After a summer filled with road and street courses, with only the occasional short oval thrown into the mix, the 2011 season will close out with a pair of 1.5 high-banked tri-ovals, the first of which will be Sunday’s Kentucky Indy 300. A host to open wheel racing since 2000, Kentucky Speedway has seen some of the best side-by-side racing in the sport.
James Hinchcliffe, who has raced at Kentucky twice in 2009 and 2010 with the Firestone Indy Lights, believes Kentucky is the best of the high-banked super speedways. “Kentucky is my favorite 1.5 mile oval,” said the Rookie of the Year candidate. “I had my first ever oval test here in Indy Lights and I have loved it ever since. In 2009 I led my first laps on an oval here and had a great race before a late spin. In 2010 we didn't qualify well but had a great race and got up to second. If we had had a yellow flag I think that we had a chance at the win. But still, I have a lot of love for Kentucky and hope to run well here.”
The track has also been known to deliver a more than its share of spectacular moments. In 2001, Robbie Buhl exited his last pit stop with the fuel hose still attached to his car and pulled down the entire fuel tank with him. Eventually, while challenging Buddy Lazier for the win, he ran out of fuel as they approached the white flag.
In 2007, Dario Franchitti went airborne over Kosuke Matsuura after the checkered flag waved. Unaware that the race had ended, he climbed up over the back of Matsuura’s car and flipped over backward heading into turn one.
In 2008, Helio Castroneves tried to use an alternate fuel strategy to steal a win from title rival Scott Dixon. Castroneves’ car ran dry heading toward the checkered, allowing Dixon through to win while Castroneves took second. A year later, teammate Ryan Briscoe barely edged out a surprising Ed Carpenter in one of the best duels in recent memory. Last year, Castroneves once again used fuel strategy to try for the win, this time succeeding, over Panther’s Ed Carpenter and Dan Wheldon.
Carpenter, now with Sarah Fisher Racing, reiterated the enthusiasm that surrounds Kentucky Speedway. “I'm really looking forward to this weekend," said Carpenter, who has finished second in each of the last two Kentucky races. "Kentucky is one of my favorite tracks, and I've done pretty well there in the past. We had a good test there at the end of last week, and I have a good feeling about this one. Hopefully all of the oval prep we've done this year will show in Kentucky this weekend."
In terms of setup, it is quite similar to most other 1.5 mile tri-ovals. But, as Oriol Servia says, the inclusion of several bumps gives the track character that others may not have. “From what I hear from my engineers the track is similar to other 1.5 mile ovals we race on but it is a bit more on the bumpy side which is a good thing for us as Newman/Haas always finds the most grip when it is difficult to get,” said Servia.
Tony Kanaan, a former winner of this race, echoed the sentiments of the other drivers and hints it could give a sign of things to come at Las Vegas. “It's great that we're coming to Kentucky for the final oval stretch of the year,” Kanaan said. “I love the track and I have good memories of it winning from pole in 07' and a getting a podium finish in 09', so I'm looking forward to going back there and putting a good show for the GEICO - KVRT - Lotus guys and all my fans. I believe that Kentucky will be a good barometer for what we're going to see at the season finale in Vegas in a couple of weeks."
View the weekend’s schedule here.
Watch a virtual lap of the Kentucky Speedway.
Championship Battle Enters its Climax
At various points in the season, it seemed like either Will Power or Dario Franchitti could be in position to clinch the series title ahead of the season finale. However, with a series of dramatic twists over the summer and early Fall rounds, that looks highly unlikely.
After trailing Franchitti for much of the season, Power pulled back ahead after Twin Ring Motegi. But, his 11-point lead can change quickly and easily, as has been the history of recent title fights.
Power, whose oval prowess has continued to improve, is confident that he and the Verizon Penske Team will be major contenders all the way through this weekend. “We are going into this race working hard to get the absolute most out of our car and our crew. The No. 12 Verizon car ought to be good this weekend since we tested at Kentucky last week, which gave us a strong starting point and a good idea of what direction we need to be going. I am actually really looking forward to getting back on the ovals and the race in Kentucky will definitely be exciting.”
However, Franchitti has historically outperformed Power on the ovals, as was the case when the two fought for last year’s championship. Their results on ovals proved to be the decided factor. The same scenario will play out this year.
Andretti Autosport Hoping For Improvements on Big Ovals
Outside of the championship fight, one story to watch will be the performance of Andretti Autosport. Though two of the team’s three wins in 2011 have come on ovals, those triumphs were on the bullrings at Iowa and New Hampshire. The high-banked super speedways have been the team’s bugaboo since 2010.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, who originally failed to qualify at Indianapolis because of the team’s lack of speed, emphasized the importance of this weekend and agreed that the organization needs to improve. "Kentucky is an important race for the entire Andretti Autosport team for many reasons. We've been working hard on our oval speed and performance resulting in two wins on ovals this year. Now we need to improve on the 1.5-mile ovals. The DHL/Circle K/Sun Drop Citrus Soda team has had a strong run in the second half of the season and the next two races are crucial to close out the season on a high note. We still have a shot at finishing in the top five in the season standings."
An open test last week allowed them the chance experiment with the cars to find a solution. Mike Conway, whose back injury prevented him from racing here last year, believes the Andretti squad will have a solid package to bring to the track. "It feels like it has been awhile since we were last on an oval, so I am looking forward to getting back out on track at Kentucky Speedway,” said the Long Beach winner. “I didn't get to race there last year [due to injuries from the Indy 500]. Our Andretti Autosport team tested last week at Kentucky and Marco [Andretti] ran well there, so we are looking promising. We hope that form will continue this weekend and we can pick up a good result. Both Marco and Ryan [Hunter-Reay] have won on oval tracks this year. We would like to do it again this weekend."
The last time Andretti Autosport claimed victory on a 1.5-mile oval was back in 2008, when Danica Patrick won at Twin Ring Motegi for his first career IndyCar win.
The driving rotation at Dreyer and Reinbold continues, with Townsend Bell signed to race the final two races of the 2011 in the No. 22 entry. Since the incumbent Justin Wilson was injured, three drivers have filled in for him (including Bell).
In a surprise move, Dan Wheldon has been slated into Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ No. 77 machine, replacing Alex Tagliani. The move is to allow Wheldon a “warmup” before his Las Vegas Go Daddy Challenge.
Wade Cunningham will make his first start since the Twin 275’s at Texas back in June. He will pilot the AFS/Sam Schmidt Motorsports No. 17 effort.
After an injury put her out of action before getting a chance to race at New Hampshire, Pippa Mann returns to the cockpit with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing.
The camouflage livery on J.R. Hildebrand’s car will look different this week. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, the team has painted that portion of the car pink.