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Twin Bill at Texas Is A First For IndyCar Series

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 2 2021

The IndyCar Series will double down at Texas this year.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas _ The risk/reward element in-play whenever INDYCAR competes at Texas Motor Speedway will multiply next month, when the track plays host to its first bona fide, back-to-back doubleheader weekend.

The Genesys 300-miler on Saturday, May 1, and the XPEL 375-miler on Sunday, May 2, will be the third and fourth races on the Series’ 17-event 2021 schedule. Both will pay full points as the only oval-track outings heading into practice and qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 30.

“It’s going to be about maximizing the points over the (TMS) weekend,” James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport said during a break in testing here Wednesday afternoon. “You can’t really afford to make too big of a mistake in the first one because it’s going to have consequences in Race 2. That’s always in the back of your mind in the first race.

“You’ve got a doubleheader race _ that’s two chances to wreck your Indy stuff right at the start of May. That’s not necessarily ideal. There’s definitely a huge risk, so do you bring all your best stuff to Texas Motor Speedway? It’s essentially a double-points weekend. You kind of half to, but there is a risk involved in that. So, keeping your nose clean is going to be extra important here.”

Graham Rahal added that one race around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval is enough to wear a driver down-and-out. “But two of them, it’s all going to be right here,” said Rahal, pointing to his head. “Make no mistakes. There’s no room for error _ zero.”

Winner of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 here on Aug. 27, 2016, Rahal was among 17 series regulars from seven teams hot-lapping in sunny, cool and windy conditions. While the typical test talk about downforce, drag, ride heights and tire degradation were aimed at improving the quality of a show dominated last June by Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, the unique challenges presented by the doubleheader format were front-and-center. 

“It’s super-challenging. It’s mentally very exhausting. This place wears you out,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. “And also the physicality has gone up. The cars are a little bit heavier, the steering rates a little bit heavier, it’s a little bit grippier this year with the new downforce and the tire package makes the car run a little bit tighter.”

All that said, Rahal confirmed the car he will wheel around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway will not be run at TMS. “We’ll leave the Indy 500 car back in Indy,” said Rahal, son of team co-owner and 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal.

Recall that Graham started seventh here in last June’s race  _ the COVID-19-delayed 2020 season-opener. “Last year we brought the sharpest tool we had in the shed,” said Rahal, teammate to two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato. “Frankly, I had a pretty good car, qualified up toward the front but, unfortunately, it didn’t start on the grid. I don’t know how many remember that but it didn’t start so we started the race two laps down and that was that.” Rahal finished two laps down in 17th.

“We’re fortunate we have the cars to leave back and the one that’s going to be racing the 500 is…that’s its job,” Rahal said. “It’s a brand new chassis and it will be focused on that.” Rahal started eighth and finished third in the 104th edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on Aug. 23.

Dixon, the six-time/reigning series champion, was not among the group here for a test that began with a short shakedown session designed to clean the track on Tuesday. But Dixon’s performance last June definitely was a point of focus for this test. Dixon delivered a lesson in social-distancing last June, leading 157 of 200 laps en route to a 4.411-second margin of victory over Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske. Dixon’s fourth win in “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” was his second in three years, tying him with Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves in the TMS record book.

“I think everyone kinda got whipped by the Ganassi guys last time, so we’ll be ready,” said Team Penske’s Will Power, the 2018 Indy 500 champion and 2014 series champ.

Josef Newgarden, winner of the 2019 race here, said Wednesday’s windy conditions played havoc with his No. 2 Team Penske XPEL Chevrolet, especially through the troublesome, one-groove Turn 1 and 2 section.

“This place is always tough when it’s windy _ feels like the car is about to fly out of your hands half the time at each end of the track,” said Newgarden, the series champion in 2017 and 2019. “So, we were kind of fighting that this morning. Learning not only for ourselves but for INDYCAR, trying to figure out what’s going to be the best package for this track _ give us a little better race than last year, try to close up the field.”

Among the items on the sanctioning body’s checklist were dialing additional downforce into the Dallara chassis that will be competing here for the second time with the Aeroscreen cockpit safety device.

“It’s within a couple hundred pounds (of added downforce), just a bit of help to everybody,” Newgarden said. “It’s so sensitive…trying to fine-tune the packages. You can have it in the perfect window where the racing is fantastic and you move it slightly the wrong direction and it strings people out too much. It’s not just the increase in total load, the parts themselves have an effect on front wing power where it should help the stability of the car in traffic.”

Rahal and Newgarden led a consensus of drivers who confirmed there was no grip outside the preferred line through Turns 1 and 2, where the PJ1 traction compound previously laid down for NASCAR competition remains slick.

“It’s a no-go zone. It’s just very slippery,” Rahal said. “I know everybody here at TMS does a great job trying to find ways to find grip. Unfortunately, that dark black stuff has about 20 percent less grip than the bottom lane and a-half. So it’s still going to be a no-go zone. But if the downforce level is correct and the tire combination is correct that gives you an opportunity to put on a better show than last year. I think it’s getting closer.”

