Kentucky Speedway, just the name conjures up images of wheel to wheel, white knuckle racing that drew fans to the old IRL. The boys and girls of open wheel were the first top level series to race at the brand new facility in 2000. The track is fast, but has some ripples forming; giving the track some unique character in the big pool of 1.5 mile ovals. There are rumbles and grumbles that we may witness, yet again, the final indycar race at another facility connected to open wheel history. When looking back through recent years, the IRL helped many tracks; Texas, Chicagoland, Kentucky and Iowa bring high level eyes to the facilities only for relations between the series and track officials to grow frosty over the years. Iowa still seems like a friend, but for how long? Nevertheless, we are in for a weekend not to forget as the Dallara IR03 begins its final farewell tour; Kentucky and Vegas, two 1.5 mile tracks, places where this chassis was designed to run and actually doesn’t look half bad while doing it.
Five Things to Watch
1.5 miles of insanity – The return to 1.5 mile racing is always a homecoming of sorts for the ovalistas. Texas, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Kentucky; these tracks are what gave the IRL their claim to fame: insanely high speed racing just inches apart with no room for error or any lapse in concentration. The side by side pack racing is some of the most exciting racing that INDYCAR has to offer. The danger of this type of racing has be exemplified many times over, and more than a few drivers have mentioned how scary it actually is to race at these facilities. But I love it, and the events at the 1.5 mile tracks were what really solidified my return to racing.
Sarah Fisher Racing – The boys and girls at SFR are primed for a good weekend. The team are known oval specialists of sorts. Although not usually front runners, SFR can get around the ovals better than any part time team and some full time teams. Having Ed Carpenter in the seat will almost guarantee any operation a shot at the top 10 and I expect this weekend to be no exception as he returns to the site of his best finish ever in the series; second the past two years.
Championship – With this weekend being the penultimate round of both the AJ Foyt oval championship and overall points championship, there will be a lot riding on the finish heading into Las Vegas. Scott Dixon is trailing points leader Will Power by 59 with Dario Franchitti closer to first only 11 points behind. Power pulled into the championship lead after Motegi with more help from Franchitti’s poor attempt at passing than his driving itself. Dixon has really come on strong in the last few races; finishing well enough to capitalize on the shift in points at the front. With a finish ahead of Franchitti, Dixon could all but lock up the oval championship this weekend.
Expanded Field – Wade Cunningham, Dan Wheldon, Buddy Rice, Pippa Mann, Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell; all faces we have not got to see in a while. Some are driving one off rides, others are taking over previously full time seats, while Ed Carpenter is the only driver truly contesting a serious, partial season. Alex Lloyd also takes over the DCR number 19 machine from Sebastian Bourdais for the remainder of the season. We also have the conquest entry, number 34, who’s driver has been unnamed up to this point. Car count is up to 29 with 27 being the previously largest fields in 2009 and 2010.
Shifted Focus - Given that there will be only three guys really points racing from here on out, the checkers or wreckers mentality will surely spread throughout the rest of the field. Everyone else has nothing to lose and the dearth of one off rides have even fewer excuses not to throw the dice for a lucky win. Drivers not in championship contention will be gunning for nothing less than the top step of the podium. The track is known for close finishes among a wide range of teams and drivers and everyone in the field will be looking to capitalize. 26 drivers will be racing shoot out style for the win this weekend.
Pole – Scott Dixon – The ovalmeister will strike again. Poor Scott Dixon has had quite the drought so to say the last two years. Increased competition and right turns seems like it has put a damper on Dixon’s winning ways. The iceman on ovals has a very good chance to score big this weekend.
Winner – Helio Castroneves – These High downforce, wide open throttle tracks favor the smoothness of Americas favorite Brazilian. Steadily gaining momentum since an all out terrible start to the season Helio can really end his season strong at two tracks that really favor his smooth driving style.
Epic performer – JR Hildebrand – Captain America, driving the national guard sponsored panther racing car, in a state known for its fierce nationalism. The chips are really stacked in Hildebrand’s favor this weekend and panther really knows how to get around Kentucky. JR has a monster opportunity this weekend and I’m sure he will capitalize on it.
Biggest Loser – Alex Tagliani – Tags was bumped out of the number 77 machine in favor of Dan Wheldon. Sam Schmidt is taking this opportunity to give Wheldon the cheapest seat time he can get in preparation for his five million dollar run at Vegas. Alex built the 77 team from the ground up, but I don’t think this was the kind of thanks he was expecting to receive.
Kentucky really is one of my favorite tracks, and I am very excited to head down there and experience it all in person. The facility usually creates good racing and this year should be no exception. We could be in danger of touching the fabled 50 to 55 degree ambient temperature danger zone where the wonderful Firestone Firehawks slip to dangerously low levels of adhesion. This could turn out to be a very interesting weekend given the mix of weather and different goals the teams are attempting to achieve. If Power and Franchitti have a tough weekend, we could see a three way battle for the championship, along with the five million dollar run from Dan Wheldon in Vegas. We don’t need no stinkin’ chase.