North American open-wheel racing returns to Gateway Motorsports Park for the first time in 14 years this weekend. The 1.25-mile short oval — the sixth and final oval on the calendar — recently was repaved and Verizon IndyCar Series drivers are excited to show the St. Louis area what this form of racing is all about.
“Everybody is going to go there and have a great time,” Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver Graham Rahal said. “We will put on a great show. I think it’s going to be the best short-oval show of the year.”
Saturday’s night race is the 15th event of the season (Bommarito Automotive Group 500, 9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network.)
Here are five story lines to watch:
–Chevrolet drivers are going to dominate. After his third-place finish at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Rahal was asked to break down the remainder of the schedule. He spoke hopefully about Pocono Raceway before looking at Mid-Ohio runner-up Will Power and saying: “(In) St. Louis, you guys are going to kick our (butts) there.”
Power didn’t disagree and added, “St. Louis, Chevy should be very strong. Although who knows?”
Power knows, that’s who. And so does the rest of the paddock. Chevrolet will dominate at Gateway and here’s why: The race is expected to play out very similarly to Phoenix Raceway, another short oval, where Chevy swept the top four spots.
Simon Pagenaud led 116 laps, picked up his lone win of the season so far and was trailed by a trio of Chevrolet drivers including Team Penske teammate Power, Ed Carpenter Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand and Penske star Helio Castroneves.
Penske drivers combined to lead all 250 laps, and they dominated qualifying in much the same way. All four Penskes started in the top five, as Chevrolets claimed the top five spots.
Suffice to say, it looks like Penske is primed to make it five wins a row.
—This is a big weekend for Hildebrand and Conor Daly. This is not the season either Daly or Hildebrand expected. Crashes, mechanical failures and other misfortunes have relegated these two toward the back of the championship standings, and now both are hearing their names among those drivers whose jobs could be on the line.
While there is little they can do about their place in the points standings with just three races remaining, they both have an excellent opportunity to show their current or future employers what they’re capable of this weekend.
Racing on a track similar to Phoenix, Hildebrand is hoping he can recreate the magic of that race weekend, when he drove — with a broken hand — to a third-place finish, one of his two podium finishes of the season.
Meanwhile, Daly has been talking about this his hopes for this race since June. The A.J. Foyt Racing driver was extremely encouraged by his team’s test at Gateway in the spring and reportedly was even more upbeat after testing on the repaved track in early August.
“I’m really looking forward to Gateway,” Daly told The Indianapolis Star. “That race for me is really the biggest race we have left to look forward to.”
–Esteban Gutierrez will be in an Indy car again soon. After his horrifying crash on the first day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, it seemed likely that Sebastien Bourdais wouldn’t race again this season. He had set his sights on a possible return for the finale at Sonoma Raceway, then upped the ante by saying he’d like to drive at Watkins Glen International. But Wednesday, he shocked the racing world by declaring he would return for this weekend’s race at Gateway.
It’s fantastic news for Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing and IndyCar, but there is one person who will be on the sidelines: Gutierrez.
With Bourdais back at the helm of the No. 18 Honda, Gutierrez likely will miss the remaining three races. And that’s a shame because he’s held his own as a rookie. Called upon to fill in for Bourdais on perhaps IndyCar’s most difficult weekend — the physically demanding doubleheader at Detroit — Gutierrez proved up to the challenge, finishing 19th in the first dual before gaining confidence and finishing five spots better in the second. He later tackled his first oval with aplomb, finishing 13th at Iowa Speedway.
His crash at Pocono was his first in seven races, and I think he proved enough in this short season to earn a return to the series. With rumors that IndyCar is trying to race in Mexico as soon as next year, it only makes sense for the series to help its lone Mexican driver find a ride. Between that motivation and the sheer talent and courage Gutierrez displayed on the track this year, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.
–The madness of Silly Season begins. I took a swing at this and missed ahead of the race at Mid-Ohio, but I’m going back up to the plate ready to take another hack. Numerous people have speculated they believe team owner Michael Andretti and Andretti Autosport could announce their intentions to either stay with Honda or leave for Chevrolet this weekend. If true, that could start an avalanche of movement amid the series.
And even if Andretti holds off for another week — or month — there could be other movement. Tony Kanaan recently declared himself a free agent and has been speaking with numerous teams about a ride for next year.
—Castroneves is going to win Saturday. Picking Castroneves simply for the symmetry of his winning the last time open-wheel racing was at Gateway (2003) and in its return 14 years later is appealing, but there’s more to my belief in Castroneves this weekend.
With Chevrolet’s expected advantage on the short oval, this race should come down to the four Penske drivers. With the recent exception of Pocono, championship leader Josef Newgarden hasn’t been fantastic on ovals, with just one top-five finish in five races.
That leaves Power, who has been outstanding at ovals this season (two wins, four top-five finishes) and Pagenaud, who won on a similar track in Phoenix. Castroneves should have the extra motivation.
As NBC Sports Network analyst Townsend Bell said a couple weeks ago, Castroneves likely is doing everything he can to stave off the expected move to team owner Roger Penske’s sports car program. Winning his first series championship might be the way to do it, and Gateway could provide his last best chance at a win.
In 19 career races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma combined, he has just one career victory, way back in 2008 at Sonoma. So putting himself in good position is a must this weekend. Castroneves will know that, and few are better equipped to handle the pressure of big situations better than a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion.
Ayello writes for the Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network.