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Pruett's Preview: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

It’s 12.5 percent down, 87.5 percent left to go in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship season.

With two rounds complete and 14 left to run, drawing any significant conclusions on how certain drivers will fare in their quest for the Astor Cup would be premature, but it’s hard to ignore some of the notable trends leading into this weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix at Long Beach.

The big story entering the second street race of the season belongs to Team Penske. Three of The Captain’s four drivers sit atop the points at a handy 1-2-3 in the standings, and based on the team’s dominant performance on the streets of St. Petersburg last month, Penske’s Chevy-powered fleet could hold the upper hand in Southern California.

On the strength of his unexpected win last weekend in a rain-shortened event, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe vaulted to fourth in the standings – the top Honda driver in the field, and will look to record another top finish just miles away from the North American base for Honda and its racing division, Honda Performance Development.

Behind Hinchcliffe, Chip Ganassi Racing is in the midst of another slow start to the season – for the third time since 2013 – as three of its four entries are outside the top 10. In fact, half of its team sits 20th or lower in the standings, and only Tony Kanaan in the No. 10 Chevy is riding a wave of momentum into Long Beach. The 2004 IndyCar champion holds fifth at the moment, and with his mightily frustrated teammate Scott Dixon poised to get his championship bid back on track, Ganassi’s veteran duo should pose the greatest challenge to Penske.

With two of IndyCar’s three big teams accounted for, Andretti Autosport loads into Long Beach in an unfamiliar position. Only three drivers are confirmed for full-season rides within Honda’s flagship program, yet it’s part-timer Simona de Silvestro – on the strength of two top 10s – that leads Michael Andretti’s team in the championship. The Swiss driver holds sixth in the standings yet she’s not scheduled to compete this weekend; the next closest Andretti driver is her teammate Marco Andretti in 13th.

2012 IndyCar Series champion and defending Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay is 14th after a tough finish to last weekend’s race at NOLA, 2014 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Carlos Munoz is a surprising 16th, and of all the teams with an eye on the podium, Andretti Autosport needs to capture a major points haul at Long Beach if they plan on fighting for the title.

The rest of the current top 10 will obviously look to improve their positions this weekend as James Jakes (P7), Graham Rahal (P8), Luca Filippi (P9) and Simon Pagenaud (P10) aim for the top 5, and they aren’t alone. Some teams and drivers who were expected to charge out of the starting gates have suffered crashes or mechanical failures through Rounds 1 and 2, and with Long Beach serving as one of IndyCar’s crown jewels, it’s a perfect location for re-launching a championship campaign.

KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais was a solid sixth at St. Pete, yet after being taken out by a competitor at NOLA, the four-time Champ Car champion holds 12th in the standings. As a former winner at Long Beach, expect a weekend of maximum effort from the Frenchman in his colorful Chevy-powered Indy car. 

A.J. Foyt Racing scored a popular victory at Long Beach in 2013 when Takuma Sato won his first IndyCar race for the four-time Indy 500 winner, but 2015 has not been kind to the team. With the expansion to two full-time entries for Sato and Jack Hawksworth, there’s plenty of potential to be found inside the Honda-powered team, yet with Hawksworth (P17) and Sato (P19) towards the bottom of the standings, both drivers need a clean run to the checkered flag. 

Dale Coyne Racing’s season has been a brief journey into solitude and frustration. Drivers Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone have finished last or next to last three times from four opportunities, and both will look to Long Beach for an upturn in fortunes.

If redemption is on the mind of one driver more than the others, CFH Racing’s Josef Newgarden could be on a mission to correct his untimely exit from last year’s race. The young Tennessean looked like his first win was within his grasp, yet an optimistic passing attempt by Ryan Hunter-Reay left the pair—and more drivers who followed—up against the barriers and out of the race. 

Could the winner of the 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach come from one of IndyCar’s giants, or will one of the smaller teams break through and land in Victory Lane? Will Chevy or Honda hold an advantage with their engines or high-downforce aero kits? We’ll have all of those answers and more when the checkered flag waves Sunday afternoon in sunny California.

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