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Pruett's Preview: Honda Indy Toronto

On the surface, this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto race is part of the Verizon IndyCar Series 16-round championship, and while that kernel of information is undoubtedly true, it paints a false picture of how many teams perceive the event.

The more accurate way to portray Sunday’s race is the first of six races left for most of the field to win its first race before the season comes to an end in September. Counting back from that wine country finale, it’s easy to see and feel the mounting pressure for 14 of the 22 drivers entered for the Canadian street race. 

With the clock winding down, the need for most drivers to capture a win to appease current sponsors, attract new investors or receive contract extensions grows more important. Think of it as having gone through and lost 10 auditions, and with only six remaining, tensions will inevitably start to rise. Yes, Toronto is only one race, but to the Tony Kanaans, Ryan Hunter-Reays, Graham Rahals, Helio Castroneveses and James Hinchcliffes of the series, it’s one of the few chances left to to close the championship with an all-important victory.

“I feel like we’ve been right there on numerous occasions this year,” said Graham’s father/team owner Bobby Rahal, who won the first Toronto IndyCar race 30 years ago on July 20, 1986. “Is it strange for us to have gotten this far into the season without a win? I’d say it is, and I know Graham is bristling each time he gets out of the car and hasn’t won. But it isn’t like we haven’t been close, or haven’t been competitive at many races this year. I’d say it’s more a matter of time than anything.”

Nestled among Indy 500 winners, IndyCar Series champions and race winners, Graham Rahal is also part of a large subgroup seeking a win to make a strong push for the Verizon IndyCar Series title. Outside of keeping sponsors happy and securing their seats, there’s also personal pride at play in the hunt for one of the six wins waiting to be captured.

“[Simon] Pagenaud has a big lead in the championship right now, but it isn’t impossible for him to be caught, and that’s something we’re trying to do for ourselves, for Graham, and we aren’t the only team in that situation,” Rahal added. “So you’ve got the guys up at the front with the wins they’ve gotten and the points they have, and some have farther to go than others, but a win at Toronto could put you right in the middle of that mix. 

“And I think everybody is looking to the double points at Sonoma as a big wildcard that could change a lot of things in how this championship is settled. But there’s no doubt the clock starts here for many teams. No one can afford to have a bad weekend at this stage of the season.”

The Toronto IndyCar race celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016, and as part of local business development and construction, a fresh look to the front straight is part of the event’s move towards the future. Notably, pit lane has been moved from its traditional location on the right side of the track to the left, and with decades of practice on how to get in and out of the pits with maximum efficiency, IndyCar teams and drivers will spend the weekend starting a new learning curve with pitting and exiting from a different location. Fitting the new pit lane into the final corner sequence leading onto the straight has also required the promoters to reconfigure those corners, and altogether, it makes for plenty to digest.

Will it make a difference? Will mistakes be made that cost one of our hopefuls that elusive first win of 2016? Or could mastering the new pit lane layout help one of those contenders to gain an advantage that sends them to Victory Lane? Tune into NBCSN on Sunday at 2:30 ET to find out.

Race distance: 85 laps

Track length: 1.786-mile street course

Track record: Gil de Ferran, 57.143 seconds.

Tickets and event information: hondaindytoronto.com

Twitter: @hondaindy, #IndyTO; @IndyCar, #IndyCar

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