HOUSTON -- Ah, Houston ... a dream destination in the heart of summer for just about anyone -- including the Verizon IndyCar Series, which drops in this weekend for the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston.
Houston is the second of three IndyCar doubleheader weekends in the 2014 campaign, and it kicks off an intense run of six races in 22 days that has the potential to dramatically impact the IndyCar championship chase, led by Team Penske's Will Power and Helio Castroneves.
Power leads Castroneves by 39 points and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay by 60 points, but the number of points on offer between now and the conclusion of the Honda Indy Toronto doubleheader weekend (July 19-20) could turn the championship upside down. In addition to the two street course doubleheaders and a night race at Iowa Speedway, the July 6 Pocono 500 is slated to pay double points.
Counting just the Houston doubleheader and the double-bonus 500-miler at Pocono, four races worth of points (200, plus qualifying and lap-leader bonus points) are available in the next eight days.
Power has amassed 370 points over the first eight races of the season, including the double points offered at the Indianapolis 500. But he refuses to think ahead in terms of the title.
"These doubleheader weekends are OK, because you get a second chance if you have a bad day," he said. "But to me, the double points thing [at 500-mile speedway races] is too much. If you just happen to have a DNF in the wrong race, you're in trouble. It's way overkill there. But that's the way it is, so we're heavily focused on these next few races. Anyone can get back into it easy."
Castroneves is all too aware of the points-scoring potential of the doubleheader or double-points weekend. Last year, he arrived for the penultimate weekend of the championship in Houston with a 49-point lead over Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon; Dixon led the championship by 25 points upon departure.
Dixon won the championship by 27 points over Castroneves, and the New Zealander's big weekend in Houston (where he finished first and second in the twin races for a 74-point swing) was the catalyst.
That thought isn't lost on Castroneves.
"Obviously, it's very important," remarked the Brazilian, whose 2013 Houston weekend was shattered by a pair of gearbox failures. "We know how double points makes a difference; we lost the championship because of that.
"But you can't focus on that. You have to take it as it comes. If you're just thinking about points, if affects your ability to go out there and make some passes and be aggressive."
Castroneves' gearbox issues in 2013 were primarily caused by the bumpy 1.7-mile temporary circuit that winds around the Astrodome and through NRG Park. A huge dip at the exit of the fast Turn 1 caused Castroneves' car to bottom out in Race 2, and the gearbox casing literally cracked on impact.
Houston GP promoters made substantial improvements to the track surface this year, resurfacing Turn 1 and grounding down the pavement or concrete at several other corners.
"The change to Turn 1 is tremendous," Castroneves said. "Certainly, we are now able to go through there without a problem. It's still a very difficult track, but the major bump that hurt us last year is definitely gone."
Perhaps the biggest challenge this year for drivers and teams is overcoming the hot and humid weather conditions typical of Houston this time of year. Last year's twin races were run in early October; an earlier iteration of the Houston Grand Prix sanctioned by Champ Car in May 2006 was run under temporary lighting at night.
Weekend temperatures are expected to top out around 90 degrees, with 80 percent relative humidity.
"It's hot and it's very humid, so it's tough, but we are trained enough to make sure that we don't have any problems out there," Castroneves said. "I think it's even more challenging for the mechanics, standing out there with the helmets and firesuits.
"I mean, we have air conditioning in the car -- just open the visor and everything is good! But all the drivers are very fit and strong, and we'll see who is the strongest."
Juan Pablo Montoya, Castroneves' teammate, raced at the former downtown Houston course in 1999 and 2000, but the NRG Park layout is new to him. And so far, he likes it.
"Everybody was saying, 'Oh my god, it's so bumpy, you're not going to believe it!'" Montoya related. "Is it bumpy? Yeah, but I think it's a lot of fun. I think it's got a lot of character.
"The only thing I don't like is that the apexes are curbs, not walls. I think the drivers all complained that you couldn't see anything. That's the nature of a street course. When you don't have an open apex and there's a wall, that makes it a lot harder for the drivers, and I think it makes it a lot more fun."
Indeed, some of the walls were moved back this year to improve sightlines. The second race of the 2013 Houston doubleheader ended early after Dario Franchitti was seriously injured in an accident at Turn 5, the long right-hander around the Astrodome that was basically blind to the drivers.
Franchitti's injuries (a fractured ankle, broken back and concussion) were significant enough to end his driving career. That corner could not be changed, but a grandstand on the outside of the corner was removed after several spectators suffered injuries in the late-race crash.
"The front straight is definitely better -- you don't break your gearbox over that bump," said Power. "They've ground a couple areas, but it's still basically the same track it was, and there's also the threat of rain.
"You've got to be on your game and ready for it. If it rains, you've got to make the smart decision between slicks and wet weather tires."
Some drivers took special measures to beat the heat and humidity expected in Houston. Ganassi's Tony Kanaan, for example, said he began hydrating on Monday, adding in a regimen of salt pills.
But Power, whose victory in the second Houston race in 2013 ended a 15-month winless skid and kick-started his current championship run, believes no extra effort is necessary.
"Most of the preparation needed to be done in the offseason," Power said. "We showed up pretty fit at St. Petersburg and then maintained it. You can't do much in a two-week break, but it's going to be hard."