Commentary

Double the fun in Detroit

Originally Published: May 30, 2014
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Right when Verizon IndyCar Series competitors are ready for a break after 20 days of Month of May activity at Indianapolis, the sobering reality of "the rest of the season" kicks in.

IndyCar will decide its champion with 13 races over the next 14 weeks, culminating with a 500-miler at Auto Club Speedway on Aug. 30. It all starts with a pair of races this weekend in Detroit, with the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit (3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, ABC).

The bumpy Belle Isle street course is a radical departure for everyone after running on the ultra-smooth Indianapolis oval, and teams need to readjust to working out of their transporters in the paddock instead of in climate-controlled garages.

"Like baseball and basketball" is how IndyCar star Marco Andretti compared Indy to Detroit.

"That's the thing about the IndyCar Series -- the diversity," he added. "We race at totally different places throughout the schedule."

The schedule is pretty hectic over the next three months, though it's not as dramatic as 13 races in 14 weekends might sound because six of those races are spread over three doubleheader weekends. But without the luxury of fresh, turnkey cars that can be loaded up from the race shop, like NASCAR teams enjoy, it's going to be a grind for engineers and mechanics.

"I feel for our guys," Andretti said. "Me, I'll drive a race car every day! But our guys have been extremely busy."

Friday's practice laps at Detroit were paced by Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson, who scored his first IndyCar race win at Detroit 2013.

Pagenaud said he had to mentally prepare to get back into street course racing mode after the intense focus of Indianapolis.

"It's breathtaking to come here after two weeks at IMS," he said. "You've really got your hands full on this track and it's hard work. You've got to push yourself as hard as you can to do a good lap.

"Last year, this race was such a big moment for us," he added. "Since then, we've been competitive just about everywhere. But this was the place where we really switched gears and it's been very enjoyable since then."

The other 2013 race winner at Detroit was Mike Conway, who stepped into a Dale Coyne Racing entry without any testing and dominated the weekend. Conway won Race 1, then came back to post third place for another trip to the podium in Race 2.

[+] EnlargeSimon Pagenaud
Paul Warner/Getty ImagesSimon Pagenaud is hoping his Detroit success continues.

Conway is driving all of the road and street course races this year for Ed Carpenter Racing, while team owner Carpenter handles the ovals. Conway scored a victory for ECR at Long Beach, while Carpenter is coming off a pole-winning performance at the Indy 500.

An Englishman, Conway showed he hasn't lost any of his Detroit magic by running second to Pagenaud on Friday afternoon.

"I do love this place," Conway admitted. "It's lots of fun.

"Each lap gets your attention, that's for sure. It's nonstop action. The bumps present a challenge, and you've got to be able to drive a car that slides around, that's loose on entry."

Last year at Detroit, the first race, won by Conway, was clean and mostly green. The second race, on the other hand, was a crashfest that gave the mechanics a couple more sleepless nights.

The tight nature of the Detroit course, with only one corner where passing is a possibility, tends to create long lines of cars and impatient drivers. The typically large number of full-course cautions opens up avenues for strategy gambles, like in 1997 when the PacWest Racing drivers tried to complete the race with one pit stop. They led into the last lap, only to both run dry to gift the late Greg Moore with the victory.

The other important aspect of the doubleheader weekends is the fact that double points are on offer. A good day on Sunday can make up for a bad Saturday, or vice versa. And two good days could be a bonanza in the championship picture.

Scott Dixon's Toronto sweep and finishes of first and second at Houston were the anchor of his 2013 series championship. Dixon scored 83 more points on doubleheader weekends than any other driver.

"With two races, there are as many points up for grabs at Detroit as there were at Indy," said championship leader (and Indy 500 winner) Ryan Hunter-Reay.

"The last week has been surreal, but there's a real sense of getting back to work and turning the page because there's a lot at stake this week."

Teams and drivers had two 50-minute practice sessions Friday and will go into an 8:35 a.m. qualifying session without any warm-up. The Saturday grid will be determined by the usual knockout format, while the Race 2 grid is settled in a 30-minute qualifying session Sunday morning.

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