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IndyCar Series at Long Beach: Five things to watch

The IndyCar Series returns to the California coast for the Grand Prix of Long Beach this weekend. (Getty Images file photo)

The IndyCar Series continues its busy early-spring schedule with a visit to SoCal this weekend for the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Now in its fifth decade of existence, the three-day festival of racing, parties and sunshine on the Pacific Coast has grown into the premier road race in North America. According to event organizers, last year’s attendance eclipsed over 185,000 over three days.

What will the wealth of attendees see on track this weekend? Here are five things to watch as IndyCar races down Shoreline Drive in the shadow of the RMS Queen Mary on Sunday afternoon (4 p.m., NBCSN).

1. A RACIER RACE?

With long straightaways and hard-braking corners, Long Beach figures to play exactly into the hands of the strengths of the new 2018 aero kit and tire configuration.

Expect to see more straight-line speed out of this year’s cars than in years past and more in the way of intrigue as drivers look to corral loose handling. Tire degradation and a lack of downforce will further add some unpredictability inside the cockpit.

That said, qualifying is still hugely important. While Mike Conway won the 2014 race despite starting 17th, the last three winners have come from the front two rows of the starting grid.

Saturday’s qualifying will be key for those looking to challenge for a win, but racing should be good throughout the field come Sunday afternoon.

2. WHERE IS GANASSI?

Through two races, Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Scott Dixon and Ed Jones have combined for exactly zero podiums.

Jones was in position to compete for a win late at Phoenix last week, but put it into the wall to bring out the final yellow and finished 20th.

Meanwhile, Dixon has been largely a non-factor. He has overcome poor qualifying efforts in the first two events to notch a fourth at St. Pete and a sixth at Phoenix, but the poor starts to the race weekends have put the New Zealander at a disadvantage before races have even begun.

Ganassi cut his fielded cars in half this year from four to two, citing the importance of putting the best effort and the best personnel in place for the team to compete at each and every race. Through two races, it hasn’t worked.

Is the start of the season an aberration for Dixon in particular? Or is there a bigger issue?

3. HINCH EYES A REPEAT

James Hinchcliffe’s fifth career win was also his most memorable, crossing the finish line first in last year’s event at Long Beach.

With a resurgent Schmidt Peterson Motorsports the talk of the paddock to begin the season, Hinchcliffe is a solid bet to be in the mix towards the front of the field on Sunday.

While teammate Robert Wickens has been nothing short of exceptional early on, it may be Hinchcliffe that benefits the most from his Canadian brethren. For years, Hinchcliffe has lacked a teammate he can truly benefit from in terms of learning from on-track data and information gathering. Russian Mikhail Aleshin and Hinchcliffe did not have the best working relationship in 2016-17, while Hinchcliffe’s first season with Schmidt Peterson in 2015 ended with his serious crash at Indianapolis that nearly killed him.

Hinchcliffe’s greatest single-season success in IndyCar came in 2013 with a multi-car Andretti Autosport team. Hinchcliffe won three times that season and finished eighth in the championship.

Five years later, Hinch could be primed for a similar season of success.

4. ROSSI ON A MISSION

Few realize just how inexperienced Alexander Rossi was when he won the 2016 Indianapolis 500.

Rossi had just five IndyCar starts under his belt prior to that magical fuel-saving final stint to win the 100th edition of the event. It was his first finish above 10th in the series.

He did not finish on the podium again in 2016.

One year later, Rossi showed growth in his second year with Andretti Autosport, breaking through for his second career win in a dominant performance at Watkins Glen last September.

But now in Year 3, the 26-year-old American is ready to be a title contender. He has been one of the fastest cars on track through the first two races, including a masterful drive through traffic at Phoenix to finish third after an early pit road miscue.

The quiet Rossi has let his driving do the talking in 2018 so far, including his much-publicized run-in with Robert Wickens late at St. Pete. He has not finished higher than 19th at Long Beach in his career but should eclipse that this weekend.

5. NEVER TOO EARLY

Two events down and there are six teams represented among the top seven drivers in the championship standings, paced by leader Josef Newgarden.

How’s that for parity?

While Team Penske (one driver in the top 10) and Scott Dixon (seventh) will surely rise towards the top eventually, there is plenty of intrigue regarding some of the drivers currently residing in the top 10.

Can Rossi be the championship contender many expect him to be?

Can Sebastien Bourdais hang around the title conversation with small Dale Coyne Racing all season long?

Can Wickens continue his fast track to IndyCar stardom?

The early title picture will become more clear on Sunday.

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