver picks for the Firestone Fantasy Challenge delivered at Road America two weeks ago.

Thanks to a one-two finish from Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden, yours truly was head of the class at the Kohler Grand Prix. The win rebuilds the safety net that I had lost in the previous two rounds. So with ninth-place on the points table much more secure, the focus shifts to moving forward in rankings on Sunday afternoon.

The Iowa Corn 300 roster remains unaltered on top but does change in the bottom half, where 12th and 13th-place finishes were the end game. Enough to take P1 in Wisconsin, but may be as fortunate at the high banked bowl of Iowa Speedway.

As mentioned, my dynamic duo of Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon remain intact this weekend. The selection of Newgarden has two facts in his corner. Earlier this season at Phoenix International Raceway, Team Penske ruled the action in qualifying and then posted a top-two punch with Simon Pagenaud and Will Power at the forefront. So why the Tennessee-native then over the Arizona rabbits? Last year’s domination at Iowa by the first-year Penske pilot is hard to ignore. If one can control a race with a lesser team on paper, just imagine what could happen when the squad’s potential is further enhanced.

Regarding Dixon, not only is he leading the Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings, he can turn potentially bad results into good ones. The Iceman has overcome qualifying days where Penske’s men outpaced him, and if it should occur yet again on Saturday, the New Zealander has a history of overcoming it. That’s why despite the muscle displayed at Phoenix by Power and Pagenaud, I still went with the Ganassi Racing veteran.

Seats three and four were trickier to setup. Gone are Alexander Rossi and Spencer Pigot, as the former Indy 500 champion has yet to prove himself on a short oval, while Pigot gives way to team boss Ed Carpenter in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Chevrolet. In their place, however, are two solid alternatives. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay would seem like an odd choice considering he’s failed to finish all three oval
events to date in 2017. Of course, those events were not at Iowa Speedway, where the Californian has scored three triumphs since 2012. That reminder is enough reason to dismiss the DNFs suffered recently.

As for the final seat, I have stayed with Ed Carpenter Racing tapping their oval track specialist J.R. Hildebrand. 2017 has been a trial by fire return to full-time service for the former Indy 500 runner-up, but he did place a strong third at Phoenix, raising his value against other options, including the ever-improving Chip Ganassi Racing chauffeur Max Chilton and Dale Coyne Racing rookie Ed Jones.

With the Hawkeye State’s roster now set, let’s see if I am on the right track again in selecting gangbuster foursomes.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any
links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Indianapolis 500

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is primed for its cornerstone event the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented By PennGrade Motor Oil, the Firestone Fantasy Challenge has gone super-sized.

The race budget has jumped from the standard one hundred dollars to five hundred bucks and instead of drafting only four drivers, one must take a colossal ten for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

While going for the superstar caliber pilots would make the most sense, the values for all drivers has increased likewise. For example, Verizon P1 Award winner Scott Dixon costs 75 dollars to play, while Buddy Lazier is among the least expensive options at only twenty bucks. Looking ahead to how Sunday’s race could play out, the 2015 edition is primarily influencing my selection pattern. On that afternoon, Chevrolet-powered cars had the advantage, and the Hondas failed to get among them. My gut tells me the 2017 running at the Brickyard will see a complete reversal of fortune.

To the above concern, I have totaled ignored the five bow-tie backed cars from Team Penske. I know Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden each have impressive resumes at Indy. However, driving ability is negated if the car beneath one is not at an equal level. So far this month of May, the Captain’s vehicles have not been up to snuff.

Now I have not entirely abandoned the GM camp. Three chefs-de-race were worth drafting against the seven Honda chauffeurs yours truly completed his ten-man squad with. Two come from perhaps the strongest team in the 15-car Chevy roster: Ed Carpenter Racing. The team boss may draw the biggest cheers from the 250,000 strong crowd, and that may motivate a result out of the 36-year old hometown hero. Equally strong is his secondin-command J.R. Hildebrand. The Californian had a great effort at Phoenix last month and has hovered around the top-ten often at IMS. With Chevrolet possibly at a power shortage on the long straightaways, it may take bravery to mix it with the Hondas. One guy that meets that qualification is ex-high school wrestler Sage Karam. The Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has a reputation of overly reckless steering, but such a tactic could be a requirement.

