Long Beach GP like an old friend

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- In a year of change for the Izod IndyCar Series, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is an enduring tradition.

Now in its 38th year, the Long Beach Grand Prix is a stalwart on the Southern California sports and social calendar. The headline Indy car race is occasionally a sideshow on a full slate of support races, concerts and good old-fashioned people watching.

The cars on the track have changed over the years, from Formula 5000 to Formula One to Indy cars, through CART, Champ Car and IndyCar Series sanction.

But the spirit of the event always has remained the same.

"Ask anybody in California about the Long Beach race and they've experienced it at least once," observed Helio Castroneves, who won the LBGP in 2001, run under CART sanction. "It's got a lot of tradition and that's the best part of it.

"You've got people who are fans of racing and people who aren't, and it's great to have that Hollywood atmosphere."

Castroneves leads the IndyCar Series point standings after winning the season opener at St. Petersburg and adding a podium at Barber Motorsports Park.

It's the best start to a campaign for the popular Brazilian since 2002, when he went on to win his second Indianapolis 500 and finished a close second in the IndyCar Series championship.

"We are looking to continue the good momentum after a great start the first two races, and I feel good racing in Long Beach," Castroneves said.

Team Penske and Chevrolet swept both races of the young season, with Will Power taking an impressive victory on the Barber road course. Honda's top runner is Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, who finished second in both races and lies second in the standings between Castroneves and Power.

Power always has run strongly on the Long Beach street course -- he won the 2008 edition of the event while driving for Walker Racing.

"After being on the pole the last couple years, Long Beach is a race I am keen to finally win for Team Penske," Power said. "It will be interesting to see how we do there with the new Chevy engine. The results have been good so far, but we need to stay focused to get a good finish this week."

While the past two seasons were dominated by the Penske and Ganassi teams, Long Beach was somewhat of an anomaly in that Andretti Autosport claimed the checkers both years. Ryan Hunter-Reay was the winner in 2010 and a front-runner again in 2011 before dropping out with a mechanical problem.

"It's my very favorite weekend of the season," Hunter-Reay said. "It's the biggest and best event outside of Indy, and the winners' list here is like a who's who of racing history. I'm really lucky, privileged and honored to be on that list of winners."

That sentiment was echoed by 2011 winner Mike Conway, who now drives for AJ Foyt Racing. Conway drove the ABC Supply Co. car to the Foyt team's first Firestone Fast Six qualifying performance in five years at Barber and went on to finish seventh.

"I didn't realize the amount of history that race had until I was up there on the podium and saw all the previous winners' names etched onto bronze plaques in victory circle," Conway said. "It was pretty cool, and that's when it sunk in what had just happened."

"That one meant more to me than some other ones because I'd been laid off after May the year before [due to leg and back injuries from an accident in the 2010 Indy 500]," he added. "To get our first win -- and with it being at Long Beach -- made it more special."

Two IndyCar veterans, led by four-time series champion Dario Franchitti, are looking to turn their seasons around at Long Beach. Franchitti lies 10th in the standings but was encouraged by the improvements the Ganassi team made to his DW12-Honda during the Barber race. The Scotsman also was fastest in testing this week at the Infineon Raceway road course.

Kanaan, meanwhile, is last in the standings after finishes of 26th and 21st in the first two races. The Brazilian earned his first career Indy car pole at Long Beach in 1999 and needs a good result in his KV Racing machine.

"We have had a rough start to the season, so I am looking forward to changing my luck in Long Beach," Kanaan said.

Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe, who lies fourth in the standings, will receive a 10-place grid penalty at Long Beach due to an engine change after his Chevrolet motor let go at the Infineon test.

It has never rained on race day in the 37-year history of the Long Beach Grand Prix, and the Sunday forecast is clear. However, rain and cool temperatures are expected Friday and rain could affect Saturday IndyCar qualifying and the American Le Mans Series race.