IndyCar in Texas: Munoz’ Claims Career-first Pole, Dixon Continues Stealth Hunt

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This weekend marks the third oval race of the season for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway is also the second and last night race of the year. I am sad to say that I had to miss both, in Phoenix this past April and in Texas this evening. I had hoped to enjoy Iowa under the lights as I did back in 2014, but with that race moving to Sunday in the late afternoon, my opportunities for sunblock-free racing experiences in 2016 have passed.

Even though I can’t be trackside for tonight’s contest, I am looking forward to watching it from home, here in Cleveland, OH. I hope you all join me by tuning in to NBCSN this evening at 7:00 p.m. CT/8:00 p.m. ET.

16C_4425-1What can we expect to see? For starters, Carlos Munoz will lead the field to green from his career-first pole position. Munoz, who pilots the No. 26 for Andretti Autosport is at the halfway point of his third full season in the series and with the team. His best start at Texas was last year from P4 and his best finish at Texas is P6, also achieved in 2015.

Munoz seemed genuinely surprised by the speed they found in qualifying. It seems like a relief for him after the disappointment he expressed after coming in second at the Indy 500, for a second time last month. His focus is fully on tonight’s race though, as is the rest of the field.

The evening practice was much less eventful than the afternoon. Practice 1 yielded multiple yellows for track inspection and one incident that saw Gabby Chaves getting into the wall and having the wind knocked out of him. Chaves, running with Dale Coyne Racing since the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, has an entire season under his belt (Bryan Herta Autosport, 2015) but experienced his first major wreck this weekend. He was visibly sore when he got out of the vehicle, the Holmatro Safety team around him, bracing his hands on his knees to get his breath back.

Thankfully, he was examined and released from medical and cleared to drive. The team was unable to get the car ready in time for qualifying however, so Chaves will start from the back of the field this evening. He was able to get 35 laps in for the evening practice, so that has to give him a bit more confidence.

Graham Rahal, driving the No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda for RLL Racing, had a strange day. A gearbox issue in the first practice session left him rolling to a stop on the inside of the track with a tow in back to garage. The problems were solved in time for him to qualify (second in line) in the late afternoon round, ultimately landing a P13 starting position inside Row 7. He then went out for evening practice, topping the charts with a 213.935. The speeds were slower than the 216’s we saw in the first session and during qualifying, giving us a better idea of what we might see in race mode with little to no sun on the track.

I had a conversation with a friend last night and he asked me what I made of the Penske cars running so far back in the pack in the evening practice. Personally, I wasn’t surprised by this – we have a 2-day race weekend, without a lot of time to play. Qualifying went relatively well for the Penske cars:

  • P3: Helio Castroneves in the blue and white No. 3 AAA Insurance Chevy
  • P6: Simon Pagenaud in the green and white No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy
  • P7: Will Power in the familiar silver No. 12 Verizon Chevy
  • P17: Juan Pablo Montoya in a new black livery w baby blue trim for the No. 2 Verizon Chevy

(Hey, I might actually be able to tell Power and Montoya’s cars apart this weekend!)

When it comes down to it, the teams want to get out there in race trim and get a feel for how it’s handling in traffic and on different lines, but there is no need to risk injury to the cars this late in the game. Given past habits and Penske logic, I’m not surprised by their practice results. You also have to look at the fact that race conditions were only exhibited on half the track during the evening practice, so I suspect the amount of race-worthy data would be limited.

04CJ6483I absolutely wouldn’t count Team Penske out based on those practice time charts. Castroneves has clinched victory at Texas Motor Speedway four times. Power won it once. Pagenaud is the current points leader with an 80 point lead and still on a hot streak at the halfway mark of the season. And Montoya, well, he should never be underestimated… if there is one thing that most certainly doesn’t intimidate him, it’s having to fight through traffic.

Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing is another one that I suggest keeping an eye on. He won at Phoenix this year and has two wins at TMS. He qualified P2, and was second quickest in the first practice session. The No. 9 Chevy may not be racking up the wins or poles this season, but Dixon has a habit of riding just beneath the wave and then attacking the competition when they least expect it. He’s stealthy and he’s second in the Championship race right now. This is about the time Dixon starts to make his charge, so sit back and prepare yourself… the second half of 2016 is about to kick things into high gear.

Verizon IndyCar Series track times for the Firestone 600:

Friday, June 10:
Practice #1 – 11:00 a.m. CT/12:00 p.m ET
Quals – 3:15 p.m. CT/4:15 p.m. ET
Practice #2 – 6:45 p.m. CT/7:45 p.m ET

Saturday, June 4:
Systems Check – 4:00 p.m. CT/5:00 a.m. ET
Firestone 600 Race – 7:00 p.m. CT/8:00 p.m. ET

The Firestone 600 Practice #1 and Race will be broadcast live on NBCSN. Qualifying will be broadcast on tape delay on NBCSN at 5:00 p.m. CT/6:00 p.m. ET. Qualifying will be livestreamed via IndyCar, as well as Practice #2. All links to livestream plus information on radio coverage is available here.

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Photos by Chris Owens, property of IndyCar