Now onto the meat in my foot-long sandwich. I feel are three drivers who are the favorites entering race day. One is the Iceman mentioned above in Scott Dixon, the second is his partner-in-crime Tony Kanaan, and the third is the rabbit in last year’s event Ryan Hunter-Reay. With all three car-wranglers in the first four rows, none should have any issues getting to the point early. Using the same throw caution to the wind tag mentioned above with Karam, I am taking a chance on Takuma Sato. The Japanese driver has had trouble making the finish; however, he could be more willing to hold his fire with a stronger car and a better grid position.

A big pickup in time trials Sunday encouraged me to snap up Oriol Servia, a solid veteran who placed fourth in 2012. Spots nine and ten will be taken by two impressive rookies. Defending Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion Ed Jones takes one, while the aura of former World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso takes the final place. The Spaniard is having the kind of month that Nigel Mansell had in 1993 when he came within 15 laps of winning. He and his McLaren-Andretti Honda team have exceeded all expectations this month and should continue the trend to the point where a place on the train has my name on it.

Indeed one super team is missing in action, however as witnessed by my roster, two megagroups will fill the vacancy without issue.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

EMBURY: Surprises Among Firestone Fast Nine Advancees

In a day preceded by thunderstorms, Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway produced several surprises.

For instance, all three members of last year’s Indianapolis 500 front row, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, failed to make the Firestone Fast Nine. Four-time pole winner Helio Castroneves was also not fast enough. In their place, was a plethora of Honda-powered entries and some unexpected Chevrolets.

Regaining the form he showed in winning Indy 500 pole awards in 2013 and 2014, Indianapolis-native Ed Carpenter topped the pole shootout list with an impressive four-lap average of 230468 MPH. The local hero will be joined in the final qualifying round by teammate J.R. Hildebrand, who also posted a strong 230 plus effort.

Amazingly, despite entering five cars this month, Team Penske will feature only one entrant in Sunday’s showdown. Will Power, who was the only member of the Captain’s quintet to post a 230 MPH lap this week without a draft, backed up the early returns to make the cut. The rest though, faded, as conditions changed. Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud only managed a 228, as did Josef Newgarden. Juan Pablo Montoya was likewise stuck at 228, while Castroneves’ 229.3 MPH run also was not among the fast nine.

Beyond ECR, the other big winners Saturday were Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Two-thirds of the way through the original order, Ganassi had four cars in the final phase. Despite Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball getting bumped, the team has two excellent shots at the top spot in veterans Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, who have earned a combined three poles at the Brickyard.

Meanwhile, Andretti Autosport stands at an equal level of opportunity with former Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso leading the charge. The Spanish newcomer to IndyCar racing will be joined by reigning Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato, and Marco Andretti, who secured the final spot to advance to the Firestone Fast Nine.

Unfortunately, the shootout will be missing one notable driver as Sebastien Bourdais suffered a serious accident in turn two during his attempt. After running two laps above 231 MPH, the Frenchman made heavy contact with the SAFER barrier sending his Dale Coyne Racing Honda into a flip before coming to a stop right side up. The veteran was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he was awake and alert.

The surprises were not limited to the nine finalists. On a layout where an early draw is viewed as an advantage, the late runners vaulted forward as Saturday’s action went beyond the usual 6 p.m. track closing to allow everyone a chance to perform. Also with only a limited number of drivers taking the track during the Saturday morning warm-up, many competitors were forced to take to the circuit and run at their maximum for the first time in about 24 hours, placing an even greater set of unknowns to the common stack during time trials weekend.

With many curveballs thrown on Saturday, expect more of them to come on Sunday.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Hildebrand Gains Much Needed Momentum Ahead of Indy

With a pair of finishes outside the top-10 to start the season, including a broken right hand from the crash at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, J.R. Hildebrand’s season needed a boost.

