Firestone 550 - Texas Motor Speedway
Track Facts: 1.5-mile quad-oval, 24 degrees of banking
Race Distance: 228 laps/324 miles
Records: Single Lap - Gil de Ferran, 222.864 mph, Oct. 2003; Two-Lap Average: Alex Tagliani, 215.691 mph, June 2012
Defending Champion: Justin Wilson
This race is one of my personal favorites. It's the one that got me hooked on open-wheel racing, and it's at a place where IndyCar doesn't have to worry about being treated as inferiors.
The series and Texas Motor Speedway have not always gotten along, but after last year's tremendous race that validated the lower-downforce aero package (which largely eliminated the pack racing that drivers dreaded every time they came to Texas), the two sides decided to stick together, thankfully.
This year's race will see a tweak to the package, which will remain a lower-downforce version, as well as a new tire compound that should provide more grip. But as I wrote earlier this week for NBC, the challenge will still be there. 24 degrees of banking at speeds well over 200 mph is nothing to sneeze at.
Wheel-to-wheel action has always been prevalent here, and it's especially fun to watch under the lights at TMS. I wish there were more night events on the schedule, as those always seem to lend that extra bit of excitement that can make races truly memorable. Hopefully, we'll get that - and a safe race for all involved - on Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
A few driver changes for this weekend at Texas: Pippa Mann is back at Dale Coyne Racing in the No. 18 Honda that Mike Conway nearly swept last weekend's Detroit doubleheader with, while Oriol Servia will suit up in the No. 4 National Guard Chevrolet for Panther Racing at Texas and again at Iowa later this month. Judging from a Panther press release, it appears that they're focusing on finding the full-time guy in the No. 4 for next season and could be using multiple drivers for the rest of 2013.
Justin Wilson earned a much-deserved win last year at TMS, but let's remember that there were several other drivers in contention for the victory until assorted ailments knocked them from the hunt.
Chief among them was Scott Dixon, who led 133 laps and appeared to have the best car in the field one year ago at TMS. But with 55 laps left, Dixon spun out at Turn 4 and crashed while running in the Top 5.
Then there's Will Power and Tony Kanaan, both of whom were taken out of contention when they made contact on a restart. As Kanaan tried to take the lead from Power, the latter came down and broke his front wing. Power was called for blocking and had to serve a drive-through penalty.
And let's not forget E.J. Viso, who made his way up from mid-pack to well within the Top 10 at the mid-way point only to lose power on Lap 129.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Dixon, Power, Kanaan and Viso all contend for good finishes again on Saturday.
12:30-1:45 pm CT -- IndyCar practice
3:30-5 pm CT - IndyCar qualifying (two-lap average)
6:45-7:15 pm CT - IndyCar practice
7:45 pm CT - Firestone 550 (ABC, IMS Radio Network and IndyCar.com)