It used to be easy to pick a favorite for an IndyCar race because the power teams such as Team Penske, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.
It’s getting increasingly difficult to forecast a favorite, however, because the depth of the Verizon IndyCar Series field has increased and a new aerodynamic package along with Firestone tires that quickly degrade over the course of a fuel run has made Saturday night’s Firestone 600 a race of comers and goers.
IndyCar officials have allowed teams to add nearly 300 extra pounds of downforce to the aero package that was used in last year’s race. Combine that with tire degradation and the scoring pylon will be changing throughout the race. Last year the most downforce a team could run was minus-5 degrees on the rear main-plate but this year the teams can adjust it to zero. Some teams can even include a maximum 8-inch whicker on the rear wing.
The other area that will make this race volatile is the intentional degradation of the Firestone Indy Firehawk tires that will cause the drivers to slide on the track. Tire management is always important but it will be vital in Saturday night’s 248-lap race at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
“We have just as good a chance of winning this race as anyone out there in the field,” Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing said after qualifying second quick to Will Power in Friday afternoon’s qualifications.
From looking at the starting lineup for Saturday night’s race both the big and the small teams are represented throughout the front of the field.
Power won the pole with a two-lap average of 218.896 miles per hour in a Dallara/Chevrolet for Team Penske. Newgarden represented the smaller teams in the series with a front-row starting position after running a two-lap average of 217.835 mph in a Dallara/Honda.
A major reason for that is the race package that is used by the Verizon IndyCar Series for this race has the cars sliding in the turns rather than pinned to the track. It’s just enough downforce to allow the cars to race each other without creating pack racing.
“It’s absolutely in the driver’s hands now,” Power said. “The races we had here before 2012 were like highway driving. You just held wide open. And on top of that it was bloody dangerous. For drivers this package is great because you have to drive the car. It’s not easy to drive the car when it’s sliding at 210 miles an hour. It’s real tough.
“It’s going to be interesting seeing the tires degrade and all the comers and goers. Green flag stops if people start stopping early for tires that is when you will see a big difference.”
For a driver to hold on to a high-speed IndyCar at over 210 miles per hour when it slides in the turns can often separate the real racers from the regular drivers. But look through the 22-car field and it’s hard to find a driver that doesn’t belong at this level of the sport.
“There’s not a bad driver in the field; that’s why it is so mixed up every week,” Power said. “There is no one bad. The guy who finishes last is still a really good driver. Every year it gets tighter and tighter to separate yourself and now you can’t.
“I think it’s great. If you are a fan watching you have no idea any weekend who is going to be great and who is not.”
It was Power’s second consecutive pole at Texas Motor Speedway and his second Verizon P1 Award of 2014. He also won the pole at Barber. It is the 34th pole of Power’s IndyCar career that moves him into sole possession of sixth as he moves past Dario Franchitti.
Tire management will be important in the race but Power found a way to manage his tires over the course of his qualification attempt.
“I could see people were dropping off quick a lot on their qualifying run from their first to second lap,” Power said. “I was sliding around but it was a great start to the weekend. Last year Helio Castroneves was very strong and I’m trying to get a car that good for the race if I can.
“The tires seem to drop and then plateau and you run a consistent pace. After that you can maintain in the 205 mile an hour range. I’m not sure looking after your tires will help. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Tony Kanaan of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing was third at 217.826 mph over two laps and Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth at 217.724 mph. Rounding out the top-five was oval-ace Ed Carpenter with a two-lap average of 217.677 mph.
“In my opinion this is the hardest oval we go to now,” Carpenter said. “It’s harder than Indy and harder than Fontana.”
But a closer look at the rest of the field sees big-name drivers outside the top 10 and mid-level team drivers approaching the front of the grid. Justin Wilson, who won this race in 2012, was eighth for Dale Coyne Racing in a Honda with a two-lap average of 217.007 mph.
“This is IndyCar Racing this year and everyone is very, very good,” Wilson said. “There isn’t much separation any more.
“You won’t see a pack race but it will be better than last year and I think it is going to be more interesting. I think the whole thing will be more manageable with a lot of people coming and going. We are still sliding around. It hasn’t made it easy – it’s a lot more controllable.”
Rookie driver Mikhail Aleshin qualified 11th for his first-time on a high-banked oval but this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay starts 12th – lower than one would expect from the Andretti Autosport driver.
And then there is four-time Texas IndyCar winner Helio Castroneves who starts 14th after a disappointing qualification effort for Team Penske.
Castroneves, however, is not concerned because on this oval it really doesn’t matter where a driver starts because he can race his way toward the front.
“You can calculate all these little details and we will find out we have work to do but I feel strong for the race,” Castroneves said. “I’m a little surprised with the qualification speed but it’s something to learn. We were more aggressive on front wing on our qualification but it’s OK.
“If you are going to have a problem here it’s an oval. This place will have a lot of movement. We have to be patient and drive to the front.
“I still consider myself a favorite. Every time I go out on the track I consider myself a favorite. I’m not worried about the other guys; I’m thinking of myself.”
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time.Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves, IndyCar, Josef Newgarden, Texas, Tony Kanaan, Will Power