Pato O’Ward, the 2020 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, said he tried opening up the radius into Turn 1 with the right side Firestone Firehawk tires on his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. “The car wasn’t very happy,” said O’Ward, who finished fifth in his TMS debut last June. “I don’t know how to say it…but I haven’t had the cojones to go four wheels on the black.

“This is a track that will bite if you get it wrong. And whenever you destroy a car there’s not much time to get it back together, even if it’s overnight. You got to think of your guys, you got to think of your team. Race 1, you might see it be more on the cautious side. When I saw that when we had two races here it’s basically double points…so we’re in a position where we have to be competitive, we have to be quick, we have to have two good races and we can’t be greedy.

“Everybody always tries to go for the win, but if all you have is for fourth, if all you have is for seventh, then you take that because there’s a lot of points on the table and it can be a weekend that sets the tone for the rest of your championship.”

As noted, the May weekend will be TMS’ first true back-to-back doubleheader. However, the track played host to a bit of series history when it staged the Firestone Twin 275s on June 11, 2011. It marked the first time in series history and the 18th time in American open-wheel history that drivers competed in two individual races in the same evening. Each race paid half-points and purse.

Dario Franchitti of Chip Ganassi Racing led 110 of 114 laps to win the opener. Power led 68 of 114 laps en route to his first career oval-track victory in Race 2 on a night when Dixon finished second in each race.

Prior to the 2011 Firestone Twin 275s, there were 17 INDYCAR doubleheaders staged (nine on ovals) under U.S. Auto Club and Championship Auto Racing Teams sanction from 1967-81, with one driver sweeping both races 10 times. The grid for the second race was determined by finishing order in the first during all 17 events.

More recently, INDYCAR conducted doubleheaders on the 0.875-mile Iowa Speedway in Newton and 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill., last season. Those races will serve as templates for the Genesys 300 and XPEL 375 at “The Great American Speedway.”

The doubleheader races here will be the 33rd and 34th INDYCAR events conducted at TMS since the track’s inaugural season in 1997. TMS previously hosted summer and fall races in the same season from 1998-2004.

Openly frustrated by the one-groove line through Turns 1 and 2, Power offered a suggestion to the sanctioning body.

“Everyone turns up, everyone runs that same line, the same line rubbers-in and then all the dust and marbles get pushed up into the second one,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet. “So, you never ever get a chance to get up there. But if they (INDYCAR) ran a session where you could only run that second lane, it would come in and people would be not so apprehensive to go up there because they’ll have some knowledge and experience of running up there.

“If you did a session like, let’s say, 20 minutes leading into the final practice of the race weekend and everyone gets a set of tires and they can only run the second lane, and that segued into final practice, then you get cars running both lanes. As when they get to someone, they just wouldn’t stall-out. They’d go up there. I think that would almost fix the problem. I mean, we’ve added downforce, the cars are easier and more stuck. You can even do a short line at the moment when you’re running by yourself but if you can’t go to another lane, how can you ever pass? I think it’s good to get cars running up there. I really do.”

Newgarden, who posted a career-tying best four wins in 2020, said he was optimistic the aero configuration being tested could potentially lead to a second racing lane and opportunities to overtake outside of pit road. 

“One race around this place can smoke you pretty good,” Newgarden said. “So adding two…I don’t think it’s anything outside our capabilities but it will be a challenge, especially if it’s hot. It’s a daring track. I mean, you got to have commitment when you come here. You’ve got to feel very confident in yourself and in your car. I like that about this track.”

Hinchcliffe, booked for the full 2021 schedule in his return to the team-owned by Michael Andretti, said running TMS’ oval on consecutive days likely will be on par with a twinbill on The Raceway at Belle Isle Park’s 2.35-mile street circuit in Detroit.

“From a physicality point of view, the ovals are generally a little less physical,” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Genesys Honda. “But Texas is fast, man, and it’s hot. At the end of the race trying to keep it flat in Turns 3 and 4, you start hanging on for dear life. So having to rehydrate, rest and do it again the next day for even longer is going to be a challenge for everybody.”

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REVISED 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SCHEDULE

Sunday, April 18 _ Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala. (NBC)

Sunday, April 25 _Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (NBC)

Saturday, May 1 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 1, Fort Worth (NBCSN)

Sunday, May 2 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 2, Fort Worth (NBCSN)

Saturday, May 15 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (NBC)

Sunday, May 30 _ The 105th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (NBC)

Saturday, June 12 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 1, Detroit (NBC)

Sunday, June 13 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2, Detroit (NBC)

Sunday, June 20 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (NBCSN)

Sunday, July 4 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio (NBC)

Sunday, July 11 _ Streets of Toronto (NBCSN)

Sunday, Aug. 8 _ Streets of Nashville, Tenn. (NBCSN)

Saturday, Aug. 14 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (NBCSN)

Saturday, Aug. 21 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Madison, Ill. (NBCSN)

Sunday, Sept. 12 _ Portland (Ore.) International Raceway (NBC)

Sunday, Sept. 19 _ WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif. (NBC)

Sunday, Sept. 26 _ Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (NBCSN)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 2 2021
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