After being forced to sit out Barber Motorsports Park, the Ed Carpenter Racing driver rebounded at Phoenix, posting a runner-up despite continuing to battle the injury. The finish was not a surprise for Hildebrand, recalling the one-two speeds posted in testing by himself and teammate Ed Carpenter.

“The car was bitching,” he said. “I mean, I think at the end of the race we had obviously one of the top three, but I think we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to just have that in it, you know? (We) know that we’ve got that in us for the next couple of races. It’s a strong result heading into May.”

The finish allowed Hildebrand to build some confidence, which he admits was lacking following the pair of street courses to begin 2017.

“The first couple of races have been a little bit challenging, just getting things dialed in,” he said. “The field is so stacked and competitive here in the IndyCar Series these days; it’s difficult to come away with consistent, good results. This is somewhere we looked at on the schedule and knew we would have a fighting chance at it.

“I think coming away with a good weekend, executing at a high level, getting through everything, definitely builds some confidence going into the month of May, where we’ll hope to do that again.”

The boost in morale is crucial, as he is working with a new engineer this season – Justin Taylor, who enters the Verizon IndyCar Series with a background in sports cars and road courses.

“Justin’s been awesome, man,” Hildebrand said. “To come into this whole thing and not know the car, we’re at a whole bunch of tracks that he’s not seen. Certainly the oval aspect of it, it’s a lot to get used to. It’s obviously my first time back in the car full-time with aero kits and all this kind of stuff. We’re all learning a little bit still as we go along.

“It feels great for me and for I think on behalf of him and the team and some of the new guys that we’ve got just to be able to pull it out here. We knew we had speed here. It’s different to execute in the race in a way that you can stick it on the podium. I think it’s the start of good things to come for us. Hopefully, we can get on a little bit of a roll heading into the thick of the season.”

Kicking off the month of May with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, any momentum is a benefit for Hildebrand as his previous two appearances have both ended in finishes outside of the top-20.

The focus for the team could be towards shining in the Indianapolis 500 later in the month, where they have had past success. On top of Carpenter’s pair of poles, Hildebrand has finished in the top-10 in his previous three attempts for ECR and had a runner-up in 2011 with Panther Racing.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News Open Wheel

Hildebrand Medically Cleared for Phoenix

After sitting out this past weekend’s event at Barber Motorsports Park, JR Hildebrand has been medically cleared to return to competition, beginning with Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix Raceway.

The driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet sustained a broken bone in his left hand following a last-lap incident in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9. He underwent surgery two days later.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury,” Hildebrand said. “I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car. I feel like I’m far enough along (in recuperation) to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix.”

Hildebrand proved he was fast during testing, posting the quickest lap during the two-day Verizon IndyCar Series open test at Phoenix in February.

“I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong,” Hildebrand said. “The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend.

“I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car. Everyone has been super helpful, and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Zach Veach replaced Hildebrand at Barber Motorsports Park, finishing 19th.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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News Open Wheel

Hildebrand Suffers Broken Hand in Last Lap Crash

Following a crash on the last lap of Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, JR Hildebrand suffered a broken bone in his left hand.

Throughout the race, Hildebrand had run just outside of the top-10 and was trying to use the final restart with four laps left to get by Mikhail Aleshin for 11th. Going into the corner, though, the pair made contact with Hildebrand’s No. 21 Chevrolet climbing over the back of Aleshsin’s No. 7 Honda.

“I was out of push-to-pass, so I was trying to make a proper, full-out pass down the front straightaway,” Hildebrand said. “He had been starting to move over, not a major blocking maneuver but enough to assert his line. He hit the brake a lot earlier than I was expecting and I ended up running into the back of him. In doing so, it ripped the steering wheel from my hand, and I ended up tweaking it.”

INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows did not clear the Ed Carpenter Racing driver to return competing and will re-evaluate the situation later this week. The Verizon IndyCar Series has a week off before the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

“At the end of the day, to come home with an 11th place finish isn’t terrible,” he continued. “It is a bummer though as we were certainly on our way to finishing in the top 10 and now we are in a bit of a jam going forward. Hopefully, I can get back to it here before the next race.”

Aleshin crossed the finish line in 11th but was penalized one position by INDYCAR for blocking, crediting him with 12th. The Russian was running in the top-10, but contact with Tony Kanaan caused damage to his front wing.

“I felt like I could hold my position,” he said. “Then obviously, Hildebrand crashed into my rear and destroyed my chance to make the top-10. But positively, we had a really good car, and I’m very happy for the team and for James (Hinchcliffe). I think the team gave a great effort this weekend and we just need to keep the momentum.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Speed at Phoenix Adds to ECR’s Confidence

Through the years, Ed Carpenter Racing has always been quick on the ovals, with Ed Carpenter regularly running inside the top-five. It’s why it was no surprise that the pair of ECR drivers – JR Hildebrand and Carpenter – topped the time sheet at the end of the Phoenix International Speedway test.

While recognizing the speed within the team, Carpenter noted the edge could partially have come from being able to partake in the Firestone Tire Test last fall.

The test served as a significant benefit for Hildebrand, who moves from running a partial road course based schedule in past years with ECR to running the full series schedule in 2017. Being able to partake in the test last fall proved to be a benefit for Hildebrand in getting used to Phoenix and the short oval package, which he says helped in getting “up to speed more quickly” at the test.

“We rolled off the truck kind of as we would say just in the window, so it was a lot of just being able to — what we’ve been doing is sort of tailoring the cars to our individual needs,” Hildebrand said. “Those aren’t that different, so both of us sort of then working together with our teams to benefit from each other along the way.”

Though on top of those factors, Carpenter stated they were fast last year, and the changes in the off-season have appeared to work thus far.

“We’ve gone through some changes, but the guys have kept their head down,” Carpenter said. “We still have the same goals of competing for race wins, competing for the championship, Indy 500, and this is an important race. It’s the first oval of the year. You want to come and set of set the tone for the ovals here just as St. Pete is important to kick off the season and set the tone for the road and street courses. The guys have been working hard.”

For the team, it serves as a confidence boost. For Hildebrand, it’s reassurance that he has put himself in the right position for 2017.

“It starts to hit you like this time of year that it’s like, oh, we’re going to St. Pete, and I’m going to race,” he said. “It’s like, we’re not just going to hang out. So it’s definitely a different level of commitment but something that I’ve been used to before.”

It also allowed him to grow confidence in his engineer Justin Taylor, whom ECR hired over the winter. Taylor enters the Verizon IndyCar Series with a sports car background, after having spent time with Audi.

” It’s been great working with him so far,” Hildebrand said. “He and I have got along really well right from the beginning. I’m living out in Boulder, he’s from Denver originally, he’s an American guy. It’s been cool working with him, just kind of off the bat, I guess. There are definitely some differences, but I think as Ed would, I’m sure, back me up on this, having guys come in that have had the level of success that he has at teams like that, despite the fact that the teams are very different.”

Hildebrand applauded the move to bring Taylor in, stating he brings a fresh perspective and “keeps all of us honest in terms of just the normal way that we go about thinking.”

Though while the word “change” has been used on a bunch of occurrences, Carpenter hasn’t looked at it that way with regards to Hildebrand.

“JR has been a part of this team the past three years, even though he hasn’t been in the car as much as we wanted,” he said. “He was still kind of in tune with what we were doing all the time, communicating with myself, Josef, the engineers. So it’s not your typical like new driver coming into a team. He’s pretty familiar with how we operate, and with most of the key people. We’ve had couple changes in engineering, so that’s really where the biggest change is at is getting those relationships built and familiarity with the car and driver.”

