<
>

Firestone 600 restart isn't popular, but it's important

James Hinchcliffe will be holding the lead at the start of this weekend's race. He'll need to complete just 177 laps. Khris Hale/ICON Sportswire

When we last left Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, James Hinchcliffe was leading the Firestone 600, Josef Newgarden was in the hospital, and Simon Pagenaud had an 80-point cushion over Scott Dixon in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Oh yeah, and it was raining.

That two-day deluge is what put a halt to the proceedings at TMS two and a half months ago, with Hinchcliffe leading a slightly depleted field after 71 of the 248 scheduled laps were completed. Out of the race at that point was Newgarden, who was swept into a frightening crash by a spinning Conor Daly that landed him in a Dallas hospital with a broken wrist and fractured clavicle.

But it's not injury that will keep Newgarden from participating when the Texas race resumes on Saturday night. No, it's the INDYCAR rulebook, which mandates picking up where the red-flagged contest left off rather than starting fresh with a full field of cars.

Newgarden and Daly will instead participate in an autograph session and join Texas president Eddie Gossage to take tickets at the turnstiles, one of several promotions designed to get fans to attend (or re-attend) a race that wasn't on anybody's radar back in June.

Fortunately, the weather radar is not likely to be an issue this time around, leaving the 20 remaining drivers free to concentrate on the remaining 177 laps of racing. They'll be granted a 10-minute practice session, but will otherwise take the restart cold.

"We are excited to get back to Texas to finish off the Firestone 600, and certainly we hope the Arrow Electronics car ends up where we are now -- in the lead!" remarked Hinchcliffe. "But we know it's a pretty unique situation with the restart and the parc ferme, so we will see how it plays out.

"I'm going to miss people reminding me I'm leading on Twitter, so hopefully we win and can keep the trend going."

Hinchcliffe's toughest competition may come from the fellow Honda drivers who dominated at Pocono Raceway just last weekend. Smooth speedways are just about the only places the Honda aero kit has worked in 2016, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mikhail Aleshin will line up right behind Hinchliffe for the restart.

Hunter-Reay drove through the field twice at Pocono on the way to a heartbreaking third-place finish, while Aleshin led 87 laps at Pocono and came very close to notching his first IndyCar Series win.

Aleshin is Hinchcliffe's teammate at Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports.

"Both of our cars looked good there last time with James in the lead and us in third, so we just need to do the same job we've been doing already and we will be up there at the front," Aleshin said. "After our second-place finish this weekend in Pocono, we know we have the speed to do it."

The plan to continue the existing race rather than start from fresh has not been popular with everyone and it's highly likely that INDYCAR will make a rule modification to prevent something similar from occurring in the future.

Dixon, who has fallen 113 points behind championship leader Pagenaud, knows he needs a win in Texas to remain in title contention.

"I think there are obviously some strong opinions on each side of this race," he said. "It's out of our hands as drivers, though, and we all have the same set of circumstances to deal with now. For me, I think the biggest challenge will be getting your car right for much different conditions than when we started the race."

The subplot at Texas is the IndyCar Series championship, the complexion of which has changed considerably over the last eleven weeks.

Since crashing out of the first race of the Detroit doubleheader the weekend before the Texas rainout, Power has racked up four wins and a pair of seconds in his last six starts.

Before winning the second half of the Detroit doubleheader, he was 12th in the standings, 124 points behind leader Pagenaud. Now Power is just 20 points behind his Team Penske teammate and riding a wave of confidence.

Power earned his first oval win at Texas in a half-length twin race in 2011 and he's coming off an accomplished victory at Pocono. Even more impressive, Power has worked his way into this position after missing the season opener with a severe sinus infection that produced concussion-like symptoms.

"The Verizon Chevy was awesome in Pocono and restarting fourth in Texas puts us in a great position to continue our momentum," said the Australian. "Everything has been feeling great recently after starting off the season in such a bad place, personally. The whole team is clicking on all cylinders now and you have to get all you can when it's going that way."

Pagenaud, who will take the Texas restart from 15th place, vows to aggressively defend his points lead. Only two road races remain after Texas - at Watkins Glen International Sept. 4 and Sonoma Raceway Sept. 18.

"Pocono didn't go very well, but that happens," Pagenaud said. "I wish it hadn't, but we have to move on and put it behind us. We don't lose sight of the big picture, but that's not the strategy. We got to where we are by attacking and being on the offensive. That's not going to change. We'll focus on winning races.

"P15 is not indicative of the car we had or will have," he added. "We pitted later in the sequence than some of the other teams and there's a lot of racing left.

"It's going to be an exciting race."