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Thirty Days ‘Til Sunday

Teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud sail into Turn 1 during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. [Photo by: Chris Owens]

Teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud sail into Turn 1 during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. [Photo by: Chris Owens]

by Allan Brewer

One month to go: the Indy 500 is only thirty days away this weekend. Their eyes may be on the Phoenix International Raceway but you can bet the drivers, teams and owners are thinking Indianapolis Motor Speedway as they push the cars out to the pit lane and contemplate the wide-open vistas of a contemporary arena-style racetrack.

Whether it’s a seat in someone’s backup car or the first-class ticket aboard Team Penske or Ganassi Racing there’s still a lot of work to do, and the next four weeks will evaporate as quickly as the water leaves the blossom on the prickly-pear in the 85 degree heat here at Phoenix International Raceway tonight.

Josef Newgarden’s early success with victory at Barber Motorsports couldn’t have come at a better time. Ahead of some oval-track seat-time at Phoenix he has arch confidence at transitioning from road and track to sweeping, serial left-handers.

There’s no reason why Josef shouldn’t have great success over the surface at PIR and on the big oval at Indianapolis given his experience and confidence. Most importantly the little vagaries of the Speedway, like the unfamiliar Carb Day noises that come with the last practice before the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, will be slightly less troublesome in his mind.

Phoenix is a unique track in that it requires both fuel-saving and tire-saving to win the race. Just like the course in Milwaukee, it’s a track that has to rubber up adequately before it offers its best racing. It also takes a good aerodynamic set-up to succeed here.

After fifty or sixty laps at speed over PIR the better drivers will settle into a “zone” where the track becomes a long narrow groove, amenable to a deep breath and a settle-in posture. Well, relatively settled . . . as settled as you can get on a track where there are regularly two weight-jacker position changes every lap. It makes for a great training session for the long haul of 200 laps at Indianapolis, the first chance this year to get into a routine that will be repeated countless times through Memorial Day.

When you have the experience of a Sebastian Bourdais, you know what you want from your engineer and your car. Your driving style is not going to change in these waning years of an outstanding career. Safe to say, Bourdais must be wondering if this could be his special year in IndyCar after a long period wandering in the points desert. With a six-point lead going into PIR, Sebastian appears to have figured out the code for success this year.

Moreover, Bourdais’ car-owner Dale Coyne has finally got a driver and team who run consistently well, have the familiarity of data and set-up, and have crossed the gap from competitor to contender. Coyne Racing has turned heads up and down the pit lane, even earning nods from the Team Penske crew watching with mutual respect the mounting evidence that this could be the year of the dark-horse at the 500.

If you are a racer who has not found great success so far this year, now is the time to minimize the damage. You have to start picking it up from here, and pronto. Are you listening Helio? Remember last year when Simon Pagenaud ripped off three big wins in a row at this point in the season to launch himself successfully toward the IndyCar Series championship.

On the other hand, there are people here who still don’t know where they will be sitting on race day: Spencer Pigot, a talented young racer with great potential, is one of those few who are looking for a late assignment that will put them into the 33-car field. Ed Carpenter, Pigot’s car-owner, drives the ovals whether they are in Phoenix or in Indiana.

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Allan Brewer
Allan Brewer covers IndyCar and other racing series for RacingNation.com. Allan is a fixture at the race track, armed with keyboard and camera, eager to take you inside open-wheel sport where the news is being made. He comes to RacingNation.com with multiple professional awards from the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AWWRBA). He began his motorsports writing career at FastMachines.com; and solely published IndyProRacer.com and A1GP.com, two award-winning websites for open-wheel racing's junior leagues, prior to becoming IndyCar correspondent at Motorsport.com. He has also covered Formula 1, NASCAR, Formula E, the Indy Lights Series and its predecessor Indy Pro Series, NHRA events and major auto shows. His major interest outside of competition is automotive technology and its application to the cars we drive every day on the public highways.