“It feels like a pretty easy transition to be making,” Hildebrand said. “We’ve got some challenges ahead of us. I think to be totally prepped and on the same page and ready to rock and roll when it starts to really matter, but that’s what tests like this are great for. I mean, I think a lot of guys are kind of sitting around like, oh, man, it’s too bad we don’t have a few more sets of tires and can do a little bit more running.”

While the speed brings the boost in confidence, Carpenter’s pleasure from the test more so came from how comfortable they got their Chevrolets to drive under the lights in race-trim mode.

“The goal leaving these tests, you want to leave feeling like you’ve got a car capable of winning, and that’s when you feel like you’ve had a good test,” he said. “We’ve got a little work to do for that, but I think, like JR said, we were pretty close to being in the window of where we want to be when we got here, and now we’re just trying to find little things here and there to make it better.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: When Is Too Fast, Too Fast?

The 2017 “Test in the West” for the Verizon IndyCar Series is now in the books, and after two days of action at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway’s D-shaped oval, a few takes and red flags have surfaced, enough to devote a full edition of Embury’s Outlook to consider the outcomes.

For one thing, it appears less than likely that in regards to qualifying for April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Resort Phoenix Grand Prix, that the Chevrolet-powered half of the field will dominate the proceedings as they did a year ago. In 2016, every Chevrolet entry out qualified the fastest Honda-backed car on the starting grid, and while the Japanese-based manufacturer did make some headway in the 250-lap journey that followed, it was not enough to keep General Motors from sweeping the podium.

Looking ahead to the 2017 edition of the final oval prep race before the 101st Indianapolis 500, Chevrolet will likely place a car on the point, as Ed Carpenter Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand posted the fastest lap during the test on Saturday afternoon. However, the advantage should again swing back in Honda’s direction once the green flag falls.

The interesting thing, however, is who could lead the chase for Honda. Returning clients, Chip Ganassi Racing, were not among the fast timers for much of the weekend, while Andretti Autosport was close yet not the most consistent of the Honda runners. Based on the numbers, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais was the best over the four sessions of action for Honda.

The results show that either Bourdais has figured out how to get the most from the oval setups, a spot where he has been noticeably limited since re-joining the North American open-wheel circus, minus one victory at The Milwaukee Mile in 2015. The outputs also show that Coyne’s commitment to bolstering the behind the scenes half of the squad is also raising the potential that this team may drop upon the opposition in 2017, again something that outside of when the late Justin Wilson was a driver was mostly non-existent concerning what DCR could offer.

The second story from the “Test in the West” however, is not one of excitement, more instead on the concern half of the coin. While J.R. Hildebrand’s fast lap was impressive, his 193 MPH plus output has to be taken with a grain of salt. For a one-mile oval, the timing chart says that fast of a pace per lap is around a 19 seconds flat effort, a speed never seen before in the history of INDYCAR for this type of layout. While breaking track records is always exciting (if matched in qualifying, it would top Helio Castroneves’ pole speed by over a mile per hour), keep in mind the reaction times at a tight track such as PIR are reduced significantly.

Although a 200 MPH front stretch speed was seen here as recently as 1995, a 193 MPH average also likely means a 200 MPH plus trap speed entering turn three, an area of the circuit where absolute perfection regarding the line taken is a must. The quicker speeds also makes mistakes tougher to overcome, as evidenced by the four incidents seen over the two-day test. While all drivers did not suffer injuries, a definite warning shot was dispatched last weekend.

Also at a short oval, speeds in this range also equate to more bad air coming off the car in front as supposed to a Texas Motor Speedway or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the same air is more of a help concerning drafting and passing. In this case, passing with the shorter straightaways increases in difficulty, not necessarily great news as passing was also at a premium at PIR in last year’s race.

While the results of the “Test In The West” may not equate to every short oval on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, it does say that both qualifying well and making good on the pit lane could be the two biggest keys to victory when the 21-car fleet returns to the Arizona desert in April.

Stay tuned for more analysis and driver snapshots on the road to the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida on the next edition of
Embury’s Outlook.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.