HOUSTON -- Indy car racing returns to Houston for the first time in six years this weekend, just in time to potentially shake up what has been a contentious championship battle in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
The Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston features INDYCAR's third doubleheader weekend of the season and provides Scott Dixon a golden opportunity to reduce championship leader Helio Castroneves' 49-point advantage.
Team Penske driver Castroneves built that relatively comfortable margin despite a somewhat lackluster campaign in general. Castroneves' only win of the season at Texas Motor Speedway came under controversial circustances when his car was found to have an illegal underwing. The team was fined $35,000 and docked 15 owner's points, but Castroneves went essentially unpenalized.
And though he has found the consistency often lacking in his 15-year Indy car career, the Brazilian has only a pair of second-place finishes to show in the eight races since Texas, along with a series of sixth- to ninth-place results.
Castroneves has recorded 12 consecutive top-10 finishes dating back to the Indianapolis 500, and he has completed every lap this year.
Meanwhile Dixon won three races in a row in July in his Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry, only to have his championship campaign come off the rails with a pair of disastrous runs in Sonoma and Baltimore. A highly controversial pit lane incident in Sonoma involving Dixon nearly hitting one of Penske driver Will Power's crew members, and a crash between the two drivers on a restart at Baltimore heightened tensions between Indy car racing's most successful teams down the stretch.
Now comes Houston, where the bumpy, concrete-lined street circuit that winds through Reliant Park could quite literally shake up the championship battle. With two full points-paying races on tap, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti and defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay -- all clustered within four points, about 70 points behind Castroneves -- could conceivably make the season finale at Auto Club Speedway more than a two-man race.
Houston truly is a wild card, because only two teams (Dale Coyne Racing and KV Racing Technology) and seven drivers have competed on the challenging 1.683-mile temporary course. Sebastien Bourdais, currently with Dragon Racing, won the 2006 and 2007 Champ Car sanctioned Indy car races run at Reliant Park.
Bourdais encountered problems in qualifying both years, but was peerless on race day. The Frenchman was astounded after winning from fifth on the grid in 2006.
"In the warm-up, I thought, 'My God, this thing is going to be a parade,'" Bourdais recalled. "I really thought it was going to be impossible to pass. And then it turned into one of the best races in a while.
"I really quite honestly never would have believed we could have won that race at the start. But that's racing. You expect the unexpected."
The racing was better than expected in the two years that Champ Car raced at Houston, and it should be even better with the latest generation of Dallara DW12 Indy cars.
The robust DW12 chassis, combined with a 50-horsepower "push to pass" function for the Honda and Chevrolet engines and two types of Firestone tires, has produced several highly entertaining street course battles over the past two years.
And with the championship coming down to the wire, there's bound to be an element of desperation creeping in.
"This is basically our last chance to really make a run at the championship," Hunter-Reay said. "Helio will be in conservation mode at this point so we have to go for it. There are a lot of points on the table for this weekend, but Houston will be a new challenge for us as a team as we've never competed at this circuit in the past.
"We just need to take it one session at a time and bring the DHL Chevy out on top."
Dixon could rightfully argue that the circumstances that went down at Sonoma and Baltimore cost him at least 50 points. But the 2003 and '08 IndyCar Series champion isn't giving up on a third title.
"The last couple of races probably haven't gone as smooth as we would have liked," he said. "In short, we need to close the points gap to make sure we're in the championship fight for the last race at Auto Club Speedway.
"We'll dig deep and try to make sure we have a good shot at it."
Team Penske has seen its drivers lose seemingly comfortable championship leads late in the season twice in recent years, with drivers Power and Ryan Briscoe. Castroneves, in search of his first Indy car championship, has vowed to not let that happen again.
"Houston will be a big race for us and our sponsors and a lot of points on the line with the doubleheader," he said. "We need to keep our consistency and momentum and get the absolute most out of the car."
The dark horse is Pagenaud, who is always highly competitive on street courses and is coming off a win in Baltimore.
The Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver competed at Houston in Formula Atlantic in 2006, and he earned his first top-five Indy car race finish in the Champ Car sanctioned 2007 event.
"The win in Baltimore was great momentum going into Houston," said the Frenchman. "It's going to be a difficult event; a lot of things will happen there, because obviously there's only three races to go, so a lot of people will be trying to make things happen.
"I'll just try to be up front and not be bothered too much by the chaos."