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IndyCar Series at Phoenix: Five things to watch

The IndyCar Series returns to ISM Raceway in Phoenix this Saturday night. (Associated Press file photo)

After a lengthy layoff following the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, the IndyCar Series is back on track this weekend at Phoenix International Ra…er, ISM Raceway in Arizona.

Saturday night’s race (9 p.m., NBCSN) on the 1-mile oval is the first of three straight weeks of competition for the series, with a visit to Long Beach on April 15 and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama on April 22.

What are some of the storylines to watch under the lights in the desert?

1. NEW AERO TAKES TO AN OVAL

One of the biggest pre-season IndyCar tests in terms of participation came at ISM Raceway in early February when 23 cars took to the track. While there was an overall lack of passing in the evening practice season, there was a reason for optimism with the new universal aero kits at a track that has seen a limited amount of on-track passes for position since IndyCar’s return in 2016.

Where in past years the huge amount of downforce produced by the cars allowed drivers to stay glued to the bottom of the track, the new aero coupled with a higher amount of tire degradation should see more in the way of action.

Hopefully.

If anything, Saturday’s race will see more of a car’s raciness in the hands of the drivers, as opposed to setups like in years past.

2. THE SEARCH FOR A SECOND LINE

While Phoenix has long been considered a “track for Indy cars”, it has rarely produced great racing. The two years since IndyCar’s return have been no exception.

Last year, Simon Pagenaud edged Will Power by a full 9-plus seconds to win.

In 2016, Scott Dixon won under caution after Alexander Rossi put his car into the wall with a few laps left.

With IndyCar and ISM Raceway desperate to make this event a success, the process of rubbering in a second lane for racing at the typical will be implemented this weekend, the idea being that cars will have more room to race competitively on track and leading to more passing.

The plan is to tow tires around the track on a sled several times throughout the weekend, including in the hours leading up to the race on Saturday night. The hope is that enough rubber is put down to allow cars to grip the outer edge of the track. In the last two years, getting up into the “marbles” has ruined many a driver’s night either with a significant loss of momentum or a visit into the wall.

Whether the experiment works remains to be seen.

3. PENSKE LOOKS TO REBOUND

St. Pete was a race to forget for Team Penske, which had a top finish of seventh by Josef Newgarden, with Will Power 10th and Simon Pagenaud 13th.

That is very un-Penske like, although much of the struggles at St. Pete were not because of lack of on-track speed.

Power started beside polesitter Robert Wickens but spun into the wall on the opening lap. He spent the rest of the day fighting his way back through the field.

Pagenaud started 11th and suffered through a long first pit stop due to a broken air gun.

Meanwhile, Newgarden recovered from a cut tire to lead the way for “Roger’s Army.”.

Expect a bounce-back performance from the premier team in the paddock this weekend. Both Pagenaud and Power have been impressive in the last two years at Phoenix, four top-three finishes and a victory between them.

Newgarden’s high finish of sixth at Phoenix is nothing to sneeze at either.

4. A WICKENS ENCORE?

Canadian Robert Wickens endeared himself to fans in his first IndyCar Series race at St. Pete, leading 69 laps and looking impressive despite finishing 18th after a collision with Rossi on the final restart.

To understand just how good his debut IndyCar weekend was, consider that Wickens became just the third rookie to win the pole in his IndyCar debut, joining Nigel Mansell at Surfer’s Paradise in Australia in 1993 and Sebastien Bourdais at St. Pete in 2003.

The 29-year-old Wickens, who has a long history of racing in various formulas in Europe, has instantly given James Hinchcliffe a capable teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. But can he be a consistent threat across all types of tracks through the IndyCar season?

A solid Wickens run this weekend would not only further boost the prospects of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a significantly-improved team from a year ago, it would also place Wickens in the season championship conversation early on.

5. THE NEWBIES

In addition to Wickens, four other drivers — Pietro Fittipaldi (grandson of Emerson), Kyle Kaiser, Matheus Leist and Zach Veach will be making their ISM Raceway debuts this weekend. In fact, Fittipaldi and Kaiser will be making their first appearance anywhere in the series in the desert.

In the past few years, rookies could settle in at Phoenix thanks to the high downforce, ride around and gather data while staying out of trouble. But with the expected variables this year, with less downforce to tire degradation to a potential second racing line, it will be difficult to hide on the short oval on Saturday night.

Staying out of trouble will be the name of the game for those set to experience their first IndyCar night race.

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