Three races, three drivers in the Chase
There are now three drivers locked into NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, as Brad Keselowski chased down a fading Kyle Busch in the final laps at Las Vegas last Sunday. Keselowski joined Daytona winner Denny Hamlin and Atlanta victor Jimmie Johnson on the season win list. So all three manufacturers and three of the major teams have now put a driver into the championship fight: Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota), Hendrick Racing (Chevrolet), and now Penske Racing (Ford). The series moves to Phoenix this weekend, a fast, busy one-mile oval with a unique dogleg on the back straight. Kevin Harvick practically owns the Phoenix track, having won there seven times, most recently last spring. Johnson is no slouch there either, with four victories on his resume. His teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., has three wins at Phoenix and Carl Edwards has taken two checkered flags. Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Hamlin, and both Busch brothers have each taken the checker at Phoenix once. Sunday’s race will also mark Harvick’s 500th Cup start since he joined the series in 2001 when Richard Childress picked him to step in for the late Dale Earnhardt.
The IndyCar series kicks off its 2016 season this weekend, racing on the street course at St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition to new and returning drivers, the series has some new officials this year. The new faces in the race control booth will be chief steward Dan Davis and former drivers Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis. Davis, who ran Ford’s racing programs for 14 years, said he will defer to the two experts on driving infractions, as they have a solid perspective on what happens on the track. Also in a new role, but certainly not a newcomer to IndyCar, is former driver and team owner Sarah Fisher. Fisher will take over pace car driving duties from Johnny Rutherford, who will limit his participation to only two races this season — the Indy 500 and the Phoenix round on April 2.
Returning to the series from injury will be Mikhail Aleshin and James Hinchcliffe, both driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. New to the series this year are former Formula 1 and Indy Lights driver Max Chilton (Chip Ganassi Racing), Spencer Pigot (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Alexander Rossi (Andretti Autosport), and Bryan Clauson (Dale Coyne Racing). Rossi was most recently a part-timer in Formula 1, while Clauson is an experienced midget and sprint car driver with two Indy 500 starts on his resume. And Conor Daly, who subbed for the injured Hinchcliffe last year, will have a full time ride with Dale Coyne Racing for the season. Although Chilton, Pigot, and Rossi are “rookies” to the IndyCar series and Daly and Clauson have limited experience in the cars, all are seasoned drivers with solid and successful racing backgrounds.
I would not be at all surprised to see one or more of them win a race this season.
Of course, the Penske and Ganassi teams are still the big dogs in the series, but preseason testing showed the gap to the other teams is tighter than ever. I foresee a competitive season with a few surprise winners and multiple drivers contending for the championship late into the season. IndyCar has been working hard to equalize the Honda and Chevy powerplants, as Honda’s disadvantage lessened in the last part of the 2015 season.
One interesting twist for 2016 is the increase in “push to pass” horsepower from 40 additional horses to 60. Push to pass is only used on road and street courses, designed to increase passing opportunities and provide more exciting racing. But since it can only be used a set number of times during each race, strategy is involved. Drivers who save it for a late-race charge to the lead or for a defense in the closing laps will have an advantage over those who don’t. St. Petersburg will be the first test for the increased horsepower, and should prove interesting.